Reviewed: BioShock Infinite

Moral maze.

Strip an excellent first-person shooter video game down to its core and you find two components: great gameplay and a well-told story. In BioShock Infinite, the mind of its creative director, Ken Levine, has created a twisted, disturbing and morally challenging narrative overlaid on to impressive animated graphics and games engine.

Levine’s world is the racially segregated Columbia: a 1912 airborne city state that has recently seceded from the US. To further complicate the mash-up of historical references, Columbia is a theocracy ruled by the all-powerful Father Comstock.

As well as the usual scenarios testing your fine motor skills, Infinite sets a series of moral dilemmas – challenges so gruesome I fear they may put me once again in a real-world conflict with the chairman of the home affairs select committee, Keith Vaz, who takes a less benign view of video games than me.

While Vaz usually uses the Call of Duty series to promote his strongly held views about the portrayal of violence in games, this is perhaps only because he has never heard of the BioShock series, with its re­pulsive graphics for an accurate head shot and the ability to kill unarmed acolytes in a place of worship. Early in the game, you win a raffle and are asked to throw the first baseball at a manacled interracial couple, on stage for a public stoning. Do you hurl the missile as requested, or break the laws of Columbia and hope you can escape by throwing the ball at the compère instead?

Being a socialist, and wedded to the principles of fairness and equality, I chose to break the laws of Columbia and quickly ended up in a melee requiring me to slay numerous police officers.

The fight was too frenetic to spend time pondering the game’s ethics and contrasting them to real-world principles. I quickly rationalised the act as the first combat in an adventure that would emancipate the people of Columbia from their evil overlord, Comstock.

Infinite’s protagonist is Booker De Witt, a world-weary bad debtor with the kind of physiology that gets you hired to save heroines from locked towers. Which is just as well, because this is the first task he faces. You are to rescue Elizabeth, a young woman who can tear holes in the space-time continuum, allowing you to grab weaponry and supplies from other dimensions, which come in handy when the two are escaping from Father Comstock.

Returning Elizabeth to the unnamed people in New York who are going to pay off De Witt’s debts is your stated goal. But Elizabeth, liberated from her gilded cage, has different ideas. She wants to go to Paris. And she doesn’t like De Witt racking up the body count – another one of Levine’s tiny moral challenges to the gamer.

As the adventure unfolds, De Witt develops his powers, from telekinesis to firebombs and electricity blasts. A minor irritation is the inability to carry more than two weapons at a time, which is particularly frustrating when you wish to use sniper fire. The design team seems to have simplified the character inventory from earlier versions of the game, perhaps anticipating a wider audience of less fanatical gamers. Experienced players will also find the “normal” difficulty setting a little tame.

Whatever the tiny defects, there is little doubt that BioShock Infinite will count sales in the millions. The attention to detail from the animation director, Shaun Robertson, and his team should win awards – just take Elizabeth from her Irish jig on the beach and let her explore, and you’ll see her independently execute animated routines. It must have taken hundreds of hours of artist time to achieve this tiny piece of colour.

I don’t think I have ever played a video game that has confronted racism in such an upfront manner as BioShock. There are segregated toilets, exploited black workers and prejudice. Will this portrayal serve to challenge the less informed gamer about the dangers of apartheid? My hunch is that many will just see it as another shoot ’em up with an interesting backdrop as a storyline. It fails as a breakthrough polemical first-person shooter because the plot doesn’t adequately integrate with the gameplay.

That said, beyond the moral dilemmas, BioShock Infinite is an impressive game. It has a powerful storyline that will leave it lingering in the memory of gamers when lesser attempts have long been forgotten.

Tom Watson is the Labour MP for West Bromwich East

All is not well in Columbia. Credit: Irrational Games.
Tom Watson is the MP for West Bromwich East, and Deputy Chair of the Labour Party. He is also an avid gamer and campaigner for media integrity.

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Centenary Special Issue

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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