The contents of this article may ironically be inflammatory or offensive.
More importantly, it contains spoilers for Bioshock Infinite.
Please read at your own risk.
The player, Breen Malmberg, stated in an interview with Kotaku that, “As baptism of the Holy spirit is at the center of Christianity — of which I am a devout believer — I am basically being forced to make a choice between committing extreme blasphemy by my actions in choosing to accept this ‘choice’ or forced to quit playing the game before it even really starts.” He also states in his support letter to Valve that he must receive a refund “on the grounds that he cannot play it.” The full Kotaku and Polygon articles contain the entirety of the interview with Malmberg and his letter to Valve voicing his concerns.
If you’re already beginning to form your own opinions on Bioshock Infinite, Malmberg, and Christianity, you’re not alone. Without going into explicit detail, suffice to say that I am familiar with both the tenants of Christianity and the criticism it receives. For those unaware, baptism in Christianity symbolizes the washing-away of one’s past sins and being seen as a new person in the eyes of the Lord. That’s the gist of it, anyway.
In Bioshock Infinite, one of the very first moments in the game involves the player character Booker DeWitt being forced to undergo a baptism to enter the eponymous floating city of Columbia. Malmberg’s discontent comes not from the act of baptism itself, but that the baptism is carried out in the name of a religion that is not his own. To him, being forced into a baptism in the game is equatable to committing blasphemy to his own, real-life religious beliefs. It is because of this that he asks for a refund — he refuses to carry on in the game so as not to spoil his own faith. Depending on your viewpoints, this either makes perfect sense or is utter lunacy. I happen to be in the ‘lunacy’ camp, but not because of his Christian faith. Not directly because of it, anyway.
Bioshock Infinite is an immersive video game, without a doubt. As you can read in my review, I lauded the game for presenting players with a living, breathing world to venture through and the gripping struggle that Booker and Elizabeth face throughout it. The baptism in the beginning of the game is symbolic in its own right; not just because of what it symbolizes for Christianity or the religious zealots of Columbia, but because of what it represents for Booker. At the end of Infinite, it’s revealed that the Booker we play as refused a baptism earlier in his life that an alternate-reality Booker accepted. The Booker that accepted it became the game’s antagonist Zachary Comstock.
My issue with this entire debacle — with Malmberg’s contention, Valve’s refund, and the in-game baptism itself — is that his complaints are utterly unjustified even in the eyes of a devout Christian. As I mentioned, I’m not critical of Malmberg’s actions because of his faith. No, I am critical because of abhorrent lack of attachment to reality on the behalf of Malmberg and any whose perceptions align with his own.
It should be seen as common sense that video games are not reality. I do not actually feel as though I’m throwing a fireball with the “Devil’s Kiss” Vigor, nor do I feel as though I’ve been washed by the Blood of the Lamb when I went through with the baptism to enter the city, yet Mr. Malmberg apparently did. Well, I suppose it’d be more accurate to say that he didn’t, since he never experienced either of these things. I don’t claim to blame him individually for these views, but he does happen to be the offended party in this situation.
Where is the line drawn for being offended, though? If one is offended at a baptism in a game, then surely one would be offended by the practice of slavery. Or the worship of the Founding Fathers. Or the contempt for Abraham Lincoln and praise of John Wilkes Booth. Or what about the player themselves killing hundreds of thousands of people throughout the course of the game? At what point does one stop being offended by offensive things? Is it Irrational Games trying to make you question your faith? Or bow to idols? Or encourage subjugation? Or is it simply that they are using these as literary elements to draw the player into a more involved and immersive world? My money is on the latter.
It is curious to me that so many different people find so many different things offensive. Mr. Malmberg was unwilling to continue past the baptism. Would others have been unwilling to continue past the infamous Raffle? Would still others object to the Order of the Raven and refuse to advance through the game? Malmberg chose to end his playthrough very early. Others may have chosen to end it a bit later. Are not all of these things horrifyingly offensive, though? Does not the act of enslaving another human being draw contempt and hatred? Is it acceptable to murder hundreds, destroy cities, and ruin lives? Did Malmberg see the man in the lighthouse at the very, very beginning, shot in the head execution-style with a burlap sack over his face and think to himself, “This is perfectly acceptable,” and move on? At what point does one draw the line at being daunted enough to refuse to go any further? It appears to me to be a case of hypocrisy at best and wildly misplaced morals at its worst.
Malmberg isn’t the only one complaining about these sorts of things, of course. You can look back in time and see plenty of people not engaging in media they disagree with. After all, how many complaints were there by Christian groups in 2005 when “Brokeback Mountain” was released? Yet just a year before, how many of them flocked to see “The Passion of the Christ” in theaters? Does seeing a film about an interpretation of the sacrifice of their prophet suddenly make extreme, gruesome, and graphic violence acceptable? What makes the events of “The Passion” any more real than the events of “Brokeback Mountain” or Bioshock Infinite, or any less offensive? If I find the excessive violence of a game offensive, can I receive a refund?
You are not Booker DeWitt. You are not being baptized. You are not killing people. You are not helping a girl name Elizabeth escape from a floating city in the sky. It is not 1912. This is more about realizing the difference between fantasy and reality than about anyone’s religious beliefs. There are plenty of Christians out there who realize the difference between being baptized in real life and being baptized in a video game. What has happened here is that Valve made a mistake by kowtowing to the wishes of one such individual who cannot. Inability to separate fantasy and reality to enjoy a fantastic work of art is not grounds for a refund. All this has served to do is set a bad precedent, not only for Valve and game developers, but for reasonable, level-headed people everywhere.