Moderation In Moderation: A Rhetorical Analysis of Race in Irrational Games’ Bioshock Infinite
Bioshock Infinite is a video game developed by Irrational Games and released on March 26, 2013. This game is set in “Colombia,” a massive city suspended in the air that was built by the American government around the turn of the 20th century. Shortly after the city was launched, it was disavowed by the US government and lost to the outside world. After the onset of this isolation, a civil war erupted in Colombia between the city’s different factions, and now only two remain in a chaotic dystopia: the Founders and the Vox Populi. The Founders are the city’s ruling class, who fight for ultra-nationalistic ideals and to keep power in the hands of pure Americans. Additionally, the Founders are religious fanatics who racially segregate foreigners and non-whites. Conversely, the Vox Populi is a group of rebel fighters who attempt to remove the Founders from power, while protecting minorities and the lower classes. Both groups mercilessly use violence to achieve their ends. Through the vividly crafted dystopia of Colombia and its inhabitants, Irrational Games’ Bioshock Infinite has managed to metaphorically deliver a social commentary on political extremism in America, as well as a successful video game.
Racial issues and tensions play a major role in the story and message of Bioshock Infinite. Blatantly racist images and actions are showcased throughout your journey in Colombia, and can result from your character’s actions as well. For example, you find yourself in a fair after first entering Colombia, where there is a raffle of everyone’s tickets. Your character wins, and “earns” the privilege of publically stoning an African-American who was involved in an interracial marriage. Although you don’t actually stone the woman, the game wastes no time before introducing the controversial topics at hand. Other racial images such as a segregated immigration card, which separates immigrants into different classes by ethnicity, and a patriotic mural, which refers to a group of non-whites as a “foreign horde,” are also used to demonstrate the social tensions in Colombia.
Ethos and pathos are both utilized to effectively to convey the game’s message, and are critical to the player’s perception of their environment. Firstly, the authority of the message and game is quite powerful, making the ethos of the argument strong. Irrational Games is a successful game company, and the first two installments of the Bioshock series received universal critical acclaim, as has Bioshock Infinite. Additionally, the quality of the game itself goes a long way towards selling the ideas it conveys. Vivid art and relatable characters combine to create the awe-inspiring atmosphere of Colombia. Perhaps most importantly, millions of people play and love the game, making it impossible to ignore or dismiss. Pathos is the strongest rhetorical device used to push the agenda of Biochock Infinite. By choosing the medium of a video game, the player must take responsibility for his/her actions inside the game, making the story’s events more real for the viewer than other mediums, like paintings or text articles, would. Additionally, the state of the dystopian Colombia evokes strong emotions of disgust and horror, and the actions and ideas of both factions make the game impossible to thoughtlessly complete. Violence is rampant in the streets, and the messages of both factions’ leaders sound reckless and psychotic. In other words, the emotions of the game’s message force the viewer to truly pay attention to the deeper content in the game. Also, Bioshock Infinite is a very fun game to play. Enjoyment makes the viewer return for more and to stay engaged with the story and setting of Colombia. These rhetorical devices combine to make the message of Irrational Games inescapable, but what is this message?
It has already been shown that Bioshock Infinite contains ideas of racism, nationalism, violence, hatred, religious fanaticism, and dystopian society. In each case, Biochock Infinite portrays these values or beliefs in their most extreme varieties. The ill-effects of these views are make painfully clear, and evoke a negative emotional response from the player, as they are seen from a first-person perspective. In this way, Irrational Games’ Bioshock Infinite is warning players and society towards moderation in such beliefs, and is showing that extremes are rarely, if ever, positive influences. Connections can easily be made between the nationalistic and religious ideas shown in the game and modern-day far right political factions such as the Tea Party. Additionally, the violent and popular rebellion seen in the game can be connected to far left factions such as the Occupy movement today. Of course neither political group is as extreme as the factions showcased in Bioshock Infinite, but the similarities between their founding ideals remain, and a great deal of ill will exists on both ends of the political spectrum today.
What Irrational Games does with Bioshock Infinite is create a fantastical version of America’s past to serve as a cautionary tale for America’s future, while designing a compelling story and successful video game. Rarely does a developer of a major game send any sort of controversial message out of fear of lowering sales and ratings. However, Bioshock Infinite has dared to go further, asking all its players to reflect on America today and see how even moderation is good in moderation, regardless of their political views.
“Bioshock Infinite.” Age Gate. Irrational Games, n.d. Web. 10 Apr. 2013. <http://www.bioshockinfinite.com/home>.