Bioshock Infinite Privilege

bioshock infinite white privilege racism

Usually when I criticise games over social issues, it’s more that I think whoever was responsible kinda lacked a certain perspective or self-reflection to understand what their messages are implying. You know, I don’t need to call someone a sexist for example to point to sexism in what he does. With Bioshock Infinite I don’t know what to do. What Irrational Games did here is so blunt, I really have trouble separating the message from the messenger.

I really have trouble seeing how everyone involved completely missed out on the fact that they produced a play about white guilt and reverse racism with a white entitled protagonists who gets to be the shining hero and the true victim.

Okay okay, let’s back up for a second, let’s go through this step by step.

So this contains spoilers, obviously. You still should read on. This stuff needs to be worked through before you buy that game. I was glad to have the narrative spoilt for me before I subsidized this game with my money. But hey, spoiler warning, bla, bla. And maybe trigger warning? I don’t know.

Ripples

Through human history, there are a lot of occurrences of white folks benefitting from oppressing non-white folks, pretending that their whiteness entitles them to enslave, exploit, deport, scapegoat, convert or simply kill non- white folks. And much of that mass violence and oppressive mindset still has negative repercussions today, for people who were born after it happened. Many scars have not yet healed, much damage is not undone and many feelings and concepts from those eras are still prevalent.

The negative repercussions for white people all revolve around white guilt. The feeling to be held responsible for the actions of previous generations of white people basically and whatever unfairness and emotional hardship that entails. The repercussion for people of color are much more substantial, tangible and are continuing to cause much more damage. There is no equivalency here.

I’m not starting a politics discussion here about “who suffers more from racism”, but I’m going to base my complaints about Bioshock Infinite on the premise, THAT IT’S NOT THE WHITE GUYS!

True Victim

Irrational Games decided to use the still very much relevant history of white oppression of black people in America as a backdrop for their latest epic. I don’t even have to point to analogies, like I had in my Gears of War 3 genocide article,… it’s explicit here. It’s unambiguous, that we are meant to understand that the racial conflict in the game is referencing the early 20th century America. It’s a piece of history that still ripples as racial conflicts today. It’s not healed or resolved yet. It’s sensitive matter. And Irrational Games’ contribution to this ongoing conflict and process of resolving things? To make white people feel better about that white guilt stuff by creating a caricature of racism, putting black people in the reverse-racism penalty box and making the white player a tragic hero of a conflict that originated in a past life.

Bioshock Infinite presents an unequivocal image of who the “true” victim of racism is and offers an interactive tale to fight your way out of that victimhood, while venting your anger in luscious violent gun rage.

Let’s decent into white guilt absolution madness:

White Protagonist

Well this in and out of itself is in my view nothing to object to, if it weren’t for the lack of protagonists of color in other publications. There are great stories, inspiring stories, to tell about racism with a white character at the center. But considering how often that is done and how few movies, comics and games acknowledge who’s empowerment story the civil rights thing actually is, it feels like a missed opportunity – maybe again driven by the desire to please the hetero white male demographic. One still has to keep in mind, that Bioshock Infinite now is the story arc of a white protagonist, while black americans only provide fodder for that arc and are completely interchangeable. You could have told the same story with the 3rd Reich, Apartheid, Manifest Destiny (oh yeah, that’s actually in there), colonialization, …heck, even animal abuse.

If you exclude a person of color from the roster of protagonists, you make their story an asset, something secondary.

Sins of the Past

This is where the white guilt gets established as the issue for the player to solve. The sins of the past are explicitly an instance of white oppression, as the protagonist participated in the massacre at Wounded Knee.

But through exposition, carefully placed bits in the campaign and the ending, it is made clear, that it is a sin of a past life, something be absolved from but still haunting the protagonist and the driving force behind his quest. You know, crimes of a past life as in crimes of past generations. Bioshock infinite does not tell a story about fighting racism, it’s a story about a white man struggling to deal with his guilt. Okay, so far so good. Sad set of priorities, but typical Hollywood treatment of racial conflict in american history.

Exaggerated Racism

A thing that many movies do, most comics and Bioshock Infinite, is depict the faction in the story representing racism as unequivocally evil. Cartoonishly evil actually. This pretends like racism is some sort of thing mentally deranged people do, something sociopaths and psychopaths are drawn to or something you become when you are indoctrinated into some sort of cult.

While this of course serves to condemn racism as a concept, it mainly serves as a way out of dealing with your own internalized racism and serves as a way to absolve yourself by comparison. It also serves – and that is actually the truly ugly effect of that treatment – to push what we are allowed to label as racism into an extremist corner and it sabotages any healthy debate about racism in our society.

These straw men racist are nothing but a shield to keep you from dealing with whatever racism you might have in you. You compare yourself to those obviously screwed up people and go like: “I’m normal, I’m better than that, they are racists and I can see that clearly and condemn it and therefore I’m not racist. Of course I’m against racism, I would never do something like this, I mean look at those inhumane monsters, glad that racism is over in America.”

Oh, and when someone dares to call you out for doing something racist, you can be all offended and be like: “Are you crazy, you compare me to those monsters? I know racism when I see and that wasn’t it, also I don’t hate black people, so I’m not a racist. You are blowing things out of proportions, brother!”

In fact this exaggerated racism – found in Avatar for example, or District 9 – is blowing things out of proportion. It’s trying to make racism and issue of being wrong in the head, while completely ignoring that it actually is an issue of various degrees of that kind of tribalism, xenophobia, prejudice and self-rationalization we all have in us.

White Savior

We are still in typical Hollywood glorification territory and twisted perspective here. This is the biggest thing that pissed me of in Avatar, where the white hero is basically wearing the equivalent of blackface while leading the savages to victory against the cartoonishly evil white men.

The white savior against white oppressors is an inherently flawed element in any story that even attempts to be critical of racism. Every pretense of actually being critical of racism falls apart when you give us a scenario in which white people oppress non-white people because they feel superior to them and then give us a white person who needs to take on the job of beating the oppressors because somehow all non-white people are not as able or capable to do that. Seriously.

bioshock infinite racism

No, that is not this game’s version of the KKK. This “klan” is Irrational Game’s take on black people and workers fighting for their rights.

False Equivalency

So far it was just common, though unfortunate story tropes. Now it gets really icky. Around the middle of the game the methods of the resistance in Bioshock get more and more nasty and soon the both white protagonists (I just count Elizabeth as a protagonist as well, though she isn’t playable) find themselves – explicitly! – equating the racist faction and the resistance with each. Saying the leaders of both factions – Zachary Hale Comstock leading the racists and Daisy Fitzroy leading the resistance – are a match for each other.

So violent oppression and violent resistance against violent oppression is the same? I would even go as far as to say, that this is debatable. But when you map this equivalency to the actual racial conflict it Infinite is referencing – and you need to do that because that conflict is still relevant – it is super disgusting.
The civil rights movement was in no way whatsoever violent compared to the beating, shooting, dog attacks, tear gas and angry mobs, black people and their supporters had to endure.

Why would you write a story in which you have fictional factions – one representing racism and the other one representing the fight against racism – and then go ahead and make them equally bad?

Reverse Racism

And this is where I have to get my bucket, since I already feel it boiling in my stomach when thinking about this. Daisy Fitzroy – the black woman leader of the resistance, the personification of the fight against the white oppressors, the character that serves as the voice for the reasons behind the resistance – needs to die when she almost murders a child because it is white. Her fight is not driven by a desire for equality or a desire to defend against oppression – that may have been why it has started – but now it’s nothing more than reverse racism. The ONLY STORY RELEVANT BLACK CHARACTER gets shoved into the mad killer corner, so that the whiteys can talk amongst themselves.

White Power Fantasy

I don’t know what to say. Bioshock Infinite tells a story of an america where white racists clash with black racists and a white guy gets caught in the middle because of something racist, that was done in a past life. Wait, Irrational Games tells that story 2K games tells that story and Ken Levine tells that story.

It’s an empowerment fantasy and cathartic slaughter fest for those poor poor white people who think they moved past racism and who feel unfairly burdened for the racism in past generations, thanks to white extremists and those accusatory black people who in the end probably are just reverse racists anyway.

They pretend that the fight against white racism is as much driven by racism as the white racism itself, that they are equivalent, metaphorically calling for both to be shot down equally. No, Irrational! No 2k! No, Ken Levine! We are not at the point where the fight against racism is already over, you don’t get to delegitimize that very alive and necessarily fight as an attack of reverse-racist black people on white people. How dare you?

And even if your white guilt absolving moral play is just meant to be a piece of fiction and the american racism is just a stylish backdrop. Even if Bioshock Infinite is not commentary, not analog to what you think is going down today or has been going down in the past… …how dare you abuse that still relevant conflict, that pain and sacrifice of people still living and still suffering from it… and turn into some sort of joke, like nazi zombies or something?

Too soon? Yes, too soon. I complained about a lot of things in AAA gaming but this takes the cake, this is just wrong, shame-on-you-wrong. Is this also something you were forced to do because of focus tests in frat houses?

ANd what gets me even more riled up is that unabashed praise Bioshock Infinite gets, for the world and story and how that’s art and such… instead that people join me at the bucket. What the actual fuck? Unfortunately Bioshock Infinite has no multiplayer so it could provide a safe space for those white kids who get unfairly vilified for going like “Boom, headshot, N*gger!”, but as we all know don’t mean it that way. Screw this.

  • Editor’s note: This article is an edited version of an article originally published in april 2013. You can find the original article and other older articles in the pdf archive.
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37 Comments

  1. I know this is probably too late and all but I just want to point out that the main character is Native American, not white. I mean, as far as we know he could be mixed, but considering he knows a native language and he describes how his race made other soldiers not treat him with any respect you can infer that he at least lived in a reservation when he was younger.

  2. One minor thing to point out, although Vox Populi shared some common causes with the American civil rights struggle of the 60s, Ken Levine took inspiration from other, much more violent movements. Specifically the Baader-Meinhof Gang and the Revolutionary Cells, which were anarcho-communist students movement turned-terrorist organizations in the 70s and 80s. Their list of violent crimes is massive, and includes dozens of counts of murder, bombings, arsons, kidnappings, and torture. One of the worst was the “German Autumn”, a bombing which killed 34 people.

    This blog is decent but holds an Amero-centric worldview. Compared to the rest of the world, America’s labor and leftist movements were relatively peaceful. By that, I mean that even the most violent leftist and labor groups in America only killed a few dozen people. Compared to the hundreds, thousands, and millions that were often killed by revolutionaries and communist supporters on every other continent.

    You say that the oppressed can’t become oppressors if their grievances are legitimate. Most violent conflicts start that way, and yes revolutionaries very often do become as bad as the people they wanted to overthrow. The Nazis committed unspeakable atrocities to the Russians when they invaded in WW2. Villages were burned down, families were slaughtered, Russian cities were bombed and millions of civilians were starved out. The Russian soldiers swore revenge for the lives of their lost families, demanding blood for blood, and invaded Germany with the allies.

    Then during several years of occupation, Russian soldiers raped hundreds of thousands of German women. Very few were ever prosecuted. The allies were guilty of this too, but the Russians were by all accounts the worst offenders. Was it because American soldiers had better character? Or was it because they had the privilege of never seeing beloved country burned to ash by the Nazis?

    Anyway there are countless historical instances of legitimate victims of oppression going on to commit their own crimes against humanity.

    1. “You say that the oppressed can’t become oppressors if their grievances are legitimate” No, I don’t.
      I say “violence to fight oppression is not equal to oppressive violence”.

    1. Hey there. You have some good points up here, and I’d like to converse about it. Daisy and Elizabeth are my favorites.

      Have you played the “Burial at Sea” and seen Daisy and Lutece’s conversation? If not, then you missed a big part of the storytelling.

      But I, for one, don’t see why we need to view these characters through ‘representation’ lenses, where they are nothing more than personifications of ideas or tropes. I see them as individuals making choices.

      Thoughts?

      1. Hey there,

        The “big part of storytelling” I missed was not missed by me, it was not told.

        Bioshock Infinite is one piece of storytelling, Burial at Sea – even though a spin-off – is another. They are separate pieces of media, even released at different times and needed to be purchased separately. For many many people the story of Bioshock Infite is completely told IN Bioshock Infinite.

        One can not be used to justify the other. It is not the responsibility of the audience to purchase all of the related media to avoid racist conclusion – it’s the responsibility to avoid racist conclusions within their released media products.

        To your second point: We need to view ANY character through representation lenses because they ARE representation. Nobody chooses to read a character as a representation of a certain demographic – they literally just actually are. If you refuse to discuss them as representation or if the creators claim they did not think about representation – then that is ignorance towards the real world effects of those characters in pop culture media.

        Discussing those characters as representation is not a thought experiment or a “what if they were” or a matter of personal sensibilities… it’s discussing media entities as the things they literally are.

        You of course are free to focus on other aspects of those characters – those aspects are not mutually exclusive – but the representation problem is there, no matter if we decide to talk about it or not.

  3. Just found this, thank you so much! You hit the nail on the head. I find Bioshock Infinite’s treatment of racism as a cartoonish thing of the past especially despicable in light of the Black Lives Matter movement. Black people are facing genocide! Today! In the 21st century! And people act as if racism is over.

    This is what happens when we blindly parrot “violence is bad.” No, it’s a tool. An oppressed group that wants to use violence to liberate themselves is entirely justified in doing so.

  4. I mostly agree with your blog post and don’t know how it’d be possible to end Comstock’s power trip without some bloodletting, but I think B:I isn’t as much about racism/reverse racism as it is the dangers of extremism and how anyone’s actions over time can cause crystallization of extreme philosophies. Obviously you can’t call the revolutionaries in the game racists. I got the impression that Levine wanted to show the tragedy of what happens when even just intentions are tainted by extremism.

    1. Your reading of the narrative is valid but you make a common mistake of arguing that readings are mutually exclusive.

      You can read the narrative in all the ways you like and there are many many ways of reading Bioshock Infinite. But these readings are NOT in competition with each other. Your assertions about what Levine wanted don’t change what Levine did and what the game is.

      The game is about race and reverse racism because of the messages and images contained in it – your reading of the game or whatever Levine meant to say can not change that. If the game is not about race to you, that is because you use ONLY your subjective reading to evaluate the game. That’s your prerogative but not a useful approach in media analysis.

    2. I completely agree. The racism pictured is period accurate (1912, I beleive), and at first, Daisy and the Vox are make a deal. It also seemed to be forgotten that THERE WERE WHITES IN THE VOX. Which makes it “lower vs upper class” rather than “black vs white”. It’s designed to show the dangers of extremism. It seems like you (the editor) simply ignored the fact that the sins booker was trying to absolve happened at the Wounded Knee massacre. There is little to no evidence to suggest that B:I is ab Allegorey

  5. I agree with you that Burial at Sea Part 2 was kind of a let down, and not everything I was hoping for. However, I feel like the analysis here is lacking in some ways. If the game is saying Elizabeth’s “hysteria” and womanhood must be contained with the Siphon, why is the ultimate goal at the end of the game to destroy it? We are not meant to be sympathetic to her captors, but to Elizabeth, who we desperately want to set free.

  6. Have been playing through Bioshock Infinite for the first time and wanted to find evidence online that there were people who were as disgusted as I with the narrative decision to make this false equivalency of which you speak, and with the two protagonists wholeheartedly endorsing it.

    Thank you for writing, in the most eloquent and articulate terms possible, why this was so insulting and icky.

    As a historian, I find it absolutely execrable; “Oh, they’re just as bad as their former oppressors”

    1. Speaking from the perspective of history, I find your comment to be somewhat unbelievable. The French Revolution. The Bolshevik Revolution. Romanovs. The Young Turks. The Janissaries, or Noble Ones. Mao Zedong’s Chinese Revolution. The Holodomor Holocaust. These are all examples of revolutionaries who became new oppressors and jailed “counterrevolutionaries” for “aiding” the old oppressor.

      If you’re going to operate on historical precedent, that’s the weakest leg for this argument to stand on.

      1. Beg pardon, the Janissaries were known as “New Soldiers.” Sorry. As a side note all of the terms were new oppressors; many of them were casualties of the new oppressors.

  7. I agree with much of this article. The vox aren’t that far removed from the way they are depicted in the Hall of Heroes. Unfortunately I remember one of the highlights of the game when booker and elizabeth sang in shantytown only to shoot the place up moments later.

    The game does have a “see what happens when you let these people free” vibe that I found unsettling.

  8. There are different readings to a game, not all are this grim. So maybe people who praise the game are seeing something else, something that might be good, I dont know. I think the game is overrated anyway. It doesnt hold Itself really well. I dont see this game being played 20 years from now. I think there might be some places were the history of racism is not as heavy as in the states or the ex-colonies and thus people might enjoy playing the game, but that doesnt make It a great game

  9. And is not that race or gender is the only way you can discriminate someone. White people can be discriminated too, and Non-White people can discriminate other Non-White people.
    On another note, time ago I saw a really homophobic film that despicted reverse discrimination. I was enraged, but then I was surprise while hearing a Teenager that actually changed the way he treated LGBT people after seeing the film. Bioshock could teach respect, not all white kids are racists.

  10. “You know, I don’t need to call someone a sexist for example to point to sexism in what he does.” Well whats racist in some culture might not be in another culture, because context is important. Most things we see as offensive are really just offensive because of our history. In my country I can laugh with my friends about having brown skin, in other countries I feel offended If someone point It out and In some other places I would understand It as simple curiosity. Is the intention what counts

  11. Hello.

    First of all, congratulations on the blog! I’m currently writting an essay on videogame & women, and this far I’m liking your blog so much that it has become a reference point on many topics. I also work as a racial minority lawyer, so this topic interests me too. Unlike the feminist thread, I deepy disagree, which is quite disappointing.

    And I don’t have much more space so… Yeah, you are pulling the developers intentions out of the blue just so you can critizice something.

    1. My conclusions are not based on assumptions about the developer’s intentions. They are based on analysis of the work and how racial roles are presented. However, the thoroughness with which the unfortunate race roles are fleshed out and presented, makes it hard to just assume an accident here.

      Critical analysis came before any assumption of intent. Even if I knew for a fact, that the problematic depictions would have been unintentional, it would not change the criticism, since problematic effects of text and subtext are not dependent on author’s intent.

      Anyway, thanks for the kind words.

      1. Didn’t come here to kick and scream, as others have before, but a potential change in scope with regards to Fitzroy’s characterization: Based off the events that unfold, and considering how this is an already messed up dimension, would it be unfair to assume that the developers created a reality in which The Nation of Islam under the lead of the ideals of Malcolm X (pre trip to Mecca)?

        I believe once you take on that view (“Any means necessary”) I think you could become slightly less vitriolic

        1. No, even under the NoI/Malcolm X paradigm, you’re still dealing rationales based on lynching/KKK terrorism/general apathy and exploitation (Share cropping)/segregation and a lack of voting rights in many states. So the vitriol remains, and justifiably so.

          We don’t tell young children getting physically bullied (i.e. – punched in the face, sand kicked in their eyes, etc.) to just sit there and take it or to plead with the bully. If the administration won’t do anything, we tell them to fight back

          1. We do?

            We don’t tell people to just bear with it, but we don’t tell them that they have lease to beat the shit out of a bully. Also, speaking of false equivalency, comparing an “against the wall” revolution to school bullying is one.

            I think we’re ultimately putting too much stock in what Booker’s saying when we already know how cynical he is. In fact, later elements of the plot directly contradict “two sides of the same coin.” Fitzroy isn’t the other side of the same coin; Booker is.

  12. First of all, I’m happy to find a healthy debate in the comments section where people actually compare their experiences in the game with the opinion of the author of the post.

    And one of the most interesting points the author makes is: “it’s a missed oportunity”. Well, same I said about GTA V. Could’ve been a female protagonist there. But that wasn’t what happened a free, creative decision of the developers? Are we supposed to force people to write stories we like? Well, I could’ve been a better person altogether my entire life, less shy for instance, that’s a missed oportunity. But the better “me” or the better “game” don’t exist. They can’t be used as arguments to bash the current existing things. They live in their own right. Bioshock Infinite is an incredible game in its own right, could be a lot better just as everything, but who is the person capable of producing the games that will fulfill all of your personal deep desires? Just as LorenzoCanuck pointed out, “Bioshock: Infinite pissed you off because it didn’t fit into your political agenda”.

    To respond to some of your points:

    The violent resistance in Infinite was not an analogy to civil rights movement. Just as easy as you can see it is an analogy, I can clealy see it isn’t. Irrational Games wanted you to know they’re not denigrating the image of people who fought for justice, even by violent actions, because they have a story that, while influenced by history, is detached from our reality and is presented in multiple alternate takes. So, an alternate take on the civil rights movement is not supposed to represent the real thing. Besides, on one of those alternate takes, the non-white happenned to rise to power. Thus, they were not being oppressed anymore. It was not the violent resistance anymore, because it was not resistance. Violent resistance died the moment Jeremiah Fink died. What came after it is nothing I see you referencing to. Why make the two sides bad? This is an question intended for every viewer and some other reviewers have already answered. My take is: it just so happens that many many times we are not fighting for equivalence, but for reparation. This goes way beyong racial conflicts. Equivalence will only come when all sides learn to respect each other and give up violence of any sort, not just the sort that uses guns. Sadly enough, we live in a world of riot police, gas bombs , sticks and stones.

    WHich brings you to the so called “reverse racism”. Jeremiah Fink had to be white. Daisy Fitzroy had to be black. To make the point I explained above, Daisy had to be overcome with hate and attempt to oppress the people previoulsy in power. She needed to die because she was standing between the protagonist and the ending, and the child only makes it easier for the player to cope with her murdering. You may say the child was unnecessary, I’ll give you that. The black anti-hero you always wanted existed but was not playable. And she’s just as bad as Booker. Remeber Booker is Comstock, so the protagonist is evil, even the Booker deWitt that fought Comstock, all Bookers were evil and had to die in te end.

    “They pretend that the fight against white racism is as much driven by racism as the white racism itself, that they are equivalent”, a blut No. I didn’t read it in the game, many people didn’t read it in the game, but most of us could see how easy it is to interpret it that way. It’s just false. Story elements in the game are not all meant to translate directly to real entities. Alternate takes, remember? What would happen if you had a city in the sky? Should its civil rights movement mirror its counterpart in the mainland? Who’s to say? One thing that I know for sure is that no one is to predict what it would do. Unless you’re writing a story, then you have to connect the fate of all that with all of the loose ends in the rest of the story, while guessing about human behavior. This process leads to your unhappiness with it, unfortunately.

    1. I actually took Fitzroy’s rebellion to be a celebration of the course the Civil Rights Movement took in real life. Fitzroy’s revolution was quite the opposite of the real-life Civil Rights Movement and that movement’s temperance. It’s a glimpse at what the CRM COULD have been, as well as a breathed sigh of relief that this wasn’t what it turned into.

  13. I agreed with you after the first time I played the whole thing thru. After the second time not so much, because the Game is deeper than just racism and anti-racism. It lulls you into these “old-timey-americana-happy-place” only to shred this nostalgic Picture with all the horrible indices for segregation and racism one easily overlooks and forces you to think about it, best example would be the fair scene at the beginning: Happy people, sunshine, barbershopmusic, a lottery everyone thinks what a great city and then the game forces you to stare directly into the ugly face of racism. The Guilt part gets an twist to self-hatred by revealing Bookers own native heritage wich leads one Booker to drown himself in booze because he slaughtered his own people and the other to embrace his deeds to become Comstock. As for the “Vox Populi” the theme is the classic “he who fights monsters”: it’s a movement at a crossroad between being the better men and going all an eye for an eye, for example they either become a Mandelan ANC or the Terrors of the French Revolution. In a game about decisions it’s only consequent to show every horrible consequence of a decision be it a good one or a bad one.

  14. I wonder if the critics of Binfinite, who compare the Vox Populi with the non-violent civil rights movement of the USA, ever considered another obvious historical analogy: the October Revolution of Russia. It seems more appropriate given the setting of the game (early XX century, not the 1960s). The game also suggests this in its iconography (prominent colour red, the outfits of the revolutionary fighters pictured above, huge factories etc).

    In the context of the October Revolution the theme of the killing of children appears to be much better justified. The belied that the ruling class were nothing but parasites and they should be erased along with their ‘spawn’ was not uncommon among bolshevik revolutionaries. In fact, that was the fate of the Russian emperor Nicholas II who was slaughtered along with his four young daughters and son.

    Given the above I do not believe that Irrational’s choice to portray the Vox as evil murderers is completely unjustified. Especially if you consider that the conflict in Columbia was not centered solely around race, but also class (workers vs owners). History gives enough examples where fights for freedom end up in quite an indiscriminate slaughter. The position that extremism is dangerous (even if well intentioned) can be seen as valid, and Booker and Elizabeth are right to denounce the Vox.

    1. I agree completely. I’m actually finding these claims quite insulting to the members of the French and October Revolutions. They claim to be fighting on behalf of the oppressed, but they refuse to see the oppressed as complex individuals given to anger and feelings of revenge. Martin Luther King Jr. existed. So did Malcolm X (pre-jail period) and so did Amir Bakhtiari, who once told a sympathetic white woman that the best she could do is die. Daisy Fitzroy’s dialogue, actions, and intent (acquire guns) did not give her Martin Luther King Jr. claims of nonviolence or a right to the Civil Rights Movement. Furthermore, the timeline you see in the game is one meddled with by Elizabeth, meaning that it isn’t passing judgment on all possible revolutions — just Fitzroy’s, her revolution of “all they gon’ see is the dark” in place of the moderate peaceniks in the first half of the game.

      So Fitzroy’s a supporting character? Like Fink? Like Comstock? Like every character except the protagonists? You don’t say. It’s almost as if they’re supporting characters . . . supporting other characters. Traditional plot structure is racist, I know.

      Furthermore, to return to the examples of the French and Octobor Revolutions, these critics of race posit that the oppressed cannot become oppressors or as bad as the original oppressors. I’m sorry, but were the French people not oppressed by French barons who squandered their money on wars in America while men, women, and children starved? Were the czars of Russia not oppressive when they demanded that their people pay the price of World War I and their heavy taxes simultaneously? Did not both revolutions end in wholesale slaughters — the storming of the Bastille and the slaughter of hundreds to thousands? Would that Robespierre had the same cover you’ve given Fitzroy here.

      Did the British not feel oppressed when the Germans bombed them out of house and home? Did they also not call for the complete and utter extermination of the German race in retaliation, to which J.R.R. Tolkien famously replied that they had no right as the Germans had had no right?

      Oh, but they were not oppressed, were they? The oppressed don’t do such things.

      I sympathize with Robespierre’s Terror, which emerged from a terrified, reactionist, and wounded people. At some point, however, the butcher’s bill comes in, the buck stops, and you can’t bury the damage that a leftist revolution *can* cause (not necessarily cause, as evidenced by the wonderful Civil Rights Movement).

      There needs to be a separation of sympathy from a point that needs to be made: this is how revolutions can work when the motives are impure.

      There is, in fact, a racist element in Infinite: on the Fitzroy side of the tear, the entire underclass follows Fitzroy without question, whereas peaceniks (moderates) are present near the beginning of the game on Comstock’s side. That’s a little reductionist, but it’s a small oversight and much less offensive than what’s being thrown around here. Fink’s child was also unearned, if rooted in period, place, and reference, because it wasn’t set up properly.

      It’s time to place matters into context. We’re having trouble separating the codified language of tropes from stories properly exercising historical allusions. Fitzroy was no “Magic Negro,” “Sambo,” or “Noble Savage.” She was hurt, bitter, betrayed, and someone whom I saw as a *person,* not a black woman.

      No, I shall not join you at the bucket.

      1. Correction: When I referred to Amir Bakhtiari, I was really referring to Amiri Baraka, the former poet laureate of New Jersey. I apologize for this mistake.

  15. I’ve not played this one. However your article did lead to some investigation into this Ken Levine guy. Looking back at the first BioShock, there appeared to be some, however minor, criticism that the game would be pro-Randian. However for the most part it was heralded for the moral choices included in the game, and it was concluded that the game was most definitely not pro-Randian (Hurrah! I have not played this game either, so am going secondary sources). However the inclusion of moral choice in a game gives rise to interesting questions regarding hermeneutics (and as we know, questions of hermeneutics become important when meaning is important and difficult to grasp). However traditional hermeneutic theories have only ever taken into account print technology concerning history, constitutions and literature (actually there may be others, but I am thinking here the two veins of hermeneutics: Gadamerian and Hirschian). However if a game includes within it the moral choice of the reader/player which then alters the narrative, then surely the traditional methods of interpretation become invalid (well not invalid, maybe they just fall short). For instance, maybe the consequences of each the alternating paths (as the parts) need to be analysed in respect to the whole? Slightly off that topic, it may also be that Levine was unconsciously reproducing the type of normative violence you brilliantly picked up on.

    Anyway, love your work Anjin!

  16. I really enjoyed Bioshock Infinite, but I agree that the bits in the middle where the Vox Populi went crazy were discomforting. As I played I was uneasy with the way the Vox Populi that were, until then, a sympathetic group, became everything the Columbians said they were. I reasoned with myself at the time that this unfortunate depiction wasn’t really racist because half of the Vox were white Irish people, and refusing to think on it any further I decided that was that. Reading this article made me revisit that discomfort and acknowledge that the development of the Vox Populi was a grotesque narrative choice, especially in light of the portrayals of Vox cruelty (like the two Vox torturing their former employer in the hidden basement, and everything Daisy said as she grew progressively crazier).

    I liked the game, and I still do. I think it deserves a lot of the praise it got. But I agree that in that praise more should have been made of the unfortunate narrative choices, and that it lacks as much in progressiveness as it has.

    1. I think we need to remember that characters are primarily meant to represent themselves rather than be avatars of various worldviews, otherwise the whole narrative collapses into allegory. Booker is not supposed to be an agent of white salvation or any larger cause; he is a man who gets call up in a larger fight while in the midst of his own personal quest. Daisy is not a representative of the black civil rights movement, even though she is a leader of something akin to it: she is a woman who lets her suffering and the suffering of her race to engender a new kind of hatred. A good story has real people act in real ways, including making the (often horrible) mistakes that real people make. Daisy had a choice to either be gracious and conciliatory or to be caught up in the violent fervour of the Struggle. She chose the latter, but that doesn’t mean she couldn’t have chosen the former at some point.

      Can revolutionary (anti-racist) movements go bad? They can and they have, and we have plenty of examples in real history, most notably in parts of post-colonial Africa. If the developers had made Daisy a saint and the Vox to be impeccable and virtuous the story would be, well, totally conventional and not raise many interesting questions. Instead, they decided to explore the reality of hatred, that it is not something that is created by systems but spawns from the darkest part of the human heart, even if (/especially/ if) the hatred is for the ‘right’ reasons.

  17. OK, so I guess I should point out, first of all, that I am a first-generation immigrant person-of-colour, since apparently that’s relevant.

    I think this is overblown. Isn’t the point of science fiction (which, arguably, this game is) to consider situations which are abstracted from our daily experience and, in fact, might not even resemble anything we’re familiar with? Why does everything have to be cross-examined under the glaring light of social relevance?

    Maybe your issue is that you don’t really believe games, or media in general, should be about escape because real escape is either impossible or undesirable. Maybe that’s true, but right now all I’m getting from this article is that Bioshock: Infinite pissed you off because it didn’t fit into your political agenda, and that’s disappointing for a writer and thinker of your calibre.

      1. Apparently that is something the modern political left never reflects upon itself.
        There is no “education” without opinion either and yet they pretend that school is a place with no biases at all.

        Its only an opinion when it goes against their narrative but fact when it accepts it.

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