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Bioshock Infinite’s use of racism as window dressing, and why this is a misleading argument

Bioshock Infinite’s use of racism as window dressing, and why this is a misleading argument

There's a good amount of criticism that I agree with in this story, and I think that the better the game industry becomes as telling stories and crafting characters, the worse the pile of bodies in each game is going to look. It's hard to feel empathy for a character after they kill a few hundred people, and there's almost a willful separation of narrative and game play. Ideally they should hold each other, but we're not quite there yet in terms of game design.

The good news is that games are getting good enough that this tension is felt at all.

I disagree that the player is asked to be either a Klan member or Lincoln in that first decision whether to throw the ball or not. The issue in this scene isn't racism, not really. The issue is how hard it is to do the right thing when so many people are watching and expecting you to do the wrong thing. The player knows that they'll be found out if they don't attack the couple, and while there is still nothing really at stake here, we can get a sense for easy it can be to go along with the status quo when your own skin is on the line.

Most of us are comfortable saying that racism is bad, but it's harder to stand up and scream that message when you're surrounded by men with billy clubs, and they're being used on anyone with the audacity to sit down at a white's only lunch counter. How brave would you be then? Society has swung back the other way against racism, at least in most parts of the country, and we can sit in our basement and cluck our tongues and feel terrible about some of the scenes of Bioshock Infinite, but it also allows us to see the repercussions of speaking out when the crowd is not on your side. Booker is behind enemy lines in the game, and that makes it much harder to "be Lincoln," as the article suggests.

It's the same thing with the museum displays that dehumanize those of other races. This isn't an empty design decision, meant to demonize the "bad guys" of the game, it's a sad reminder that history is written by the winners. Many of our museum displays and placards are written in ways that are more respectful of racial language, but still feature biases while white-washing over some aspects of history. We don't go to museums to learn about how the past really was, in many cases we go to museums to feel like the good guys. Bioshock Infinite throws that back in our faces, and I think it's a bold move.

The game isn't successful on all fronts, as I agree that there is far too much content, but I think the author of this story didn't dig deep enough to really see what was going on with the scenes of racial hatred and the satirical take on how we view our own past. Bioshock Infinite is not the best game ever made, but thought did go into how to deal with tricky subjects, and that makes it much better than most.