Tag Archives: Video game

Bioshock Infinite and fictional racism

7 Jul

Bioshock Infinite: Part One, Part Two, Part Four

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?I won't say white savior, but...

I won’t say white savior, but…

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?


How Telltale got it (mostly) right with The Walking Dead

26 May

The Walking Dead: Part Two

I can’t think of a better game to start this discussion than Telltale’s The Walking Dead.


WARNING: This post contains SPOILERS. Read at your own risk.

The Walking Dead does many, many things right, and I hope that it’s popularity spurs other game developers to be a little more daring in some of their choices. (Heck, I hope it makes the TV show a little more daring.)

This is a game where the characters have supreme importance. It is not about bombastic gunfights or stunning scenery that you travel through while completing an epic quest or even a game that challenges player’s skills or reflexes. At it’s core, The Walking Dead is about character interaction.

The interpersonal tensions between characters and the growth of Lee Everett as a person are the story. Each character — their experiences, traits, and desires — creates the game world and narrative in ways that are not common in most modern, popularly and critically lauded games.

I really want to commend Telltale for what they’ve accomplished. The point-and-click adventure game isn’t a particularly lucrative genre these days, but they still took risks with their characters in a medium that is notorious for the cocky, white, muscular soldier/space marine/adventurer.

It would have been very easy to make The Walking Dead with a more homogenous, commercially acceptable cast of characters. I doubt many people would have commented — at least not with enough power to negatively impact sales. (Again, I’ll point to the TV show. It’s very successful despite the apparent lack of black people in Georgia.) But if Telltale had gone that conventional route, I believe the game would have suffered and been a less uniquely enjoyable experience.


There was a moment in Episode Five where I realized that the main cast consisted of three black characters, one white character (my Ben died in Episode Four — there would have been two white characters if he had lived), and one Persian-American character, meaning that the majority of the cast was non-white. At the end of the episode only two black characters and the Persian-American character remained.

While the game had already been doing a great job with keeping the cast racially diverse throughout, I was struck by how unprecedented this is in games. How many times have you played a game where all of the important characters are non-white? (If you have examples, let me know! I’d love to try these games out.)


I’m not trying to downplay the rest of the game with this observation. Glenn (Asian-American) makes an appearance, there are non-white minor characters (like some of the cancer survivors in Savannah), and of course a bunch of the non-white main characters, who are the people we get to know the most, survive through multiple episodes. I’ve always liked that Katjaa, although white, is Belgian, lending some additional complexity to a character that could have been a blonde, blue-eyed American.

Perhaps the most important examples of how Telltale handles race are Lee and Clementine. I find these two characters to be such important aspects of the game that I’m reserving the topic for another post.


Telltale also handles gender exceptionally. The lack of female characters in video games has been discussed to death, and it’s nice to see a game that includes a diverse and interesting cast of both men and women.

Looking through the characters listed on The Walking Dead wiki, I count twenty-six male characters and thirteen female characters in the cast, including the minor characters. When I narrow it down to only major characters that wind up joining Lee’s group, there are eight men and six women. How many men and women are in the group at any given time is a little flexible considering situations such as choosing between saving Doug or Carley.

That’s not too shabby compared to many current video games. But what’s more important to me is the importance of the women in the game. Just like the man, they are characterized as unique, often flawed individuals with useful talents that contribute to the group’s survival.

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Welcome to How Many Princesses!

26 May

What is HMP?

HMP is a blog examining and chronicling the maturity of video games and the video game industry. I’ve played video games since I had an N64 as a kid (I’m one of those ubiquitous twenty-somethings), and I think there’s a growing willingness in the industry to treat games more seriously. In that hope, I am going to treat games as a viable artistic medium and examine them critically.


I could babble on for a while on this topic, but I have two main reasons:

  1. Most of the current criticism that I read is on news sites. Although I fully enjoy and encourage this, I don’t think this should be the primary place to find games criticism. It’s unfair to expect journalists that focus on the news to also be knowledgeable or interested in cultural criticism. I think it’s valuable to have more places that are exclusively dedicated to looking at video games critically and I aim to make this blog one of those places.
  2. The motivation for this blog also stems from my own frustration when looking for discussions of things that I’ve noticed in games. There have been times when I’ve been frustrated with an aspect of a game and went online later and been unable to find even a mention. I have spent too long being annoyed by this — if I can’t find it myself, I’ll create it.

Having said all of this, it’s important to remember that I am one person, and so I can only have one person’s opinion. I have no illusion that I’m some sort of expert. My goal is to participate in a healthy dialogue. I am, always, very happy to engage with other people’s opinions and ideas. Different people’s interpretations of the same events is one of my favorite things about gaming.

What topics?

There are many articles and discussions out there about gender. I’m glad these articles exist, and I hope to continue that discussion on this blog. Along with gender, I want to discuss issues of race, classism, sexuality, ageism, body diversity… honestly, anything that is relevant. I have not personally come across much formal discussion of these topics, and I think they’re especially important now as the gaming industry has the technology possible to create complicated narratives and communicative gameplay.

I will be doing my best to focus on positives rather than negatives. This is partially for my own benefit. There’s a lot of negative in games, and it can be depressing to dwell on it too much. I also think there’s plenty of positive, especially recently, and it’s easier to imagine future directions for the games industry by pointing to examples of what to do alongside talking about what not to do.

What games? 

For now, most of what I have planned has to do with story-heavy games. These are the games that I tend to play and enjoy the most, so I have a lot to say about them.

However, I don’t want to limit myself to a certain type of game and would love any game recommendations, which should be sent to howmanyprincesses@gmail.com.

What’s up with the name?

It’s inspired by the iconic line “But our princess is in another castle!” from Super Mario Bros. The saving of a useless prize of a woman is some ooooold fashioned game design and the sort that I would like to see go out the window (not specifically targeting Mario here — I’m sort of a Nintendo fangirl). The basic idea behind the name is “How many princesses are left in this castle?” How long till the majority of games can move past cliched and damaging tropes and move on to something more fulfilling and artistically interesting?