It is both impossible and deceptive to attempt a discussion of Bioshock Infinite without raising the matter of racism and xenophobia. The game goes beyond mere representational homage and into explicit commentary: shoving your face in this seedy side of America’s past and making you grapple personally with how pervasive the mindset was and still can be in a society which accepts, overtly or implicitly, the notion that some human beings are naturally superior to others. It comes at a time when America finds itself once more in the midst of an identity crisis, wrestling with whether some of its citizens are treated as second-rate, inferior, or despicable simply because of the way they were born. The honest player looks in this mirror and sees filth: not because the glass is dirty, but because it clearly reflects dirt.
I find it’s not so much the flagrant “preserve racial purity” banners which got to me as I explored Columbia, but rather the minor encounters with NPC’s, be it the girls at the beach talking about the scandalous moment when “an oriental” had the audacity to ask for the time to a mother scolding her son for kissing an Irish girl (spawn of one of those potato eaters) to the black man who apologizes for his cigarette as if enjoying a luxury on his own time and dime were a sin for which one needs pardon. Stand near the bathrooms for long enough and Elizabeth asks why separate facilities are needed for whites and colored people. Booker says that’s just how it is, and Elizabeth naively notes that it seems unnecessarily complicated. Oh, Liz, if only “complicated” could cover it.
This isn’t a game about white guilt. By the time the credits roll, Infinite makes it quite clear that power abuse and treatment of people based on differences is a hardly a one-way street. But to the extent that the majority of people who will be picking up a game with two attractive white people with guns on the cover are probably going to be white people who have enjoyed massive, unearned, invisible privilege their whole lives, Infinite definitely hones in on that angle of its message.
Making a point about America’s sordid past (and, I’d argue, insidious present) is, sadly, not even reliant on hyperbole. While the stylized nature of the Hall of Heroes is starkly offensive, it affords a very real look at how history is written by victors. Blacks, Irish, Asians, Natives, and anyone who treats them as normal, equal human beings, all are portrayed in Infinite according to a model which seems frighteningly accurate for the time, and I find it grimly shocking how some people consider the game itself to be racist for having the guts to just show that racism and xenophobia.
A racist game would have you throwing stones at an interracial couple, nodding in agreement with gossiping white girls on the beach, indignant at the sight of a mulatto on break, scoffing with the socialites at the idea of fair pay and equal treatment. Infinite has you furious, but in a different way: ready to go on a killing spree in the town square not against the Vox Populi with their modified rocket launchers but against the bonnet and briefcase-bearing bourgeoisie whose tongues and tarnished minds are weapons far more dangerous.
I’ve been told that last year’s Django Unchained is required viewing for anyone who wants to have a modern conversation on the state of racism in culture and media. I’ll add Bioshock Infinite to that required list. The fact that a game like this can be made — and made so well — is a sign of the times for sure. Years ago, Ken Levine brushed off the naysayers who called what he makes unworthy of the title “art,” and proceeded to design a masterpiece. It’s one of gameplay, of narrative, and of mental provocation, but perhaps most importantly it’s a masterpiece of social commentary, too.