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Tuesday, March 5, 2019

BioShock Infinite: Your Argument is Invalid (Part 5- A Swing and a Miss On Social Poignancy)

Three [Four] reminders:

One - I’m jumping right in from the previous articles with no recap. You can go back to Part 4 or all the way back to the beginning.

Two - this article necessitates spoilers

Three - this article is not concerned with decoding the plot itself.

[Four- This article was rescued from another blog, and is little less about writing than our usual stuff. It's also pretty dated, but that's pretty much business as usual.]

I have some bad news.

I’ve spent about four parts of this article lulling a growing audience of geeks into a false sense of security—making them think that I would do nothing but heap praise on one of last year’s most popular (mainstream) titles—and now I am going to turn on them.

Because BioShock Infinite fell on its face.

You see, despite the technical execution, the subtext, the examination of the deep philosophical themes, and the artistic elements that reinforce the theme, there were things BioShock Infinite tried to do that simply failed.

And I don’t mean it failed like Jake in Chinatown. I’m talking more like the dire fate (complete with hallucinations of great success) that Sam Lowry suffers in Brazil. But I’m getting ahead of myself, and I need to give myself time to get to an undisclosed location before the mob finds pitchforks and torches, so let’s start with the criticism.

For starters, let us consider Tevis Thompson’s scathing review of BioShock Infinite. Like most torpedo jobs of this caliber, it has salient criticism that an open-minded gamer would be foolish to blow off as trivial; considerable umbrage that amounts to little more than Tevis's personal taste in games; and a few “kitchen sink” items thrown in to pad the list list, which are a bit absurd.

Yes, Tevis, we’re all impressed that the game is too easy for you unless you put it on hard, and then it’s too hard. How unlike other games that must have seemed. 

The article is quite long (though well worth the read) but let me give you just a couple of extended quotes so I can work with them.

Now geeks…before I get into this. A moment over here next to the Doctor Who posters if you don’t mind? This will only take a second. I want to ask you a favor—especially if you have enjoyed the article so far. In Geekdom we have a bit of…(what’s a delicate way to put this?)…a reputation. Our ability to maybe accept that sometimes great things have bad parts or that we like something that is in any way problematic isn’t, in a manner of speaking, always demonstrated by our outwardly decorum when we discuss our fandoms. In fact, it is fair to say that sometimes the reason intellectualconversations about geek culture go on around us, and we aren’t invited at all to sit at the table, is that we can be a little…hmmmm.....strident in our defense. So I’m going to ask you to stick with me through the end of the article and see the point I’m making, and if you still want to be “those fans” when it’s all over, I’ll understand. Okay? Okay.

So let’s look at Tevis's criticism:
  • "Elizabeth may clear the very low bar set for women in games, but she’s not a complex character. She’s a companion cube in a corset. For most reviewers, this counts as a real person. Or near enough….She gradually loses her clothes over the game until she is finally re-damselled and etherized upon a table, mo-capped, fully formed. She also flicks coins and supplies at you, just to remind you she’s still there. She is otherwise invisible to the rest of Columbia, despite being its most wanted citizen. She exists only for you, a marvelous tool, an extension of your strapping self….This is all by design. Irrational head Ken Levine wanted the player to forge an emotional connection with Elizabeth but not have her be a burden. Because lord knows, relationships are never burdens.”
  • “Why are the Vox capable of just as much cruelty?….Is it because history is full of examples of bloody rebellions and reigns of terror? But then that ignores the actual historical context in America that Infinite claims to care about, where the long struggle for civil and political rights was remarkably non-violent (at least on the side of the disenfranchised). They wanted to make a point about how any extreme position is dangerous. Even if that position is racial equality, fair wages, or medicine for your daughter dying in Shantytown….Infinite creates a clear moral equivalence between Columbia’s oppressors and oppressed. Both Booker and Elizabeth voice versions of this ‘one no better than the other’ logic, in case you miss the point. Such false equivalencies are beloved by the lazy, the aloof, the cowardly….The straight, white male gamer could in fact find no better home for his high-minded non-politics than BioShock Infinite.” 
Thompson might be one of the most long-winded voices, but he is far from the only one. Here is a link to ten critical responses of B.I..

A few gems from this link:

  • Infinite doesn’t know how to humanize the white citizens of Columbia and make their vile perspectives comprehensible. Instead, it dehumanizes minorities and laborers so that everyone is a monster.”
  • “When your super-liminally racist society ends up being destroyed by the only black characters in the game, who are depicted as violent, white-people-hating, child-murdering savages, you're just confirming the racist white people's ideas about black people and presenting them as true.”
  • “With all of the discussion of misogyny in the industry lately, from sexual harassment, to "if you cosplay then you ask for it" mentality to the Tropes Vs. Women question of "Why's it always the damsel in distress?" I'm dying to know what the women of the industry think of the depiction of Elizabeth. I actually wanted to see her "tear things up" in another way more often.

The long and short of it is that B.I. took on a few sociopolitical topics, with the intention of being enlightened and edgy, and ran afoul of a lot of criticism pointing out that they failed spectacularly in their efforts. In fact, it’s a little bit hard to ignore how consistently the criticism breaks down along exactly those lines with which B.I. was attempting to be “edgy.”

I already know some of you are racing to your keyboards and stimulating your bile ducts. How dare anyone not see this the same way you did!

Yes. Good.

The hate is flowing in you now. Take your nerdrage weapon. Use it. I am unarmed. Strike me down with it. Give in to your hatred and your journey towards the unthinking, rabid fandom will be complete.

Gamers and geeks sometimes have trouble with the idea that media have aspects, and that it’s sometimes okay to like problematic things. Instead, we are intensely driven to have an all or nothing attitude towards those media, an attitude that (ironically) exacerbates the struggle to achieve legitimacy among the snobby assholes high art sommeliers. However, it is absolutely vital to be able to embrace this duality with BioShock Infinite, because its triumphs and its failures are both equally dramatic. For everything B.I. did spectacularly well (and there were many such things), its portrayal of racial struggles as being morally equivalent to racial oppression, and depending only on which side happened to be armed were BREATHTAKINGLY fucked up—in some places (like showing the leader of the movement for equality as a child killer) so OUTRAGEOUSLY so that it almost defies credulity. When that happened, my jaw hit the floor with how white, upper middle-class, silicon-valley-dudebro-who-just-got-yelled-at-on-Twitter-for-writing-a-screed-that-privilege-isn't-really-a-thing the narrative's false equivalence had come. And I made a note to have a nice, long talk with the person who had insisted I would love this game.

Unfortunately, Irrational tried to draw attention to how damned enlightened they were being and it backfired. Don’t get me wrong, the social commentary fit into the thematic exploration we’ve been discussing for the past two articles. (“Isn’t it amazing how this ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ stuff ends up being just a product of external circumstances, and we’d all do the same thing in the same political circumstances. It’s like there isn’t actually any choice in the matter!” Subtle, right?) But with both the racial plot arcs and Elizabeth, Irrational bragged so vociferously about how differently they were handling things than other games that they also drew attention to the glaring flaws.

From the grotesque image of having a murder of crows feast on a person of color, to the entire polemic of “they would be just as bad if they had the guns,” to Elizabeth being nothing more than an ammo dispensing machine in the fights who otherwise stays out of the way, the whole game has the feel of someone who thought they were being "hella woke," but who didn’t stop to actually get a lot of input from people who knew or understood the struggles, contexts, and history into which the story plunged itself head first. Accurate or not, I got the distinct impression that this is what a group of mostly white, mostly male, largely middle-class and generally apolitical gamers thought was a deep social exploration of race relations, and that they really hadn’t spent a lot of time running the likelihood of the history they insinuated into their alternative timeline past anyone but themselves.

I do think B.I. has a sort of value even in the places it came up short. I would recommend it with the same impetus with which I would recommend someone read Huckleberry Finn. It isn’t a realistic, accurate, or even generous portrayal of what it’s attempting, but rather it reveals the social mindsets of the time—in this case OUR time. It shows how people can sort of be facing the right direction, have great intentions, be technically on the right side of big problems like racism, and still really lose the plot when it comes to any nuance. B.I. reveals early 21st century perceptions of racism as a hyperbolic horror from our past, but obtusely (and rather ironically) fails to consider its own set of modern-day insensitivities or how privileged its narrative comes across at times. Irrational’s attempts echo (with an almost spooky harmony) the sentiment espoused by many whites: that they already understand oppression without having experienced it or engaged with those who have, and that "angry" equality movements are just as bad as the oppression against which they struggle.

All this is pretty demonstrable within the game's plot and frame......

However, in addition to of focusing on what B.I. did wrong, and the many many many places it stepped on its own toes in its sloppy attempts to pursue lofty social ideals, let us also return to consider not only the criticism itself, but the intense discussion that it has sparked, all the different opinions, and even the way it has opened the door for some people to become aware of things like privilege and microaggressions because of the larger conversation around B.I.’s ham-handed portrayals.

As people raced to criticize BioShock Infinite, and others raced to defend it, something happened within that crucible—a conversation.

Across a bazillion forums of the Internet, and even a few places in meatspace, that conversation changed people. People in power learned why the sophist polemics of B.I. were hurtful. Marginalized voices had a touchpoint and context with which to discuss broader social failings. A million bits of art or entertainment every day are ignored despite all of the problems B.I. had (and worse) because they’re just not compelling enough to people to bother correcting. BioShock Infinite created something so poignant that folks who took umbrage stood up to point out what was devastatingly wrong.

Take this last quote:

“Its commentary on racial segregation and civil rights; its sheer violence; the lifelessness of its world – these have all fascinated and concerned players. And that is where the discourse comes in. Because it refuses clarity, for good or bad, BioShock Infinite has inspired a huge range of impassioned and conflicting responses.”

Discourse? Feminist theory? Critical race theory? The appropriateness of violence in the setting? The portrayal of turn-of-the-century race relations? Commentary on civil rights? The fleshing out of characters? Wardrobes following male gaze instead of empowerment arcs? Inspiring impassioned and conflicting responses? A crucible of social commentary?

Folks you don’t see this kind of discussion about Centipede or Burger Time.

This isn’t your typical “9/10 Graphics 8/10 Gameplay” reviews. These are the kinds of criticisms and analytical tools we bring to the table when we’re looking at literature and film.
These are the kinds of criticism and analytical tools we bring to the table when we’re looking at “real art.” 
Look, I firmly believe geeks need to have some of their golden calves tipped over, but this also works as one more of my “video games can be real art” proofs:

Even if B.I. crashed and burned (and it arguably did) in its attempt to be edgy and deep with racism in Columbia, the worst criticism that can be leveled at it from an artistic point of view is that it failed.

No one is making a (non ironic) argument that Galaga failed to portray race relations in the 80’s, because there’s no way Galaga ever could have succeeded in doing so. No one applied feminist theory to Contra that was any deeper than “Look—another side scrolling shooter game with two ripped dudes.” Neither Dig Dug nor Q*bert sparked a discourse.

The fact that BioShock Infinite took on such huge topics and got raked over the coals is only proof that had it handled things differently it would have or could have done better. In other words, if the worst thing you can say is that they got it wrong, you must admit that the medium of video games has achieved the point where it is possible to “get it wrong”—or conversely to “get it right.” And that means they have reached the point where they can tackle extremely complex and sophisticated issues.


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