Definitive Bioshock Infinite Review with Benchmarks

Columbia: Disturbingly Grounded In Our Own History

Opportunities to use my poli sci degree in tech journalism are few and far between, but BioShock Infinite delivers them in spades. Columbia in 1912 echoes elements of historical American political thought. The Columbia of BioShock Infinite seceded from the Union after unilaterally intervening in the Chinese Boxer Rebellion. It's rabidly imperialist, jingoistic, and racist.

Levine has interwoven those elements into the game in ways that may make modern players uncomfortable. Father Comstock talks, unironically, about the white man's burden. Children's literature in the game makes direct reference to blatantly racist depictions of people and events. It might come off as preachy, until you consult the historical record:

There was a time when the sentiments expressed in BioShock Infinite were downright common

Levine has previously stated that BI was inspired partly by a speech President McKinley gave concerning the future of the Philippines. In it, McKinley stated that the United States, having seized the Philippines:

(1) That we could not give them back to Spain—that would be cowardly and dishonorable; (2) that we could not turn them over to France and Germany—our commercial rivals in the Orient—that would be bad business and discreditable; (3) that we could not leave them to themselves—they were unfit for self-government—and they would soon have anarchy and misrule over there worse than Spain’s was; and (4) that there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died. (emphasis added)

To be sure, BioShock Infinite is a game. The jingoistic imperialism exemplified by Columbia's upper crust were an element of America's late-19th / early-20th century mentality, not all of it. The game's industrialist, Jeremiah Fink, is the distilled essence of every robber baron that bestrode the Gilded Age.

One of the reasons this blending works is because BioShock mostly shows, instead of telling. In a game that reveres the Founders and Framers, Abraham Lincoln -- the Great Emancipator -- is reviled. But while BioShock Infinite does offer some discussion of this point, it demonstrates it visually first, as below:

It's an example of a very different world -- a world that happens to look and sound an awful lot like ours did, once upon a time. And the way Irrational Games blended real history with fantasy is brilliant.

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