[Editorial] Bioshock: Infinite and Privileged Narratives

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[Editorial] Bioshock: Infinite and Privileged Narratives

Bioshock: Infinite is daring in many ways – but when it comes to politics, its appeal to the middle is a privileged statement in itself.

Of course, a video game is neither a textbook nor a piece of propaganda. It has no obligation to espouse or further any particular philosophy. But two of Infinite’s strongest themes are the danger of nostalgia eclipsing reality and the empty use of symbols without truly embracing their meaning. It’s unfortunate that the game, in its use of race and class oppression, is arguably falling prey to these behaviors. It draws on the symbols of oppression to make us uncomfortable, but refuses to provide answers for those being oppressed.

Much like Columbia’s treatment of its underclass, Infinite uses race and class concerns when convenient, but only as part of the background noise.

Obviously, spoilers are going to happen from this point on. Be warned.

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Some context is necessary here. First and foremost, I like Bioshock: Infinite. Its central story is clever, its protagonists likable, and its ending moving. As a story about personal guilt and redemption, as a meta-commentary on storytelling through the lens of quantum physics, as a character piece dealing with its protagonists, Infinite richly deserves its praise. It’s only because it is a good game clearly produced by thoughtful and intelligent people that it deserves this discussion. In a way, a critique is praise.

Second: I came into Infinite with high expectations for discussion of American Exceptionalism and all its attendant issues. Labor activism, worker’s rights, and the fight against racial and ethnic hate are neither ancient issues nor fantasy. My great-grandparents were union activists; my grandfather sheltered his African-American students from a race riot at his school. Unlike the purely imaginary environment of Rapture, the attitudes reflected in Columbia were propped up by racists, segregationists, and robber barons by the oft-invoked specter of an imaginary mob revolt, captured all too well by Infinite’s Vox Populi.

“They’ll take your guns! They’ll take your life! They’ll take your wife!” These are the tamest elements of that reactionary fantasy.

In reality, the worker’s revolt occurred more frequently in the fears of the privileged than it did in history. When it did, its triumph was usually temporary and reprisal brutal. Workers and minorities endured frightful treatment for the most part without fighting back. And making a moral equivalency between the oppressed and the oppressors is displaying the exact sort of problematic justificatory nostalgia as that warned about by Infinite.

The original Bioshock may have been called a market-safe attack on extremism. Fanatics are an easy target. But taken purely at face value the first game’s narrative elements are a blatant assault on not just generic “extremism” but specifically the laissez-faire ideology of Objectivism. Rapture is Atlas Shrugged reversed: Galt’s Gulch as a nightmare of de facto slavery to Great Men, rational self-interest giving way to deranged violence and cult-like obsession with “the Great Chain”, and the Objectivist “Atlas”  as the agent of its downfall. Even those elements intended to deconstruct games – most notably the discussions of choice and free will – fit neatly as critiques of an ideology that enshrines freedom to pursue self-interest.

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By contrast, Infinite flirts with weighty questions – racism, classism, manifest destiny, the evangelical cult of America – but refuses to risk offense by engagement. Skin-crawling images of oppression and hate are trotted out on cue to provide shocking set dressing, but never become more than props. Much like Columbia itself, the concerns and suffering of its non-privileged cast are exploited for the benefit of a story about the problems of a handful of whites.

I’m hardly the first person to point out the essential problems with Infinite’s handling of race, ideology and class. After the euphoric initial outburst of praise for Infinite’s strong characters and emotional high points, there’s been a steadily growing current of dissatisfaction with this black mark on an otherwise thoughtful experience. (Here are some examples.)

But where do Infinite’s flaws begin? Reviewers and commentators have wrestled with this issue. Kotaku’s Kirk Hamilton blamed excessive violence, but in light of the setting his longing for a Columbia pristine is misguided. A society so unabashedly built on the subjugation of everyone not considered “white” – and in the world of 1912 America that racist label included neither Irish nor Eastern Europeans– demands destruction. Certainly few antagonists have earned industrial-equipment decapitation more than the gentleman’s club of John Wilkes Booth fanboys, or the police who sign up to “Protect our Race” and cheerfully oversee vicious race violence.

No, it’s not the violence itself. But Hamilton’s reaction is telling. It isn’t that he’s racist. It’s that like most people – and in a way the game itself – he’s been swayed by Columbia’s superficial veneer of elegance and gentility. Much as Booker unthinkingly echoes contemporary racist sentiments, we have been conditioned to accept injustice but cringe at the personal violence it creates.

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There are many forms of violence, some much more horrid than gore. Why is it that Hamilton’s disgust was roused by the (admittedly, graphic) first skyhook killing? That’s tame compared to the obscene spectacle of a crowd eagerly competing for the chance to throw the first baseball at a bound, helpless, and pleading interracial couple. And it’s all the more damning for having a grain of historical truth.

Hamilton is right about one thing: neither act of violence really gels with the core plotline, the rescue of our heroine Elizabeth and the redemption of deeply tarnished protagonist Booker DeWitt. If Bioshock: Infinite were merely luridly violent, nothing would really set it apart from a number of other good game stories with a rigid divide between Story Time and Murder Time. Bioshock: Infinite brandishes racism and exploitation – but not for the benefit of Booker DeWitt, who doesn’t much care, or his story, which ultimately doesn’t engage with it.

Violence against the downtrodden is a constant presence in Columbia. Shortly after rescuing Elizabeth from her gilded cage, we’re introduced to Finkton, the working-class slums that keep the glamorous veneer of Columbia functioning. It is a repulsive setting, the domain of a sneering industrialist who demands sixteen-hour days of mute obedience, pits his desperate laborers against each other for scrip worthless outside of wage-targeted company stories – and constantly berates his workforce with propaganda about how they should be grateful for their meager lot in life.

Jeremiah Fink. Rarely have I so badly wanted to hate a fictional man to death, all the more because he is merely a condensed reflection of very real Gilded-Age robber barons. But where another script might use Fink as a central villain, he’s a mere footnote in Infinite. It has other things on its mind.

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Infinite is only slightly more concerned with Fink’s opposite number: the Vox Populi, represented and led by Daisy Fitrzroy. Her design evokes Harriet Tubman during her Civil War years, but her bitter, vengeful personality pegs her solidly as an antagonist. They feel like refugees from a different script, not necessarily one favorable to her choices but one where their concerns might be explored in detail, their motivations discussed, and their choices examined.

A script, in short, that cared about the downtrodden, instead of merely using them as bit actors in a white lead’s redemptive story. Infinite’s script provokes thought about many things – but I would gladly have traded many of the quantum-physics shenanigans for a socially-conscious examination of American evil and responses to it instead of merely Booker DeWitt’s (fascinating) dirty laundry.

But that would require commitment to a political view, and Infinite, like its protagonist, is cynical about any greater cause beyond the personal. Thus, to be relevant at all, the Vox – a group, it bears reminding, entirely composed of those outside the 1912 definition of “white” – must become antagonists you can gun down without a qualm. Once their themed section is complete the entire rebellion turns on you for flimsy reasons and promptly begins committing atrocities. Elizabeth, Infinite’s moral compass, blatantly calls them just as bad as their oppressors, and with her condemnation the Vox instantly shift from justified people’s uprising to stereotypical worker’s revolt in all its lurid, theatrical horror.

In fact, it’s initially hinted that Elizabeth – who, spoilers, is effectively a reality-warping figure – may be  responsible for the about-face because she subconsciously can’t envision it any other way, but the story shies away from that rich possibility.

When the story no longer finds Daisy Fitzroy and the Vox convenient, it’s time to kill her. She guns down Fink (finally!) from behind bulletproof glass, and orders her obedient puppets to attack us. Then she grabs a nameless, screaming white child and presses a gun to his temple. “The Founders ain’t nothing but weeds!” she rants, Fink’s blood smeared across her face for war paint. “If you wanna get rid of a weed, you gotta pull it up from the root!”

Who is this child? We don’t know. Infinite doesn’t know. He’s just The White Child as a Platonic ideal, spawned from the ether to demonstrate that Fitzroy and her people are beyond redemption. And the second he’s served his purpose by motivating Elizabeth to stab Daisy in the back he vanishes, never to be heard from again.

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From here on out, Vox soldiers on a rampage are the mainstay of combat. Our sky-racist-slaughter has done an about-face. We are now watching civilization burn at the hands of the marauding hordes, invited to sympathize with the people of Columbia fleeing from murder and rape at the hands of the barbarians.

“Your homes are ours! Your lives are ours! Your wives are ours! It all belongs to the Vox!” shouts a nameless Vox trooper. “Dibs on the girl!” calls another as Booker and he exchange gunfire. “Kill anyone you think will cause trouble, anyone with a gun, anyone wearing glasses,” instructs a third over the radio, just in case we hadn’t explicitly connected the Vox uprising to other “people’s revolts” gone hideously wrong. Once, Infinite appalled us with Columbia’s jingoistic racism and class oppression.

But now, it seems to validate it – why? Another caution against “extremism”?

So why is this important? If Bioshock: Infinite ultimately doesn’t care about the class and race war it depicts except as a background influence, something that many critics seem to concur upon, then why should it deserve criticism for it?

A story about a disgraced former Pinkerton detective – an organization infamous for strike-breaking in its later years –  and participant in the Wounded Knee Massacre, using downtrodden laborers and non-whites as generic antagonists is problematic in any context, but especially in today’s United States. This is history largely from the privileged point of view, precisely the sort of thing Infinite initially seemed to be critiquing.

The last few years have seen an explosion of renewed debate about many of the topics used in Infinite’s background drama.  Unions and collective action by workers are now objects of scorn and contempt. Worker’s rights are being steadily eroded. Affirmative action is now viewed by many as reverse racism.

Historical fiction has no innate obligation to promote a political message. Many perfectly good period pieces just want to tell a story against an interesting backdrop, and that’s fine. That’s why we have sanitized Hollywood history – for when we want to slip into an imagined, nostalgic past. Infinite doesn’t want to just be a period piece, though, and the nostalgic affection for a vanished past that never was is square in its crosshairs.

The degree of bigotry and classism shown as part of Infinite’s world can’t be casually donned like just another element of period costume. It’s too pernicious for that. Racial and class struggle are front-and-center in Infinite’s marketing and the game’s opening act.

By choosing to involve itself with overt discussions of these issues, Infinite – whether it means to or not – takes a stand. By using the oppressors and the oppressed as interchangeably evil antagonists, Infinite makes a statement. By appealing to the middle in a climate of grossly unequal oppression, Infinite unintentionally promotes the status quo.

And unlike Infinite, we can’t just collapse the timelines where oppression occurred. Like Booker, we have to live with the repercussions of our past ills – not, like the antagonist Comstock, mythologize our past until our sins become virtues.

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