I mentioned last time I was discussing BioShock Infinite its thematic backdrop of a society based on American exceptionalism and Christian fundamentalism. Ken Levine, the game’s creative director, has gone on record to say that he chose this setting as a reflection of period attitudes; the idea is that many people in 1912 bought into this rhetoric, so downplaying its social significance wouldn’t accurately represent the cultural climate in which the game’s events take place.
I suspect that Levine was equivocating a little bit in this explanation, because the jingoism and racism that makes up the bulk of attitudes presented by NPCs in the game hits pretty close to home in today’s political climate. Considering that we’ve recently seen just how conservative a very vocal subset of the gaming community is (take a look at this article that argues the vitriolic misogyny that’s been bubbling over due to Gamergate isn’t just a case of a few reactionaries, but demonstrates a strong conservative streak in gaming that effectively mirrors conservative ideology in larger politics, even though gamers like to claim they’re being apolitical), and that political and religious conservatism today still relies massively on attitudes of tribalism and “I’ve got mine; to hell with you,” I’m not sure Levine could have said his setting was intended as a larger commentary on today’s political climate without hurting the reputation of his game.
Oh, also there’s this wonderful gem of an editorial that’s just recently popped up on Charisma magazine’s website at the time of writing this post (Update: Charisma removed the offending article late Sunday night, although everyone’s still waiting for a retraction and apology; if you’re really curious about what was written, here’s a link to the original source of the article; be warned that it’s full of vile Islamophobia and calls for violence against all Muslims). File off the religious serial numbers and change the target group to the Chinese or Native Americans, and this could be something included as flavor within BioShock Infinite to highlight the cultural attitudes of Columbia.
This is 2014, and we still have a very vocal portion of the American population who have the same attitudes as the privileged class of Columbia. Using jingoism as a backdrop isn’t just a matter of making the setting feel accurate; it’s a very real commentary on our own attitudes today.
Unfortunately, BioShock Infinite isn’t just commenting on privileged attitudes. There’s an undercurrent of distrust for angry marginalized groups as well. Throughout the first half of the game, you’re frequently told about the Vox Populi, a revolutionary group that wants to overthrow Comstock’s Founders’ Party. The Vox are made up of people of color and other marginalized groups (like Irish people) who have immigrated to Columbia in hopes of a better life, but have found themselves relegated to an underclass that provides all of the menial labor for the city without enjoying any of its benefits. These people are understandably angry, and at the game’s midpoint when Booker and Elizabeth step through a tear to a universe where the Vox have collected the arms they need to start their revolution, we see firsthand that the anger at oppression has boiled over into extremely violent retaliation, with the Vox refusing to take any prisoners even among the Founder civilians. This attitude gets exemplified in the final confrontation with Daisy Fitzroy, the Vox’s leader, who holds a Founder boy hostage with the intention of killing him (in order to save the boy, Elizabeth finds herself forced to stab Daisy in the back while you distract her).
In the aftermath of this episode, Booker and Elizabeth have a discussion about how Daisy and Comstock are just two sides to the same coin; it doesn’t really matter who’s in power, because they’re both just ideologues looking to cement their own influence.
Except that’s not entirely true. Daisy is a bitter, hardened leader of the Vox, and she has some very clear anger towards the Founders, but one thing that gets kind of overlooked in the narrative shuffle is the fact that Daisy was a scapegoat. Comstock murdered his wife to cover up the fact that Elizabeth isn’t his biological daughter, and he framed Daisy, who had been a servant in his house, for the crime. Daisy’s later methods are problematic, but she is not the equivalent of Comstock in power.
Going back to the fear that’s inherent in attitudes like the one displayed in the Charisma article, this whole middle section has some serious problems. I can see how it’s supposed to work as a counterpoint to the Founders’ oppressive regime, highlighting the danger of any extreme ideology (this is a theme that has been explored extensively in the entire BioShock series), but I think the critique falls victim to what Fred Clark calls the Hegel’s Bluff fallacy. Both factions are violent, therefore they are both wrong, and the best course of action is somewhere between them. That’s problematic here because it feeds into conservative fear of marginalized groups; the actions of the Vox mirror the same panic that many conservatives tried to incite when they heard there was some looting going on in Ferguson, MO amidst the peaceful protests over Michael Brown’s shooting. In light of that, I think that the middle section of BioShock Infinite where we get to see the Vox revolution in action is one of the weakest parts of the game, if only because its depiction of violent people of color doesn’t do enough to explain the justifiable anger of those people and actually reinforces white anxieties about the Other.