The tea party, Occupy Wall Street and ‘BioShock Infinite’: How a video game is reflecting life

October 25, 2011

The demo for the upcoming video game “BioShock Infinite” opens into a world where two extremist groups — one small, hyper-nationalist right-wing group and one formerly loose collective of populists — are headed for an all-out war for Columbia, a floating city originally created as a showcase for the epitome of American ideals.

Ken Levine, president and creative director at Irrational Games, said it’s been an education in development watching the Occupy Wall Street and tea party movements grow as he plots the course of his own game’s movements: the Founders and the Vox Populi. Of course, the demo has taken these kinds of movements to their extremes; in the clip of the game he showed off at the annual video game conference E3, the leftist group has invaded a rich part of town and is in the middle of a violent revolution.

Levine took the time to chat with The Washington Post about the politics in “BioShock Infinite.” Below is an edited version of our conversation.

How do you start sketching out these movements for the game?

When we started the game, we had this idea for these movements, and we were looking back at history. Our games are heightened versions of history — “BioShock” was kind of a hyper-realized Ayn Rand if she had made Galt’s Gulch. But instead of having her idealized characters, we put in more realistic characters.

In this world, we came up with the idea of looking at what was happening at the time of the game [the 1890s], with the jingoism movement and the nationalist movement versus internationalist movement. This was before the tea party, before Occupy Wall Street. Actually, when people saw that demo, they thought we were aping the tea party; they thought it was a hit piece on the Tea Party. But these movements tend to happen. There have been nationalist and nativist movements many times through history.

As we developed these opposing groups, the Founders versus the Vox Populi, it was interesting to see this play out in real time, so that the fictional movements we’re creating that are set in this heightened past are almost being duplicated in reality.

Of course, we have these extreme movements [in the game], but they have to start somewhere. As you write, you ask, “Do they evolve in a peaceful way or not?”

I initially based the Vox Populi on this German student movement, the Baader-Meinhof Group. I’ve been looking at how people evolve into extremism: They start in a peaceful, understandable place and end up somewhere very different.

There are very valid concerns in the beginnings of these kinds of groups, and anyone can understand the reasoning and logic behind them. But these groups tend to evolve, and plotting that out is fascinating.

Have current events influenced your development on this game? When you showed this demo at E3, there was no Occupy Wall Street.

What’s really interesting, what’s most interesting to me, is how the movements reflect movements that have come before.

That’s either reassuring or concerning when you look at what’s going on now. Some of those movements, dating back to the French Revolution, have had similar complaints to what Occupy Wall Street has. It’s interesting to watch how they evolve. They tend to reflect each other, and for the game you can look at what’s happening in real time, but you really see what could be happening in the future by looking at history.

I’ve been spending a lot of time watching Occupy Wall Street. The complaint is that they don’t have a consistent message. It’s been interesting to reflect upon the movement’s message, watching it crystallize.

You can watch that, and this is a challenge I’ve had writing [the Vox Populi]. Leftist movements are always less organized. There’s a messaging machine on the right, where they’ll come up with something and the next day you have 10, 20 people out on the news using those points.

Leftist groups tend not to like authority; nobody in them tends to listen to it. So Occupy Wall Street has been helping me because I’ve been struggling to figure out how the Vox Populi get to the point in the demo. Throughout the game, you’re actually watching them — you see in the beginning of the game that they’re a dead movement and a movement that really fails, and it picks up steam based upon your actions.

The part that we demoed is based on what happened with the German leftist groups where they went after a rich part of town.

Hopefully, Occupy Wall Street won’t get to the point that the Vox Populi does, but seeing it spread and taken more seriously, that’s been interesting and really helpful.

And what have you been learning?

I think what’s interesting for me is as the groups move toward the extreme is how similar they are to one another. Look at, say, Stalinist Russia and Hitler’s Germany. Stalin doesn’t have the negative reputation that he deserves, really; they had completely opposing ideologies but were exactly alike in some ways.

So I start [Vox Populi leader] Daisy Fitzroy and [Founder leader] Comstock on opposite ends of the spectrum. Maybe that’s what the study of these movements is: The movement becomes about the ideology and not about reality. The reality starts to change, and it becomes that people would rather give up reality than ideology.

What do you hope players pull away from that message?

The games tend to be a Rorschach [test] for people, and I’ve heard both sides of reaction [to the demo]. I had the displeasure of going to a white supremacist site that made a point of saying this game by “the Jew” Ken Levine was about killing white people. But then I went to this leftist site that said this is about discrediting leftists movements. Games, as I said, are a Rorschach, and I don’t want to be making games that are expressing a political or philosophical view.

I’d rather be asking questions, rather have people question what they think. There are still people that think that the first “BioShock” is a vindication of Rand’s philosophy and some people that say it’s a character assassination of Ayn Rand.

From where I sit, people think it has to be one or the other and there’s no middle ground. Personally, that tends to scare me.

You like the gray area.

It’s much more interesting there. It’s much more interesting in life. I project questions I’m struggling with and look at those movements. Both have things I agree with, and others I radically disagree with.

What’s the point of having something that’s about people shutting down ideologically, intellectually? People are using these movements to pose questions. If you look at Occupy Wall Street, it’s opened up dialogue, and you can say the same about the tea party. Hopefully, they don’t become extensions of parties, they will open up the conversation.

Is that what happened in the game? How did the Founders rise to power?

Columbia [the city in “BioShock Infinite”] was originally created by the American government as a floating city on a hill. Comstock had a more extreme movement: When he came to power, he had them secede from the Union. He had a more extreme vision of America than the government of the time. That reflects history, if you look at the time the game is set in.

It’s the era of McKinley and Roosevelt, an important time for America and the world. America was young — just 120 years ago it was a colony — and there was not a real appetite for any kind of colonial endeavor. But Roosevelt said, ‘No, America needs to stand tall on the war stage,’ and threw himself behind the Spanish-American War and the Philippine-American War.

It’s interesting to watch these characters in the game: America is the America before McKinley, Columbia is after McKinley and there’s a schism there. They have a break.

It’s interesting that two people who read the same document, founding document, will come up with two entirely different meanings. Both factions say that they know the intention of the founders, which is how I got the name. Comstock had one view, the previous powers had a different point of view, and Comstock’s view won out.

Then, as different groups got standing in Columbia, that’s how the Vox Populi got started.

Do the current movements continue to affect your work?

As a gamer, we like creating these worlds and seeing some reflection of what we’re working on, not telling the future so much as noting that it’s fun to reflect on what’s happening outside our window.

I’m looking; it’s interesting to continue to work on it, evolving my own movements and keeping an eye on the paper. I’m interested to see where we end up. I hope the real-life movements don’t head to the same place, though. I’m not going anywhere nice, I’ll tell you that much.

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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