The White City at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair.
A crowd jeers at a tied-up interracial couple consisting of a white man and black woman. A memorial hall lionizes a city founder as the defender of white people against hordes of Chinese "Boxer" rebels and American Indian warriors. Such eye-popping scenes appear throughout the wildly popular game Bioshock Infinite, set aboard a fictional flying city whose beautiful façades stand in contrast to its ugly period representation of racism.
Video games may seem like odd vehicles for showcasing racist and ultranationalist attitudes of the US at the turn of the century. But the 1912 setting of Bioshock Infinite and its floating city of Columbia draws direct inspiration from the Chicago World's Fair of 1893—a huge historical event that contrasted powerful displays of U.S. technological prowess with living ethnological exhibits of indigenous peoples from around the world, such as the Arabian circus and "cannibals" that separately marched about.
Robert Rydell, a historian of world's fairs at Montana State University, could easily have been talking about the fictional Columbia when he described the Chicago World's Fair as a "utopian construct built upon racist assumptions."
The first section of the world's fair, named the White City without irony, held grand neoclassical buildings showcasing all the latest and greatest innovations of the U.S. at the time. Many visitors were moved to tears by the awesome architecture of the White City, according to Erik Larson's bestselling book The Devil in the White City. Bioshock creator Ken Levine has acknowledged that book as an inspiration for his game's setting. He's also said that video game creators shouldn't shy away from difficult social issues, and the game's exploration of scientific racism is rooted in the period it portrays.
Few people have admitted being moved to tears by seeing Columbia for the first time in Bioshock Infinite. But the game knowingly channels a sense of history by depicting Columbia as having originated to become the greatest marvel of the Chicago World's Fair. The game design also seems to reflect the goal of creating an awe-inspiring experience — game critics and players have praised the early presentation of Columbia, a sun-dappled city floating in the clouds with American flags flying, as positively breathtaking.
Bioshock Infinite also takes cues from another part of the Chicago World's Fair. If the White City represented the pinnacle of (white) civilization, the Midway Plaisance mixed ethnological exhibits of different cultures with the more traditional entertainment present at fairs or carnivals. Fairgoers could enjoy their first taste of carbonated soda, hamburgers, and Cracker Jack as they gawked at American Indians, Labrador Eskimos, and Egyptians reenacting cultural performances or daily life activities.
A more twisted version of the Midway experience appears in Bioshock Infinite. In the first section of the game, players wander around the annual Columbia Raffle & Fair, filled with carnival games and vendors serving up hot dogs and cotton candy. When the player pulls the winning number during the raffle, the prize is wheeled out: a chance to throw the winning number ball at the bound interracial couple in front of a laughing crowd of fairgoers.
Crowds jeer at the interracial couple in the game, while the set design epitomizes racist African caricatures of the period.
Such scenes help Bioshock Infinite presents an alternate, yet disturbingly familiar, version of US history. The "Founders" of Columbia take US nationalism to dizzying heights by literally worshipping the US founding fathers, emphasizing racial purity for the ruling white class, and imbuing all actions with a fanatical sense of religious mission and righteousness. But the fictional game still grounds itself in history by draping itself in all the trappings of American exceptionalism and racism embodied by the historical Chicago World's Fair.
The ethnological exhibits along the Midway ended up "providing a lesson in racial hierarchy" for fairgoers, according to Gail Bederman, a cultural historian at the University of Notre Dame. With the endorsement of leading anthropologists, the Chicago World's Fair presented a hierarchy of race that seemed to put a scientific stamp of approval on racist attitudes of the day.
Anthropologists such as Frederick Ward Putnam, a Harvard University scholar, endorsed the ethnological exhibits organized by private contributors. Putnam might have preferred to emphasize the scientific and educational value of such exhibits over pure entertainment, but his attitudes still reflected a paternalistic view from the standpoint of the "White Man's Burden"—the idea that white people had the duty to civilize "colored" peoples.
Javanese Gamelan Orchestra and Topeng masked dancers perform at the Chicago World's Fair, via LoC
"This little colony of native people is not intended for a side show for the amusement of the visitor, but for a scientific study of the first historic people of America," Putnam wrote. "Moreover these people are treated with kindness and consideration and are allowed every opportunity for improvement by observation of the benefits of civilization and education."
A 1904 article published in the journal Science also describes "Opportunities in Anthropology at the World's Fair" at another event held later in St. Louis, because the event supposedly afforded anthropologists a chance to study many ethnic groups in one place. Some anthropologists even performed autopsies on any unfortunate indigenous people who happened to die during the world's fair event.
That sense of racial hierarchy and hints of scientific racism fill the streets and halls of Columbia. The floating city's racial underclass—referred to by Columbia’s white citizens as the "coloreds," "potato-eaters," and "Orientals"—commonly appear in the game as lowly servants, laborers, and even as members of a chain gang. Projectors found in a lab show facial profiles of American Indians and other ethnic groups as objects of scientific study.
One of the most unambiguous displays of racist attitudes in Columbia emerges in a wall fresco that shows George Washington, ten commandments and liberty bell in hand, warding off a crowd of stereotypical ethnic peoples. Beneath Washington’s feet reads the inscription: “It is our holy duty to guard against the foreign hordes.”
A Bioshock Infinite promotional poster highlighting the game's portrait of early-20th century racism and nationalism.
Such racist attitudes at the world's fair events—channeled by Bioshock—both reflected and reinforced the attitude of a United States that had empire-building ambitions abroad. The US government imported about 1,200 Filipinos for display at the 1904 world's fair at a time when Theodore Roosevelt's presidential administration was trying to justify US occupation of the Philippines following the Spanish-American War. World's fair historian Robert Rydell described the effort as "promotional," "propagandistic," and "anthropological" all at the same time.
"People from the Philippines, who were said to be in various stages of civilization or savagery, were put on display with all sorts of accoutrements demonstrating that they would be more or less willing workers in an American empire," Rydell said in a PBS.org article.
US Marines had also joined an international force fighting Chinese Imperial troops and Boxer rebels during the Battle of Peking, an event where Chinese forces besieged foreign diplomats in Beijing (Peking) during the height of the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. The rebellion had stemmed in large part from Chinese resentment of foreign powers controlling parts of China. (The Battle of Peking is given a revisionist twist in the fictional history of Bioshock Infinite when the floating city of Columbia uses its considerable firepower to burn Peking to the ground.)
Similar attitudes prevailed toward the American Indian tribes at home. Three years prior to the Chicago World's Fair, the US had capped off the American Indian Wars, when troopers of the 7th Cavalry indiscriminately slaughtered Lakota Sioux men, women, and children during the infamous Wounded Knee Massacre. That incident becomes a pivotal shared experience for both the protagonist (Booker DeWitt) and antagonist (Zachary Hale Comstock) of Bioshock Infinite, and is presented in a Columbia memorial hall through a highly biased interpretation of the Lakota Sioux as menacing savages.
For all the parallels between the fictional game and real history, the issues of racism and empire eventually fall by the wayside as the Bioshock Infinite story twists and turns its way toward its conclusion. But the game has generated plenty of debate about racism along the way, as well as provoking anger from white supremacists who viewed the game as a “white-person-killing simulator.”
Does it stand up to creator Levine's assertion that games ought to be vehicles for topics as weighty as racism, scientific or otherwise? The discussions it's sparked would suggest so. And, at the very least, the game may have succeeded in stimulating fresh interest in the relevant historical events and issues of the era—Google searches for terms such as "Wounded Knee" and "Boxer Rebellion" trended upward in the months surrounding the game's release.