BioShock2 came out a couple days ago, the sequel to the wildly successful video game BioShock. BioShock is a first-person-shooter video game set in Rapture, an underwater city overrun by violently insane genetically engineered mutants called “Splicers”, creepy zombie-like girls, “Little Sisters”, that harvest corpses for “ADAM”–sea slug stem-cells that provide super-human strength, regenerative powers, and the ability to rewrite the human genome with the injection of “plasmids“–and genetically engineered “Big Daddies” that protect them, mentally blank superhumans grafted into enormous diving suits with huge drills for arms.
The game’s plot is based on Atlas Shrugged; the underwater city was built by exiled creative geniuses frustrated with the repressive political, economic, and religious authority of the post-WWII time period. For a neat and uniquely overthought analysis of the comparison between the plot of Ayn Rand’s novel and BioShock, check out OverthinkingIt, a blog written by some of my very smart friends.
Many people have discussed the politics, game design, and artistry of BioShock, but I find the scientific aspects to be fascinating. Much of the gameplay is focused around collecting and using different combinations of biological technologies. Your character must not only pick up guns and grenades and other traditional first-person-shooter weaponry, but must also collect ADAM and inject himself with specially designed plasmids found in vending machines that give him different super-human capabilities in fights against the Splicers and Big Daddies.
The biology of the BioShock world is clearly absurd–genetic engineering will never allow a person to shoot swarms of live bees or lightning strong enough to stop a Big Daddy out of their fingertips–but the biopolitics suggested by the storyline are compelling and important to consider as synthetic biology moves forward. Rapture is in shambles after a violent civil war fueled by the scarcity of ADAM and the subsequent stratification of the supposedly ideal underwater society into those who could afford the new genetic products and those who couldn’t. There are obviously many ethical considerations before we start genetically engineering humans, “designing our own offspring” (perhaps too many to even try it), but one of the most important issues that emerges is that of class: Who will be able to afford genetically engineered children? What will happen to those who can’t? Will genetic engineering technologies exacerbate class conflicts or be used to improve lives in developing countries and thus level the playing field? Will our future look like Gattaca or BioShock, or something else entirely (we can only hope that it’s the latter)? Who gets to decide?
The science fiction stories told in BioShock may not be an accurate picture of feasible synthetic biological products and a future where they are deployed, but by addressing these questions they provide an interesting perspective on a conversation that too often focuses on very narrow (very white, middle class, male, American?) definitions of “safety”, “security”, and “progress.” There’s a lot to think and talk about, but I’m definitely looking forward to playing BioShock2 and having nightmares of shrieking hyper-fast zombie mutants chasing me.