**Minor spoilers below!
The moment I entered the BioShock Infinite universe, I felt as though I was in some parallel version of United States history. Within five minutes, I was face to face with grand statues of three of the nation’s founding fathers — Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin. Within ten minutes, I felt as though I was literally exploring a city based in early 20th century America; wandering around the streets of Columbia, one can easily find that historical context is everywhere in the game. Flapper jazz, a music style that was still developing, plays through the streets. Families spend leisure time at ice cream parlors. Women are dressed in lithe attire and hobble skirts (still wondering how they actually walked in those), and men are dressed in suits and coats. Personally, this is how my ever-so-idealistic mind exaggerates the early 20th century to be–a time of high fashion, parties, and jazz… like The Great Gatsby minus all the drama. However, once I was comfortable with this city in the sky, BioShock Infinite was kind to remind me of the flaws in my optimistic nature. When running into the Order of Ravens and staring at a lumbering statue of John Wilkes Boothe, I was immediately reminded of the assassination of Lincoln and the actions of the Ku Klux Klan. When first being introduced to Jeremiah Fink, I recalled robber barrons of the time period, as well as Fink’s uncanny resemblance to John D. Rockefeller. I was reminded of war, oppression, racism, white supremacy, and propaganda — all of which is in the game… all of which is also a part of America’s history.
Let’s take a look at some of the key plot points in Infinite to see how they fit into the history books and the overall game.
The Battle of Wounded Knee – 1890
The Battle of Wounded Knee occurred on December 29th of 1890, at Wounded Knee Creek. Tensions between the native tribes and the Americans were high. Many Native American tribes, including the Sioux, were confined to reservations and angered at the destruction of the plains and the disappearance of Buffalo, one of their primary food sources. Because of their distress, many of the Native Americans began to perform spiritual ghost dances, which were believed to aid them in achieving freedom from their opression. When the American agents of the reservations saw these dances occur, they claimed that the natives needed to be pacified and troops were called in to make arrests. What was initially meant to be a series of arrests led to a massacre of hundreds of people — innocents and warriors alike. On December 29th, The 7th Cavalry (of which Booker was a member of in the game) surrounded a camp of Sioux Indians attempting to flee to safety. How the massacre began is still a matter of debate among scholars, but what we do know is that 300 Sioux were killed, including families and children.
The Battle of Wounded Knee is referenced frequently throughout the game, and is an especially noteworthy plot point when considering Booker DeWitt’s own background. We know Booker was a rather successful member of the 7th Calvary, but all we hear from him is that he has obvious regrets about what occurred there. Proving to be successful during the battle means that Booker had his fair share of burning homes and perhaps even killing children. Eventually we discover that this battle, and Booker’s actions within it, set into motion the events of the entire game by providing the emotional baggage necessary to call for a rebirth through baptism. I would say that, despite the lack of description within the game of the actual event, Booker’s own reaction to it confirms that his experience was probably historically accurate.
The Boxer Rebellion – 1898- 1901
Continuing on our history lesson, the Boxer Rebellion took place between 1898 and 1901. The rebellion began when a number of Chinese citizens created a society known as the I-ho ch’üa, or Righteous and Harmonious Fists (pretty splendid name for a political organization). Many of the members practiced martial arts (hence the Western name, Boxer) and rituals which were believed to make them immune to bullets. Angered by the rise of Christianity and imperialism in China, the Boxers set out to rid the country of foreigners, whom they believed were destroying Chinese culture. Initially successful thanks to the support of the Chinese Empress, the Boxers were eventually defeated by 8-nation alliance (which included America) in 1901. Atrocities occurred on both sides of this event — the Boxers killed thousands of foreigners and Christians, but the alliance also beheaded anyone who was even thought to be associated with Boxers and there are even accounts of rape and murder.
In BioShock Infinite we learn that Columbia seceded from the United States after firing upon Chinese civilians during the Boxer Rebellion. While it is unclear why Comstock chose to secede, we can see that eventually he turned the Boxer Rebellion in his favor. In the Hall of Heroes, where nationalist propaganda is aplenty, we can see that Comstock credits the victory of the alliance to Columbia’s involvement — inevitably painting himself as the hero. The poem in the display reads:
“With yellow skin and slanted eyes
They did betray us with their lies.
Till they crossed the righteous path
Of our prophet’s holy wrath. “
While I’m sure there were no cities or zeppelins in the sky bombing the Chinese, the recollections of the Rebellion within the game come across as being fairly accurate. The alliance was undeniably power hungry following their success, and Comstock was no exception.
Worlds Columbian Exposition – 1893
In 1893, Chicago hosted the World’s Columbian Exposition, also known as the Chicago World’s Fair. Celebrating the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of the new world (in 1492), the fair was viewed as an opportunity to display American Exceptionalism. Much like the Great Exhibition that inspired Victorian England, this fair set novel trends in industry, fashion, and architecture. It awed over 27 million visitors with attractions that ranged from the World’s first Ferris Wheel (perhaps an inspiration for the Columbian skyline?) to a 1,500 pound chocolate version of Venus de Milo (yum).
The World’s Columbian Exposition was also home to what was called the White City, in which neoclassical buildings towered over the streets. Built with a white stucco material, the buildings were illuminated in contrast to the city of Chicago itself. According to Erik Larson, author of the book The Devil in the White City, many people were brought to tears at the overall spectacle of the city. In a rather grandiose fashion, the White City was beaming with national pride — the buildings were lined with American flags while the towering Ferris wheel loomed over smaller structures. Lights shined upon the water and the buildings, ultimately giving the illusion that the city was floating on the water. Sound much like Columbia? Look at some images of the city, and you may not be able to tell the difference, minus the sepia tone, of course.
In the BioShock Infinite universe, we learn that Columbia was launched into the air in 1893, the exact same year as the World’s Columbian Exposition. While some liberties were taken in the historical account of the fair, I think it is safe to say that the city of Columbia is based off the White City itself. Traversing through Columbia provides the player with an almost ethereal experience of exploring a World’s fair — breathtaking structures lie in every direction. Magical vigors are showcased to the public. Yummy treats like candies, popcorn, and soda-pop line the streets. However, these were not the only attractions present both within the actual fair and the game itself — the White City also stood for white supremacy and the concept of “the white man’s burden” — in which is it the job of the white man to enlighten lesser races. Many events in the White City focused around showcasing Native or African Americans in exhibits for “educational” purposes. We can see a version of this in the game when Booker wins the lottery for what appears to be a public lynching of an inter-racial couple. In fact, the overall concept of racism is extremely prevalent throughout the game, and merits an article all its own.
Although some of the historical context within the game does deviate from historical norms, there is still accuracy to be found. As a women who was born and raised in United States, I was shocked to find the amount information I did not know about my own history. I was even more astonished when I came to the realization that I was learning more from a video game and the internet than I learned in the classroom. I can speak for hours about the problematic effects of British Imperialism in India, and yet cannot recall the repercussions of America’s involvement in the Boxer Rebellion. Had I of not taken history classes in college, I probably would not have known of the massacre that occurred at Wounded Knee. In the creation of the game, Ken Levine–being the history buff that he is– was not insulting America by any means. Though it could be argued that much of the radicalism found within game is indeed exaggerated, it is by no means baseless. In some respects, he is actually highlighting what many of our history books seem to miss. It exemplifies our need to analyze , criticize, and understand. What BioShock Infinite’s world ultimately provides us with is a glimpse into an alternate, but somewhat accurate, American history… in both its glory and its terror.
(Article published on Gameranx.)