June 3rd, 2013

Not long ago (in fact, within the hour) I received an invitation to a teaching seminar. I won’t be teaching anything, not in the traditional way, for at least a year, but the invitation is there along with the workshops my department recommends and mandates I attend.

My department.

I belong to it. I am part of it. After two years floundering in a sea of purposelessness, I somehow found my way into a thing that wanted to keep me. I’ve spent less than a day with these people, in these buildings, and yet already the possessive pronoun emerges.

I continue to struggle with the notion that I am shortly going to be walking past young people who respect me for my status and take for granted that I did something Important to earn it. I imagine myself standing in front of a lecture hall with an uncomfortable tie and chuckle at the thought of “if you could only see me as I was on June 3rd, 2013, wearing yesterday’s dirty white t-shirt, hair sticking out like one electrocuted, drinking ice cold coffee and hitting send on an email to my adviser admitting that I had no concept of what being a graduate student was really going to look like.”

The truth is that even from the dark and drafty confines of my parents’ basement I have found ways to inspire people younger and older through my words and my voice and my explanations. It confounds me that that’s possible, but they have assured me of it, and the best I can do is stumble forward in the hopes that I keep doing that, and learn how to do it more frequently and efficiently. Perhaps that’s what feels so good about the path I’m on: not that I’ve found a place that makes me feel important, but that I’ve been given an opportunity through that place to make a lot of other people feel important; not that I get to learn, but that I get to play a part in the learning of others.

I sometimes get sheepish when I explain to people that I’m going to be studying video games. I don’t know why that is. In my gut I hate the sheepishness but it remains nonetheless. I’m not apologetic, per se, but at the same time I feel like I’m expected to be. Yet video games are a synthesis of play and narrative, and it’s hard to say which is more ancient in the history of humanity. It seems that we have forever been telling stories and using play to help us do so. It’s in our blood. Something has driven us, as a culture, to this new way of doing something very old. The chance to pursue answers to that question — why games? — thrills me.

Sometime this week I will be registering for my first barrage of graduate level coursework. It sounds like I’ll be undertaking an independent study as well…hitting the ground running, as it were. And then next week, I will do as I do every summer: watch E3 with bated breath. Except this time my anticipation will not simply be that of one who plays games, but of one whose life is to be irrevocably tied to them, for better or worse.

Here’s hoping for the best.

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: 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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