Editorial: Killing Lincoln and the Power of Tangential Learning

Like, the old dude is me, and the eagle represents, like, people. People hurting me. People hurting me with their internet comments.
So…this is…symbolism?

So, Bioshock Infinite has become a thing. I know it because this happened. Having finished it once (and almost completed it a second time), I am most definitely enamored by the ending and the narrative path it chose to take. Sure, there are flaws in the design that, in many ways, have been overlooked by most mainstream press sources. But here is the thing: Bioshock Infinite is a game players can talk about. It is a game that allows players to sit in a bar with their friends and exchange pretentious speeches about what it all meant. In many ways, Bioshock Infinite is the Fight Club of video games at this moment. Just deep enough to please intellectuals, just superficial enough to be easily digested by the less invested masses. Unless we are talking about actual history, in which case people can be kinda’ stupid about it…or not from America.

In any case, I find myself drawn to speak once more on the level of historical detail in the game. It is extremely gratifying to see that the level of research put into the game is certainly reflected in its execution. Levine often spoke about the amount he made his team read and study, but the amount of material that gets condensed into single voxophones or paintings is utterly astonishing. To reiterate from last time, I am staying away from any major plot details or spoilers of any kind (we can save that for a few months from now), but those in the audience who wish to have a completely unsullied experience should leave now. Those who remain are going to be treated with candy, pop, racism, and History.

Our single moment takes place early in the game, at the Hall of the Fraternal Order of the Raven. The Fraternal Order is largely a Comstock oriented translation of the Ku Klux Klan- fiercely patriotic, devoted to racial purity, and full of interesting interpretations of history. In the case of the Fraternal Order, Abraham Lincoln has been recast as the “Great Apostate,” a betrayer to the Constitution and destroyer of all good things Americana. A statue of John Wilkes Booth adorns the main hall, his demeanor casually heroic and in stark contrast to the pictures which filled the American press in the mid 19th century. In many ways, the Fraternal Order’s hall represents the player’s first major steps into a world unlike their own; there are earlier scenes which they might find uncomfortable, but harken back to a time in American history they have heard about. In the Fraternal Order, things get topsy-turvy- Lincoln as villain, or even Anti-Christ? Insanity!

This image clearly brought to you by an educator.
Gee wiz, Tangential Learning is the coolest!

Or is it? Fringe elements in America have long held less-than-savory views on Lincoln, with the far-right referring to him as a Tyrant and the far-left getting caught up in his racial views. Booth certainly imagined himself to be a modern-day Brutus (hence his famous quote “Sic Semper Tyrannis”) and that image has caught on with a lot of fringe conservatives in America. The images of racial purity which adorn the Hall also reflect the 1920s reincarnation of the Ku Klux Klan, which at that stage had begun to enjoy widespread support among the White American population. If Gamers, upon seeing these images, had their interests piqued in these interpretations of their shared past with Columbia, much of the information I have used thus far is only a Google search away. To me, this is the one of the most valuable parts of Bioshock Infinite. Without a doubt Bioshock helped introduce gamers to the ideas of Ayn Rand, however imperfectly some may think those ideas were portrayed in the game. Infinite stands an equal chance of introducing the players to a less known era of American history. Educators like to call this type of learning “Tangential Learning.”

Tangential Learning has become a bit of a thing in educational circles, much in the same way “Gamification” has become a thing. I will not bore with details (on this topic, at least), but needless to say Tangential Learning is the learning that is self-directed by individuals after encountering a topic outside of its original text (or, to use a word I have only just learned and wish to share: Urtext). For example, playing Final Fantasy games might cause people to start reading up on Japanese legends and myths, from which many Summons and Weapons receive their names. Playing the Penny Arcade adventure games might also spark an interest in the Lovecraft mythos, or playing Call of Duty (the originals) might cause a player to dive into their nearest history book. From an educator’s standpoint, Tangential Learning is awesome.

Drawing back to Bioshock Infinite, there is one last opportunity for Tangential Learning I would like to expose. On a pew before a massive stage, a voxophone sits. Picking it up, I was greeted with the voice of Comstock:

What exactly was the Great Emancipator emancipating the Negro from? From his daily bread? From the nobility of honest work? From weathy patrons who sponsored them from cradle to grave? From clothing and shelter? And what have they done with their freedom? Why, go Finkton, and you shall find out. No animal is born free, except the white man. And it is our burden to care for the rest of creation.

Or not.
Thankfully these caricatures are just products of a fictional and virtual environment completely unlike our own.

I will not even draw upon the easy allusion here (Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden,” if you were wondering). Rather, what about Comstock’s treatment of slavery? Wealthy patrons? Honest work? He makes it sounds mightily good, but did people really think that? By this point, I am sure my answer is obvious: yes, yes they did. In the book of collected works by Southern Intellectuals “Cotton is King and Pro-Slavery Arguments,” one of the most stunning arguments made was that very one. The author bemoaned the northern abolitionists attempting to break up the “happy family” of slaves and slave-owners. The argument did not die following the Civil War, either- in fact, it occurred not a month ago. I have once again allowed myself to ramble on a bit too much, so I will leave with this- games have an awesome power to create tangential learning opportunities, largely because of the power the player has over the consumption of the information around them. This allows a developer to overload an environment with information, because the player is in control.

So what about you, Lusipeople? Are there any games that made you want to go out and read something you had not read? Or learn about a topic you did not know anything about? Feel free to share in the comments!

4 comments

  1. Kind of a minor example, but XCOM got me to learn about the flags of the world so that I could identify where my soldiers were coming from.

    Also, To The Moon got me to reading about how memory works and the various ways our minds convert experiences into stories.

    On a historical note, the Total War series and the Civilization games both are a big enabler of this by putting the historical information in the game. I don’t know how much time I’ve lost reading the encyclopedia in Shogun 2.

  2. @Seth – Ooo…you’ll have to pass me links to things you read about memory and converting experiences into stories. That sounds fascinating!

  3. Xenogears got me into Norse Mythology and then Valkyrie Profile got me into Norse Mythology. Last but not least, Final Fantasy VII got me into Norse Mythology.

  4. @Jahan – The Max Payne series did much of the same to me. Well, up until that last one.

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