WARNING: Some mild spoilers for Bioshock Infinite.
This post is going run along the general theme of “they could have done better.”
I can only speak for myself, but I was expecting racism to be a more significant theme in Bioshock Infinite based on information that we were told about the game. That expectation likely altered my opinion of the way Irrational handled race relations in the game in a way that it wouldn’t have been altered if I’d just gone into the game without any knowledge. But I still believe I would have noticed the things I’m about to talk about, so I think it’s a valuable topic for discussion.
I wouldn’t say that I was outright upset by the handling of racism in the game, but I do think that Irrational flubbed the theme. Racism became an easy way to paint Comstock as a villain and show that Columbia wasn’t such a utopia rather than a topic that was handled as important in itself. I found racism in general to be a much less intriguing topic than a lot of the other strange and fantastic ideas that Bioshock Infinite put forth, solely because of the trite and simple way the game handled race. In such a thoroughly well-crafted game, this is a real shame.
The way Bioshock Infinite handles race, is similar to the way I learned about racial prejudice in an American elementary school. Being racist is bad. Now let’s watch a movie about the Civil Rights Movement with a completely evil white racist Southerner as the villain. (All racists are very easy to spot, you see.) Racism ended in the 60s, kids! We won’t be talking about modern day racism. In fact, when learning about the Civil War, we won’t be mentioning Northern racism. The South were the bad guys, because they liked slavery. Slavery and the suppression of voting rights are the only way racism manifests itself.
I wouldn’t call any of what I was taught malicious — far from it — but it was an incomplete picture of what racism was and is like in the United States. And it’s easier to show a kid something obvious like slavery in order to get across the message “racial prejudice is bad” than teaching them anything more nuanced — especially when those nuances are tied up in the constant scuffling of the American political party system.
Bioshock Infinite tends to go for the easy when it comes to race. Black people are shipped up to Columbia as workers, who are essentially slaves and second-class citizens to their wealthier, white counterparts. In case the parallels to the history of American racism aren’t obvious enough, Irrational is kind enough to include race-segregated bathrooms in the game. I doubt there’s an American school child who makes it through their education without seeing at least one image of a racially segregated water fountain: an easy to understand image that makes the racial hatred of black bodies starkly apparent.
There’s nothing particularly wrong with being a bit obvious in setting up a theme of racism. And I can accept that Columbia is an openly racist, white supremacist society. I think the problems start to occur when hours of gameplay and story go by without any added nuance to what is a major element of the world-building of Columbia.
The problem with the two-dimensional white racist in all those movies about the American Civil Rights Movement isn’t that those people didn’t and don’t exist. It’s that the majority of people are not like that. Many people held (and hold) racist beliefs that were normative at the time but were harmful in that they helped keep the racist status quo.
I found there to be little of this nuance in the people of Columbia. They were all just… terrible. Fink was abhorrent, the random racist comments of the NPCs were said in the most obnoxiously snooty way possible, and the only minor NPCs who help you are members of the anti-racism league.
I understood where Irrational was going with the rebellion of the Vox Populi. Something like “power corrupts no matter what,” which fits well with the themes of the game. But I found myself having trouble raising my ire about the Vox Populi’s violent uprising when their anger seemed warranted. If a single white Columbian had ever once been kind to them, I would have been surprised. And they were so physically separated and segregated in Shantytown that it was unlikely the Vox had any real connections or relationships with white Columbians at all. Why should they care? And why should I care about the chaos and murder that takes over Columbia?
Because that was a real missed opportunity. In the grips of the personal story between Booker, Elizabeth, and Comstock, the wider picture gets lost. I would have liked to feel some sadness or guilt at the downfall of Columbia. As it was, it was a city of racist cult members, and the world seemed not only better off, but safer, without them.
My guess is that the loss of the racism thread in the overall tangle of the plot was a result of changes in development. What started out as a story about a place (much like the first Bioshock) turned into a more personal story. And so what seems to be an important plot element in the beginning of the game — racism — becomes mere backdrop by the end, and barely even that.
As a serious social injustice that still affects millions worldwide, racism is used as an easy brush with which to paint the villains of Bioshock Infinite as bad. In a game that has generally good writing, it’s disappointing to see the writers go with what amounts to cheap and easy emotional manipulation. I would have preferred a more morally ambiguous Columbia full of inhabitants with differing opinions. I do believe, however, that this was sacrificed in the name of the central conflict between Booker and Elizabeth, which has its own merits.
I also think that this game does poorly for modern racism, which is certainly not only a problem with this game. The racism in Bioshock Infinite is couched securely in American history. Columbia is distilled old-timey, American imagery based on a fake nostalgia for an America that never existed but is still held dear by Comstock and his followers.
Sadly, I don’t think a lot of Americans have the best grasp on American history to realize that America was never all apple pie and kids riding their bikes outside until dinner time. Especially, you know, if were a black American.
I would say that Bioshock Infinite plays with this false nostalgia (which is certainly present in American politics today), but never pushes it very far. The game, like all of those overcoming-racism movies, subtly encourages the narrative that true racism exists in America’s past. We’re over the worst of it now, and the only really bad racism that exists now lies in those few people who go to KKK meetings.
After all, it would be easy to think, “Columbia sure is racist. And, man, America sure was racist too. But that’s not what my society looks like now, so we’re not racist.”
If only that were true. Racism is a much quieter force than what is portrayed in Bioshock Infinite, and it’s all the more pernicious for it’s quietness. The racism of the past might seem obvious to us now, but it wasn’t always so obvious to those who existed at the time. And you can be sure that the racism of today will be much more obvious to our descendants.
Bioshock Infinite isn’t trying to be a treatise on modern racism, and I’m not trying to claim that it should be. The game does a great job of evoking exactly what this imagined “ideal” America would probably look like in real life, especially for those who wouldn’t win the white, wealthy lottery. But the game eventually drops the complexity and uses racism more as set dressing and as a cheap way to characterize villainy, and I believe the game should be interrogated closely for that.
It might seem like I just want the game to be more about racism, but that wouldn’t really fix the problems of poor implementation. The world of the game is informed heavily by Columbian white exceptionalism, making race a large factor already. My problem is twofold and related: the racism in the game draws upon imagery of American racism without the content of real, historical racism (I’ve seen far too many people say things along the theme of, “So this is what racism was like!”) and this unrealistic treatment of racism — while it technically works for the plot — flattens the world and people who live in it. The overly simplified version of racism in Columbia basically turns into a writing shortcut to make the player understand that Columbia = bad. A bad Columbia is kind of boring, especially when the ruination of a more complex Columbia would have played so well into Booker’s massive guilt trip. It smacks so sadly of a lost opportunity. Once again, my mantra of “games need to be written well and thoughtfully!” returns.
So how can we move toward better writing, especially when dealing with social realities like racism? In my ideal future developers would ask themselves a few questions while working on their games: Why am I including this topic? Am I handling it responsibly? Is it essential to the plot, or can a similar idea be conveyed in a less conventional or more intriguing way?
What it comes down to once again is responsible, well-thought out, and complex writing in games. I’m confident we’ll get there eventually, and I do actually count Bioshock Infinite among the games that are getting us there. One topic handled poorly does not a bad game make.
What do you think? Was racism actually handled really well in Bioshock Infinite? What perspectives am I not considering?