A few months ago, whilst writing two posts about the potential video games have for the study of history, I came to the sudden realisation that I hadn’t played a proper, narrative-driven video game for a while. First world problems, eh?. Anyway, for the past month or so I’ve been trying to catch up with some video games which, for various reasons, I’d meant to play but never got round to. After starting my epic quest by playing The Last of Us, a game which proves that anyone still arguing that video games can’t be emotionally engaging is so out of touch they could be the replacement for Dippy the Dinosaur in the Natural History Museum; I moved onto Bioshock, Infinite, a game which I feel demonstrates how historians can use video games to explore big ideas and topics, as even if Infinite itself falls a bit short in this regard, it still offers some useful pointers.
First, a brief plot summary for anyone who hasn’t played the game, and yes, there will be spoilers. You play as Booker DeWitt, a former Pinkerton agent who is tasked with finding and retrieving a girl called Elizabeth from a tyrannical religious zealot named Father Comstock, the ruler of the floating city of Columbia, who is later revealed to be (SPOILER, SPOLIER, SPOILER) DeWitt from a different time line.
Already, you might have guessed my main problem with Infinite: it feels like two games awkwardly merged into one. Whilst the first portion of the game is relatively realistic and (pardon the pun) grounded for a game set in a floating city, halfway through there’s a massive tonal shift, and all of a sudden you’re ripping open time portals and fighting flying ghost women. This being a history blog and all, I’m going to be talking mainly about the first part of the game, because whilst Infinite does go a bit Slaughterhouse-Five towards the end, the game explores several themes and issues which make it worth playing for any historian.
Firstly, Infinite is an interesting exploration of the concept of American exceptionalism, i.e. the idea that America is qualitatively different, and better, than other nations. The point is hinted at by the fact that Booker was involved in the Wounded Knee Massacre, the concept and backstory of Columbia elaborate upon this theme. First established in 1893 as part of the Chicago World’s Fair, the U.S. government later decided to send the city round the world to showcase America’s superiority. However, during the Boxer Rebellion in 1901 the city bombed Beijing as retaliation for the Chinese Army taking American citizens hostage, and in 1902 the city seceded from the Union and floated away.
I don’t feel I need to go into much detail about how a flying city is symbolic of exceptionalism, beyond reiterating the fact that it’s a city floating 20,000 feet above every other nation. This message is further reinforced by the dictator of Columbia Father Comstock, who routinely refers to the fact that the citizens of Columbia are the only ones upholding “true American values”, and describes the America they left behind solely in terms of its corruption and moral decay.
Indeed towards the end of the game, in one timeline Columbia has waged war on the United States itself, an act which cements Columbia’s legacy as the defining symbol of American exceptionalism. American exceptionalism and superiority are themes which run throughout the city of Columbia, and whilst sometimes the game can be a little overzealous in the way it presents these ideas, overall they’re pretty well done.
Another running theme in Infinite is discrimination. For one thing, Columbia is clearly a racist society. Black people are little more than slaves, and any non-white person who has achieved any position of social eminence are treated with suspicion; and there are moments were the racial tension is made startlingly apparent, such as the scene at the fair where you’re asked to throw a baseball at an interracial couple.
However, whilst Infinite touches on the issue of racism, it never really explores it any depth. In my opinion, this is because the issue racial discrimination is subsumed within an exploration of the wider concept of social discrimination. Whilst black people are discriminated against in Columbia, they are just one of many groups who form an underclass which is routinely discriminated against, and exploited as a source of labour, and I found that Infinite explored the concept of social discrimination incredibly well.
As I said in the introduction, Booker DeWitt was formerly employed by the Pinkerton Detective Agency, an organisation which specialised in strikebreaking and infiltrating unions so as to undermine the labour movement; and as the plot unfolds you begin to see how deep the social divisions in Columbia really are. I was initially going to say that the section which really highlighted this issue for me was the Shantytown district. To describe the area as ‘bleak’ would be an understatement: it is a living hell, pure and simple, full of starving families and broken workers.
However, whilst it is a vivid and engaging depiction of what it must be like to live in grim underclass environment, it’s so desperate to drive home the message that it comes off looking a bit forced. For example, to get to Shantytown you literally go down in an elevator, and whilst I get why they included the area and was glad they did, it still felt like the writers were nudging you in the back going “eh, eh, do you get it?!” Rather, for me the most impressive exploration of social discrimination in Infinite is the background exposition delivered whilst you’re walking around the Finkton workhouse and the surrounding district.
When you first arrive in Finkton, you are greeted by projector reels talking about how some men are like lions, in that they were born to breed, and others were born like cows, in that they were born to work. Whilst walking through the district you are bombarded by lectures from the factory owner, Jeremiah Fink, one of which argues that a sixteen hour working day is necessary so that the lower classes don’t booze and whore their way to an early grave; and another explaining that the reason the factory pays their workers in tokens which can only be redeemed at the company store is to ensure the workers get a fair deal, rather than a means of further oppressing their workers. Similarly, a large portion of this part of the game is set in the ‘Good Time Club’, which is in reality a prison-cum-torture house for labour activists and political dissidents, all of which serves to expose just how deep various prejudices run through the city, and the casual way in which discrimination, exploitation and violence are accepted by the populace.
Which leads me to my final point. What I found most impressive about the game was its exploration of the latent violence in autocratic societies at both the top and the bottom strata.
Pretty soon after arriving in the city, you’re attacked by the police and military, who believe you are a false prophet come to destroy the equilibrium, and in this context the violence makes complete sense. Autocratic societies aren’t usually that laissez faire when it comes to dealing with dissidents, so the idea that Columbia’s government would use everything at their disposal to stop you isn’t beyond the Pale.
However, when (after a series of events I have neither the time nor the energy to explain) you do inspire the aforementioned revolution, you not only get to see the devastation and violence you have caused, but the rebels you inspired then start hunting you down. Admittedly, the reason they do so is less to do with the truism that all revolutions eventually turn on their leaders and more to do with the whole “alternate reality” thing, but it’s still an interesting point. Amongst any oppressed people or groups, there is a capacity for relentless, indiscriminate, and some would argue mindless, violence; and whilst the level of violence in Infinite has been decried by people who argue it undermines the game’s central narrative, to me it perfectly reinforces it.
So there you go, that’s Bioshock Infinite. Apologies for the fact that this post is so long, but Infinte raises a lot of interesting points. As I said in my introduction, Infinite is far from perfect but, as an idea of how historians can use video games to present historical topics, themes and issues to a general audience, I think Infinite has a lot to teach us.