Race in Rapture: Black Characters in ‘BioShock 2’ and ‘Minerva’s Den’

BioShock 2 and its side story, Minerva’s Den, do much to expand Rapture’s universe. In addition to new technology and physical locations, they take the story into new cultural territory. Grace Holloway and Charles Milton Porter stand out as both the first major black characters in the BioShock universe. However, the two characters each have unique, multifaceted lives that prevent them from being cast as the token black people in a game dominated by white characters. At the same time, their racial identity informs their lives and connects them to wider historical events and cultural themes in African American history.

Last year, an article written by Jim Sterling and a response from Robert Yang demonstrated the difficult task of portraying people from historically underrepresented groups in video games. Sterling praised Fallout: New Vegas for the portrayal of Arcade Gannon, one of the game’s homosexual characters. Rather than the sole definition of his character, Gannon’s sexual preference is an understated and largely ancillary fact. Sterling appreciated this as a change from the presentation of other gay video game characters who are “treated as borderline offensive jokes or identified almost exclusively by their gender preferences” (“Homosexuality and Fallout: New Vegas: A gay marriage made in gay Heaven”, Game Front, 10 November 2010). However, in arguing that “all media would do well to not make such a big deal out of homosexuality”, Sterling suggests a kind of blindness to difference that Yang identifies as a form of discrimination: “Prescribing some kind of ‘ideal gay’ who doesn’t ‘broadcast it’ is just as artificial, boring and negative as the stale stereotypes so often invoked in network sitcoms and those god awful reality shows on Bravo” (”Gay (But Not “Gay”) Characters in Video Games” Radiator Design Blog, 12 November 2010). While it may be well intentioned, ignoring differences can be just as marginalizing just as stereotypical imagery can be. Impressively, BioShock 2 manages to present Holloway and Porter’s blackness as a significant aspect of their identity, but it is communicated subtly enough so that they do not become shallow stereotypes.

Bessie Smith

Dennis Farr’s excellent piece on Grace Holloway illustrates her as a character with a unique story whose life also contains aspects “based on history” (“Characters Done Right: BioShock 2’s Grace Holloway”, The Border House, 14 October 2010). Holloway wants to raise children but must work through the terrible blow of finding out that she is infertile. Her musical talent finds her fame in Rapture, but her lyrical criticism of Andrew Ryan causes her lover, James, to “disappear”. Her loyalty towards both Sophia and Eleanor Lamb causes the player to be confronted with what seems to be a contradiction. Her background as a black jazz musician who encodes subversive themes into popular music alludes to real world figures like Bessie Smith.

Like many black Americans throughout history, Holloway hoped to escape prejudice through emigration. As Holloway explains, Rapture’s descent into chaos dashed this hope:

Andrew Ryan told me that in Rapture it didn’t matter where you came from. Bunk! Times got hard and all our old bigotries bubbled right back up.

Sadly, Holloway’s story is a familiar one. Throughout the 19th century, the American Colonization Society sought to both entice and pressure freedmen to leave the United States for Liberia. While it offered hope to some, the ACS’s mission was deeply flawed by a philosophy that preached racial separatism and endorsed a destructive form of colonialism. Emigrants who escaped the failed Reconstruction in the South after the Civil War often found that anti-slavery sentiments did not necessarily correlate with anti-racism. Throughout the 20th century, de jure segregation made it extraordinarily difficult to escape institutional and cultural racism. Even today, Jim Crow’s insidious spirit lingers in forms of de facto segregation like “redlining” in real estate, business, or loan practices. Holloway’s search for an egalitarian society is not unique, nor is Rapture’s failure to live up to its stated ideals. Her motives for moving to Rapture and the experiences that she has there deepen her as a character while also connecting her to a larger story about racism in society.

Perhaps the most chilling connection between Holloway’s story and our world lies in the story of The Peoples Temple and Jonestown. The Jonestown story sounds like something from the BioShock universe: Jim Jones, a charismatic religious figure who preached a form of religiously-tinged form of communism leaves the U.S. to create a utopian society in Guyana. His promises of a communist, anti-racist paradise attracted many black Americans, who made up the majority of Jonestown’s population. In 1978, Jonestown collapsed after the assassination of Congressman Leo Ryan and the Jim Jones-orchestrated mass muder/suicide of approximately 900 people.

Is Jonestown so different from Rapture? In many ways, the video game is only a slight embellishment on reality: Both Rapture and Jonestown were built around a charismatic leader whose ideals both attracted followers and ultimately caused unimaginable pain. Both societies were centered around a white leader who promised societies based on merit and inclusion rather than race. Both places were built largely in secret and tried to protect their independence through isolationism. Ultimately, neither Rapture, nor Jonestown could keep the world out, nor could they exorcise the demons that lived within their inhabitants. We sometimes think of audio logs as trite storytelling devices in video games, but part of our knowledge about the last hours of Jonestown comes from those supposed “narrative crutches”. While exploring Rapture, it’s tempting to ask whether people would really bother to record their thoughts for posterity as their utopia crumbled. Jonestown reminds us why the phrase “the truth is stranger than fiction” is a cliche. If Grace Holloway’s story centers around a character whose individual experiences and perseverance give her a unique identity, the explicit acknowledgment of her race is a boon to her character and the game as a whole; Grace’s blackness connects her struggles to broader historical issues and strengthens BioShock 2’s social commentary.

BioShock 2’s add-on, Minerva’s Den, presents the story of Charles Porter. As is the case with Grace Holloway, the game explicitly acknowledges Porter as a black character whose race adds layers to his identity without turning him into a stereotype. Like Holloway, Porter has led a life of mixed blessings. A highly intelligent computer engineer, Porter tragically loses his wife before being able to make amends for the time that he spent working away from her. In collaboration with Alan Turing, Porter tries to soothe his pain by creating an artificial intelligence that can reunite him with his wife via technology. Porter recognizes his spiral into depression and acknowledges that his quest to bring his wife back is misguided, yet he struggles to accept the loss.

Even as one of the city’s foremost minds, Porter faces racism in Rapture. Despite the city’s avowed philosophy of pure meritocracy, Porter finds a familiar Euro-centric social structure beneath Rapture’s egalitarian veneer:

Sure you hear it in Rapture. One of the business types asked me, “Why don’t you splice white? Get ahead!” Well, that’s some idiocy! I told him, “First of all I AM ahead. Second, in Rapture it’s your work that’s supposed to matter, not your skin!” Too bad for some folks you can’t splice in common sense.

Charles and Pearl Porter

Like Holloway, Porter finds that this supposedly post-racial society has inherited the prejudices carried by those who compose it. Porter’s race has a real impact on his life and this is reflected in the game’s themes. Porter further illustrates the realities of Rapture’s society as well as our own.

In both BioShock and BioShock 2, the player controlled characters have intentionally vague identities that serve as “blank slates” for the player’s own personality. However, at the end of Minerva’s Den, it is revealed that the “Charles Porter” talking to Subject Sigma (the Big Daddy character that the player has controlled through the entire story) is actually an AI program and that the real Charles Porter is the player’s avatar. What once seemed to be a hollow shell with an undefined identity is suddenly revealed to be the complex person whose story the player spends the entire game unraveling. It is a subversive moment similar to when Samus or Chell are revealed to be female. In a medium whose marquee games usually feature white protagonists, playing as a black man is by itself a significant departure. The game’s mechanics and dynamics increase the importance of Porter’s race, as they play into themes that connect him to historic and artistic portrayals of black characters.

Porter’s racial identity renders his enslavement as a Big Daddy both personally and historically tragic. By attempting to destroy Porter’s identity, the people that turned him into a Big Daddy participated in the familiar practice of trying to dehumanize people in order to control them. As was the case with Africans captured in the slave trade, Porter underwent physical and psychological assaults aimed at turning him into an unthinking beast so that he could be used as a tool to support the market and moral economies of an exploitative society. Acknowledging Porter’s race imbues his journey to reclaim his individuality with emotional weight and historical significance. Porter is striving to recapture his own intellect and the memories of his loved ones, but he is also traveling down a well worn road, one walked by Frederick Douglas, Harriet Jacobs, and countless other anonymous people.

Because the game acknowledges Porter as a racial minority, his role as a Big Daddy and his relationship to the Little Sisters cannot be viewed from a color blind perspective. After it is revealed that Porter is Subject Sigma, his relationship to the Little Sisters begins to resemble another entry in the complex artistic tradition of little white girls and their black guardians. I played the game protecting and saving all the Little Sisters. After realizing Porter was Subject Sigma, I could not shake the feeling that I had been participating in acting out a variation of Uncle Tom’s story. Each Little Sister was an “Eva” that needed protection and in return furthered their black protector’s path to redemption. Listening to the gleeful banter of the Little Sisters and entertaining them with inventive ways of killing splicers suddenly resembled a twisted Shirley Temple number:

Depending on how one played the game, Porter’s relationship with the Little Sisters could also allude to more explicitly violent imagery. The Big Daddy has always been portrayed as a brutish entity that can vacillate between simple minded devotion and sheer viciousness. By revealing Subject Sigma as a black man, Minerva’s Den’s recalls images of black people as savage beasts or threats to white virtue. The game joins in a long line of works that partake in the contradictory tropes of the black man as both a monstrous threat to white virtue as well as its protector (Gwen Sharp, “Race and the King Kong Motif”, The Society Pages: Sociological Images, 14 March 2008).

Without making an issue of their race, Holloway and Porter would be weaker characters and BioShock 2 would be a less culturally relevant work. By explicitly acknowledging that Holloway and Porter are black, the game connects itself to larger historical realities and cultural traditions. Porter and Holloway aren’t the kinds of minority caricatures that Jim Sterling decried, but they avoid the subtle discrimination of enforced conformity that Robert Yang describes. BioShock 2 does not shy away from the complexity of race, but it does not sacrifice the depth of its characters on an oversimplified message.

Grace Holloway and Charles Porter have unique identities formed by their life experiences, including those that stem from being black in a majority white society. Some parts of their story, such as Holloway’s yearning for a family or Porter’s grief over his wife, apply across all demographics. Others, such as Holloway’s search for an anti-racist society and Porter’s enslavement, have specific connections to themes that run throughout African American history and the portrayal of black characters in U.S. culture. Ignoring Holloway and Porter’s race would have been just as damaging as making them shallow stereotypes; their distinctive experiences enrich Rapture’s universe and establish BioShock 2 as work of art that engages with the broader culture in which it exists.