Editorial: Race and the Past in Bioshock Infinite

The only people missing are papists, though one could suggest the Irishman suffices.
The now-infamous Washington mural

Greetings, Lusipeons! It is with great pleasure that I can say, quite safely, that I will not be devouring my last article. Bioshock Infinite is by all accounts a success, and by my own measure holding up as quite an experience. It is such an experience, actually, that I am pushing back my previous editorial plans to write an article about its treatment of race and the past, which are especially highlighted at an early point in the game. My expectations for this were middling at best; I had been previously burned by the promise of Assassins Creed III presenting a unique look at the American Revolution, only to be reminded that the British were vile marauders and haters of all things freedom. As a short disclaimer, I am spending more time talking about background environments and lore revealed in the first few hours of the game- still, standard spoiler warning alert.

Bioshock Infinite takes place on the floating city of Columbia in 1912, towards the end of what American Historians refer to as the Gilded Age. Though this time period often receives little attention in American classrooms, it is a particularly fitting time period for the purposes and themes that later become apparent in Bioshock’s narrative. It was a time of intense industrialism in America, with the second great wave of immigrants from Europe and China feeding the newly built factories and rail lines with cheap labor. Reconstruction, the period in which Southern states were rebuilt following the Civil War, had largely ended with a White status quo over multitudes of poor black laborers, many of whom were forced back into slave-like conditions and subjected to numerous instances of institutionalized racism. What to take away from this extremely terse description is that the Gilded Age was a time of growing social and economic problems for America. In fact, the term “Gilded Age” itself was a pejorative title for the time period taken from a Mark Twain novel, referring to the “gilded covering” over the deep troubles of the age.

Yeah...Nast wasn't known for his political correctness.
A Thomas Nast cover showing Black and Irish voters.

The city of Columbia is itself a gilded idea covering a seedy and tumultuous powderkeg of a society. Although I began my stay in the city among the storefronts and boardwalk, I was taken through the worker quarters in no time at all. Dirty, sorrowful, and dark, these environments serve as one of the many contrasts found in Infinite. In an early example of these environments, I encountered two sets of bathrooms in an arcade: one for the workers and one for the customers. As expected, the customer bathroom was plastered with a sign explicitly describing it as the WHITE bathroom, while the worker bathrooms had signs posted for COLORED & IRISH.

Wait. What?

For most players this is something that can give people pause, as it did to many an undergraduate who were in the 101 History courses I graded. How could the Irish not be considered white? They are, like, the palest people around! Their propensity to turn red in the sun aside, the Irish have a long history of not being considered white. In yet another stunning display of oversimplifying and summarizing vast swathes of history, I will suffice to say that this had much to do with the English, those wily folk, who spent centuries in conflict with the Irish. Although the human race has a long tradition of dehumanizing enemy combatants, the English dehumanization of the “Irish ape” became far more institutionalized following the 1800 Acts of Union. These sentiments spread to the United States and were stoked by an equally common fear of “Popery” or Roman Catholicism. “Whiteness” became something reserved for the Protestant English and Germanic immigrants, while the Irish remained something only slightly better than African.

Everybody's got the right to some sunshine.
Llllllllaaaadies?.

Returning to Infinite, the Irish stand alongside the Black man as the perpetual underclass and bogeymen of Columbia. Booker himself is described as looking Irish by a fearful woman to a police sketch artist, justifying his savagery and violence in her eyes. Although Black men and women make up the most common servants and custodial workers, the Irish are found scrubbing and working in machine rooms and factories. Most players would have felt comfortable with this amount of detail; the Irish being one of the largest and earliest working classes is a popular narrative in American culture. Including the reference to an obscure element of that story, well, Bioshock Infinite had my curiosity. Then it had my attention.

As is custom for my historical posts, this one is starting to veer into unwieldy and lengthy territory, so I will cut this a bit short before I start to foam at the mouth. Next week I will look into the home of the Fraternal Order of the Raven, a group from Columbia dedicated to the memory of John Wilkes Booth and denigration of Abraham Lincoln. In the meantime, have any games surprised you with an unexpected attention to detail? Have you been able to play Bioshock Infinite, and if so, what are your thoughts thus far?

9 comments

  1. White. The term has long implied so much more than skin color.

    I’ll read this post completely and give a thought about the game once I get to play it. It’s sitting patiently in my Steam liberry.

  2. @Mel – Indeed it has! I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on the game once you finish- I’m currently in my second playthrough (1999 mode, like a boss) and have been noticing little things here and there. Be sure to check back once you’re done.

  3. So I just finished. I mean, wow.

    Sometimes a production knows it’s really good, and so it lays into the qualities that make it good. This is such a game. Also, the subtitle “Infinite” makes a lot more sense now.

    As for the historical aspects, it’s very interesting as it touches upon an era that is critical to American history but not so familiar anymore. It’s not another WWII story or something.

    I especially love how it uses this part of American history, a very formative and pivotal time, to then reflect on personal formations of the characters. One choice leads to a whole new world, it can turn everything around. And trying to hunt down the right choice were what Booker and America were desperately trying to do.

  4. “And trying to hunt down the right choice were what Booker and America were desperately trying to do.”

    @Mel – That’s a stunningly good way of putting it. Bravo good sir, Bravo. Also, it seems like you had the same reaction I had at the end; will be you attempting 1999 Mode now?

  5. Oh, you’re too kind.

    I suppose I’ll *try* 1999 mode, can’t promise any success. The ending is pretty nuts in terms of how many dudes it throws at you.

    This makes me think more about the gameplay. What did you use while playing? I stuck pretty much entirely to the sniper rifle and the RPG. And generally only made use of the Devil’s Kiss, Electrocute, and Possession vigors. That sniper rifle is OP.

  6. I played through on Normal difficulty and 1999 didn’t seem to throw too many wrenches at me until just before Comstock House (I know you know what part I’m talking about).

    The Sniper is definitely OP, which makes it handy in 1999 because you don’t need to upgrade it in order to do massive damage. I tended towards Shotgun and Carbine in my first playthrough because I enjoyed the versatility of the Carbine while the Shotgun made for perfect crowd control. In terms of Vigors, it was Bucking Bronco and Bucking Bronco. Were there really any other options? I suppose Murder of Crows if I fought a Handyman.

    …although on my second playthrough I’ve learned to love Undertow, which is useful against the Patriots.

  7. I’ve read that Return to Sender is actually really amazing, but I haven’t played with it. You can use it to set traps that absorb incoming fire and explode for more damage the more they absorb. Also, the shield effect is good lol.

    I’ll have to really try the rest of the vigors out, next time. As for the clothing bonuses? Never really gave too much thought about them. Too many of them required zip lines for some reason…

  8. @Mel – Yeah, Return to Sender didn’t get much love from me either. I also found the Clothing bonuses to be a bit meh- anything that helped me health or ammo wise was typically worn, although the one that lets you electrocute or set people on fire with melee was especially helpful.

    There were a lot of missed opportunities in that gear mechanic, in my opinion.

  9. Oh, right. The one that electrocutes and stuns nearby enemies when you kill someone with “excessive force”… aka “Use the Sniper Rifle”.

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