Mere weeks after its release, I’d wager it’s safe to say that Bioshock Infinite, the latest in the acclaimed Bioshock series from Ken Levine and Irrational Games, has already enthralled millions of players and will no doubt go on to win many awards and accolades. During its complex and action-packed story, Infinite manages to touch on several different real-life events and moments in history which some players may not be entirely familiar with. In this spoiler-free article, I will share some of the more prominent elements of Infinite’s story that actually happened and how they fit into the game’s larger narrative.
The Pinkerton Government Services
Early on, players discover that Infinite’s protagonist Booker DeWitt is a former member of the Pinkertons; however, just what exactly the Pinkertons are is never fully explained. The Pinkerton Government Services (or “Pinkertons” as they were often called) was a private security and detective agency founded by a man named Allan Pinkerton in 1850. At the height of its power, the Pinkerton Government Services was the largest private law enforcement agency in the world.
Pinkerton agents were hired for a variety of tasks such as guarding wealthy businessmen and key political figures (Abraham Lincoln included Pinkerton agents in his personal security detail during the Civil War) and private military contracting since many Pinkerton agents had military backgrounds. Pinkerton agents were also hired extensively during America’s western expansion; often employed to hunt down and kill outlaws such as Jesse James and Butch Cassidy or to guard shipments of money and/or resources as they were transported to and from the country’s western regions.
The Pinkertons became especially infamous during the labor unrest movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Wealthy factory owners who were facing a labor strike would hire Pinkerton agents to infiltrate and eventually disband unions from within, keep suspected strikers and unionists off of factory grounds, and even form goon squads to intimidate, threaten, and sometimes physically assault unruly workers.
Later on in Infinite’s story, Booker hints that keeping union workers in line (a.k.a. roughing them up and possibly even killing them) was one of his chief duties during his time with the Pinkertons. Columbia’s manufacturing baron Jeremiah Fink also bears a striking resemblance to Henry Frick, a chairman of the Carnegie Steel Company who called in roughly three hundred Pinkerton agents to help quell worker unrest at Carnegie’s Pittsburgh steel mill in 1892. The ensuing fight that broke out between Pinkerton agents and factory workers led to 16 deaths and went on to become one of the most infamous cases of civil unrest in U.S. history.
Funnily enough, the Pinkerton Government Services actually still exists today, though now it’s a subsidiary of a Swedish security company called Securitas AB and is known as Pinkerton Consulting and Investigations.
The Boxer Rebellion
The Boxer Rebellion serves as a key part of the disillusionment felt by Booker’s former comrade Cornelius Slate but, again, what the Rebellion itself was is only partially alluded to during Infinite’s story. The Boxer Rebellion, also known as the Yihetuan Movement, was an uprising of Chinese natives calling themselves the Righteous Harmony Society (or Yihetuan) against British Imperialists and Christian missionaries between 1899 and 1901. Even though the conflict only lasted three years, it managed to encompass nearly every international superpower in the world and would become a defining moment not only in Chinese history, but the history of the world at large.
The term “Boxer” was actually given to the Chinese dissidents by their British opponents because of their focus on practicing calisthenics and martial arts. At first, the Boxers only attacked British Imperialist forces and members of the Christian church as well as Chinese-Christian converts (whom the Boxers saw as traitors). But when the Boxers moved against the legation buildings of French, German, Italian, Spanish, and American diplomats amongst others, the Boxer Rebellion officially became an international affair.
Several fierce battles and skirmishes were fought between the Boxers and foreign military forces throughout China and it wasn’t until the Battle of Peking, which occurred on August 14th, 1900 in which a multi-national force fought their way into and eventually secured Peking, that the Boxer Rebellion was finally quelled.
In Bioshock Infinite, Slate claims that he fought in the Battle of Peking on the side of both America and Christianity (since he was a follower of Comstock at the time).
The Wounded Knee Massacre
The Battle of Wounded Knee, also known as the Wounded Knee Massacre, is both the bond that connects Booker with Slate and the catalyst for both Slate’s disillusionment and Booker’s desire to escape his past. The battle itself occurred on December 29th, 1890 near Wounded Knee Creek on the Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Preservation of South Dakota. It was also the last major battle fought before the end of the American Indian Wars.
What started as a peaceful disarmament of the Lakota tribesmen by the 7th Cavalry Regiment of the U.S. Army, led by Major Samuel M. Whitside, ended in bloodshed after a deaf Lakota scout named Black Coyote refused to give up his rifle (the reasoning being that he was unable to hear the Cavalry’s order to surrender his weapon) and accidently discharged it when Cavalry soldiers attempted to take it by force.
This caused Cavalry troops to open fire on the entirety of the Lakota tribe and in the ensuing firefight, roughly 150 Lakota men, women, and children were killed (some historians place the death toll as high as 300 however). 25 U.S. troops were also killed during the battle, though historians attribute many of those casualties to friendly fire due to the chaos and close-quarters of the fighting. At least 20 surviving members of the 7th Cavalry were awarded the medal of honor for their “valiant” efforts at the Battle of Wounded Knee.
“The White Injen”; the nickname given to Booker by Slate for his actions during the Battle of Wounded Knee, suggests that not only did Booker kill a majority of the Lakota Indians during the battle, but that he actually enjoyed it. This element of Booker’s past is also used to explain why he can so easily kill people and not care, something which Elizabeth initially rejects and struggles to understand throughout the game’s progression.
Hopefully this foray into factual history will help you better understand and appreciate the fictionalized history presented in Bioshock Infinite. If anything, I hope it at least proves that actual history doesn’t really need floating cities or super power tonics or skyhooks in order to be compelling; though there’s certainly nothing wrong with using real historical events as a base to build on new fictional retellings. If readers are as inspired by actual history as Ken Levine and the rest of Irrational Games were, then there’s no telling how far the exciting world of fictionalized history can go from here.