Interview: Ken Levine on American history, racism in BioShock Infinite: "I've always believed that gamers were underestimated."
In between gathering good and ungood impressions of BioShock Infinite during my hands-on last week, I had a chance to talk with creative director Ken Levine about the game's interesting expression of American history and social issues like racism.
PCG: In some ways it feels like Columbia, as a setting, lays bare the worst of American history. Do you or does BioShock have a cynical or a negative view of American history?
Ken Levine: As a student of American history, it is a much broader story than what’s shown in Columbia, but I don’t feel that it’s the purpose of the game or the responsibility of the game to be a survey of American history. Certainly there are many things that are in Columbia that were very prevalent at the time, whether it’s charismatic religious movements, whether it’s a sense of growing nationalism—which was very present at the time. I’ve talked about that before, so I won’t bore you with that again. Or the deeply institutionalized racism and classism, which were… It was so prevalent that when you go back and read the writings of known figures like Teddy Roosevelt, who was extremely progressive in so many ways… I’m not using “progressive” in the sort of "Fox News versus MSNBC" way. I’m just saying that he was involved in anti-trust, in splitting up large corporations like Standard Oil. He was also a champion of the rights of the poor. But he was also what you would call a neoconservative in a lot of ways. He was very keen on American expansion. When you read his writings as sort of what you would call, at the very least, an extremely compassionate conservative, he would refer to Jews and African-Americans in the most horrible of terms. He was a man of his time. Abraham Lincoln, if you read his writings now, you would ascribe him? Even though he’s the most important abolitionist of all time, and a great man, he was a man of his time. He viewed African-Americans as a lesser race. He just thought they should be free. Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. George Washington owned slaves. People were men of their times, and this is a game that’s set in a time where, if you don’t have those elements in the game, it’s just dishonest, you know?
I realized, in BioShock, that we didn’t have any minority characters. Well, we had a lot of Jewish, Eastern European Jewish characters, which probably comes from my background. Whether it’s Ryan or Tenenbaum. And that game was suffused with the immigrant experience to some degree. But we didn’t have African-American characters. We didn’t have Chinese characters. It’s very important to us that we diversify. Not because… I’m not like, “Oh, we have to have diversity because it was unrepresentative of reality, and I want to be representative of reality.” I wanted to be representative of reality, but that reality was a particular reality to a level that most people don’t even understand. Most people don’t know how Catholics were viewed in this country, or how the Irish were viewed in this country. They were viewed as… I use this term obviously not from myself, but at the time they were viewed as subhuman by some people. When we had our first Catholic president in 1960, many people thought he was going to be an operative of the Pope. He had to publicly proclaim that he wasn’t. We’re fortunate to grow up in a time where a lot of that is behind us. But this game wouldn’t be honest if we didn’t have that.
Along those lines, how do you think the experience of someone that isn’t a US citizen playing BioShock Infinite will differ?
Levine: At the end of the day… It’s hard for me to talk about where all that element is going in the game. Not the element of “the foreign element,” but the thematic elements you’re talking about, where they’re going. Because they may not be going where you think they’re going. This may not be about, necessarily, what you think it’s about. In the same way I really think BioShock wasn’t truly about a critique of Objectivism. I think it was about something else. Trust me, I get tweets… When I started working on this game, relatives of mine were very offended, because they thought it was an attack on the Tea Party. Specifically an attack on the Tea Party, which they were very active in. Then, when we sort of exposed the Vox Populi people, I saw a lot more left-leaning websites being like, “This is trying to tear down the labor movement!” I remember that I saw postings, unfortunately, on a white supremacist website, Stormfront, where people literally said, “The Jew Ken Levine is making a white-person-killing simulator.”
Levine: And BioShock had the same thing, where you had Objectivists being infuriated by it, and people more on the left thinking that it was a love letter to Objectivism. I think these games are a bit of a Rorschach for people. It’s usually a negative Rorshach. It pisses them off, you know? But I’d way rather have that than to…These games are, to some degree… If they’re about anything they’re about not buying into a single point of view. About having a lack of confidence in anything. They’re not ever an attack on a single idea. It’s a bit of a plague on all your houses. The American experiment is insanely successful and positive. The notion of democracy is the most… There’s that saying that “it’s the worst political system in the world, except for all the others.” It’s transformed the entire world. The founders in this world, this city, were worshipped.
"I think these games are a bit of a Rorschach for people. It’s usually a negative Rorshach. It pisses them off, you know?"
But in a lot of ways, from where I’m sitting, Thomas Jefferson… How did people like Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin and George Washington come along, where you had these people who had the foresight to build… Rich, wealthy men who had the foresight to build a system of power that’s shared by design. And then a man like Washington. They offered him the kingship. Not only does he turn it down and become a president instead, he steps down out of power after his first term, setting the tone for the entire experiment. These are so assuring, then, that they almost are gods. But they were also men. Their feet were clay, you know? They were slaveholders. I’m sure they were what we would call at this point white supremacists, many of them. They did things that we would now view as abhorrent. Just as I’m sure a hundred years from now, people will look back at things we do… That’s what I always wonder. What is the thing that, a hundred years from now, that they will look on that we do and that people will find abhorrent? We evolve, but we are people of our time.
That “Rorschach response” you mentioned—people seeing the bad that they want to see in a BioShock game—does that make you wish that there were more games that addressed social or historical issues? Are enough games addressing those subjects?
Levine: No. I like… Look. Do you know Tom Stoppard? What I love about Tom Stoppard, who wrote Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead… I went and saw a play of his called Arcadia. It’s in two parts, and the first part takes place about 200 years ago or something in an English manor house. They are building their gardens. There’s a debate over whether the gardens are built in a very structured, organized, English garden way, or there’s a movement to make more organic, flowing, naturalistic gardens. The second half takes place in the same manor house today, but it’s about chaos theory. It’s a discussion of these times. It’s the same actors playing similar parts, and you realize it’s the same thing. Can you control… Do you really, at the end of the day, have control over anything? That there are so many variables that you can’t control anything. The organized garden versus the organic garden. And I walked away… When it first started, I’m like, “Oh my God, am I in for a three-hour play about fucking gardening?” And then you walk away like you’re not even of the same species as this guy, because to be able to construct a conceit like that, and have it be meaningful, is so brilliant. I do love those kinds of things, where there’s a lot going on at once.
We struggle, in games, a little bit, because just getting the technology working and getting a fun gameplay experience… He’s basically just writing a play, and he has to make it work within those lines. Games have so much going on in them, and the technology… However far as we’ve come along with technology, it’s still always a struggle. We’re always trying to squeeze that last ounce of juice out of something. No matter what platform it is, whether it’s PC or Xbox or PS3, we’re always trying to squeeze every last possible bit out of whichever configuration. That takes up so much of our energy. Like, Elizabeth is this invention—not just an aesthetic invention, but a technological invention—that is… She has no instincts. You put an actor on a stage and they come with some built-in software, right? They just know how to do a bunch of stuff. Even a bad actor knows how to go across a room and pick up a cup of coffee from a table, right? Elizabeth doesn’t know anything. Everything she does has to be taught and built.
"Take-Two is very supportive of experimental work."
We have so much work to start with, I sort of expect that… Stories, building in metaphors, stuff like that, it’s hard. It’s especially hard. Take-Two is very supportive of experimental work, and experimental work that is big-budget experimental work. There’s not a lot of companies out there, whether it’s movies or… Cable TV is the closest thing in some ways. They’ll support very experimental work, like Mad Men. Who would think that would work? It’s risky, it’s expensive, it’s all those things, and I think it’s similar in some ways, that they support these things and they get behind them because they believe in quality. I always look back on BioShock and think, “I can’t believe they gave us all this money to make a game about failed Objectivist utopia,” you know? It’s insane.
Is that encouraging? Has your faith in the industry changed since BioShock?
Levine: I always believe that gamers, if you… I don’t want to say “raise the bar.” But I’ve always believed that gamers were underestimated. The great thing I felt when I got into the games industry was, “Oh my God, I’m surrounded by the smartest people I’ve ever known in my life.” Especially game developers, because it is… When I went to Looking Glass, there were all these MIT guys, guys who made me look like a moron. It was so thrilling to be around so much intelligence.
"I like thoughtful games. I like stupid games. I like things that explode. I like all of those things. The fun of working on BioShock is that I get to do all of them at once."
I think part of the reason gamers, especially older gamers, got into gaming is because we didn’t fit in. We were interested in weird stuff that other people weren’t interested in. If you took gamers as an entertainment demographic, the intelligence level is probably pretty high. Yet the content level of what people think gamers like is actually skewed below, say, television, probably. Well, I don’t know. Watching afternoon television, the Kardashians and all that, not necessarily. But there’s not a lot of opportunities for a Mad Men or a Breaking Bad or an I, Claudius or something like that. BioShock was also a very visceral, frenetic experience in a lot of ways. It has its highbrow and it’s got its lowbrow. It’s cool to be on the Skyline… The process of combat is enjoyable. I’m not ashamed of being a gamer. I like thoughtful games. I like stupid games. I like things that explode. I like all of those things. The fun of working on BioShock is that I get to do all of them at once.