Spoiler Warning: This post has spoilers for Dragon Age: Origins, Dragon Age 2 and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine!
Quoting or mentioning @aeazel in my posts seems, slowly but steadily, to become a habit, but I believe it’s not a bad one!
A few weeks back, in a discussion totally unrelated to gaming, he casually mentioned the concept of intersectionality to me. I started to read the Wikipedia article on it, and while I forgot the actual matter at hand, I realized why Dragon Age: Origins had appealed to me so much more than Dragon Age 2 – in spite of everything I love about the new game.
Quoting Wikipedia, “The theory [of intersectionality] suggests—and seeks to examine how—various socially and culturally constructed categories such as gender, race, class, disability, and other axes of identity interact on multiple and often simultaneous levels, contributing to systematic social inequality. Intersectionality holds that the classical conceptualizations of oppression within society, such as racism, sexism, homophobia, and religion-based bigotry, do not act independently of one another; instead, these forms of oppression interrelate, creating a system of oppression that reflects the “intersection” of multiple forms of discrimination.”
Let’s, literally, take a look at my character from Origins:
Elf Mage Izka
This is Izka. Female elf mages have been my absolute default character in RPGs for as long as I can remember playing, so I didn’t think much about it, and got started. Among the multitude of awesome things, I soon found myself especially fascinated with the social structures, especially the tensions, that were written into the game universe, and the detailled history of the three main races of Humans, Elves and Dwarves.
In the history of the Dragon Age world, Elves aren’t the proud noble people we know from Tokien’s Middle Earth, the Forgotten Realms or the Elder Scrolls. They are a broken people, driven from their lands, out of touch with their history and culture. They have lost their traditional ways, forgotten most of their rituals and magic. They live as nomad clans, constantly ready to move on to avoid conflicts with human settlements, or in slums called alienages in human towns, where they are at the mercy of the Human populace. They are discriminated against for openly racist reasons, very much like the Elves in The Witcher.
The mages are discriminated across all races, they are considered generally dangerous and are taken from their parents and forced into the Circle of Magi to learn to control their powers under the watchful eyes of the Templars, who fear them, especially for the powerful Blood Magic and the Abominations that can possess mages. Mages who leave the Circle Towers will most likely be persecuted and made tranquil, i.e. stripped of their magic powers, but also their emotions and instincts. For all intents and purposes, they become willing slaves of the system. Conveniently, they are the only ones except dwarves who can handle raw lyrium, a mineral that among other things can be used to make potions that replenish magic. The Chantry, the dominant religious institution (strongly resembling Christianity on many accounts) on the continent of Thedas also administers lyrium to the Templars, supposedly to increase their resistance to magic, but certainly to make them addicted to the substance. (Jem’Hadar of Star Trek’s Deep Space Nine, anyone?)
So, unwittingly, I cast my virtual self amidst two struggles: The Mages’ campaign for self-determination, freedom from the control of the Templars and the Chantry, and the Elves’ fight for equality among the races and justice and redemption for the crimes committed against them by the humans. Throughout the incredibly well written dialogs in Dragon Age Origins, there were many situations that specifically adressed my character either as an Elf, or as a Mage – and in general, that approach was skeptical or discriminating. I can’t remember a situation that addressed me as Elf AND Mage at the same time now, but it’s been a while since I played the first game, so I can’t say for sure whether they were any. Regardless, this discrimination one reason atop the other is exactly what intersectionality is about. While a Human Mage and an Elf Muggle (if you don’t know Harry Potter: a person with no magical talents) will be discriminated in this world, my Elf Mage can expect a doubly bad treatment.
While “being an Elf” is easily recognized as a racial classification causing racist discrimination, the “being a Mage” isn’t so easy. It’s not a personal choice to be a Mage, so it isn’t a political, social or religious factor. Neither is it a physical disability. I would put it in a category of “specially talented with an existing, but exaggerated risk of mental instability”. (Jennifer Hepler, who wrote the character Anders for Dragon Age 2 mentioned that she wrote him as a person with a mental disorder.) In my second playthrough, I played a Dwarf Commoner, who is only discriminated against by her own people – an example for discrimination based on class or caste.
Reading the definition quoted above, I realized that there were two “sections” that do not bear repercussions in the game, and one that is rarely selectable in dialogs, but usually has negative consequences as well. First of all, my Izka being female didn’t limit what I could do in terms of combat, skills, general dialog choices or quests. There were, however, women in the game that were cast in traditional roles and such, but this didn’t apply to the player character. In one of the Origin stories, when you are a Dwarf Commoner, your sister is the mistress of a Nobleman, in a quite typical submissive and dependent fashion. It made me cringe, but I had no option to change it (I might have, had I taken other options before. I might go back and try it… after I tried all the other Origins from start to end!) Sometimes, however, the game does address Izka specifically as a female, or have different lines for male and females even outside romance dialogs. One of my favorite times this gender-specific address occurs, is this dialog:
Alistair: “You know… it just occurred to me that there have never been many women in the Grey Wardens. I wonder why that is?”
You can pick these answers:
- You want more women in the Wardens, do you?
- Probably because we’re too smart for you.
- (to which Alistair replies) “True. But if you’re here, what does that make you?”
- Eager to get going.
- Incredibly unlucky.
- Just one of the boys? [My favorite! This gets approval points from Alistair]
- So not interested.
- I can handle myself better than most.
- How about you stop thinking of me as a woman?
I loved this dialog SO MUCH!!!
Secondly, Izka had the choice to romance Leliana, a female rogue. This homosexual romance has no negative impact in the game at all. (I can’t remember if any of my companions even commented).
Third, in some cases you have the option to voice atheist thoughts, challenging the belief of the Chantry. Leliana is a dedicated follower, so denying the Maker or defiling the ashes of his beloved Andraste will upset and eventually turn on you (unless you have convinced her earlier that her path as a Chantry lay-sister isn’t really for her – this is called “hardening” her).
I have, in previous posts, discussed this topic of whether discrimination should be depicted in RPGs. And my opinion remains a clear yes, with the Caveat that there must a choice in the game to fight this discrimination. As far as I’m concerned, this has worked well in The Witcher on a great scale, and I can remember various instances in other games, like Fallout: New Vegas (when a guy offers you protection, implying the “in exchange for certain services”) or Baldur’s Gate I, when you can save the Dark Elf Viconia from a mob, and so on.
This “rebellious behavior” is also possible in Origins. Izka survived the final battle and insisted that the Fereldan Circle of Mages be freed from the factual Templar rule. I couldn’t help the Elves to such a great degree, but I alleviated some of their problems. Maybe playing as a Dalish Elf (from one of the nomad clans, not a Circle Mage) gives this option, I haven’t completed this Origin.
One of my dearest moments in this game can happen in the romance dialogs with the “almost-Templar” Alistair, who was drafted into the Grey Wardens just a while before your character. As with most of his romance dialog, you have the choice to softly tease him. In this particular instance, you can tease him about being him being a Templar, who is in love with a mage and elf. I couldn’t find a transcript or video of that dialog (or maybe they are two separate ones) right now, I don’t know if I could find one of my savegame to record it, since I am uncertain when the dialog occurs.
On the other hand, Alistair can be quite the racist. If he is made King of Ferelden, and you’re not a Human Noble, he breaks off the romance (you can, under certain circumstances, become his mistress – which I wouldn’t, not even in a game). I got really mad at him – for all our love, for all he owed me, he wouldn’t at least TRY to convince his people to accept an Elf Queen? Such a royal coward!
On the other hand, this is realistic, too. People aren’t black-or-white in real life either, and we’re frequently given the option to do evil as player characters, and then again do good. Thus, if avatars can have such flaws, I suppose their companions would, and should, too. Similarly, no matter what you do, Alistair will leave your party if you allow Loghain to join and live. Quite unforgiving, just like real(istic) people can be.
To return to my statement of preferring Origins over DA2, it is all about identifying with the hero.Hawke is set as Human, the dominant race also in the Free Marches where Part 2 plays, and from a noble family. Of course, he or she is a refugee and has been wronged by circumstances beyond her or his control, but we have a sense of belonging to a higher class, being something better than those other refugees. Especially Hawke’s mother has a sense of lost glory and grandeur. Outside the game, Hawke is marketed as a Champion, so I know “I” will become that before I even start the game. While the narration (“how the story is told”) of this ascension is intriguing, the main motivation for me to play was to see what happened to my companions, their stories were much more captivating and some full of surprises.
Compared to this, I was able to identify with Izka much more, since I had more choices of who I wanted her to be. I don’t want to play a “rich kid who is currently in a rough spot”. Dragon Age: Origins put me in a rough life, and handed me ways to either fix things for myself, or strive for the greater good. It put me between the lines of several conflicts, made me feel these conflicts through little bits here and there in quests, lore and dialogs, but instead of making me pick sides in an inevitable conflict, the game allowed me to make some things better. To fix everything would’ve been cheap, but it gave me choices – mind you, not all of them were easy and comfortable either – to shape my own fate as well as that of several victimized groups. In comparison to this, Dragon Age 2 feels like I’m replaying someone else’s story that’s more or less fixed in its course – it’s still a good story, and very well told, but I miss the power to make wrongs right, or at least, less wrong.
In Origins, Izka definitely grows because of the opposition she faces (among other reasons) due to discrimination – and so do we real people. (And of course, this is in part my interpretation, but name one player who doesn’t add anything to the game’s narrative in his or her head!) Hawke, even if you play her or him as a Saint, is on a personal quest to regain lost family influence, amass riches and build a position of power for him- or herself. “Become Champion” – that is your destiny, marketing tells you. It’s a selfish motivation, and thus much less appealing to me. Maybe it’s due to the economic crisis all around us, that makes us think about our own well-being more and inspired the general direction of the game.
In this real life I keep referring to I try to speak up against discrimination when I encounter it. But I am just one girl in a big, often very bad world. I know we have to start somewhere, and that the little things do count. But sometimes, it’d be nice to slay an Archdemon, a little faerie comes up and asks a wish of you and you could choose between “Remember the Grey Wardens” and “Eradicate discrimination against [insert any aforementioned sections here]“!
Or in other words: “Just one girl, against all odds, saving the world”… and depending on what you’re thinking right now, I’ll add: “You may say, I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one…”