Columbia: Racism Theme Park
“Theme Park: An amusement park in which all the settings and attractions have a central theme.”
In this metaphor, the rides and attractions are represented by Bioshock Infinite’s gameplay. I take no issue with that, with the possible caveat that I was occasionally bored by the repetition. However, the central theme of Columbia, the game’s setting, especially with respect to the first third of the story, is that of a racist, dominionist, Neo-Confederate utopia.
Bathed in enduring Lost Cause propaganda, Columbia presents a faithful if fantastical representation of the world the defeated Confederacy would have preferred to create from the rubble of the Reconstruction South. The Lost Cause was a movement by Southern whites to redefine the context of the Civil War and the circumstances that led to it. In this, they were largely successful. The movement spawned many myths and lies that are still repeated today. If when playing through Bioshock Infinite you hear arguments about the Civil War or the American South that sound familiar, they are likely to have their roots in the Lost Cause movement.
Going further, Bioshock Infinite includes references to – and indeed builds Columbia’s social structure upon – the real history of the post-Reconstruction South, in which a nation exhausted by war and impatient to end sectional strife, surrendered responsibility for the nascent free black communities of the South to local jurisdiction. With predictable results, well-covered in the accurately titled Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas A. Blackmon.
The problem with Columbia’s broad faithfulness to real institutions – both social and literary – is that it is shallow and, in the context of the game, ultimately meaningless if not actively undermined by the narrative. As a history student (and geek) the scattering of references was at first pleasing. After all, the easiest way to get on a geek’s good side is to throw references at them that they understand. However, for my part, any initial positives generated by recognizable references was quickly overwhelmed by a growing suspicion that their inclusion was empty window dressing. In fact, when I had only completed the first third of the game, I was planning for this essay to be predominantly critical of Bioshock Infinite’s lack of a substantive message. Racism, and America’s history of it, is as valid a topic as any – but because of its seriousness, it demands to be handled with appropriately critical thought, not used as a coat of paint. As a result, while I have no doubt that its creators intended otherwise, the presentation comes off to me as irresponsibly careless.
Furthermore, if that facade was meant to shine a light on real history – as the handful of professional game reviewers I read lauded the game for doing - then it presents two issues, one obvious, another speculative. The obvious issue is that by putting historically-inspired criticism in a fantasyland, it encourages the audience to not take it as seriously as it deserves to be taken. Some gamers have been so encouraged, and have fanned out across social media, where they are now critical of people of color who voice issues with the racism presented in the game. The more speculative consequence of this form of presentation is a broad desensitization many have with regards to criticism of the United States and its history. That is not to say that the US is not deserving of criticism, only that it is so frequent – and occasionally satirical, or so thoughtless as to come off as satirical – that more criticism is easy to reflexively dismiss.
One exception to the broad faithfulness to history I’ve described above are the numerous references to an event from Booker DeWitt’s (and other characters) past: Wounded Knee. In the game, it is described only in the vaguest terms, as something most involved held deep regrets over participating in. But it danced around the truth of what happened there so much that I was compelled to yell, “It was a massacre!" into my microphone to those listening in on the stream.
So what are we left with in Columbia? A universe that is now lauded in the gaming press for allegedly being brave enough to show the harsh truth about how things were, but in reality presents a far tamer version of America’s racial history than its audience is likely aware of, and sets it in a fantasyland. I’m not sure what result is worse, that gamers will take Columbia seriously, or that they won’t.
(12/17/13 edit: This is the first of three essays on Bioshock Infinite. Links to subsequent parts are found below.
10/18/14 edit: Removed “problematic” from the title, its needlessly redundant jargon)
What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848, by Daniel Walker Howe.
The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery by Eric Foner.
Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas A. Blackmon
Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 by David Kennedy.
Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James McPherson.
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