BioShock Infinite is about the present - not the present as a distinct time and place, but as the mutable middle ground where the past becomes the future, opening an endless array of possibilities. It's fitting, then, that Irrational chose the beginning of the 20th century as its model for the culture of Columbia. At the turn of the 20th century America was in flux, not wholly rid of its pioneer past yet increasingly becoming the industrial and imperialist power it would be following the World Wars. To better help players understand this context, I've decided to expand the primer I offered two weeks ago.
The Third Great Awakening
Even after completing BioShock, it's difficult to pin down Comstock's religious tradition. His emphasis on immersion baptism and its potential for spiritual rebirth brings to mind the Baptists, Anabaptists and Pentecostal movements, but his specific infusion of American elements into Christian doctrine recalls the Church of Latter-day Saints. However, while his theology doesn't speak to any specific religious tradition, it's clear that Comstock is very much a child of a period known as the Third Great Awakening, a religious movement that gripped America between 1850 and 1900.
The Third Great Awakening came about as an outgrowth of postmillennialism, a belief that the second coming of Christ would occur when the entire world was converted to Christian belief and humanity built an ethical society. But where the tent revivals of the Second Great Awakening emphasized the ecstatic nature of religion and often preached of the immanent return of Jesus, preachers of the Third Great Awakening took it as their mission to reform society in preparation for Christ's return. Christian reformers attempted this not only through missionary efforts in foreign countries but also by throwing their weight behind social causes such as abolitionism, the temperance movement, compulsory public education and child labor laws. While some activities by these movements had profoundly negative aspects - see the entries for Boxer Rebellion and Behavior Modification - we cannot understate the role evangelism played in addressing poverty, worker exploitation and other social ills of the Gilded Age.
Over latter half of the 20th century, an explosion of new and unusual Christian groups formed for the purpose of moving society forward. The Salvation Army put its emphasis on education and poverty relief. The YMCA tried to nurture bodies and minds as well as souls, while creating a wholesome environment for young men, free from alcohol, gambling and prostitution. Missionary and social work colleges sprung up to prepare young men and women for a life of ministering to the poor.
There were, of course, more sinister aspects to the movement. While feelings could vary widely between churches and even individual believers, it's no secret that many missionaries both at home and abroad took it as a given that whites were "superior" to other races and treated native populations with cloying paternalism. Others felt immigrants - particularly Catholics and non-Christians - were importing poverty into the country and spoiling the good work they were doing with the "real" American poor. Even nominally progressive movements like the Temperance Leagues could be anti-immigrant, seeing Irish communities as the source of drunkenness and vice. In other words, many could be a lot like Comstock in that their visions of a perfect society really meant a perfect society for white Protestants, with everyone else working "in their place" to support that society.
The Boxer Rebellion
In BioShock, Columbia secedes from the United States after interceding in the Boxer Rebellion. It's a cool use of historical events, but frankly a floating city would've been the least of China's problems in the early 1900s.
The 19th century was not kind to China. Beginning in the 1830s, trade disputes with western powers, a series of military defeats and a fractious domestic politics combined to weaken the imperial government. Unequal treaties with western powers like Britain, Russia, Japan, Germany and France meant China got the losing end of every bargain, and made foreigners immune to Chinese law even for the most serious offences. Christian missionaries flooded into the country, converting the local population. This was seen as a threat both to China's traditional values and its political leadership, since the Emperor was still to some extent believed to have divine inspiration.
Around the late 1890s, things finally boiled over. Drought led to widespread population movement and civil unrest. A western reform movement trying to push progressivism on China - including constitutional monarchy, democracy and capitalism - failed miserably, alienating many educated Chinese. This opened the door for the conservative Empress Dowager Cixi to depose her progressive husband in a coup and put him under house arrest. In northern China, a secret sect arose called the Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists, termed as the "Boxers," by western powers. The Boxers were mostly unemployed young men whose jobs had disappeared due to natural disasters or imperialism, and their belief system - much like the Ghost Dancers discussed in Part I - is indicative of a society under extreme stress. The Boxers believed they could channel spirits through chanting, calisthenics or whirling swords, making them capable of flight and immune to western weapons. The Boxers and other Chinese religious groups clashed with foreigners and Chinese Christians almost immediately, and by 1898 there were multiple incidents of mobs killing priests and raiding Christian villages. Western powers responded by deepening their intervention, with Germany even taking over the province of Shangdong, further angering the Chinese people. By the summer of 1900, the Boxers and other Chinese groups were attacking foreigners wholesale, including beheading missionaries and their families.
When the unrest reached Beijing, western diplomats and Chinese Christians - fearing they would be killed by mobs - refused the Empress' request to leave the city and fortified the legation quarter. The situation still might've been reversed had Western soldiers not fired on a crowd of stone-throwing Boxers, an incident that ended in a German diplomat summarily executing a Chinese boy. The response was massive - the Empress declared war on all foreign powers and Boxers attacked the legation. It was the first day of a 55-day siege as an international coalition of Japanese, German, Austrian, French, British, Russian, and Italian soldiers, including American Marines, defended the legation against assaults, arson, artillery barrages and sappers planting underground mines.
Relief finally arrived in August, as the Eight-Nation Alliance took Beijing with a force of 20,000 troops. It was not before soldiers defending the legation had taken nearly 50% casualties. Some units, like the French and the Japanese sailors, took more than 100% casualties as wounded soldiers returned to the line only to be wounded again.
The Western response was swift and merciless. Soldiers of the Eight-Nation Alliance summarily executed Boxers or suspected Boxers. Foreign soldiers looted Beijing and the provinces as "reparation"- some egged on or even directed by the surviving missionaries. Reports emerged of soldiers raping and murdering Chinese civilians, leading people on the home front to question whether intervening in China was the righteous cause they thought it was.
It was the first time American soldiers had fought as part of an international coalition, and the first time they encountered questions about warfare and foreign interventionism that we still struggle with today.
The World's Columbian Exposition
Ken Levine has described Columbia in the past as a moving version of the Columbian Exposition, better known as the 1893 World's Fair. It's a great comparison and clearly served as an inspiration to the beauty and wonder of the floating city.
Held in Chicago to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus' arrival in the Americas, the 1893 World's Fair played a major role in the development of Chicago, America's industrial optimism and the doctrine of American Exceptionalism.
The Columbian Exposition was basically America wearing makeup and a killer cocktail dress. Everything catered to show the United States as a booming powerhouse of innovation and technical ability. The exposition covered 600 acres of newly-built classical buildings, water features, statues and carnival rides. Cutting edge technology was around, beneath and above visitors. The 27 million people who visited the exposition could ride on the world's first Ferris Wheel, travel the waterfront on the first publicly-available moving walkway and navigate the fair by electric streetlights. Exhibitions included electrical demonstrations by Nikola Tesla, the first movie theater and even an electric kitchen with an automatic dishwasher. At every turn, the Columbian Exposition reminded fairgoers that a bright American century was around the corner. It helped shape America's vision of itself, and exported that vision to the world.