Bioshock’s Steampunk Pedagogy: Teaching History through Large Scale Games

by Matthew Amyx

In Chapter 7 of The New Digital Storytelling, “Gaming: Storytelling on a Large Scale”, Bryan Alexander analyzes storytelling techniques in Bioshock, Fallout 3, and Rome: Total War. Having played the first two titles, I have been giving serious thought to whether educators could create a AAA gaming title (or something very close to AAA) that taught civic literacy, processes, and critical thinking covering an entire year’s worth of History, say Western Civilization I or American history between 1492 and 1865. My interest in this possibility was further piqued by the release of Bioshock Infinite, a title similar to its predecessor but with a setting based on the 1893 Century of Progress World’s Fair that taught about American nativism, xenophobia, racism, theocracy, progressivism, and other topics relevant to turn-of-the-century politics. In this blog I will analyze storytelling techniques in the Bioshock series (some of which Alexander mentioned for Bioshock, some new to Bioshock Infinite) that could be ported to a large-scale history survey game.

Incentivizing Side-Learning

Above:Voxophone from Bioshock Infinite. Right: Audio Diary from Bioshock.



Audio Diary

In the Bioshock games, the narrative is moved forward by a combination of linear events and cinematics that are, to use the industry term, “on-rails”. You can’t decide whether to watch these events or not. This is great for teaching students, because they’ll have to watch the content to achieve victory in the game. (I am skeptical about the ability of a more player-driven narrative like Fallout to achieve period-wide history goals.) However, cinematics do not inherently incentivize players/students to pay attention. Rewarding attention is much better done through the games’ audio diaries (called “Voxophones” in Infinite). They are hidden with various levels of concealment throughout the game, and often contain side bits of story just as mysterious and haunting as the main cinematics. But they also often include codes to open safes containing loot or the location of hidden weapons or supplies. Players are given an incentive to find and listen to them, but they will value their discoveries more because they chose to go “off-rails” to find them.

When I make my theoretical large-scale historical survey game, I will want to include a great deal of the content in “optional” side questions and looting mechanics, but find a way to reward the player/student for searching for and remembering those interactions. For example, I could hide historical documents related to the period of the level around the environment. Once found, a voice actor will read part of the document. (This audio will continue after the player puts the object down and goes back to the gameplay interface, much like the radio mechanic in Fallout 3. I would prevent the player from muting or skipping the audio – which would be considered bad design in a commercial market game, but is necessary for my pedagogical goals.) I would also include points, perks, or some kind of personalization (like clothing) with each piece of historic side document, encouraging the player to look for them.

Setting, Ambiance, and Periodization

City of Columbia
City of Columbia in Bioshock Infinite, loosely based on Chicago’s 1893 Columbian World’s Exposition (although the Sky Line seen here is from the 1933 Century of Progress World’s Fair).

Bioshock Infinite is set in an alternate reality where the Columbian World’s Exposition of 1893, in a fit of nativism, hyper-patriotism, and religious fervor secedes from the union by rising into the clouds (aided by steam-punk nuclear power brought by time-travelling twins.) While the actual cities of Columbia from Infinite and Rapture from Bioshock are fictionalized, the atmosphere reflects a period of history through the neo-Classical art style of the famous White City and Raptures submarine Art Deco/Noire. The soundtracks contain period music, both in style and content. (The time-travel element in Infinite even brings in music from the future – Beach Boys – but intentionally highlights the anachronism for story purposes, giving players an even greater sense of culture periodicity.)

City of Rapture
Just as a stroll through Infinite’s Neo-Classical City of Columbia teaches lessons on nativism and theocracy, so a jaunt through the underwater Art Deco Rapture from Bioshock gives a primer on Cold War politics, objectivism, libertarianism, libertinism, and more. Fictional cities teaching real historical themes and processes.

These audio-visual environments actually form the fans main cherished memories of the game long into the future, and that has a lot to say about whether digital storytelling must be primarily linear or not. The main protagonists’ stores in the Bioshock or Fallout series are interesting somewhat and their narrative must be linear for gameplay purposes. But players actually form their impressions of the game-world (and, for my conceptual history survey game, a historic place and period) in halting, piece-meal, and non-chronological ways – through the music and art of the world, audio diaries, posters on the wall, and conversations with non-playable characters that are rewarding but technically unnecessary. By encouraging players/students to look and listen carefully to pick up these pieces, and by keeping these pieces non-linear, we require players/students to think about narrative and historical processes themselves. In the gaming world, these types of games often lead to fan-theories shared over social media as enthusiasts argue over the meaning of obscure bits of story and culture in the game. There a literally hundreds of such YouTube videos with millions of hits related to the time-bending Bioshock Infinite. What’s exciting for a historian like me is that in most of these videos they will take time from the sci-fi narrative discussion to contextualize the game with the history of the period, including religion, politics, art, and technology.


Both Bioshock and Infinite are great examples of digital storytelling, their fictional on-rails elements notwithstanding, but the historical narratives useful for educators in them are non-linear, environmental, and even a little phenomenological. I imagine that if I one day help create history survey games that could replace traditional text-based curriculum in classrooms (and I think this is very possible), I would have to have a linear story because evaluation methods will be tied up in the student completing the game. But pedagogically I would spread the content around in an incentivized, non-linear fashion to promote exploration, a sense of accomplishment and agency, and discussion between students over cultural meaning and historical process. Now just to find funding and learn how to make computer games…


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