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.
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!
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:
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.