I started playing Bioshock Infinite this weekend. I made my wife watch the opening sequence in an effort to get her to understand why I love games so much. It is a gorgeous and gorgeously realized game. The graphics are amazing, not because they are so photorealistic, but because they capture the look and feel of early 20th century art and architecture. I like it better than the original Bioshock because it is a little less claustrophobic, scary, and confusing. Not to knock Bioshock, but it creeped me out to no end, and I ended up getting sort of lost about halfway through. And then my save game got deleted and I haven’t restarted it.
Anyways, where Bioshock examined an underwater failed utopia built around Ayn Rand’s ideology, Infinite looks at a city in the sky based on ideas of religious and ethnic purity. There is a lot of racist imagery in the game as blacks and the Irish are treated like subhumans. sometimes this is a little too on the nose (signs advising black staff to respect their betters), but most of it is pretty much in keeping with a lot of the prevailing ideas of the time. Like many a bright-eyed young history major, I studied the Holocaust as a grad student, and I was shocked to learn that many of Hitler’s racist ideas came from the U.S. Phrenology and eugenics were popular ideas in the states around the turn of the century and well into the twenties. Plus, the racial politics of 1912 Columbia are still reflected in some of the right wing rhetoric of 2013 – lazy brown people and immigrants who are taking our jobs and expecting handouts.
Some people have complained about the amount of violence in the game, the fact that the beautiful art direction and sophisticated story is but a mere backdrop to lots of head-bashing and killing. it’s true that Infinite is very violent, but then it is a first person shooter. I do think there is room to examine issues of racism and America’s uncomfortable history with it in a non-violent game, but Ken Levine’s thing has always been to make action games that also make you think. It’s the equivalent of an action movie that has deeper subtext going on. Yeah, you still have the explosions and car chases, but you also get to think a little while enjoying the visceral elements. Or in Infinite’s case, the viscera moments, cuz man is it gory. If Levine had a made a cerebral game examining racial politics, it may have been less jarring in its combination of gameplay and philosophy, but it also would have been played by a fraction of the people. As it is, he has a triple a title that is going to make people think about racism and its role in U.S. history. People who don’t spend a lot of time thinking about that kind of stuff. It’s hard to hate on that. The point isn’t that it is just a game, the point is that it IS a game, and by being a game that uses a very common and popular gameplay mechanic (ie shooting hoards of bad guys in the face), it is allowed to be a larger, more relevant cultural artifact than if it were made solely for those interested in a more intellectual or artistic endeavor.