I’ve been enjoying PBS Game/Show, a smart, engaging, and well-presented video series on gaming issues that was recommended to me by several clever friends. Perhaps I like the series particularly well because the presenter appears to share my politics on many issues–and he’s great at addressing or deflecting comments to keep the conversation inclusive and constructive.
So I was at first a little surprised when one of the recent videos called out games I like to play for the way they depict race in NPC characters. Specifically, the show called out BioWare for giving Dragon Age series background characters a diversity of complexions but not addressing human racial difference in a world where otherwise race (elves vs. dwarves vs. humans) matters a lot. Kill Screen (which was founded by the Game/Show host Jamin Warren) followed up with that idea in more detail, looking at the way DA: Inquisition party members deal with race (or not):
Yes, we recognize that Vivienne is human and Varric is a dwarf; we simultaneously recognize that she is black and he is white. Yet only one of those distinctions has any perceptible effect on these characters: each will readily offer up their experiences as a human or a dwarf, but Vivienne never comments on her blackness (at least not in my two playthroughs), nor will Varric offer any maunderings on his whiteness.
Both the video and the post made compelling arguments, but at first I was not inclined to agree. Having a game narrative explicitly address difference is one narrative decision, and certainly it can be rewarding one. For example, another DA:I character, Dorian, is often held up as an exemplary model of representation: Dorian is gay and can be romanced by male PCs, but his sexuality is also an important part of his backstory and his personal in-game quest. I haven’t played DA:I yet, but know some players see themselves in Dorian; others learn something new in getting to know him. That’s valuable.
But I’ve also longed to see oppression less represented in the games I play. In fact, that’s an element of many BioWare games that has long troubled me: despite a sort of lip service played to equality (by in-game lore or game reviews) there is still evident discrimination against certain populations in the gameworld. In Dragon Age, Ferelden is supposedly a land where “men and women are generally equal,” yet a female Warden is met with incredulity at nearly every turn, and the country’s queen regnant is literally imprisoned in a castle by her father. Minor female characters mostly take on their usual roles in high fantasy–witches, washerwomen, noblewomen, prostitutes and brothel madams–and significantly fewer everyday roles like soldiers, messengers, shopkeepers, and crowd members. In Mass Effect, the asari are supposedly one of the most advanced races of the galaxy, yet they also just happen to be galaxy’s preferred sexual object; bars are almost exclusively staffed with svelte asari dancers. Most other alien races are depicted as predominantly male; some female aliens are introduced late in the series and weirdly designed, though there’s no reason that all these races have to be sexually dimorphic in the first place. This is high fantasy: we imagine magic and dragons, we imagine interstellar travel and aliens that live hundreds of years, so why can’t we imagine a world unburdened by the same oppressions that dog ours?
So that was my first reaction: isn’t it nice to have some diverse representation in a fantasy game without replicating racial oppression?
But I was wrong, and here is why.
First, neither Dragon Age nor any of the other games mentioned here and in the linked articles is actually racially diverse. Some games read that way, due to some cognitive bias that allows us to read “a handful of nonwhite characters” as “an equal distribution of white and nonwhite characters.” But Tanya D at BoingBoing’s newly relaunched Offworld does the count, and finds Thedas (and particularly the Free Marches) to be very white worlds indeed. How did I not notice? No doubt the usual culprit, privilege blindness, but also, like most folks, I just want to enjoy the entertainment I enjoy and I’ll voluntarily or involuntarily look past a lot of problems. Case in point: at the very same time I was reading Killscreen’s take on race in Dragon Age, I saw this piece at FemHype that examines the female characters in Skyrim. Now, Skyrim is about as close as I’ve gotten to that utopic gameworld in which femaleness is not a handicap or a special sexualized class: you can play as a woman and no NPCs give you flak for winning the game while female, and you’ll come across other female NPC adventurers who want to team up with you or kill you. But Jillian at FemHype points out how few female characters hold positions of power, the weird exceptionalism of the few fleshed-out female characters that play major roles in quests, and of course the sexual divisions of enemies. Even the rare female Draugr aren’t dressed for war.
So one issue is that you can’t really have a post-racial, post-feminist, post-anything fantasy world if the world’s population defaults to white and male. If you only have a handful of characters to represent other kinds of players who might like to see themselves in the game, then those few characters end up working overtime as tokens, burdened with representing ideas or whole populations instead of existing as unique characters in their own right. Case in point: Vivienne in DA:I. Vivienne seems like a great character: she’s powerful, beautiful, and gets a lot of the good lines. She is undeniably black, and as Game/Show’s rundown demonstrates, there aren’t too many black characters in contemporary games that aren’t nameless enemies or horrifying stereotypes. Vivienne is her own person; her story is that she is a BAMF. When I was first mulling over the argument set forth by Game/Show and KillScreeen, I thought that I’d be interested in a backstory about Vivienne becoming a BAMF despite structural racism, but I wouldn’t be interested in such a story done badly or lazily. (I mean, Bioshock Infinite is free this week on Xbox Live, so I’ve had my fill of lazy writing and white savior narrative.)
Instead what happens with Vivienne, according to N.K. Jemisin, is that she has very little story at all.
Vivienne is affiliated with many groups but few of them seem to have contributed anything to who she’s become. She’s the only playable black woman seen in the entire trilogy of games so far, and she is cultureless, rootless, and quintessentially raceless.
Jemisin’s argument–and y’all, this is my favorite argument I’ve read on this topic so far, although everything I’ve linked is well done–is not that we need more racism in our fantasy worlds, but that our fantasy worlds have erased people of color so completely for so long that it does no good to simply drop one or two people of color into the game with no context or acknowledgement. “It’s nigh-impossible to get fantasy readers just to acknowledge that people of color even existed in medieval Europe,” she writes. “The reality is, and has always been, diverse. Denial of this reality is the modern — racist — addition to the pot.” Rather than simulating racial diversity without approaching equality and without context, Jemisin would prefer to see Vivienne’s lived experience as a dark-skinned woman in an overwhelmingly white world given more depth and connection, even just with party banter details that fill in the holes of her backstory.
I’d still like to see a game one day in which racial diversity and gender parity is so much a given that the plot does not reenact the micro and major aggressions we live with in the real world. But in the meantime, why don’t we create stories and worlds that depict difference with the depth, range, and detail that have been missing in fantasy for so long?
Note: Many of these links came to my attention via Critical Distance, always a great resource for critical issues in gaming; others I saw on MedievalPOC, a great tumblr which catalogs art from the Middle Ages that depicts people of color just hanging out and being European, despite our modern day insistence on the implacable whiteness of medieval Europe as well as medievalish fantasy realms.