Could a video game released this week really offer your children the chance to shoot at robotized versions of the Founding Fathers? Does that same game openly mock American exceptionalism and conservative ideals, and is it made by a committed Marxist? That’s the argument being made about the recently released and critically acclaimed video game Bioshock Infinite, which hit stores on March 26 and is already sparking viral controversy, both from mainstream and from less-than-reasonable sources.
What’s the fuss about? Well, for one thing, the mainstream gaming press is already treating Bioshock Infinite with a degree of reverence that is difficult to overstate. The game earns an average score of between 94 and 96 (out of 100) on the review aggregating site Metacritic, depending on what platform one plays it on, and has been described by some sources as “the best game ever” or close to it. Given this degree of buzz, the game is almost certain to become a pop cultural phenomenon on the order of earlier games such as World of Warcraft, and possibly even an icon on the order of the Mario Bros franchise, which has been running since the late 80’s.
But quite beyond that, Bioshock Infinite is a game that is tailor-made to inspire controversy. Why? Because the creators of the game made it clear when it was announced that elements of the game are intended as a commentary on American exceptionalism and religion in American public life. To quote the game’s creator:
“The current political conversation in America is exhaustingly the same conversation that’s been going on for hundreds of years. We are very much like two countries. America has been this bifurcated thing for a long time.
“The American Exceptionalism, theocracy-based power structure has been around the edges of American culture for a long time. BioShock Infinite gives it its full day in court.
To be fair, this sort of approach to gaming has been a staple of Bioshock franchise pretty much since it was first created. Why? Because the original Bioshock, besides being a steampunk-themed reboot of the cult classic horror game System Shock, was obviously meant as a jab at the writings of the philosopher Ayn Rand. And if you find that dubious or want to know how it would work, consider that the game takes place in an underwater dystopia named Rapture, created by a mad industrialist named Andrew Ryan, whose philosophy (and name) are more or less indistinguishable from Randianism. Consider the opening of the original, which can be watched below:
Naturally, the creators denied any intent to specifically attack Rand, arguing instead that their general intent was to criticize extremism of all stripes. And considering that the first game treats Andrew Ryan (who isn’t even the main villain of the original Bioshock) with far more sympathy than it treats the all-but-explicitly communist villain of Bioshock 2, Sofia Lamb, who willingly traumatizes her own daughter and leaves a trail of corpses behind her in her pursuit of a utopian society, one could argue that the series had been comparatively right-leaning up until Infinite.
Has that legacy survived, or has the game taken the plunge into America-hating liberalism, as some commentators have suggested? To answer that question, TheBlaze took a look at the press surrounding Bioshock Infinite, and obtained a copy for playthrough. Having played through the game’s core plot, we’ve seen enough and read enough to answer the biggest questions about the game.
Is Bioshock Infinite anti-Tea Party?
While the basic plot of the game (rescue an imprisoned young woman from malevolent captors) is relatively well-worn, albeit with some surprising and darker twists than usual, the place where that story takes place raised eyebrows the instant it was revealed. Specifically, Bioshock Infinite takes place in 1912 on what appears to be a floating airship so colossal that it can fit an entire city on it. The catch is that that city, known as Columbia, is a horrific dystopia run by a racist, xenophobic, hyper-religious demagogue named Zachary Comstock, who sees himself as a Messianic successor to America’s Founding Fathers. In fact, the name of the group that runs Columbia is explicitly “the Founders.”
To an untrained observer, this could look very much like a slam at the Tea Party, as Breitbart’s Noah Dulis worried back in February:
The problem is that the representatives of this philosophy, the Founders, are straw men. Racist, xenophobic, religious fanatics, they are progressive caricatures of conservatives writ large, stripped of any subtlety; nothing but ugly monsters full of naked aggression and violent bigotry. Levine claims, “We don’t try to go into these things with a particular axe to grind,” but it’s hard to accept his assertion based on what has been shown of the game to this point.
The game’s antagonist, Zachary Hale Comstock, is the leader of the Founders faction and the lazy embodiment of every Tea Party stereotype you’ve ever heard: old, white, angry, and religious to the point that the citizens of Columbia refer to him as “Father Comstock” and the “Prophet” of the city. Comstock is revered by the city’s inhabitants as the “hero” of the Battle of Wounded Knee, the last engagement of the American Indian Wars in which over 150 men, women, and children of the Lakota tribe were killed.
Is this fear justified? Were the Founders meant as a thinly veiled attack on the Tea Party? Not originally, according to the game’s creator:
It’s very much reflective of the current scene and the historical scene, and I think that’s demonstrated by things like the Occupy Movement and the Tea Party coming around during the course of the development of the game. When we started the game, there was no Tea Party and there was no Occupy Movement – during the development of Infinite those movements came around and really changed the nature of Infinite’s conversation.
It should also be noted that, while the promotional materials for the game might make this misunderstanding more likely, all one has to do is play the game for about ten minutes before it becomes clear that the Founders are not so much a thinly veiled political allegory as an obvious work of fiction. This can be seen when the protagonist of the game first enters the city of Columbia after being nearly drowned in a botched baptism, and sees a group of fellow emigres praying to statues of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, and addressing those statues as Gods rather than men. No Tea Partier ever made such a mistake.
Moreover, while Columbia is rabidly anti-worker and institutionally racist, there’s not much concern with capitalism or freedom evinced by its residents or leaders, which sets them entirely apart from the Tea Party movement. In fact, Columbia’s economic system is portrayed as more feudal than capitalist. Propaganda videos inside a gun manufacturers’ factory liken company owners to lions, and workers to oxen, while completely discouraging the idea of upward mobility which forms the basis of capitalism. One painting in one of the game’s many historically-oriented areas depicts the assassination of Abraham Lincoln as a heroic moment for John Wilkes Booth, as Lincoln is shown with devil’s horns. Columbia’s residents refer to America itself derisively as “the Sodom below,” and proudly speak of having successfully seceded from the country of their birth. As such, if the Founders are meant at a slap at anyone, it’s not Tea Partiers so much as hardline neoconfederates, who only a dedicated viewer of MSNBC could confuse with conservatives. Not that that’s stopped some game reviewers from making such a mistake, but given the liberal skew of much of the gaming press, that’s not surprising.
More to the point, the Founders aren’t Bioshock Infinite’s only villains. There also exists a communist insurgency known as the Vox Populi, which claims to speak on behalf of the city’s seething underclass, led by the eloquent black runaway scullion maid Daisy Fitzroy, who rails against Zachary Comstock as “the God of the white man, of the rich man.” However, for all their professed nobility, the “Vox,” as they call themselves, are a violent group of thugs who indulge in public executions even of people as innocent as postmen, and don’t so much care about their professed high minded ideals as they do about taking everything for themselves. The Vox Populi’s ruthlessness is especially notable in the game’s 15 minute demo:
For context, it’s worth noting that Ken Levine, the game’s creator, actually attended Occupy Wall Street rallies for research on this part of the game.
In other words, the game is less a dedicated attack on conservatism than an attack on the most dysfunctional elements of American politics generally. As Levine himself puts it:
The games tend to be a Rorschach [test] for people, and I’ve heard both sides of reaction [to the demo]. I had the displeasure of going to a white supremacist site that made a point of saying this game by “the Jew” Ken Levine was about killing white people. But then I went to this leftist site that said this is about discrediting leftists movements. Games, as I said, are a Rorschach, and I don’t want to be making games that are expressing a political or philosophical view.
However, it’s easy to see how conservatives might find the game especially distasteful, given that the the player is required to do things like shoot at giant, mechanized statues of George Washington with angels’ wings made out of American flags, called “Motorized Patriots,” who recite quasi-Biblical statements of faith.
However, even these elements of the game make more sense in context. Physical resemblance aside, the Motorized Patriots are first presented in the game as frightening propaganda-spewing robots intended to whitewash the racist and fascist (they refer to Columbia as “the fatherland” much the same way Nazis did) vision of the game’s villain. In other words, their resemblance to George Washington is meant to reflect on the delusion of the people who run the city, who see themselves as latter day Washingtons, not as an attack on Washington himself. This fact is confirmed when the player later faces the Vox Populi’s equivalent of these robots, which are built to look like Abraham Lincoln, though within the context of the game, this obviously functions more as a symbol of the group’s rebellion against the anti-Lincoln Founders than as any sort of message suggesting Lincoln was a communist.
Finally, there is the fact that Bioshock Infinite’s depiction of religion (especially Christianity) is less than flattering. However, this too is meant to reflect poorly on the fictional characters, not on Christianity itself. In fact, the game’s creators deliberately toned down the religious elements so as to avoid the perception of anti-Christianity, after complaints from Christian development staff members. The ending was apparently what prompted these concerns, and having played through the game, we can say (without spoiling much of anything) that that ending is meant more to reflect on the ways that an evil person can abuse the doctrine of divine forgiveness (without any serious self-examination) than on the doctrine itself. Granted, any piece of art can be subject to misinterpretation, but based on the intentions of the creators, this too seems to be an unintentional element, if it is even there.
So is Bioshock Infinite anti-Tea Party? No. If anything, given that it takes place in 1912, it’s much more an attack on the sort of jingoistic sentiments that motivated Americans at the turn of the 20th century, and that caused writers such as Sinclair Lewis to openly fret about America itself going fascist. Its Christian and Founders-oriented iconography is not meant to reflect the evils of Christianity or the founders, but rather how easily the concepts advanced by Christianity and the Founders can be perverted in the service of authoritarianism.
With that said, the game does arguably skew slightly liberal early on in the story in that the motivation of the Vox Populi for their form of brutality is clearly a reaction against the brutality of the Founders, whereas the Founders’ cruelty is not really explained except with reference to the evil of their leader, Comstock. In other words, the Leftist mass movement could come off mildly more sympathetic, though not much. This is blunted later in the game, when the Vox Populi actually take over Columbia, and their reign of terror is arguably worse than whatever atrocities the Founders commit (the first act by their leader upon assuming control is to shoot a political opponent in cold blood, then try to shoot a white child simply because he might grow up to be a Founder). In fact, while the last act of the game revolves around destroying Reverend Comstock (whose final apocalyptic plan, and horrific abuse of one of the main characters, makes him look more like a homegrown American bin Laden than a Tea Partier), the final battle of the game is against the Vox Populi. The ending, meanwhile, is completely apolitical.
Should children play Bioshock Infinite?
Absolutely not. The game is rated M, which in video game ratings is the equivalent of an “R” rating. Quite aside from the violence, extremely frightening images and unpleasant backstory of most of the characters, the game dabbles in philosophical concepts surrounding the nature of time, redemption, morality and alternate universes that would fly over most children’s heads. Several adult reviewers find the game’s ending confusing. For young children, it would almost certainly be outright incomprehensible. Especially precocious early teenagers might find the game interesting, but parents may want to get a better look at the game’s various plot elements before letting them play.
Was the game created by Marxists/atheists?
There is no evidence to suggest that the people involved in making Bioshock Infinite held Marxist ideas. In fact, it would be out of character for the series if Marxists worked on this franchise at all, given its overwhelming concern with criticizing political extremism. Moreover, the Vox Populi are depicted using quasi-Marxist iconography, and given that they are portrayed as antagonists in the game, any Marxists who worked on the project would have had to bite their tongues.
Similarly, while it’s quite possible that atheists worked on the game, Ken Levine, the game’s creator, has been relatively quiet about his religious affiliation, and doesn’t appear to consider it a major ax to grind. Levine’s willingness to tone down elements of the game that offended his Christian employees also suggests that he had no explicit agenda to attack religion.