The Imaginary Racism of Bioshock Infinite

How Bioshock Infinite misses the mark with its commentary on 19th-century racism in general -- but gets its commentary on religious racism right.

BioShock: The Collection hits shelves today, putting one of the decade’s most polarizing games -- BioShock Infinite -- back in the public consciousness.

Given that, I think it’s a good time to revisit that title and assess it for what it is -- a daring game that doesn’t quite live up to its ambitions. Boil it down, and Infinite both succeeds and fails due to one aspect: it re-conceptualizes racism via an imaginary world. And though this imaginary world ultimately doesn’t hold up, it also allows the game to make its most shocking statement.

When fantasy or sci-fi worlds want to approach a controversial topic, it’s common for them to use allegorical structures. During the Civil Rights era, mutants in X-Men paralleled the struggle for racial equality, and later LGBT rights. Classic sci-fi like Star Trek used imagined worlds as a way to view prejudice in a safe space, letting them be more open to the message. When this approach succeeds, it succeeds big, but there’s a catch: in general the more abstract the comparison, the better it functions. That’s why so many people relate to Frozen, interpreting it as everything from an LGBT metaphor, to a feminist one, to a parable about mental illness -- we all know what it’s like to struggle with, and eventually own, our identity. X-Men works the same way: sure, black and LGBT youth saw themselves as the mutants, but so did Jews, the economically disadvantaged, and class misfits. These worlds created an imaginary structure that let us conceptualize prejudice. These allegories work because they let the audience project themselves onto it, rather than spelling out a simple parallel.

I’m going to refer to these structures as “imaginary racism” -- an attempt to use sci-fi and fantasy fiction to imagine prejudice. Imaginary racism is what you see when you play a game where magic-users are feared and distrusted, or a fictional race -- elves for example -- face discrimination. Provided it’s done well, this conceit can allow people to see past their biases, or reveal something about prejudice they’d never considered.

But there are also pitfalls -- like creating a too-close parallel. If you create a world that hews too close to real-life discrimination, the comparison becomes too direct and looks cheap next to the real historical record. Instead of spotting the similarities, all we see are differences. Take Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, which draws on a millennia-old legacy of Prague’s Jewish Ghetto (which we explored in a previous article). Unfortunately the comparison falls flat, because it offers nothing new to our understanding of this legacy and, let’s be honest, because Augs aren’t good stand-ins for oppressed Jews. Augs chose to be augmented, whereas Jews were born into a society that didn’t accept them. The game’s lack of focus also makes its competing metaphors layer uncomfortably. (If Augmentation is expensive, and the anti-Aug hate movement is partially driven by economics, you’re aligning an “Augs as Jews” comparison with an “Augs as the 1%” comparison.) In the end, we have a game that uses tragedy to enrich its world-building, rather than world-building that highlights the tragedy.

While the game has other good points, this isn’t one of them. With uncomfortable topics like racism or the Holocaust, the juice has to be worth the squeeze -- if you’re going to use this imagery, you better say something new. By contrast, see Wolfenstein: The New Order, which is even more exploitative, but makes a coherent argument about how witnessing, surviving, and remembering injustice is itself an act of resistance.

Part of why Bioshock Infinite never fully succeeds is similar -- its imagined racism doesn’t live up to the history it’s commenting on. Frankly, it does well in the opening chapters, pointing out that the “golden age” of 20th century America was made possible through the unimaginably violent subjugation, oppression, and murder of Native Americans, African Americans, and immigrants who were excluded from participating in the American ideal. The game makes it very clear that Columbia is a white supremacist republic, a critique that’s both incisive and bold. Where the game succeeds (and we’ll deal with that in a minute) it’s because Irrational provides this alternative reality game-world where we can confront uncomfortable truths about our history that aren’t generally highlighted.

The game's red-tinted, hellish depiction of the Vox Populi is where it completely falls apart. The game's red-tinted, hellish depiction of the Vox Populi is where it completely falls apart.

To me, where it falls apart is when the city’s underclass -- here depicted as African American and Irish Vox Populi -- rise up in a violent Russian Revolution-style upheaval. For me, this plot twist breaks the game. By borrowing imagery from the Russian Revolution Infinite invokes the fears Gilded Age-America had that labor unrest might get out of control. But the keyword here is fear. Even the most violent moments in the history of American labor -- for example, the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain, when 10,000 armed coal miners got into a shooting war with 3,000 strikebreakers -- never rose to this level of revolt. The Vox Populi are Nat Turner by way of Mao’s Red Guards, in other words something that never happened in America. And it still wouldn’t be an issue (American anarchists have their own history of bombings), except it creates a forced narrative about how “both sides” have dangerous tendencies, and in a way almost excuses Comstock’s oppressive measures because, well, look what happens when you let the people off the chain. But on the other hand, perhaps we can be charitable and chalk this up as a mechanics failure -- after all, how do you portray moderate or nonviolent revolutionary tactics in a game built around shooting people?

Frankly, a lot of the problem is that we spend the whole game learning about Comstock’s racist philosophy, but get very little time with the people he’s oppressing. When you get down to it, Infinite is a game about understanding oppressors rather than the oppressed -- take that as you will.

Having said that, using this structure does allow us to deep-dive into the psychology of late 19th and early-20th century racism. Indeed, Infinite’s perspectives on the intellectual aspects of American prejudice are the most radical parts of the game, and haven’t been dissected much -- and it’s one place where the game’s “imaginary racism” serves it very well.

BioShock Infinite’s most insightful point is how it ties American racism to religion. This is not to say the game argues that religion is the cause of racism, but that religious doctrine -- particularly Protestantism -- played a key role in racial and religious oppression in America. This is broadly true, and a point that’s not commonly addressed in historical media. While there’s been much discussion of scientific racism -- measuring skulls, facial features, and so forth -- Americans are still reluctant to confront how deeply religious institutions supported racial and religious oppression.

In BioShock Infinite, Zachary Comstock undergoes a full-immersion baptism and emerges as a prophet, with an angel granting him visions of a utopian community in the sky. Once paired with the scientist Rosalind Lutece, Comstock builds the floating city of Columbia and shapes it into a Protestant religious commune that deifies America’s founding fathers, holds white supremacy paramount, and locks non-whites and the Irish into subservient roles.

This may seem heavy-handed, but Infinite knows what it’s doing here -- though it would be hard to find all these elements in a single group, religiously-justified racism and xenophobia were a major theme in the decades the game draws from.

A 1840s print of a Great-Awakening-era revival camp meeting. A 1840s print of a Great-Awakening-era revival camp meeting.

In the first half of the 19th century, American religion experienced an evangelical revolution known as the Second Great Awakening. During this period, the excitement and religious freedom of American independence spawned a proliferation of Protestant denominations, some fairly radical. The most famous were the Mormons, whose prophet -- much like Comstock -- also claimed to receive an angelic revelation about American exceptionalism. Other major groups include the Seventh-Day Adventists (who formed after their prophet’s Second Coming failed to materialize), the Spiritualists (referenced by Lady Comstock), and various Quaker movements. However, these extreme outliers were heavily outnumbered by a massive wave of variations on more mainstream Methodism, Congregationalist, and Baptist thought.

The most prominent feature of the Second Great Awakening was a belief that Jesus wouldn’t return until Christians perfected society. As a result, the movement spurred a massive reform crusade focused on attacking societal ills like alcoholism, poverty -- and the abolition of slavery.

As you can imagine, that last point didn’t play well in the American South. Rather than swim against the current, preachers south of the Mason-Dixon line instead tailored their message to pro-slavery congregations. By 1845, these tensions led both the Methodist and the Baptist church to split into northern and southern factions. If you’ve ever wondered how the Southern Baptist Convention became Southern -- well, that’s it.

Evangelical preachers in the south often ministered to mixed-race congregations, with whites and plantation owners sitting up front and enslaved people sitting in the back or balcony. Ministers explicitly supported the institution from the pulpit, urging the enslaved to be subservient and dutiful, and enslavers to remain fair and not punish in anger. After the Nat Turner revolt -- planned in a black church -- white ministers legally had to supervise any worship service non-whites conducted. This religious structure itself became part of the defense of slavery, since slaveholders argued that it constituted a paternalistic “Christianizing” mission that benefited all involved. After the war, one former slave recounted that the day she was baptized, the minister went home and whipped a woman in his front yard.

Meanwhile, southern ministers began to challenge abolitionist rhetoric with Biblical scripture, pointing out that Leviticus and Deuteronomy contain explicit instructions on the rules for beating and sexually exploiting slaves, and that in the Epistle to Philemon Paul returned a runaway to his master. (Abolitionists shot back that, in the same passage, Paul instructed Philemon to welcome the runaway as an equal Brother in Christ.)

“Jesus Christ has not abolished slavery by a prohibitory command,” argued Preacher Thornton Stringfellow, summing up the southern argument. “Under the gospel, [slavery] has brought within the range of gospel influence, millions of Ham's descendants among ourselves, who but for this institution, would have sunk down to eternal ruin.”

Predictably, both Northern and Southern positions hardened over the course of the Civil War, which happened to coincide with another wave of evangelical fervor. At the beginning of the war, popular sentiment cast the North as a secular state, besieging the godly South. However, as the fighting dragged on and casualties mounted, Southern ministers began casting the war as a holy struggle. These sermons -- preached in both Confederate Army camps and to congregations on the home front -- had a measurable effect on the Southern psyche. Lincoln began appearing in Southern political cartoons as a demonic figure. One depicted him drafting the Emancipation Proclamation while surrounded by satanic imagery, while another showed him removing a mask to show his demonic “true face.”

The best thing ever. The best thing ever.

(To be fair, Harpers printed a Halloween cartoon of Confederate President Jefferson Davis as the grim reaper, bringing in a harvest of death. It is the BEST THING EVER.)

In other words, these real-life depictions weren’t much different from the paintings Booker DeWitt comes across at the Fraternal Order of the Raven. The room also includes a wink/nod reference to the real-life work Apotheosis of Washington. The Order’s robes, of course, echo the Ku Klux Klan -- a group that heavily employed Protestantism as a weapon of oppression.

That may seem like a farfetched statement, but many Southern churches proved enthusiastic participants in Klan activity after the Civil War, and even into the 20th century. When an Arkansas recruit joined the local Klan cell in 1868, he was surprised to find his own Presbyterian minister administering the oath, and church deacons standing as witnesses. Even after federal troops brought down the hammer and stamped out the Klan’s first iteration, it survived in the form of “rifle clubs” that met at local churches. In fact, Ben Tillman and his Red Shirt paramilitaries conceived of the Hamburg massacre -- where they besieged a black state militia unit, killing six of them -- while meeting at the Sweetwater Baptist Church. (As a congressman, Tillman bragged on the floor of the US Senate about murdering African Americans during the 1876 election, saying: “We stuffed ballot boxes. We shot them. We are not ashamed of it.”)

But the Klan’s religious activities weren’t limited to terrorizing and disenfranchising African Americans -- during the 1920s Klan resurgence they acted as de facto morality enforcers for the church, roughing up doctors suspected of performing abortions and, in one case, lashing a woman 61 times for failing to attend services. In the latter case, an investigation revealed that the man in charge of the flogging ran the Baptist Sunday School.

By this time, the Klan had also enlarged its focus to encompass religious minorities, spreading both north and west, beyond its historical turf in the South. While their efforts during Reconstruction centered around political power and voter suppression, in its 1920s form the group spread countrywide by appealing to already-established beliefs about the “threat” of Roman Catholic and Jewish immigrants. According to these widespread nativist views, America was a white, Protestant country and religious minorities were incompatible with its values. Catholics served as the primary boogeyman, with nativists asserting that their loyalty to the Papacy would supersede their identity as Americans. To capitalize on these beliefs, the Klan sponsored lecture tours about the vices of immigrant slums, and trotted out fake “Nuns” who wove tales about the debauchery that happened in Cathedrals (these descriptions were essentially pornographic, and made the lectures very popular). At one point the Klan claimed that when a Catholic boy was born, his parents donated a rifle and ammunition to the local church. Dark rumors about the Pope purchasing high ground above the U.S. Capitol persisted.

This was nothing new to Catholics. In 1844, Philadelphia mobs had burned Catholic churches and hunted worshippers through the streets. Irish soldiers fighting in the Mexican War received such ill treatment from American officers that hundreds defected. At the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1884, Church officials exempted American priests from wearing the cassock in public because it led to street harassment. BioShock Infinite echoes this sentiment with its propaganda films about a drunken Irishmen breeding uncontrollably with his “brood mare.” Nativist groups expressed an absurd fear that the Irish, Germans, and Jews would effectively squeeze them out.

But lest we fall into the same “analyze the oppressors, not the oppressed” narrative as Infinite does, I’d like to point out that Protestant churches were also the nucleus for abolitionism, anti-Klan efforts, and the Civil Rights movement. After all, Northern rhetoric about the Civil War had its own apocalyptic tinge, as evidenced by Battle Hymn of the Republic.  Freedmen living in the South during Reconstruction -- particularly those who’d fought in the war -- organized around black churches, starting schools and armed neighborhood patrols to keep Klan vigilantes out. Black congregations also mobilized black voters and ran political committees that instructed the next generation of black political leaders. America’s black churches didn’t become activist organizations during the Civil Rights era, they were activist from their very founding.

But caveats aside, this pairing of religion and nativist racism is where BioShock Infinite shines. Using its structure of imaginary racism, it created a fictional world where we can tease apart the various strains of American xenophobia, examining how our unique brand of Protestantism contributed to racist violence and anti-immigrant panics. The floating city of Columbia, with its improbable physics, renders the whole thing with just enough fantasy to make it approachable.

And approach it we must, because we’re now in an election where the spoof nativist propaganda from BioShock Infinite has become actual propaganda -- and that’s far more disturbing than any multi-dimensional plot twist.

a from BioShock Infinite has become actual propaganda -- and that’s far more disturbing than any multi-dimensional plot twist.

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Hong Kong. His articles have appeared in Zam, Vice, The Escapist, Playboy and Slate. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp