Dragon Age II is subversive on multiple levels, focusing on character relationships with fluid sexualities instead of the usual epic storylines. What most people miss upon a superficial playthrough is BioWare’s statement on contemporary social issues. Everyone can recognize the set-up: the Templars as the safeguard of tradition and society, while the Mages represent the oppressed and the often abused. It’s not a huge leap to compare this conflict between social (typically religious) conservatives and minorities like the LGBT community.
The game exaggerates the relationship, creating a situation that couldn’t happen in reality. Thus, the philosophical ideas that inform the conflict aren’t constrained by the factual details of our world. No one is implying that the LGBT community turn into blood magicians and that the religious march out to cage and murder them, but this conflict still echoes the tensions felt in the lives of real people. BioWare was successful in avoiding moralizing by not choosing a side, while providing enough interactions to allow the player to take a stance on their own. While it is easy to side with the Mages, especially when one thinks of them as social minorities, one cannot ignore how many of them do resort to blood magic and turn into demons.
Anders blowing up the Chantry is at the center of this issue, tying sympathy and anger together in an uncomfortable knot. General reception of his actions has been negative, creating the possibility of a more “obvious” support for Mages to be made problematic. The player’s gut reaction is to reprimand Anders in some way, that pushing against violent oppressors is okay—until you get violent yourself. Comparing him to a contemporary social minority, however, lends a perspective that complicates our thinking of both Anders and social change.
BioWare uses Anders to ask, “What led up to this? Why did he do it?” The player takes a position of privilege in comparison to the other Mages in the game, since they are open about their Mage identity and don’t face the danger of finding themselves stuck in the Circle. It’s simple for the player to assume a “be patient, one day it’ll all get better” attitude that inactive sympathizers really do adopt when speaking to groups like the LGBT community.
Hawke is more of a witness to social change than a catalyst, and despite choosing to support the Templars or the Mages, it’s too little and too late for Anders. From his point of view, there is only blood on his hands. Does he murder by his own volition or with apathy?
From Anders’s perspective, if every day without equal rights is a day too long, every Mage murdered before he executes his plans to free them is on him. The player encounters many situations in which Mages are forced to submit, turn to blood magic, or die. Additionally, there remains the personal anguish of constantly remaining in hiding and being told by a culture that something is wrong with him. It is no coincidence, then, that the “demons” that he deals with are named Justice and Vengeance, literally an embodiment of rational anger towards society.
Dragon Age II offers no solution to the problem that the Mages face except for what Anders does, and it questions the lengths that need to be gone to in order for social justice to be accomplished in reality. Most gamers find themselves in a position of privilege concerning LGBT rights, passively witnessing the community achieving social rights. They only occasionally lend their voice to this cause, despite the many discriminatory murders and overall culture of oppression that devalues these lives. The player’s relationship to both this viewpoint on social issues and Anders’ actions is based on whether they can actually blame him for his actions.
Deciding whether what he did was right or wrong is only the most superficial analysis. Instead, the game forces the player to consider if blowing up the Chantry is what’s necessary for the oppression to end. Anders wants to ask players that call him a terrorist if they could live with themselves if everything stayed the same.
This question isn’t supposed to have an easy answer. The ending events along with Fenris’ and Merrill’s personal quests complicate Anders’s position. The nuanced nature of Dragon Age II’s character drama speaks to the messy politics of reality. It trains the player to begin thinking “from this perspective” and breaks good/bad dichotomies. Dragon Age II is a testament to the social relevance that games can have by its blurring of the players’ sense of right and wrong and by its translation of that new understanding into actual activism for issues that exist in reality.