When BioShock Infinite was released in 2013 it was an instant success attracting critical acclaim and relative commercial success. But there was one scene in the game that made people question a moral decision made by the creators. The scene is about the Vox Populi, the rebel insurgency group in the game who aim to bring an end to the brutal regime of Zachary Comstock.
In the game, the main characters, Booker DeWitt and Elizabeth take the side of the rebels, who consist of African and Irish minorities.
The controversial event happens when the rebels successfully topple the regime. The rebels are shown to be as wrongful and unmerciful as those who had oppressed them before as they annihilate many innocent civilian women, children, and unarmed men.
This is represented by the group’s leader Daisy Fitzroy who, in what is apparently the most shocking scene in the game, is displayed holding a gun to a child’s head.
Elizabeth eventually kills Daisy in order to save the child. It’s this portrayal of an oppressed rebel with a noble cause that leads many to question the moral message behind the scene and the game in general.
Will the oppressed eventually become the oppressor? Is that what the game creators are trying to tell us?
“Slavers and slaves are equally bad”? and “there is no point taking sides”?
While I understand the point of view of those who criticise the game, I find myself ,as someone who loves history, taking the side of the creators.
First, let’s hear what Ken Levine, the game creator has to say about the issue:
“The first BioShock is about Jews. I’m a Jew. If you think about it, Andrew Ryan, Sander Cohen, Tenenbaum, they’re all Jews. Suchong is Korean. During World War II, Korea was brutally occupied by Japan. He’s a guy who survived.
They’re all survivors of oppression. And they don’t come out of it heroes. Oppression turns them into oppressors. And that’s the cruelest aspect of oppression. If you look at Andrew Ryan and Daisy Fitzroy, they’re not that far apart.
Maybe people wanted me to write about a hero who rose above that. Elizabeth is the character I invented who does sacrifice herself to break the cycle. But I think most people are destroyed by oppression. I could tell a fairy tale about people who are ennobled by it.
If you pretend there are a lot of happy endings for those stories, in some ways it elevates the oppression to something it’s not.”
Let’s look at some historical examples to fully understand the idea.
France, which was occupied by one of the most oppressive regimes in history, Nazi Germany, did not come clean after their liberation and say “never again”. They committed a lot of crimes in Algeria after the war, killing hundreds of thousands of Algerians who were fighting for their independence.
The Algerians themselves who were oppressed by the French did not simply target french soldiers in a noble way to liberate their country but also French women, children, bars, and restaurants in a vicious cycle of oppression from both sides.
The suffering of the Soviets under the Nazis and the death of more than 18 million of their soldiers and citizens is another example.
The people of Leningrad were starving to the point of literally eating each other.
Did that create angels out of those who were oppressed?
No, the Soviet soldiers committed horrible crimes in Germany after the war, engaging in the rapes and murders of German women of all ages.
Historian Anne Applebaum in her book Iron Curtain tells a story of a conference in Germany after the war where Germans complained about the Soviet’s crimes in their country. The answer they received from the Russian representative was the following:
“no one has suffered as much as we: millions are dead, 25 million lost their homes: what kind of soldier came to Berlin in 1945? did he come on an invitation? No, that was a soldier who had thousands of kilometers of scorched Soviet territory behind him… perhaps he found his kidnapped bride here, who had been taken as a slave laborer”
History is full of these stories, Pretty much every Arab state was captured by the Turks, who oppressed them dreadfully, and then later, they were again oppressed by the European colonial powers. Arabs are now in charge of their countries, where their authorities oppress, to varying levels, ethnic and religious minorities like the Kurds, Shiites, and Christians.
The same controversy that surrounded Bioshock infinite also happened to the Last of Us, when the main character Joel at the end of the game makes a questionable decision to kill innocent doctors and nurses who were trying to save humanity for selfish reasons.
Joel has been oppressed by the reality of the world he lives in and it’s naive for us to expect him to be morally elevated by the events he went through.
This relationship between the oppressors and the oppressed can also be seen in other games but in a more subtle way. What are the assassins in assassins creed or the Baker family in Resident Evil 7 other than an oppressed group who became oppressors themselves?
Learning from those who oppressed them.
Perhaps the best description of the relationship between the oppressors and the oppressed can be found in a book called “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” by the Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire.
The book is filled with Marxist nonsense about an imagined struggle between the patriarchy and the Proletariat.
If one can withstand these communist myths in the book for a second and read the author’s description of the relationship between the oppressors and the oppressed, then surprisingly we will find some rational thinking in there. Here is how Freire sees this relationship:
“almost always, during the initial stage of the struggle, the oppressed, instead of striving for liberation, tend themselves to become oppressors, or “sub-oppressors.” The very structure of their thought has been conditioned by the contradictions of the concrete, existential situation by which they were shaped. Their ideal is to be men; but for them, to be men is to be oppressors. This is their model of humanity.”
I think the lesson here for all of us is not to be hypersensitive when a work of art challenges our moral compass and ethics code.
Let’s try to put ourselves in the position of these characters and challenge our point of view.
The beauty of these games is that they challenge the way we think about morality and make us move the ideas we have in our heads.
Topics like oppression are hard to tackle in art and in the real world. It is a vicious circle that is hard to break.
I’ll sing a song to break that circle and let’s make that song a prayer to end oppression.
these are the lines you will sing
Will the circle be unbroken
By and by, Lord, by and by
There’s a better home a-waiting
In the sky, Lord, in the sky