My husband and I bought our PS4 to escape 2017. I had stopped playing video games around the time they lost their joysticks. Aside from a brief infatuation with Guitar Hero on the Wii, I maintained my distance. My husband’s sales pitch had something to do with the fact that we live in Minneapolis and during the winter gaming is a nice alternative to frostbite, but he sealed the deal with this: “You can only watch so much CNN.”
But then the game I chose to play was BioShock Infinite. In the first year of Donald Trump’s America, that’s no escape at all.
The big difference is easy to spot, so let’s put that first: BioShock Infinite is beautifully made, with details that will delight anyone willing to slow down enough to unpack them. It’s an aesthetic of just-abandoned splendor, dark and sumptuous if also ruined by an unseen disturbance. The Trump aesthetic is ... not that. Trump’s gaudy, unself-consciously tumescent displays of wealth would translate into video games as garish loot crates — and be empty, besides. In the real world, Trump’s America doesn’t have the lonely romance of an abandoned carnival. It’s the midway in full swing, technicolor tourists packed shoulder to shoulder, enveloped in the nauseating stench of cotton candy, overused grease and sweat.
I was seduced by the emptiness of BioShock Infinite’s Columbia and the evidence of someone having taken great care in constructing it — the game’s creators and its in-game founder both. But in trying to find my way through this gorgeously wrought fantasy land, I learned two things very quickly that made it hard to forget the real world: 1) White nationalists are the bad guys; 2) I am really terrible at playing video games.
I won’t explore all the ways that BioShock Infinite’s storylines intersect with the various strands of Trump’s foreign and domestic agenda. There’s enough to fuel a generation or two of graduate students, if higher education continues to exist. He’s a warped and fragile demagogue! His version of American history is all hero worship and no principle! When under stress, he tries to create tears in reality! Civil War monuments! Apocalyptic Christianity! America First! And, as mentioned before, a big part of the game is a shooting war between the protagonist and a bunch of armed and violent racists. I confess: I took great satisfaction in playing BioShock Infinite’s opening chapters shortly after the protests and counter-protests in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Yet my satisfaction was limited by the game itself and my own skills. Rather than establish a clear battle against the forces of white nationalism, BioShock Infinite indulges the same “both sides”-ism that the president invoked after Charlottesville. I assume this was intended to be a Big Statement about the limits of violence in anyone’s hands, maybe. Or perhaps it is meant to be a message about the corrupting nature of all hierarchical organizations — that ideals will always crumple in the face of power?
The real message of the game resonates with the Trump era in a different way than the creators ever could have intended: All the suffering before you is just a stage for your own self-actualization. Institutionalized bigotry is a plot device and not something to overthrow. Early on, I realized I was not going to be able to do very much about the injustices of the world I was playing in, when the game showed me a room with a bunch of slaves trapped in it and all I could do was pass through.
I was to blame for the other surprising resonance with our contemporary moment. I cannot stress enough how bad I am at actual first-person shooter gameplay. I am stupid-bad. I am so bad at it that I gave myself motion sickness multiple times, until I figured out how to control the POV with something less than violent swings. At one point, I printed out the layout of the controls.
Even so, BioShock Infinite let me succeed. The game made my enemies unrealistically suicidal. In order to give me a chance at actually getting a shot off, they would occasionally pause and just stand in my field of vision.
John Scalzi once wrote that being a straight white man is playing life at “the lowest difficulty setting there is.” My shitty gameplay is a reminder that the game can always get easier if you’re an important enough player. BioShock Infinite made it possible for me to experience not just what it’s like to be a straight white man, but what it’s like to be Donald Trump.