Accept Baptism and Enter Columbia

10 May

As I mentioned in my last post, there’s a lot to say about religion in Bioshock Infinite, and it can’t be surprising that people would have an interest in talking about it. But what’s perhaps more surprising is that not only are people discussing the religious elements in the game, but one gamer in fact demanded a refund because of the game’s “forced baptism.”

Kotaku’s Patricia Hernandez writes that Breen Malmburg felt spiritually unable to play the vast majority of the game because in order to enter Columbia – one of the very first things in the game – the player-qua-Booker must accept baptism. I have a two-fold reaction to this. First, surprise that someone would object that strongly to being digitally baptized as an avatar, and that Valve would then actually give him the refund. Second, I completely understood it.

This is where I make a personal admission that my discomfort has nothing to do with belief in a religion or doctrine. In fact, just the opposite. It bothered me enormously that Infinite wanted me to agree to a religious doctrine in the first place, even if in a digital fiction while playing a character who resembles me in almost no way (male, from 1912, with a gambling addiction…). I didn’t want to even superficially assume an oath to a god or religion I wanted nothing to do with.

And I do think that discomfort is deliberate. I think the developers want the player to consider why they believe what they believe, from where they have drawn those systems of belief, and what they would or would not be willing to do in the name of that belief. For instance, are you willing to accept digital baptism (twice, for what it’s worth) even if it goes against your real-world belief system? Would you be willing to undergo real baptism if it would allow you to do something you want to do? Would you be willing to undergo real baptism to save your own life?

At what point – the game asks – are we willing to compromise our beliefs in order to gain something else (money, career, health, life, love)?

While Malmburg felt unable to continue the game, pastor Ashley Dunsenbery felt the opposite. Dunsenbery believes that there is nothing offensive about questioning belief – and nothing offensive about suggesting that in order for people to deepen their faith, they need to be willing to examine it.

In Infinite, there is more to religion than just baptism. The whole foundational underpinning of the game is rooted in the Christian chthonic myth: the Father, the Child, the virginal Mother; death and redemption; the cleansing of the spirit through baptism; accepting rebirth into a new faith; being willing to sacrifice the self for the greater good of all people.

And the myth has great meaning to millions of people around the world, whether on a spiritual or a literary level. And it provides a rich, oft-mined depth to the game’s otherwise largely simple plot (with one very large and notable exception… the exception that involves theoretical physics). The real complexity of Infinite‘s myth is that it is combined with science: it unifies the two sides of our society that we typically place in diametric opposition.

Because there is no reason that beauty, art, and belief have to exist in contrast to or conflict with mathematics, technology, and scientific research. Just as there is no reason that videogames can’t present both art and combat gameplay, both fun and complex ideological commentary. Now that isn’t to say that Infinite doesn’t have its ideological problems (or its gameplay problems, which it most certainly does). But its decision to present both spirituality – and the spiritual components in the game were both aurally and visually gorgeous – and science together (both positive and negative, for both) was one of the best decisions in the game.