Friday, April 19, 2013

Some Preliminary Thoughts on Bioshock Infinite's Racism

This is going to get a little bit tumblr, sorry. I'm still playing the game but I have opinions that I want to get out so here I go. Probably some minor spoilers for the first bit of the game will be present.

The first act of Bioshock Infinite is a splendid setup. I love the ascension from the surface of the ocean (where Bioshock 2 last left me drifting) into the skies of Columbia. I love those opening minutes walking through Columbia on a festive day. The environmental storytelling is a bit heavy-handed (please just stand there as these floats drive past with our history plastered on the side) but it paints such a magnificent and layered city. A beautiful city with an obviously dark heart. This is a racist society, and, for a while, I was excited to have a videogame that wasn't afraid to depict a modern, American society as a racist society. These weren't futuristic humans or aliens from another planet or Arabs or Nazis. These are Americans—Westerners like us—who are racist, who base their entire ideology on a racist other and manifest destiny. Here was a game, it seemed, that was going to confront the racism entrenched in our own societies.

We see the racist underpinnings of Columbia everywhere. We see posters of George Washington radiating a heavenly light that casts away Monkey-faced Africans and bright-yellow Asians and Irish drunkards. We see the fearful black man serving cool refreshments to the kids in the penny arcade, self-effacing in the way that only an utterly broken man could be. In the Hall of Heroes we walk through the propagandist displays of the Boxer Rebellion and the Wounded Knee Massacre. The message is clear: this racist society is afraid of the savage Other. The savage Other needs to be controlled, contained, managed. Or else they decapitate our womenfolk! The racist society of Columbia justify their own cruelty to other races by telling themselves that if they did not treat the Other like this, their entire way of life—not to mention their actual lives—would be at risk.

For a while, this is great! We can see that the society is, clearly, built on some terrible and horrific fallacies that are used to justify slavery and cruelty. We know, and the game seems to know too, that these people are wrong, that the Asians and the Africans and the Irish aren't one bloodthirsty mob that want to kill everyone. The game isn't racist; it is depicting a racist society.

But then some stuff happens. You end up in another world or the same world changed or something (I imagine the game will explain the tears better later but at this point it actually doesn't matter. Videogames take us to different worlds all the time; it doesn't stop them being racist.) and now the Vox Populi—the underground movement of the oppressed minorities—are fighting back. They are burning down the factories that they were previously slaves for. Great! You go, oppressed people!

But then you get back to the streets of Columbia. There is a barge that is taking fleeing citizens away before the Vox Populi forces attack. Not everyone can fit on it and tragic music plays as it flies away. Suddenly, the game wants me to feel sorry for these racists as though suddenly they are the poor, innocent victims.

And soon we see why. The Vox Populi are killing everyone. They are scalping people are nailing their scalps to a wall. Fitzroy, the black woman in charge of the Vox Populi, slits a man's throat and rubs the blood all over her face.

Bioshock Infinite showed me a society not that unlike my own where the everyman was terrified of a horde of savage Others being given equal power and then killing everyone in an inhuman bloodlust.

Bioshock Infinite then showed me a horde of savage Others given equal power, killing everyone in an inhuman bloodlust.

Bioshock Infinite went from knowingly winking at me, telling me that it knew this society was racist, to telling me that this society was right. This society was justified to treat non-whites how it treated them, because look at how they behave when they are set loose. They are animals, smearing blood on themselves and pinning our scalps to a wall.

This isn't simply a violent uprising. There is nothing wrong with depicting a violent uprising!

But neither is this simply 'power corrupts'. When the Vox Populi revolt, Bioshock Infinite says, intentionally or not, that Columbia—that America—is right to fear and oppress the non-white person because these people are naught but savage beasts. Bioshock Infinite says that Columbia's racism, built upon a fear of the Other, is justified.

And that is pretty racist.

Pre-emptive disclaimers in case this post is spread further than I anticipate!

Yes, I'm white.

People have probably said this way better than me but I haven't read anything on the game yet. Well, I've read Dan Golding's great critique that pretty aptly talks about a veneer of racism, but that's about it.

If you want to tell me how the later parts of the game justify depicting a collective of non-white people as a savage horde far more violent than their oppressors, go ahead, but I probably disagree.

If you want to tell me why you think the game is, in fact, not racist, bear in mind that the best counter to someone saying "X is racist/sexist/whatever-ist" isn't "Allow me to tell you why you are wrong," but "Allow me to try to understand why you see it that way." But whatever.


Gregalor said...

Without getting too far into spoilerville...

There are surely many versions of Columbia and these events in which a Vox rebellion occurred gently.

Of course, it's a valid concern to say, "But the game choose to show me THIS reality." Yes, but it's showing you a horrible reality that most likely only came about because of Booker DeWitt. I don't believe that the game is condoning the reality that you leap into. You enter a world in which your character (a real asshole, which you'll learn, although it's already somewhat evident) leads a rebellion in the only way that the half-Sioux traitor of Wounded Knee knows how.

At its most naive, it was a way to introduce more enemies into the game.

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Scott said...

I saw it more as the racist society of Columbia created the savage response as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Columbia treated people as savages, and when the Vox rise up they act according to that treatment.

You're now moving on to the part of the game where it will forget all about racism for the last 1/3, but acting according to expectations/treatment/self-fulfilling prophecy continues to be a theme, so that's where my reading of the events comes from.

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Anonymous said...

@ Gregalor

Unless the game said that there were "many versions of a gentle Vox rebellion", then that's just (non-canon) speculation. Not to mention is a distraction from the greater point being made by the author.

Anonymous said...

The Vox were still a group of the oppressed. They never became a group of Other given equality, they remained a group of oppressed Others, just with guns now. If you look at the whole picture, you realise: the people of Columbia weren't right in their belief that non-whites are savage Others waiting to kill them, they merely, through years of oppression, created the very threat they so feared. listen to Daisy Fitzeroy's voxophone of her first memories of coming to Colombia again, you'll hear it plain as day how she wasn't a mindless, violent savage needing firm stewardship, so much as she was beaten and abused all under the faulty justification that she was a savage until savagery was all that remained.

Anonymous said...

These are Americans—Westerners like us—who are racist, who base their entire ideology on a racist other and manifest destiny. Here was a game, it seemed, that was going to confront the racism entrenched in our own societies.

No, they are a breakaway state who left for the sole purpose of being racist, and depict a cartoonishly exaggerated form of racism that is entirely inapplicable to the real world. Infinite is about racism as something that happened in the past, recognizable, clearly evil to anyone with half a brain. It's about reassuring the player that their recognition of this as unacceptable means they are one of the good ones. If you define "racist" as "currently lynching a black person" then even most members of the KKK aren't racists.

Infinite fails to confront racism at every turn, it reads more as a denial of the creator's need to examine his own beliefs for it. For example, the Hall of Heroes sequence talks about Wounded Knee entirely in terms of how difficult it was for two white dudes having to massacre all those Indians. This is rather like trying to discuss the Holocaust in terms of two Nazis complaining about how hard it was keeping that gas chamber running; it shows a total lack of self-awareness. The fact that it ends with the cop-out non-point that one shouldn't be Hitler or Stalin is just the end of a roadshow of nothing.

Anonymous said...

First of all, this is somewhat of a spoiler alert, I'll try to keep the details down on a great story of a game.

Most of the game is somewhat of a reflection, albeit exaggerated, of how America was in 1912. Yes, discrimination happened then. But I feel the game is balanced in showing you that there were two extremes, neither of which was really desirable given their revealed nature. It was like choosing between Ayatollah and the Soviet Communist regime to live under.
The real, primary, message of Bioshock which sets itself aside from other games is the fact that the plot hinges on the traditional religious moral concept of self-sacrifice.
Even moreso, In BI, a lot of focus is on what the character that you play as knows. The man despises himself for the Wounded Knee massacre, he feels (spoiler alert) disturbed by it to the point that when he goes through a museum exhibit, it irritates and sickens him.

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