Bioshock, Baptism, and Blasphemy

In a small-town diner not far from here my father and I bowed our heads and prayed for the breakfast a waitress had just set before us. It’s an everyday occurrence — not the diner, but the prayer. Though sometimes it settles into the dangerous realm of rote, the intention is at least an honest one: pausing to recognize that I’d have nothing, not even the food and drink necessary to keep me alive, were it not for God’s grace. I am an unabashed Christian. I’ve been going to church my entire life, first because it’s what I was taught, and later because it’s what I chose. I have been baptized. I have prayed to have my sins washed away.

And as I prayed this morning, I was wearing a t-shirt featuring Songbird, a creature who figures prominently into the video game Bioshock Infinite. I was also wearing that shirt when, twenty minutes earlier, I read an article about another Christian. I presume he does not own a Songbird shirt. Perhaps he did, and has since burned it. Or perhaps he returned it to the store where he bought it, just as he returned the nigh-unplayed game itself. Returned the game, as it were, because he considered it religiously offensive. Blasphemous, even.

I always try to be cautious when discussing someone else’s faith or morality. It’s a dangerous thing to question someone who acts of religious conviction — to doubt whether he should or should not do something which he feels strongly, spiritually led, to do or avoid doing. But many atrocities have been committed in the name of God; many hands have been stayed when they ought to have been lifted, and for the same reason. Put simply: while it is never my place to judge another believer’s heart, having a critical spirit when it comes to things done “for the faith” is, I think, prudent.

And honestly, I’m a little bit mortified by this particular player’s decision: his justification for it, and the implications thereof.

For the unacquainted, Breen Malmberg demanded (and received) a refund for his copy of Bioshock Infinite on the basis that “there is a section of the game that is so offensive to [his] religious beliefs that [he] cannot proceed with it any further…The player is forced to make a choice which amounts to extreme blasphemy in my religion (Christianity).”

I’ll begin by noting that I, and many other Christians, would outright dismiss this statement as untrue. The baptism scene in question — which occurs within the opening minutes of the game, and remains an important reference point throughout — has little to do with Christian sacrament. In fact, it is a baptism of an entirely different religion — one which renounces the Lamb and Savior we already have in favor of a new doctrine of human endeavor; one which clears God off the pedestal so as to replace him with Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.

It does not take much to recognize that this is a cult — one patterned after Christianity, for sure, but a cult nonetheless. And your “baptism” makes you no more complicit than one who undergoes a Christian baptism instantly becomes a Christian for having done so. From a narrative standpoint, it is necessary for infiltrating the cult you are trying to steal someone away from. From a religious standpoint, it is necessary for establishing the dangers of dogma.

Yet even if Booker’s undergoing a baptism from this heretical preacher did constitute blasphemy, I am nonplussed by Malmberg’s conclusion that the game is asking him to blaspheme. Perhaps had this occurred in the first Bioshock, wherein the line between player and protagonist is far less distinguishable, the experience vastly more personal, I might understand. But Infinite makes it very clear that you are playing through Booker — that he is not you, that he has done things you would not, that he will likely continue to do so. His actions are not, strictly speaking, your own.

Booker is not a Christian. He does not believe in God or sacraments. For him — like the many atheists who have played Bioshock Infinite — being forced to undergo a baptism is, at worst, an obnoxious inconvenience. I’d hope no reasonable atheist would feel that by getting baptized in this game, she had somehow been baptized for real. And as a believer, you ought to be able to personally consider his actions blasphemous without feeling culpable yourself.

Yet Malmberg’s words belie an inherent inability to dissociate himself from his character’s actions, which begs the troubling question of the many other actions he’d be committing in the game which don’t bother him. He admits to having been a big fan of the previous two Bioshock games, both of which feature gratuitous murder of hundreds, if not thousands, of other people, often in ghastly ways. One notoriously violent action is taken out of player hands — you are, just as with the baptism, forced to commit it (by following a command prompt) in order to progress. If Malmberg is so concerned about culpability in Booker’s sins, what then of Jack’s? Certainly a violation of the Ten Commandments must rank higher than an action whose sinfulness is, clearly, not even taken for granted by all believers.

It’s a point seemingly lost on Malmberg, who goes so far as to say “The difference here is that you are forced to make a decision that violates those beliefs in order to continue with the game – which is not something I have run into very often.” One would think a guy who knows the relevance of “A man chooses, a slave obeys” had encountered being forced to murder — a violation of Christian beliefs — at least once before, and would know better.

Of course, Malmberg doesn’t know it, having not played past the opening of the game, but there actually is something to be said for those who are religiously offended by the latest Bioshock.

Infinite‘s problem isn’t in what it shows, but in what it abstains from showing. Irrational has crafted a fantastic cult and a society which has taken real-world extremes to their utmost expression. If Rapture demonstrated what happens when you take God completely out of the picture without questioning it, then Columbia shows us what happens when you focus on “God” completely without questioning that focus. Or, more accurately, what happens when you focus on one person’s understanding of God without questioning it.

We live in a world with an increasing tendency to produce superstar religious leaders, who sway millions with their messages, often (tragically) towards values which are contradictory to actual gospel teaching. One needn’t visit an imaginary world to see charismatic leaders convincing a lot of well-meaning people of terrible things. Just last week I heard a rap song which specifically called out a dozen or so “false teachers” who are currently well-respected in the American church. This is a thing which does happen. Portraying it in a critical light is something I applaud Irrational for daring to attempt, especially in an industry which tends to punish cerebral exploration (though happily that is beginning to change).

The issue with Infinite is that it provides no foil. We are given the negative side of religion, the religious, racist zealots who toss around epithets like candy and say horrible things while metaphorically crossing themselves. What we aren’t given is a real Christian: a person who is a “good guy,” who isn’t a hate-filled bigot, but who still believes in God and baptism and salvation. For a game which celebrates grey areas so much, the binary nature of religious representation is disappointing at best. One could argue the game actually implies that none of the evil in the game would exist were it not for religious faith of some form.

The original Bioshock offered Tenenbaum: a brilliant scientist who realized that her faith in science and in Ryan had led to terrible things, who did not repent of science but rather of her unscrupulous pursuit thereof. Industry was the God of Rapture, and she renounced the religion without renouncing the God. It’d have been nice to see someone like that in Columbia — a person who saw the dissonance between the original Eden and this so-called new one, rejecting not Comstock’s God but Comstock’s understanding of Him.

Without a voice like that, Infinite risks tossing the baby out with the bathwater, offending believers who feel lumped in with the zealots because the game fails to provide a representation of true faith for them to relate to. I wasn’t offended when Booker chose to undergo a charade baptism and I couldn’t stop him. Nor was I offended when he told Elizabeth that he had more regard for her than for “God.”

For who is “God” to Booker Dewitt? Who is the God of Bioshock Infinite? Does He exist? What do His followers look like? Sadly, we don’t know, because Irrational never bothered to tell us. The god of Columbia is a sham, his followers delusional bigots. What god, precisely, should Booker fear? Respect? Love?

There is an argument to be made that Bioshock Infinite is religiously offensive. You just won’t find it in Breen Malberg’s refund request.

Bioshock Infinite: A Filthy Reflection

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.

Bioshock Infinite: Will the Circle Be Unbroken?

Disclaimer #1: This post is heavily spoiler-driven. Under absolutely no circumstances should you read it without having completed Bioshock Infinite. I don’t care if you don’t think you’ll ever play it — if you play video games, you should probably play Infinite at some point, so don’t read this. BUT PLEASE PASS THIS ALONG TO YOUR GAMING FRIENDS. Because I want a discussion/answers/corrections and that won’t happen if this sits here unread by anyone but my nongaming friends.

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A life in games. In music. Part Two.

I’ve played many games over the last eighteen years. Some were evanescent, forgotten even as I met them. Others, like childhood friends, are fondly remembered but vaguely; time has dissolved their features, erased the details. Ask about them and I’ll say “ah, yes,” and smile, but my brow will furrow if you press for much more than a name.

But another group remains: the indelible. The ones that have, for decades, stayed with me on my journey. The ones that changed that journey’s course. These are the games I seek to share with you, but sharing is impossible. Games are special because they’re interactive, and that means our fondness for them cannot be taught or shared. To love a game is to catch a fever and burn with it, perhaps for a season or perhaps forever, but always alone. Two discussing their love for one game may be at accord on many of its traits but never all of them; in a way, no two people ever play the same game.

Still, we try. You know the games I never played; here, then, are the ones I have. My words are mere formalities, meant to amuse but then, who knows, right? My hope is that by the time you reach the end of this you’ll understand me better, and where my words fail perhaps the music I’ve chosen will speak more clearly. So take a walk with me through my life. Remember these games if they’re part of you, and explore them if they’re not. These are the games that shaped my life; perhaps you’ll meet one here that changes yours.

This is a continuation of my musical journey, begun here.