At the moment, I’m replaying BioShock Infinite in order to teach it to my class (Games, Game Theory, and Leadership Studies). The first time I played through it, I had a lot of reactions, some of them positive, some negative. Often, when one plays through a game for the second time, one notices things that weren’t there before, things that either confirm or complicate one’s opinion about the game.
Well, for one thing, I completely forgot how to change vigors and must have missed the pop-up that told me how, so I went through for quite a while only using Possession and Shock Jockey, when I really wanted to use Murder of Crows. But then I figured it out and felt stupid, but that’s my deal, not the game’s.
Some of the differences I have noticed – in the last year and a half or so, I’ve gotten much better at shooters. I don’t really play all that many (and I’ve mostly played RPGs and strategy in the interim between when I first played Infinite and now), so that was a bit surprising, but okay. It’s made me die… not at all. So that’s helping in terms of gameplay.
As for the rest… this playthrough is confirming and compounding what I already thought. It’s gorgeous, the music is phenomenal, the gameplay is vintage BioShock, I hate Handymen, and the gender dynamics are stereotypically sexist despite trying not to be so. But the depictions of race in the game make me want to crawl out of my own skin, even more than they did a year and a half ago.
Maybe its watching news coverage of Ferguson and Madison and Southern fraternities, maybe its my increased awareness of violence against blacks and other minorities from an institutional standpoint, maybe its because I’ve spent more time researching intersectionality. Whatever it is, Infinite is even more horrific in its depiction of “diversity” than it was the last time I played it, and I was pretty horrified then:
But the late-game Vox turn on you, and their actions – especially Daisy’s, when she tries to murder a child (probably another throwback to Bioshock chiding the player for spending a game possibily [sic] killing children him/herself) – are the epitome of bigoted stereotypes. And yes, I do understand the logic that the Vox have only become violent and barbaric because they were treated by the citizens of Columbia as subhuman. However, the game never complicates this late-Vox image. It never returns us to humanity from barbarity.
But now I see even more than that. It isn’t just that the late-game Vox (world three version) are barbaric, it’s everything up to and including Daisy’s “dialect,” the black servants around Columbia, world one Mrs. Lin’s pigin English (replacing her with a white woman in worlds two/three also weirded me out a little), the dioramas of Wounded Knee and the Boxer Rebellion, the abject filthiness and poverty of the Shantytown in comparison to Columbia proper. Yes, I know that Columbia itself is supposed to be racist, but there’s a difference between depicting radical racism (Hall of Heroes) as bad and unintentionally reinforcing institutionalized racism by having a black woman smear blood on her face and then attempt to murder a child only to have her killed by the most innocent person in the game (Elizabeth, a young white woman) as an act of goodness. The color of the Vox is red – blood, violence, Communism – and they wear demonic horned masks.
While Columbia’s police are your enemies from the start, the Vox turn on you, go from being your allies to your enemies in one quick cutscene. They betray you – traitors whose actions are unpredictable. You – Booker – go from being their savior (white savior, anyone?) to being their victim… while still remaining the white savior. Talk about a martyr complex.
As I play through the game, I know its intention is to make me reconsider racism, but all it manages to do is make me be painfully aware of how racist the game itself actually is. The equation of minorities with poverty, theft, filth, a lack of education, and menial labor (even though the fact that Fink is obviously exploiting them is made evident) only serves to confirm the kind of institutionalized racism that causes people today to expect that black men are more likely to commit crimes and justify shooting them when they are unarmed.
I do not want to say that the developers who worked on Infinite are themselves racist. I have met many of them, and I think they are good people with good intentions. I also think they are unaware of the problematic way in which they created the universe of Columbia. I firmly believe that the message they wanted to convey was one of anti-American Exceptionalism, one of equality in matters of race and gender and sexuality. They meant well, they really did, and the game they created does have a lot of good things in it.
In essence, and I do not say this lightly, Infinite succumbs to the worst sort of Uncle Tom’s Cabin-esque racism – the kind that is well-intentioned, paternalistic, and unintentionally reinforcing of the status quo. It’s the problem with #alllivesmatter, #notallmen (#notallwhites?), and #notyourshield. It wants to be equitable, wants to show that it cares about social justice, and only manages to offer up a bandaid and a balloon to ease a gunshot wound.