I’m glad you asked!
So after playing through the game, the best answer I can give you is: Um, yes and no but it’s more complicated.
How is it more complicated? There’s a ton of racist imagery in this game that is abhorrent. Of course that makes it racist!
Well, yes and no. The racist imagery may trigger someone and offend many, and they have every right to be. However, the racist imagery is there to present a stylized world in which white supremacy is rampant. For example, in one sequence of the game, you have to go through two hallways in a racist museum: One portraying Wounded Knee, the other the Chinese Boxer Rebellion. In both of these hallways, you hear and see pop-out exhibits of Chinese and American Indian people when extremely stereotypical features and sounds and trying to basically kill whitey, both however culminating with the “Prophet” of Columbia, Comstock, the creator of the city and their leader/hero, defeating both the Indians at Wounded Knee and the Chinese of the Boxer Rebellion. Both accounts of the events are of course racist propaganda, and gives the player an idea of just how godlike Comstock is to the people of Columbia and how actively racist the society is despite projecting itself as a great utopia.
So you’re saying it’s not racist because the imagery and storyline serves a greater purpose of condemning racism and white supremacy?
Well, yes and no again. You see, the imagery is indeed reflective of propaganda and viewpoints of white supremacists for a society with a race-based system of hierarchy, and presents Columbia as being so racist to the point of disgust in many cases for the player. Players who are not actively anti-racist identify the messed-up, racist propaganda and language that litters the game and feel uncomfortable viewing it, and even more uncomfortable when they think about how normalized it seems in the society. However, Bioshock: Infinite never actually outright condemns racism and white supremacy. You meet people for it, and against it, but never reach any point in which it is laid out clearly that racism is bad. The character that you play, Booker, never has any intention to either end white supremacy or further it, he doesn’t care; white supremacy simply exists in the world around him, and it, along with the resistance that tries end it, are simply obstacles to him and his ultimate goal. This fact actually surprises me a bit. A trademark of Bioshock games is that they play with the philosophy of morality vs. self-preservation, so to not see how the privileges of white supremacy factors into that for a white protagonist feels like a missed opportunity.
So you’re saying it is racist because although it presents white supremacy, it never actually condemns it? You have a choice to support it?
Well you’re getting closer! Booker and Elizabeth sometimes talk about the white citizens of Columbia and their treatment of people of color but they are almost entirely neutral on the subject. You can make small choices regarding interpersonal racist encounters, but you as Booker never actively promote it or condemn it, either in words or action. At one point you begin doing an errand for the Vox Populi, a group of anti-racist, anarchist activists led by Daisy Fitzroy, a black woman who to some is a great hero, and to the white population is a terrorist and murderer. Now, Daisy would have been a great character to have as strictly an ally, particularly since we see very few black women trying to lead revolutions in games, and who are powerful. However, the more you work for her, the more you find that she is almost psychotic and that the Vox Populi is committing immense violence and other atrocities, basically positing her and the Vox Populi as being just as evil as the oppressive white supremacist society. And when you equate the actions of an oppressed group to those against their oppressors when they try to retaliate against their oppression, that’s a problem.
But I do want to add that in Bioshock, most of the enemies you ever face in the game are white. You rarely have to kill or shoot at a person of color in the game. The Vox are portrayed as a terrorist group with a psychotic leader, but the people of color in the group don’t try to constantly fight you like Columbia’s white police and citizens do, and you don’t see them as enemies you need to fight as often as the white society until later in the game. So if anyone was worried that this is a game filled with the white lead character constantly shooting at people of color, you can breathe.
So it’s not racist because you mostly kill white people?
No, but in a game where racism is very prominent, and the character you play is a white guy and your #1 comrade is a white woman, it helps that you don’t have to light black people on fire every two minutes.
But does it really matter if Booker and Elizabeth are white?
It does if racism is extremely prominent in the game! If your protagonists are white, if the characters you as the player are supposed to go on a journey with are white, how do you even know how racism actually oppresses people? You experience a glossed-over white perspective, in which you see racism around you, and you hear the laments of people of color, and you talk to black servants and revolutionaries of color, but you can never actually experience racism like you could if Booker or Elizabeth were of color. Players are automatically given a sanitized perspective of racism because racism doesn’t affect them, which just reinforces how little Infinite actually deals with racism. And this is definitely a racist trend in media: To have a story in which racism is incredibly prominent, but the audience or player never actually sees it through the eyes of a person of color who actually experiences racism.
Okay, so you’re saying that there are actually racist elements to this game, just not in the blatant way that people who haven’t played the game assumed? And you’re saying that you admire the lengths that the game go to in order to present a world with clear notions of white supremacy and racism? But by having two white protagonists who can’t actually experience the racism, and by presenting racism and white supremacy as more of a backdrop to the plot and never a thematic ethical/moral issue for the player, you can’t excuse the racist imagery and characters since they don’t seem to serve much of an anti-racist purpose? So the game makers tried to seem progressive and not racist but ended up making a game that didn’t say that much about racism at all and in turn, is extremely problematic in its portrayal of racism?
Yup, that’s what I’m saying.