How Could He?: Exploring Social Issues Through ‘Dragon Age II’

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.

Mass Appeal vs. Accessibility in Video Games

There is a difference between “mass appeal” and “accessibility,” though some word-slingers and comment fanatics find the terms interchangeable. Who uses them determines a large part of their meaning, as a lot of gaming discussion also determines who belongs to the “in group” and who belongs to the “out group.” Games striving for mass appeal tend to come from a series or lineage of some sort that include conventions that appeal to hardcore gamers but also attempt to broaden their audience by watering down complex features. The phrase is used pejoratively, devaluing other gaming styles while calling out developers with their eye on gaining more customers. Accessibility is a design philosophy that opens up games to more people without changing the experience for the original audience. It also aims to value a plurality of gaming styles instead of “one over all others,” such as higher difficulties being the ultimate vision or true version of a game.

Arguments concerning mass appeal and accessibility frequently occur over RPGs, a genre going through an identity crisis by trying to satisfy the old guard while fighting stagnation by expanding into new territory (the purgatory of the “give us something new but keep everything the same” demand of gamers). A focus on stats or numbers in general is often included in many gamers’ definitions of what an RPG is, but the focus on micromanaging numbers is the only one way to express character progression. It is far more likely that statistical progression is a given and that a game is built around such progression rather than an organic component of what it means to be an RPG.

Assigning numerical values to attributes at character creation, adding points as you level up, the chance that the player can find their character build irreparably flawed well into the game—all of these tie into the feeling that we get playing RPGs, which is centered around character progression. However, these qualities are not necessary for a successful game of this sort. Consider the shift away from traditional character creation in The Elder Scrolls (in which all of the decisions dealing with numbers are translated into different mechanics in the game). Many called foul at this change and journalists still see Bethesda’s games as primed more for mass consumption but very little actually changed.

The focus on player input in the series involves a larger amount of people managing their character’s progression without being inundated with extraneous information. Anyone who has played earlier Elder Scrolls games will find themselves doing the same exact things with a similar amount if not more flexibility in Skyrim. This is because deciding 5-point differences between Charisma and Intelligence is simply one way to influence skills that panders to the tastes to a particular set of people, while it isn’t a loss of experience to simply pick pockets to become better at it and it allows enjoying perks if you want to specialize.

Styles of play remain the same without traditional specializations, with abilities and the game-world funneling players into the usual warrior, rogue, and mage trifecta while allowing for some experimentation if players want the challenge. On the other end of the RPG spectrum, you have games like Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age II that maintain a standard set of statistics with little benefit. With numbered requirements for skills and equipment, the player is doing work that the computer could be doing instead and the system offers little in terms of flexibility.

Putting points into attributes doesn’t offer some players much in terms of game interaction, such stats exist only for those who enjoy watching the numerical value of attack values and armor points rise and fall. For RPGs that show some of the strongest concentration on character development through narrative development, the old draping of D&D character sheets are anachronistic. This is only the start of a conversation about some of the Final Fantasy games, which would remain largely unaffected as gaming experiences if you took away the status screens showing the party members described in numbers.

The tension between “hardcore” players and a wider audience echoes the politics of the relationship that developers and gamers have with game design. The diversity of RPG styles doesn’t match the increasing range of identities in the player base, which is important because of how much interaction is necessary for enjoying games. The backlash that social minorities are combating in gaming is similar to the resistance to valuing other experiences besides the simulation or abstraction of technical skills in gaming culture, and the demographics that represent each side aren’t too different. Video games reflect themes and skills found in boys’ styles of play as children, and any introduction of qualities that are different from that (especially if tagged as feminine) are cast out as inferior “casual” games. The movement of making games accessible gives designers the opportunity to boil down what works without the trappings of conventions that exist “just because they’ve always been there” and establish new ways of interacting that would be unavailable in generic RPGs.

Numbers and stats in RPGs don’t have to go away forever but probably deserve to be more niche than they are currently. Taking the lead from Skyrim and Dragon Age II, there are other directions that the core idea of character progression can go that don’t involve a superficial process that blocks enjoyment for the current “out group.” As the genre and all of gaming struggles with its identity and direction, a critical look at how we resort to convention and whose convention is valued will reveal roadblocks once assumed to be essential mainstays of the medium.

Speaking in Accents and the American Ethnocentrism in Video Games

Voice acting has become a staple in gaming that helps flesh out characters and setting. Abandoning the text-box provided a more intimate way for the game to connect to the player by expressing emotion and ideas in a way that they are more familiar with. The quality of voice acting in games is, of course, an area of contention, but when done properly, it adds brushstrokes to the aesthetics of the game. This is especially true for settings that benefit from characters having accents to imply nationality. The cultural politics that voice acting implies, however, often escape analysis. The default English accent is General American and deviations from this tap into a subtext that assumes an American player. How accents communicate information to the player exposes the subliminal effects of American ethnocentrism.

Looking at the voices chosen for the later Final Fantasy games reveal how conscious the video game industry is in having voiceover resonate with American players. There is critique about American culture in the very idea in how a foreign country would choose to best translate their characters. Exotification of both real-world cultures and in-game characters surfaces through the series’ presentation of accents. Final Fantasy XII and XIII use accents to imply regional differences rather than what normally would, the face. In Final Fantasy XII, most of the party has a General American accent, with florid vocabulary to make the setting reminiscent of “olde” times in Europe. This associates the American accent with the player, assumed as the default. Fran is the exception, but she is so in many respects: she’s the only non-human character in the party, the only non-white character, and also the most sexualized. Her odd Bjork-esque accent adds to her exotic characterization, though one could make a strong argument that Fran has the least personality of all of the party members in the game. With the Empire sporting England’s Received Pronunciation accent and while Rozzaria’s Al-Cid speaks with a Spanish one to match his exaggerated mannerisms, the player’s experience adds context to the notion that the politics of foreign countries decide the fate of their own if that player is American. This also takes place in Final Fantasy XIII, in which Fang and Vanille have Australian accents to designate their nationality, while Americans voice the rest of the cast. Along with their tribal inspired clothing and the uncultivated depiction of their home world, the Australian accent gives the American (and possibly other) players the subtext of the characters being wild and exotic. In a game that trumpets the theme of protecting the homeland from foreigners, the emphasized difference between the American- and Australian-voiced characters adds to the drama of the situation. This is absent for those who share the same stereotypical views that the US has about other cultures.

The Dragon Age series reappropriates accent dynamics for the assumed American player. Taking place in a fantasy setting, the dominant accent is the English Received Pronunciation. With this as the default, the other accents gain meaning through their interaction with the English: the Dalish speaking with Welsh accents, Orlesians are French, and Antivans Spanish. The treatment of these groups coincides with the stereotyping of their accents rather than their own in-game culture. This is especially true of Orlesians, as their voice acting is sometimes incomprehensible and usually humorous in its deprecating manner. What is surprising is the usage of American accents. City elves, dwarves, and the Qunari do not represent the default. Instead, American accents are a neutral sound because there doesn’t need to be any differentiation within these groups. This makes the American accent invisible so the player can focus on something other than their regional heritage. It uncovers what the developers wanted the audience to focus on with these groups: the classism of the dwarves, the absolute philosophical theocracy in Qunari culture, and how the city elves deal with racism (however there is little commentary on how humans are casually discriminatory towards them). In the cases of the humans and the Dalish, their regional differences are a core part of their story, so they receive European accents to illustrate their relationship to one another. Logically, American accents should sound out of place, as the continent remained undiscovered in the medieval Europe setting the series calls upon as its influence, but they actually do not as American accents are now what players in general have grown accustomed to as the default for video games.

The accents found in games don’t merely represent other people outside of the US, though but also groups within the country. Starcraft and games that use the “space marine aesthetic” often use American Southern accents to depict their characters, relying on many stereotypes of the South as unrefined and conservative. It’s no accident the game provides supplementary US Civil War Confederacy imagery to frame the context of their characters. Southern accents allow the player to understand the military of the future by having them relate to the usual trash-talking and attitudes assumed to be emblematic of those in the US’ current one. Instead of exploring the complexities of a Southern identity, the Starcraft series shows Southerners as unwanted and expendable. Players overlook this because the marines are like the outspoken bumpkins that American society at large has come to laugh at without reprimand. The player will rarely find wise, respected characters with Southern accents in their games; the General American accent or one of the many Northeastern ones allow for that role.

Realizing that development teams assume an American player as their audience can help diversify the setting and cast in video games. Accents can be more than flavor for a game’s aesthetics but also communicate cultural subtext that adds to the overall meaning of the game. Currently, games rely on an American perspective for characterization in a medium that is experienced internationally, and it’s time to question why this is. And as a community, move games into more of a shared global space.

Why You Should Give Dragon Age II a Second Chance

Which game was the biggest disappointment this year? Many gamers (me included) would answer with Dragon Age II by BioWare. With recycled environments, combat void of tactics, and a meaningless item system, BioWare seemed to do quick work of unraveling the success of Dragon Age: Origins. After completing the game, I read some criticism that changed my mind. So much, in fact, that I count Dragon Age II as not only superior to its predecessor, but one of the best games that I’ve ever played. This turn of my dissatisfaction into fervency led me to reflect on how game criticism enables such changes in perspective.

In “Games Aren’t Clocks,” Michael Abbott challenges the preoccupation that critics have with judging a game’s value mostly around its gameplay (“Games Aren’t Clocks”, The Brainy Gamer, 11 September 2011). Abbott’s take on the issue implies that gamers will put up with lackluster results in something like narrative as long as the gameplay is good enough, but not the other way around. This doesn’t excuse Dragon Age II its many negatives, which have been fleshed out by many critics. However, the complaints focus on gameplay and are spare in commenting on a character drama rarely seen in games. Good writing is rare to come across in gaming, and Dragon Age II engages with the conversation on how to imbue a game with meaning through its narrative elements.

It’s possible that gamers haven’t figured out a use for criticism, as the recent debacle over game reviews’ ratings teaches us. Most game criticism strives to assign objective-like values onto games with the assumption that the reader is researching a game for purchase. On the other hand, articles like Alex Raymond’s “A fate that we deserve: Choice, Triumph, and All That Remains” offers a viewpoint that the player might have not considered (“A fate that we deserve: Choice, Triumph, and All That Remains”, While !Finished, 27 September 2011). This type of game criticism is a means to understanding the game rather than an assessment of its value, a lens to highlight certain features and focus a player’s attention to subtleties that surface elements obscure. Raymond pushes aside the categories that Abbott finds unsatisfactory, like gameplay, to center on the characters. A knee-jerk reaction might accuse this perspective as one that views games under the same rubrics that define literary or film criticism, but it is actually the tension surrounding character interaction that makes Dragon Age II so compelling. The game’s characters are unconventional in having lives and pursuits of their own, acting upon the story world as they want to, and not asking the player for permission to do so. The player visits their party members, watches them interact with one another, and changes the tone of the game by building rivalries and friendships.

In her article, Raymond readjusts some aspects of Dragon Age II perceived as faults into evidence of a great game. Some players saw Hawke as ineffectual, unable to control many of the game’s events. Raymond’s analysis instead suggests that the game is forcing the player to experience something that they don’t feel often in games: powerlessness. It uses the player’s predisposition to having control against them. Instead of being like other games and looking to empower players by giving them the illusion of freedom and choice, Dragon Age II tells the player that they are not a superhero. Instead, Hawke is a survivor and witness to catastrophic events that they had little to do with by comparison to others. The constant character drama reinforces this feeling; the “game” exists in the relationships, not the events.

This is when the light bulb went on for me. Like others, I had a mild affection for most of the characters in Dragon Age II but felt like there was little to them. I didn’t realize that seeing the sheer skill that went into building their characterization occurs only over multiple playthroughs. How the player handles these relationships, what kind of personality Hawke has, the stance they take in the Templars vs. Mage conflict, all change the nuances of the character’s attitudes and personalities. The ultimate example of this process, for me, revolves around Anders destroying the Chantry, as it is an event that prompts the player to parse complicated feelings with their own ideology. Was Hawke Anders’s friend, lover, or rival? Were they for or against the Templars? Given the choice of what to do with Anders afterwards, the player must reflect on what brought them to this point and what seems to be the most monumental choice for their game.

I replayed the game three times after this realization. I saw a bubbly, benign Merrill and a stubborn, selfish one recontexualizing the fate of her clan. I can’t decide if Fenris is an outright bigot or a justified skeptic, as I’ve seen both versions of the character. In other words, Dragon Age II presents gamers with meaningful interaction with relationships themselves in video games, a feat commonly fumbled at by other games. It took only one section of one article to reach this level of appreciation for a game that I thought was past redemption. Game criticism can add replay value to games and make them culturally significant, a process that takes looking past just the gameplay and considering what the whole might mean.

The Fantasy Cyborg: Reading Passing Narratives in Dragon Age

(Spoiler warning for the Dragon Age series)

Topics about social minorities in video games typically manifest in the relationship humans have with other sentient characters of their world or universe. Games often present humanity as space-warfaring Americans or in a setting reminiscent of feudal England, making the “Other” someone of a different species or robot of some sort, since contemporary minority rights don’t exist in these situations. Games haven’t produced a sizable amount of characters that make their cross-species (like Half-Elves) or cyborg identity important to the theme or action, effectively cutting out a large portion of already scant analysis on multi-racial and transgender politics in games.

Passing narratives, the experiences of a multi-racial or transgender character in relation to the identity society views them as, in media appear in LeiLani Nishime’s “The Mulatto Cyborg,” citing cyborg characters from films as expressions of anxiety over miscegenation. While the popular imagining of cyborgs are part human, part machine beings, the mages from the Dragon Age series act as a high fantasy response as part human, part spirit characters. Mages can receive equal treatment if their mage status is unknown. However, once revealed, they receive skepticism, whether they are good or evil, a practitioner of blood magic or not. Most of the mages that travel with the Warden and Hawke live passing as human while managing their cyborg identity. Using Nishime’s “The Good, the Bad, and the Mulatto Cyborg” structure, Dragon Age II shows a successful beginning of representing multi-racial and transgender politics. Whereas the multi-racial cyborg negotiates between multiple races, the transgender cyborg balances their transgender identity with a ‘recognized’ one of their society, usually as a woman or man.

The Good Mage

The Good Cyborg is the tragic figure trying to become more (white, cisgender) human, but still outcast by society. In Dragon Age: Origins, the player encounters Tranquil mages, who celebrate their disconnection from the Fade even though it came at a high cost. Many mages volunteer for the Rite of Tranquility, as a self-loathing mage can be convinced to do in the mage starting section of Origins. The plight of the good mage rests in the essentialism of society; once born outside of the standard, one could never hope to achieve the status of a “true” human. The Tranquil are often put into positions of servitude and practical application that mages are absent from, now seen as acceptable and safe to interact with other humans. The player’s interaction with one such Tranquil shopkeeper broaches the topic of humanity, implying the general assumption of the Tranquil being less than human and mage. As Nishime puts it, the Good Cyborgs are nostalgic for something that never existed for them, and can only occur inside their own minds. It is telling that taking away the mage’s connection with the Fade and spirits takes away what is mage-like about them, and leaves something other than human as a result.

The Bad Mage

These mages confirm the suspicions and accusations made against their kind by the Templars and Chantry. How the player encounters them is telling: the main character battles demons and blood mages, many in scenes of destruction and rebellion. Dramatic cut scenes depict the use of blood magic and demonic transformation than any other type of magic, mirroring the unmasking of the Bad Cyborgs in films like The Terminator. They embrace dealings with demons and any grab at power that their magic affords them. Rejecting humanity by attacking it, Bad Mages resonate with the fears our culture has of identities that defy binaries. Dragon Age II’s Meredith plays on this anxiety by highlighting the mages’ ability to hide amongst the populace and strike down the everyday person, very similar rhetoric to opponents of minority rights. This also places value in being purely human, with anything different on the path to taint that purity. Nishime observes the only way towards redemption for Bad Cyborgs and Mages alike: total sacrifice and submission. Meredith acknowledges this sacrifice near the end of the game, but forces it on the mages, seeing the “people” of Kirkwall the real victims, not the mages. Juxtaposed in this manner, mages are second-class humans without all the rights that come along with being human, even if they are well behaved.

The Mixed/Trans Mage

Instead of looking to pass as completely human or of the Fade, the Mixed/Trans Mage embraces their hybridity and shapes their circumstances to fit their identity. These characters disturb and confuse onlookers by occupying a space that lies outside of the binary of good and bad. The progressive tone of the Dragon Age series arises from the many Mixed/Trans Mages the player can encounter, namely Morrigan, Anders, and Merrill. Mage-skeptical characters, such as Alistair, Fenris, and Aveline, are bewildered each time they attempt to apply the Good/Bad Mage mentality on them only to hear a rebuttal traversing into a gray area. Much like multi-racial and transgender people in reality, these characters manage their lives under the pressure to pass as standard while typecast as the bad cyborg and avoiding the fate of the good one. They often talk to the player as a teacher or from an enlightened viewpoint of someone who sees the social construction of being human and a mage. What is confusing to both Dragon Age’s society and our own is the perceived hubris of the Mixed/Trans Mage; why are these people being so loud? Who are they to disrupt the natural order of things? Why do we have to change for them?

Dragon Age II’s Passing Narratives

The struggles Anders and Merrill fight to achieve their identity-driven objectives while negotiating respect with their party members and evading Templars successfully speak to passing and identity issues for multi-racial and transgender people. Anders’ struggle with Justice describes how these minorities fair in the current social climate in reality, fearing the persecution of those who don’t understand him while controlling his deserved anger from being destructive. No one has answers for Anders’ problems other than to be a good, patient mage, and eventually society might change to make things better. This frustration builds in a culture for which there is no outlet for his feelings, much like predicament of multi-racial and transgender people finding little comfort in their allies while performing saint-like behavior around the oppressors. Anders’ story shows that society will not change quickly enough for the Mixed/Trans Cyborg, and instead, a cataclysmic change to the oppressive structure must occur. Merrill has even more hybridity to her identity; she is a Dalish who lives in the city, alienated from her clan, humans, and city elves while also marginalized for her blood magic. Her tense dialogue with Anders reveals the need for a pluralistic look on their issues, as Anders is quick to criticize Merrill despite their similar paths. Dragon Age II tells a tragic story of the Mixed/Trans Cyborg that tries to hold onto their roots while developing their borderless identity: instead of eliminating an overarching institution, Merrill can only be free once the bond with family that holds her back is destroyed.

Identifying the Mixed/Trans Cyborg/Mage amongst the numerous Good and Bad ones serves as a tool for not only reading multi-racial and transgender topics in games, but also creating successful minority characters overall. Development teams need more encouragement to include these identities and their issues in games; revealing and discussing passing narratives will lend material for more diverse game characters.

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