Lifting the Curtain: White Privilege and Bioshock Infinite

There’s a certain point in the beginning of the video game Bioshock Infinite where you, as the main character, step out of a rocket ship into what appears to be a massive church.  The ambiance is beatific.  Multiple rooms with altars and pews.  Glowing stained glass.  Hallways of ankle-deep water.  Lit candles.  The background is filled with a woman’s angelic voice singing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”  As I walked the character through that space, I felt a chill.  The excellent graphics and sound of the game were presenting to me a representation of a deeply important ritual.  I was prompted to join a circle of worshipers, then was baptized in the water.  After, the character stumbles outside to be met by an unbelievable paradise.  A literal floating city in the sky, named Columbia.  The game encourages you, the player, to take your time walking the main character through the city, which is currently celebrating a festival.  Nostalgia for the early 20th century permeates the atmosphere, which is full of children playing, a barbershop quartet performing, and old-timey shops and kiosks.  You, the player, feel at home.  It feels like the perfect ideal of a safe, warm, and comfortable existence, walking the tiled streets in absolute freedom and leisure.

Then, you reach the raffle.  You guide your character to a bucket of numbered baseballs and have them pick one out.  The emcee pointedly and intentionally refers to the girl holding the bucket as “the prettiest young white girl in all of Columbia.”  Of course, your character wins the raffle.  The prize is revealed upon the lifting of a curtain: using the numbered baseball as the “first throw” at a bound and helpless couple.  The bound woman is black; the bound man her white husband.  They are standing in a crude facsimile of a jungle, surrounded by cardboard monkeys with exaggerated Jim Crow features.  The emcee and the crowd are cheering and begging you, the character, to throw the baseball at the couple as hard as you can, with couple pleading and screaming for mercy.  In one fell swoop, the real Columbia is revealed. 

I believe that the creative talent of Irrational Games knew exactly what they were doing with this exercise.  I, the character, was only allowed to walk freely throughout the streets of Columbia and participate in the resulting festivities because of my whiteness.  I was allowed to walk through the church, join the believers, and be baptized in the water because of my lack of melanin.  A church that, I’ll add, was nothing but an artifice designed to draw me in and sell me a vestige of a spiritual experience that turned to rot at the single pulling of a curtain.  I, the player, Reed Lawson, initially felt moved and awed by the experience of Columbia because of my real-world whiteness.  It was because of this whiteness that I didn’t notice at first that Jesus is not worshipped at this seemingly Christian church.  This society worships their town prophet, a man, and the USA founding fathers over God, who’s a distant third in hierarchy.  It was because of this whiteness that I didn’t notice the statues of these founding fathers everywhere in the city.  It was because of this whiteness that I didn’t realize that every single person in Columbia was also white.  The reality of Columbia was not behind a curtain after all, but naked and present for all to see.  The real curtain was my own privilege as a white man.

The game fundamentally changes after the “raffle”.  In what I suppose was a decision made in order to not make the situation too unbearable, the player is given a choice whether to actually throw the baseball or not.  To use the language of NBA player Kyle Korver’s excellent article on white privilege for the Player’s Tribune, one can “opt in” or “opt out” to the scenario.  So, I chose to throw it at the emcee instead.  Everyone INSTANTLY turns on the character, with the police being dispatched to attack them on sight.  Citizens of the town, who seconds ago were charming and welcoming, will run in fear from and even snitch on the character’s presence.  The rest of the game, in contrast to the earlier serenity, is spent on the run from the police and city authorities.  Thus, choosing to act against racism results in the character being marked as “other,” and a danger to society at large. 

Ultimately, I’m just a white dude, with a white dude’s filtered understanding of what white privilege is and how it should be used properly.  If I may, though, I would invite you, the reader, to consider how it is that you are actually able to do what you are able to do on a daily basis.  Think about how worried or not worried you are if you were to see a police car in your rear-view mirror.  Consider how easily or not easily you can find yourself in certain places without folks wondering if you deserve to be there.  I would invite you to consider what you are worshipping, exactly.  Are you being led by the example of Jesus?  Or, are you worshipping at the tainted altar of the United States, giving the hard-earned smoked of your offerings to an infrastructure of systemic racism and oppression?   If the ease at which you exist in the world begins to make you feel uncomfortable, good.  I want you to lean into that.  Then dig deeper.  Study the awful history of this country.  Listen to your black and brown friends, colleagues, and leaders.  Give your money to businesses owned and operated by non-white folks.  Examine how your words and actions are holding space for toxicity and ugliness and then change that behavior.  And, if you see something that’s racist, speak out against it. 

Reed Lawson
Reed Lawson is a first-year student at Wake Forest School of Divinity. He enjoys all things pop culture, tabulating baseball statistics, and spending time with his wife and one-year-old son.

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