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April 10
2013

What Bioshock Infinite Gets Right About Social Commentary in Games

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I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that those of you reading, by and large, appreciate when a title has “something to say.” It may not be a necessity, or even something you think about incredibly often, but when a game deftly and artfully addresses a contemporary social issue (or issues), it can add an extra bit of weight or artistic clout to a game that might have lacked it before. Beyond Good and Evil emphasized freedom of expression and of the press, what kind of power those freedoms can wield, and the consequences when they’re taken away.  Spec Ops: The Line addressed the tolls that “wartime ethics” can take on a human soul. When a game does social commentary well, it can be intensely rewarding. When it does not, it can drag down the whole experience into a preachy, incoherent mess.

       Pokemon Black and White
“Capturing animals and forcing them to fight for you is wrong, except it’s not because actually they love it.”

For the most part, this is something that triple-A titles tend to try and avoid, in favor of addressing the very pressing “should I shoot this zombie/foreigner/foreign zombie with a pistol or a shotgun?” dilemma.  And while there seems to be a trend in the industry right now towards slightly deeper, more mature, character-focused big budget games (Far Cry 3, Tomb Raider, Spec Ops: The Line), it’s still rare that we encounter a triple-A game with “something to say” that displays any measure of competence on the subject. Which is why I was pleasantly surprised to find this content within one of the more obscure big-budget games released this season, a little title called Bioshock Infinite.

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 You may or may not have heard of it.

Infinite’s primary setting, Columbia, is a city divided. Floating above the clouds, held aloft primarily by its citizen’s smug sense of moral superiority, it is an excellent place to live if you’re white, affluent, presumably heterosexual, and ascribe to the primary religious doctrine of its benevolent ruler. (Also, not Irish.) If one or more of these doesn’t apply to you, this floating paradise quickly becomes hell above earth. Institutionalized racism at every turn, virtually no labor rights, and an overwhelming philosophical doctrine that classifies these people as sub-human, all culminate in a setting that feels . . . not entirely dissimilar to the real turn-of-the-century America, to be fair. But the downtrodden oppressed of Columbia have hope – the Vox Populi are a resistance faction fighting for the rights of those that have none, bringers of freedom and equality to the put-upon masses. Except it’s not really that simple. It never is.

(Moving forward from here, there might be very mild spoilers for Bioshock Infinite. Nothing like the ending or anything major like that, but some plot points will be discussed. You’ve been warned. )

The great thing about Bioshock Infinite’s handling of its social issues, the thing I’d most like to see emulated by other works that strive towards social commentary or critique, is the fact that it recognizes that life is complicated. Complex. Good ideology does not make a good person, bad ideology does not make a bad person, and ignorance is not always a mortal sin, much as we might like it to be.  We all know that privilege is a very real thing, and that having privilege can lead to a person tolerating or even endorsing some truly despicable, monstrous things. But that doesn’t necessarily make a person who has privilege a monster. Many times throughout the game, we’re given moments of humanity that shed light on the affluent citizens of Columbia as people, not merely as racism-and-xenophobia-spouting robots.

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Even the robots are occasionally sympathetic. Voxophone 48. You’ll know what I mean.

On the other side of the coin, we have the oppressed. There is surely no doubt that their complaints are valid, and their nominal goal – equality within Columbia, is very much one worth pursuing. But historically, revolutions are very rarely bloodless. Even with noble goals, anarchic states can make men into monsters, and Bioshock Infinite is not shy about showing the abuse and atrocities people who have had no power might well perpetrate when they have all of the power. As noble as Daisy Fitzroy’s goals and ideology are, she is almost certainly not a good person.

Even in a situation that seems, to the viewer, as something with an easy answer – Infinite is keenly aware that people are people, and that three-dimensionality lends the overall message of the work a degree of subtlety that it wouldn’t have possessed if, say, the privileged citizens of Columbia were chaotic evil jerkasses that devoured babies and the Vox Populi were incorruptible freedom fighters with hearts of gold. It presents us with a specific situation- a time, a place, and the people therein, and lets us observe. Maybe Columbia can’t exist without an ‘other’ to vilify or subjugate. Maybe that means it would be better off being burned down, crashed into the earth below. But the game lets us form our own opinion on the matter. And that makes it infinitely (get it?) more effective than “racism is bad, kay?”

What makes the message truly biting is how rooted in a very violent and very real reality it is. Columbia is just a few stages removed from a real American past. The violent, anarchic rebellion is only marginally different from any number of violent rebellions throughout history. As we are shocked, horrified, swayed, or sympathetic with the people that we encounter on the streets of Columbia, confronted with their sins or pained by their failures, we are confronted and pained by the sins and failures of human history, creating new admiration for those that endured and new sympathy for those whose good intentions damned them.

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Think about how valuable this kind of subtlety and realism might be in a game that addressed issues towards LGBT individuals. A game that doesn’t present LGBT individuals as a poor, oppressed minority – endlessly suffering angels or martyrs – but rather as human beings who’ve done the best that they can to deal with a shit situation. That presented homophobic individuals of the past not as malevolent, mustache-twirlingly evil monsters, but as humans, sick with ignorance and attempting to understand something that goes against everything they’ve understood prior.  How much more likely that a game utilizing such an approach would be to actually altering people’s perceptions, changing their minds or creating in them new understanding.

Games have the potential, as Infinite does, to not just expose but to immerse us in ideas and viewpoints that we might not have known. To let us walk in the worlds of people fantastically different from ourselves. And to make choices and decisions based on this new information. This is what makes them so uniquely suited for social commentary. I would love to see more works like Bioshock Infinite, games that don’t shy away from three-dimensionality in an effort to prove a point. Games with “something to say”, that end up saying as many things as people that play them.

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About Trevor Smith

I am a 22-year old college graduate, currently trying to figure out what the hell I'm going to do with an English Writing degree. So far, the answer seems to be "play a lot of video games, sleep, and slowly starve to death." I love RPGs, Rogue-likes, and Horror. I write screenplays on the side.

3 Responses

  1. Solid, man. I think people should be trusted to do more heavy lifting than art usually makes them do. That’s why I dislike games that have hamfisted moral choices, for example. Do I save the old man being beaten by stormtroopers or do I kill everybody in the room and loot their stuff? Well, one of those choices makes me glow blue and the other makes me glow red, as the narrator shaky-fingers at me.

    I haven’t played Bioshock Infinite, but lots of people are complaining about the rampant racism because the game doesn’t explicitly point out to you that it’s distasteful. It trusts you as a compassionate human being to figure that out. I kind of like that idea.

  2. avatar leap says:

    I find it amazing just how many people are complaining about the racism in this game. People are so used to having everything spoon fed to them that they forget to actually think. It’s very similar to what we see in movies. Most big budget movies don’t make the viewer think; when they do, people just complain and call it preachy or something.

    I love this trend, and I hope the success of Bioshock Infinite makes more developers try to do something similar with their games. It may even make me start buying big budget games again.

  3. avatar Bill says:

    BI, is a amazing game & I’m replaying it on the “Columbian’s side” which is very hard for me. I don’t like racism period & having to side with them just…

    That said the Vox Populi, like you said Trevor, aren’t any better. Yes they’re oppressed & down trodden but when they get the power they abuse it just as bad.

    Trevor, this was a great article! I hope to see more of your work. :)

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