The Politics of BioShock Infinite

BioShock Infinite is more than an excellent video game, it's a daring exploration of how familiar political ideas can be warped into something more dangerous.

“When Fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross” – unknown

In the first two installments in the BioShock franchise, the underwater city of Rapture serves as a political experiment. Andrew Ryan’s libertarian utopia is then replaced with Dr. Sophia Lamb’s socialist utopia. And yet utopias quickly turn into dystopias. The first two games take a cynical approach to utopian ideals by quickly showing their inner rotten cores.

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Ken Levine, creator of BioShockdescribed his feelings on utopias in this way: “And that’s the tragedy of the utopia, right? We bring people into them. And people and ideas…people aren’t as rigid as ideas are. Therefore, these experiments keep getting corrupted from the start.” In many ways, BioShock Infinite follows suit. Of course, Columbia’s spiritual leader, Zachary Hale Comstock aims for the sky instead of under the sea. And yet Comstock’s Columbia shares the disastrous fate of Rapture. His utopia is based on American Exceptionalism and rooted in fascist ideals but suffers from the same decay as all utopias before it.

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To refer to Columbia as fascist is somewhat of an anachronism. BioShock Infinite takes place in 1912, a full ten years before Mussolini popularized the term. And yet, fascism accurately describes Columbia’s government. But what exactly do we mean when we use the term “fascism?” This isn’t the hyperbolized version of fascism that is used to describe any and all authority one disagrees with. Instead, this is the fascism of Hitler, Franco, and Mussolini. Julia Layton wrote about how difficult it is to define fascism but lays out four characteristics that most fascist systems have in common: authoritarian leadership, strict social order, survival of the fittest, and the use of violence.

Layton describes the concept of authoritarian leadership as “The State’s interests require a single, charismatic leader with absolute authority. This is the concept of Führerprinzip, “the leadership principle” in German — that it’s necessary to have an all-powerful, heroic leader to maintain the unity and unquestioning submission required by the fascist State. This leader often becomes a symbol of the State.”

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This is certainly true for Zachary Hale Comstock. Comstock is Columbia’s charismatic leader in both political and spiritual matters. It was this very charisma that allowed him the access to the American government and the top scientists it took to create Columbia. This clout gave him even more power so that when Columbia seceded from The United States, his following was already strong. Dr. Lawrence Britt writes, “Governments in fascist nations tend to use the most common religion in the nation as a tool to manipulate public opinion.” Comstock is referred to using religious titles. He is not only the founder of Columbia but he is also Father Comstock and The Prophet. To defy him is not only to put physical life in jeopardy but also spiritual life and the afterlife. Comstock says, “The Lord forgives everything, but I’m just a prophet…so I don’t have to. Amen.”

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The mythology surrounding Comstock’s life is extensive. He is said to have prophetic abilities and can see the future of Columbia. His otherworldly claims include a remarkably short gestation period for his child and heir to Columbia. Of course, both of these claims are fairly dubious but that isn’t really the point. His followers believe him and use this mythos in order to claim Comstock’s legitimacy. These beliefs grow his cult of personality: a trait shared among many fascist dictators.

But fascism can’t survive on a charismatic dictator alone. It also relies on a strict social order, and Columbia shares this characteristic with many historical fascist regimes. Social order in Columbia is based on the government’s complete control of religion, race relations, and economics. 

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Columbia’s government and religion are completely entangled. Father Comstock is both the religious leader and the head of government. Dr. Lawrence Britt writes, “Religious rhetoric and terminology is common from government leaders, even when the major tenets of the religion are diametrically opposed to the government’s policies or actions.” So while Comstock preaches Christianity, the rhetoric of racial purity, the disdain for the poor, and use of violence seems to contradict the basic teachings of Christ.

Besides controlling a state religion, Columbia is based on strict rules regarding race relations. One of the first things Booker DeWitt experiences in Columbia is the consequences of disrupting race relations. He is asked to help a crowd stone an interracial couple. The entire civilization is based on the notion of white supremacy. It’s reflected in every aspect of civilization: racial slurs, segregated bathrooms, and narratives of history.

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Jeremy Hsu writes about the racial parallels of Columbia and the real 1893 Chicago World Fair. He compares the two showing how racism was justified at the turn of the 20th century. He writes, “one of the most unambiguous displays of racist attitudes in Columbia emerges in a wall fresco that shows George Washington, ten commandments and liberty bell in hand, warding off a crowd of stereotypical ethnic peoples. Beneath Washington’s feet reads the inscription: “It is our holy duty to guard against the foreign hordes.”

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This Social Darwinism is one of the four pillars of fascism. Hsu writes, “That sense of racial hierarchy and hints of scientific racism fill the streets and halls of Columbia. The floating city’s racial underclass (referred to by Columbia’s white citizens as the “coloreds,” “potato-eaters,” and “Orientals”) commonly appear in the game as lowly servants, laborers, and even as members of a chain gang. Projectors found in a lab show facial profiles of American Indians and other ethnic groups as objects of scientific study.”

This racial prejudice is upheld by the economy. People of color are never given the opportunity to advance. We can see this through Fink Industries. People can barely scrap out a living and all of the well paying jobs are filled by white people. In prospering Columbia, there is still a seedy underbelly in the shantytown.

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But institutional racism isn’t the only thing creating a corrupt economic sphere. The economy is tied tightly with law enforcement. And they don’t hesitate to use these connections to brutalize labor organizers. In fact, Booker DeWitt himself is a former Pinkerton who insinuates a history of violent union busting. Dr. Lawrence Britt writes, “The industrial and business aristocracy of a fascist nation often are the ones who put the government leaders into power, creating a mutually beneficial business/government relationship and power elite.” The leaders of Columbia run a tight ship. They have their hands in the economy and spiritual life of society.

But fascism isn’t the only political influence on Columbia. Columbia is also influenced by American Exceptionalism. Shawn Elliot, designer for Bioshock Infinite, describes American Exceptionalism as ” the notion that America, whether by divine intent or for whatever reason, is unique on the world stage and has a special destiny. Clearly the people who constructed Columbia very much believe that.”

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This American Exceptionalism turns to idol worship with their portrayal of the Founding Fathers as Saint like figures. History is told in such a way that white Americans are always in the right. They are the heroes and the defenders of civilization. And, of course, Columbia (the woman) is held up as the sacred goddess of the United States and the purest form of America. It was only forced to break away from the country because Comstock and his followers felt that America had betrayed its principles. They must maintain this “pure” America through any means necessary including war, racial segregation, violence against its own citizens, and economic control.

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Columbia, at its heart, is a bastardized, violent fascist regime waving the flag of democracy, purity, and Christianity. Many people have pointed out that this game hits on many of the political topics that are on people’s minds today. Some people have seen this as a critique of the Tea Party, while thers see elements of the Occupy Movement in Vox Populi. And yet, when it comes down to it, BioShock Infinite is a video game. Ken Levine’s real success comes not in his historical analysis of America in 1912 or his representations of fascism. His real success is creating a game that is not only amazing to play but happens to spark intellectual conversations. 

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