A few months ago my good friend Bob Whitaker approached me with an invitation to join him in producing his YouTube series History Respawned. Bob and I had talked for quite a while about how to further develop the field of video game studies; as historians (we went to graduate school together at Texas), we have been excited for years about what we believe we and our fellow academics can bring to an increasingly broadening conversation on video games as cultural forms and texts. Just over a year ago, Bob did something about it, and began producing History Respawned.
The series works as a form of the “Let’s Play” model of video game coverage already present on YouTube and Twitch; the idea was to show game footage to historians and have discussions about the content, historical context and thematic subtexts of games with historians familiar with the field discussed. Bob invited guests to discuss Assassin’s Creed IV and piracy, Shogun 2 and early modern Japan (with yours truly), Diablo 3 and histories of representations of demons and evil spirits… The series has turned out to be a lot of fun.
It also continues to have a lot of potential. A few months ago Bob invited me to sign on to help as he sought to expand content. I was thrilled to be asked to help, and I’ve gotten a couple of episodes under my belt, the most recent of which we posted at the end of October, wherein I discussed Bioshock Infinite and the Boxer Uprising with Jeffrey Wasserstrom of the University of California at Irvine.
I met Jeff last year, when he visited our campus here at Centre College as a visiting scholar courtesy of The Phi Beta Kappa Society. Jeff has been increasingly active in sharing historical work on China with people outside the academy, which is a great fit for History Respawned. He also gave a fun talk, discussing the role of the state in China today under an interpretative framework that contrasted George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. He is also, as luck would have it, working on a book on the Boxer Uprising.
I had been pitching the idea of discussing Bioshock Infinite and its depictions of the Chinese Boxers in an alternate 1912 for a while, since before Bob had asked me to become an associate editor for the series. Ken Levine’s game was flawed but full of ambition, and he sank his teeth into the idea of an alternate history that celebrated a very specific vision of American greatness, in this case as propagated by Zachary Comstock. Comstock’s vision of paternalism, religion and racial purity led to an unsanctioned intervention in the Boxer Uprising of 1899-1901 that, in part, led to the floating city of Columbia seceding from the United States. At one point during the game, the player leads protagonist Booker Dewitt through a “Hall of Heroes” that helps feed the people of Columbia the version of history that Comstock has chosen to disseminate. This history features heavily essentialist representations of Native Americans at the Battle of Wounded Knee and Chinese Boxers during the Boxer Uprising, terrifying alien threats to the otherwise placid and very Caucasian peace guaranteed under Columbia’s protection.
This Hall of Heroes fascinated me at the time, and this episode of History Respawned was a great chance to chat to someone about representations of the Boxers in the West both at the time and since. Bioshock Infinite is doing a lot of interesting things here: the fictional characters in the game have created a museum that intentionally seeks to shape historical narrative in a particular way, including using racial representations that would (hopefully) be shocking to the game’s main audience in 2013. Still, these representations in their own way reflected Western feelings at the time; there may not have been an intervention in the form of a flying city, but eight nations came together to put the Boxer Uprising down and they did so brutally. Those who successfully shaped the broad narrative in the West did indeed see the Boxers as existentialist threats to Western civilization. Ken Levine accomplished something extraordinary here, with the representations of non-white peoples in the game both functioning within the fictional universe he produced and occupying a fascinating space for the player, who while distinguishing between the racist attitudes of the game’s antagonists and his or her own feelings on race and representation nevertheless participates in a modern repudiation of what only a century ago were values that people felt comfortable expressing in writing in a public forum.
Bioshock Infinite is far from a perfect game, but it interacts with historical theme in a way that I find extremely interesting. Alternate history immediately places works of fiction in an interesting location but there a number of ways this can go. The decision to include Wounded Knee and the Boxer Uprising and, crucially, to clearly link the two opens up a lot of possibilities for interesting conversation. That’s exactly what happened; Jeff pointed out that such linkages happened historically, with native American actors portraying the insidious Boxers in popular theatrical productions in the United States. I encourage you to watch the video to hear the rest of it.
I’m glad to have finally gotten the Bioshock Infinite and Boxer Uprising episode recorded, and I look forward to coming back to the game, perhaps with an American historian who could enlighten us further on Gilded Age views of race and the failures of Reconstruction. For now, we are always on the look-out for new games to discuss. Bob and I are also speaking at this year’s American Historical Association’s annual conference in Atlanta, where he will discuss History Respawned and I will talk about the “History & Video Games” class I teach at Centre during our intensive winter term. There is lots to do, and I do not see video game developers giving up on historical settings any time soon.