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Bioshock Infinite's Uncomfortable Relationship with Racism


Marcus Estrada

Note: This editorial discusses aspects of Bioshock Infinite that include spoilers.

 

Bioshock Infinite is a game about a man, city, and a lighthouse. As the game says, there always is. It is also about racism and revolution. Racism is a very heavy theme in the game and one which appears integral to the overall narrative. Columbia stands as a beautiful dystopia which weds success with slavery.

 

As modern viewers, we recognize this from the moment a character refers to a woman as the “prettiest white girl” and see what comes a second later. Can a game with its eye squarely on racism actually become racist itself though? I think so, and that is the most striking problem with the title considering it is otherwise a sound technical and visual achievement.

 

In Infinite, Columbia seems like it should be a marvelous place. It“s Heaven, or the closest thing to it according to a worshiper at the start. This city in the clouds is clean (disregarding food and coins everywhere), bright, and a shining beacon of odd scientific and religious harmony. Washington and other important men of America are practically deified, as is the religious figure of Father Comstock. Everyone appears happy, except of course for the slaves stuck serving the White populous.

 

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Derogatory phrases are slung freely at any and all non-White races. Stereotypical visual depictions which have probably never been seen by some are plastered on propaganda posters as well as within the Hall of Heroes. Irrational Games does not appear to have held back their vision at all, despite the uncomfortable depictions of racism. This is actually a very brave thing for a game to try and take on, and that is an amicable thing for a studio to attempt. As the story progresses, you first feel that the African and other races deserve to rise up, but then, they become just as evil as Comstock. Alternate realities or not, this is a point where the game disturbingly takes on its own racist storytelling motives.

 

The Vox Populi are a group so named because the Latin translates to “voice of the people”. These are the poor and working class people of Columbia who intend to rise up. The group is comprised primarily of minority individuals and is led by Daisy Fitzroy, who is strongly opposed the inequality she sees. She appears extremely intelligent and passionate, although you don“t get to see much of her before venturing through the first tear.

 

Afterwards, she is still an incredibly strong individual but is now leading the Vox to do far more than protest. They have brought terror and death to Colombia“s citizens and continue to storm their way toward victory. Yes, rebellions and uprisings have a history of being violent. When tensions and stakes are so high, it seems to be the inevitable outcome many times. However, the game seems to push very heavily on the idea that both sides are equally detestable. Booker muses that Comstock and Fitzroy are the same, just spelled differently.

 

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But why is this the immediate assumption? Comstock was perpetuating inequality on a vast scale, as well as racist ideologies. Even with the Vox killing many innocent people in their aims, it is hard to come up with reasons that they are not warranted in their anger. It seems that the way Irrational “solved” equalizing the two groups was by having the Vox become a highly stereotypical and obviously evil group.

 

They are seen at times with red paint smeared across their face. The mark of a revolution, sure, but it also starts the racist correlation that African people are wild, or tribe-like. If that“s too much a stretch, then simply look at what Fitzroy does later. She has the opponents of her heads skinned as a sign of success. If that doesn“t say “tribal” then I hardly know what does.

 

Similarly, Fitzroy is later seen holding young White child with a gun in her hand. What purpose does this serve, honestly? Because it was too hard to equate Comstock“s evils to the oppressed people having a valid need to rise up, they were treated with cartoonishly evil and hurtful depictions. None of this even touches on the outfits of the Vox Populi, which in combat can include red masks with devil horns.

 

There appears to have been some desperate need within development to make the two groups equivalent, but there is no need for that to be the case. Elizabeth thinks on the Vox and states their uprising would be “just like Les Mis”. That tale of the French June Rebellion paints the poor as desperate but also as people we should feel compassion for. Although initially players have compassion for the mistreated populous in Columbia, they are told by the game they should not anymore. After all, they have had their uprising and gone completely off the deep end into moustache twirling villain territory. I don“t feel there was any need for the story to have gone in that direction. Why were they unable to simply show the rebellion as going too far without the ridiculous characterizations?

 

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Beyond this forced equivalence of the Comstock and Fitzroy groups, we are shown Booker as the martyr for the Vox Populi rebellion. There is a trend in media to portray Black and other minority groups as unable to advocate or create change for themselves. Instead, many times historical or fictional events have portrayed white people as saviors to these groups.

 

Yes, there are times that so called “majority voices” are important in enacting change, but showing it in this manner only serves to perpetuate racist ideals. Fitzroy appears as a wholly competent woman and yet uses a white man as the hallmark of the revolution she put her life into. Booker may or may not be deserving of this attribution but it is not the way to present racial uprisings to an audience who probably has paid little attention to them.

 

Bioshock Infinite is a game with two layers of racism. The first is explicit and purposefully honed for the narrative. The other half, however, is submerged. Those who have any knowledge of racism in America will still be able to see it clearly, though. This is shocking as you would think any company taking on the task of a narrative infused with racism would be acutely aware of many facets of racism. Instead, they bring it into the game itself unintentionally to frame important game events.

 

We as players are meant to recognize that Comstock having a city full of slaves is bad, but why then is a group filled with minorities allowed to be portrayed unflinchingly as ridiculous, cruel, and monstrous enemies? These are questions only Irrational Games can answer, and it“s unlikely they ever will.

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