Moving Targets: Player Choice and the Politics of Bioshock: Infinite
This post was generously guest-written by former .Viz contributor, Casey Sloan. Casey incessantly reads and writes about gothic novels, Victorian culture, individualism, and gender studies. She has craftily parlayed these fixations into research interests for the UT English Department's PhD program. Currently, she is exploring DWRL avenues in order to drag other passions, particularly internet identity and video game culture, into her professional life.
You are given a ball at a fair. You are told you can either throw the ball at a racist carnival barker or at an interracial couple tied up in the midst of insulting cardboard cutouts. As a player in this video game (Bioshock: Infinite, to be precise), you are faced with the question: what do I do? As a critic of this video game, you are faced with the question: what does being faced with the question "what do I do" mean?
Image Credit: Bioshock Wikia
On a broader scale, we can ask, specifically, how video games construct ideological arguments for their players. Coming from a background in literary criticism, I'm used to relying on narrative elements when constructing an ideology critique. Points like plot, characters and setting necessarily influence a text's paradigms. Writing style also plays a crucial role: diction, syntax, tone, and style. Basically, critics looking at your standard prose narrative have to ask what is being said and, perhaps more importantly, how is it being said. The same holds true with cinema studies. Words on a page focus a reader's attention the way a panning camera shows a viewer what's important (or supposed to be important) about a scene.
Video games often rely on similar elements to construct their worlds. By "worlds" I do not simply mean a fantastical realm in which "real life" laws are broken and fictional characters come to life. I also mean the general paradigms of these fictional, simulated spaces: the sorts of values, ethics and identities elaborated by a game. For example, Bioshock: Infinite suggests the moral bankruptcy of discriminatory practices by introducing the player to a world in which casual racism is practiced only by villains while sympathetic characters support values like emancipation and equality. Through rather simple narrative techniques (giving the player diaries to read from the perspective of black characters and designing a plot that dynamically moves towards the eradication of class-based and racial oppression), the game appears to take a moral stand against a society constructed on an unequal distribution of power.
But can video game criticism be built entirely on standards of "reading" or "viewing"? What about the problem of situations constructed on the affective hinge of player choice? Aren't there other dimensions to player experience than the unfolding of a story or the cinematic enjoyment of cutscenes? Many scholars, gamers and critics argue: yes.
Ludology is the burgeoning field of game studies. It strives to combine analytical techniques from literary and film criticism while also attending to elements in games that seem unique to the medium. Ludology, for example, would ask us to critically attend to features of Bioshock: Infinite that cannot be charted neatly with familiar critical methods. A ludological reading reveals that the driving ideology of the game holds that racism generates directly from evil people who need to be eradicated through violent means. Though it falls beyond the rather narrow scope of my reading of a single, specific scene in the game, I simply must note here that this ludological reading clashes paradoxically with the narrative's supposedly progressive politics, particularly in the jarring disconnect between the implicitly justified violence of the player's avatar and the condemned violence of the Vox Populi, the game's revolutionary faction.
Bioshock: Infinite is set in the floating city of Columbia, an extremist society ruled by the principles of religious fundamentalism and American exceptionalism. The player explores this culture as Booker DeWitt, an ex-Pinkerton agent turned private investigator who served as a soldier during the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890. Booker traverses Columbia searching for a mysterious girl named Elizabeth, who, he later learns, can manipulate space-time by opening dimensional portals called "Tears." During his quest to take Elizabeth out of Columbia, the pair is thrown into the sociopolitical upheaval of the city. The city's upper class, comprised of wealthy white citizens, struggle to retain power while the Vox Populi, a grassroots revolutionary group, fight for the rights of oppressed racial minorities and the poor.
Image Credit: Amazon.co.uk
Since the game is a first-person shooter, the player effectively "sees" what Booker sees and interacts with the environment via Booker's virtual body. The player, in other words, not only controls Booker's actions but, cinematically, is Booker. In “Immersion, Engagement, and Presence: A Method for Analyzing 3-D Video Games,” game studies scholar Alison McMahan explains that the interface of first-person shooters lends itself to high levels of player "presence." This interface collapses the vision of the player and the player’s avatar, which encourages players to think of the on-screen environment as that which is immediately available to the eye. The hands of the avatar can also often be seen, and their actions tend to correspond with actions taken by the player’s hands. For the X-Box 360 console version of Bioshock: Infinite, for example, diagetic or in-game gunfire corresponds to the extradiagetic or physical action of pulling of the controller’s trigger.
While a vast majority of the game involves skill-based gunfights, collecting supplies like health and ammunition, and real-time exploration of the world, the player is occasionally given direct options for how to interact with certain scenarios or objects. At the beginning of the game, you stumble across a gruesome spectacle. A delighted crowd has gathered to stone an interracial couple and you are given a baseball and the option to either a) participate by choosing "THROW AT COUPLE" or b) violently reject the cruelty by attacking the festival's organizer by picking "THROW AT ANNOUNCER." You can also allow the timer for the decision to run out and simply not throw, though this option is not formally articulated by the on-screen prompts. Your avatar, Booker, also has brief custom monologues for two of the three options. If you let the timer run out, Booker mutters "I'm not throwing that." If you throw the ball at the announcer, Booker injects the angry aside "I've got something for you, you son of a bitch." Opting to assault the couple results only in Booker's silence.
An informal poll on IGN.com (accessed April 6, 2015) shows that 71 out of 79 players chose to throw the ball at Fink, the announcer. You are effectively set up by the game to reject the grisly, racist violence by several factors. The sudden reveal of this apparent utopia's virulent prejudices (this is the first you hear or see of the rampant racism in Columbia), coupled with the timed pressure to choose an option encourages the player to ride the wave of an emotional upsurge and strike out against the oppressor. The outside knowledge the player brings to the game (anxiety about miscegenation is ignorant and hateful, as is drawing cartoonish "links" between black people and animals) is supplemented in-game by the broad, obvious villainy of the announcer and the selfless pleas uttered by the couple ("I'm the one you want. Let her go."). Even Booker’s dialogue seems designed to sanction one particular choice over the other two. Booker only reveals emotional involvement when he decides to attack Fink, effectively demonstrating that Booker is essentially a "good guy." Why else would you attack the announcer save out of a sense of righteous indignation?
On the other end of the spectrum, Booker’s silence that accompanies the choice to throw the ball at the couple ultimately exemplifies a problem with the game's politics. If righteous fury fuels his assault on Fink, why would Booker throw the ball at the couple? Is it because he, like Fink, is a malicious racist who delights in the suffering of others? Or does Booker simply want to blend in with the crowd? His silence indicates an unwillingness on the part of game's designers to commit to any single motivation for the character, but the omitted nuance brings along with it the idea that racism in its most insidious form is less about villainy and more about institutionalized, systemic, and normalized violence. Paying attention to how games interpellate players and direct player experience through game elements like choice and decision making can yield rich readings inaccessible through purely literary or cinematic criticism. Bioshock: Infinite allows the player to enjoy the emotional release of, essentially, attacking racism by attacking a racist. You are encouraged in your player experience to revel in the implied notion that enough bullets (or baseballs) will rid Columbia of wicked individuals and therefore of wicked ideologies.