Whitewashing Dragon Age

Concept art for the default male version of Hawke from Dragon Age 2, showing a Caucasian man with black hair and a beard, covered in bloody markings and symbols and wearing a mixture of fur, armour, and ragged clothing.

Concept art for the default male version of Hawke from Dragon Age 2, showing a Caucasian man with black hair and a beard, covered in bloody markings and symbols and wearing a mixture of fur, armour, and ragged clothing.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been preparing myself for the release of Dragon Age 2, which is set for release on 11th March. I only managed to get my hands on the demo today, but already there are a few problematic elements bubbling away in the background.

The demo begins with a Chantry seeker named Cassandra calling on Varric, a dwarf who she knows spent time with Hawke–the game’s protagonist. In response to her questioning, Varric begins narrating a story in which Hawke and his/her sister Bethany are fleeing the darkspawn only to encounter a dragon. At this point, Cassandra calls shenanigans on Varric’s story, and he promises to relate ‘what really happened’.

The problem, however, is that BioWare have chosen (at least for the purposes of the demo) to give you the character creator only after this initial opening sequence. In fact, the beginning of the game gives you a simple choice between male/female and warrior/mage/rogue before throwing you into the action. This means that the first ten minutes of the game are always going to be played as BioWare’s default male or female Hawke, which in turn means that they are going to be Caucasian.

At the time of posting, the discussion on BioWare’s forum about this issue is already over twenty pages long (and really not recommended reading for the most part, with a lot of people making the point that this opening sequence presents Hawke as a legend, rather than who they really were. However, this raises the uncomfortable subtext that, while the real Hawke may be customized to suit the player’s tastes, the Hawke that people know from legends is always going to be white. Personally, I can’t help but be reminded of Jesse Houston’s assertion that BioWare’s female characters are less iconic than the male ones, and Stanley Woo’s utter failure to handle racial issues surrounding the Dragon Age games in the past couple of months.

BioWare’s reasoning behind this bizarre choice seems to be that they have concluded that they’re losing a lot of players who don’t want to be confronted with a character creator at the very start of a game. As Mike Laidlaw says in this interview:

“We saw a lot of people disengaging at hour one, hour two […] You get to an RPG and fire it up, and it hits you in the face with a thousand stats. Those stats are very cool, but you may not be mentally or emotionally prepared to deal with them as your first thing to do in the game.”

He also goes on to add:

“Part of the glorious advantage of the frame narrative is [that] Varric kind of lies about you. We establish how people perceive the Champion. This figure is of some import to the world.”

And, apparently, the way people perceive the Hero of Kirkwall is as a white man or white woman, regardless of their actual ethnicity. Granted, this could make for a very interesting plot device should BioWare wish to use Dragon Age 2 to challenge this assumption in game, but unfortunately the demo makes no sign of doing anything of the sort.

Granted, there has been some progress since the days of Dragon Age: Origins, where your Warden of color was furnished with an entirely white family. According to the Dragon Age Wiki, the skin tones and facial structures of Hawke’s family members will now adapt themselves to compliment your customized character. However I can’t help but feel that this is at least a small step back from Mass Effect 2, where the pre-character creation sequence has been craftily put together to only show Shepard in full armour obscuring her/his skin tone and facial features until you’ve played through the opening scene.

I have to wonder: would that have been so difficult to do this Dragon Age 2, as well? Why choose to present a legendary version of the main character, and their entire family as potentially whitewashed versions of themselves, without challenging or questioning it? Will this depiction of the Caucasian Hawke of legend appear in the full version of the game? And, if so, is it plot device that BioWare have used in a ham-fisted attempt to ‘hit the ground running’, or will we be seeing more cutscenes featuring the default versions of Hawke throughout the game?

Thanks to Marissa for the tip-off, and to half the staff of Border House for the discussion :)

About Allegra

Allegra Hawksmoor is a white, (broadly) cis-gendered, polysexual and polyamorous writer, anarchist and activist. For the past ten years, she has lived in North Wales with her partner, who suffers from clinical depression. She is a fiction editor for SteamPunk Magazine, edits and manages small-press printers Vagrants Among Ruins, occasionally maintains a blog, and generally has her fingers in more pies than she has time for.
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67 Responses to Whitewashing Dragon Age

  1. Callan says:

    Cue David Gaider saying that because Dragon Age is a “Western fantasy” world, diversity would be tokenism.

  2. Personally, I have much less issue with the Dragon Age Universe’s portrayal of race. Though it’s not explicitly stated, the lore and setting of the game rely heavily on European history and the established Tolkien mythology. To put it bluntly, it’s a story about white people and that should be OK because your hero can be anything you want. That’s your responsibility to be involved in the story.

    The problem is, however, that not enough games are diverging outside of this realm and exploring the rich history on other continents. We shouldn’t be pointing fingers at a game that’s clearly embedded in a pre-established “white” culture, but rather we should ask why no one is making games that transcends that? The fantasy motif is easy and popular. Futuristic games like Mass Effect address the issue of race by making it a non-issue, stating that people in the future have more ethnically diverse backgrounds (this seems a little overly simplistic to me, but no matter).

    Why do we need to artificially implant modern notions of race and ethnicity onto a pre-established genre that heavily relies on historical foundations as well as imagination? We should be demanding the video game industry begin to explore undoubtedly legendary narratives from China or Africa. And then, when that game is made, don’t make the protagonist a white male halfheartedly inserted into the story because the marketing team thinks it would sell the game better.

    We need to stop criticizing established narratives with the insistence on projecting a more politically correct ideal onto them, rather we should be questioning why the industry can’t expand and explore beyond these limited genres.

    • Callan says:

      You’re pretty heavily invested in supporting BioWare, given your position in Crabcat Industries and it’s links there. I understand that you might not want to see BioWare criticized, but dismissing people’s wish for fantasy games that are more representative as “politically correct” is missing the point.

      It’s fantasy. It is whatever BioWare makes it. They have the opportunity to make their games more welcoming and less “this is about white people, deal with it.” They choose not to. We do not “need to stop criticizing” that. We have every right to point it out.

      • Denis Farr says:

        Particularly in a fantasy setting where we can opt to make characters of color. It brings up questions of why a Fereldan would be black, including what portions of the world we’re seeing, which we aren’t, and why that may be.

        Considering this is to take place in a rather large city, I do hope (and I do underline hope) to see a bit more diversity in characters from places all over their world, including POC.

      • I’m not criticizing the article; the author is completely justified and makes a valid point. I’m asking the author to dig deeper and see that there is a major flaw in our reliance on only a handful of narratives and recycling genres that largely feature white male protagonists.

        I think, respectfully, you are missing the point of my comment. I agree, minorities and women are underrepresented in games and more often than not are completely unimportant to the central story. But instead of picking at games that are completely relying on a set narrative structure and mythology (seriously, all fantasy/medieval plot devices are Tolkien in origin. He set the bar for elves and goblins and trolls… no one has tried to break from that.) why aren’t we asking game developers to make games that celebrate other ethnic/racial/historical backgrounds other than male, white hero?

        Doesn’t that seem more significant than haphazardly inserting women or minorities into a game? In those cases, nothing changes except the voice actor or the skin color. We need to directly respond to the obvious desire for “non-traditional” narratives. This is a weakness of which almost every major gaming company is guilty, BioWare included. I have been incredibly critical of narrative choices that BioWare has made, but that’s a different discussion all together.

        We need to be demanding for the industry to develop games that celebrate the stories beyond the heterosexual, male, European normative. Let’s not be content with more of the same, asking only for the industry to be politically correct in a setting that is inherently not. I’m tired of that, aren’t you?

        • Melthia says:

          No one suggested haphazardly inserting women or minorities for the sake of political correctness, yet you keep bringing it up even after people say that’s not what they meant.

        • Alex says:

          There’s no one way to increase inclusivity of marginalized groups in video games. We can encourage women and POC being included in traditionally whitewashed settings (I mean, Lord of the Rings is notoriously racist, there’s no real reason one HAS to stick with that particular tradition), AND encourage creators to branch out to other settings (perhaps one where there are… no white people at all?!? GASP!). BOTH of these approaches are important, and one does not preclude the other.

          I mean, do you really think the worldbuilding of Dragon Age would completely collapse if some Fereldans weren’t white? Because I would argue that including characters of color “haphazardly” (whatever that means!) would actually improve the worldbuilding and make it less boring and derivative. DA:O is one of my favorite games of all time, but it’s despite the setting, not because of it.

          • By haphazard, I mean game developers being more diverse for the sake of diversity. If they do it to appease a targeted audience without enriching the game mythology, why should that make me happy? I don’t want to play a game where I am a woman, but the only difference in the overall game is my features are softer and my chest is bigger. We shouldn’t settle for that. Yes, it’s amusing that female Shepard sits like a man and dances like an idiot, but it’s also an insult that someone couldn’t give her unique animations. My Shepard isn’t just a man with better voice acting.

            Lord of the Rings and Tolkien are inherently racist. That’s the point. That is the foundation of all fantasy motifs. No one is trying to move beyond that. Why not?

            • Allegra says:

              Erm… Actually I found the fact that the male and female Shepards are animated the same way to be incredibly refreshing. It’s one of my all time absolute favourite things about Mass Effect full stop.

              I am sick to death of every female character I play having to be feminine and girly. Yeah, women can be both of those things. Hell, I can be both of those things. But women can also be aggressive, assertive, physically intimidating… You know… All the things a man can be because we’re all the same species.

              All women and men are human beings, and as such run the gamut of gender expression from ‘masculine’ to ‘feminine’ in a way that has nothing to do with their biological sex.

              If you’re interested, Michael Kimmel talks about this far better than I ever could in his lecture on gender:

              http://www.mediaed.org/cgi-bin/commerce.cgi?preadd=action&key=232&template=PDGCommTemplates/HTN/Item_Preview.html

            • I played as a female Shepard and loved it. (Jennifer Hale’s voice acting was the sh*t!)

              The fact that the animations are the same may have been a technical necessity (I don’t know that for sure) but with the graphics problems (pop-in) that the first game had and the sheer size of it it might not have been possible to add different animations and still keep it to one disc for commercial release.

            • Alex says:

              But no matter what they do they are trying to “appease a targeted audience.” They made the opening of the game a certain way because they are trying to appease people who are turned off by character creators. Why are those people catered to at the expense of people who are playing the game because they can actually play a hero who isn’t white (which is much rarer than games without character creators)? (And like, why the hell are character-creator-hating people even playing an RPG like Dragon Age? I blame the Mass Effect-ification of DA, but that’s another rant entirely. =P)

              No one is trying to move beyond that. Why not?

              I definitely agree with you here, I just think that including characters of color in more traditional-style high fantasy is one way out of many to move beyond Tolkien racism. I think there are plenty of nerds of color who like high fantasy despite its race issues and would like to see high fantasy that includes them. There are many ways to tackle the issue.

        • Cinnabar says:

          Oh, come on! This is a game with dragons and magic and demons, and we’re supposed to believe having only white people is somehow maintaining consistency of mythology? Because no other cultures had fantasy monsters or epic warriors? Or more specifically, dragons and magic and demons ONLY represent a certain historical and geographical space in earth human culture which MUST be reproduced faithfully and without deviation in all media henceforth?

          Okay, let’s talk about sticking to mythology for a minute. In several places in DAO, the assertion is made that Ferelden is seen as an especially egalitarian and free land for all kinds of people (even Elves can apparently expect to be treated better than in other countries). Would it not be consistent then that people from various regions would migrate to Ferelden in search of a better life and acceptance that they might not get elsewhere? Would that not imply that eventually people of all skin colours and other regional characterisitcs would become part of Ferelden society? I will even grant for a moment that they might not be in abundance during the time the game is set (if you REALLY want to stick to the theme of majority whiteness; but why would you?). That still doesn’t mean “token inclusion” of characters or NPCs across the whole game would adequately represent their existence, nor is it justified to exclude them.

          There, I just created a plausible excuse to include people of varying skin tones in a supposedly majority white country, in a fantasy setting with talking trees and people who turn themselves into spiders. 9.9

          • Deviija says:

            This is actually a reply to Allegra, but I couldn’t find the reply button next to her so I’m using you instead, Cinnabar. Pardon. :)

            But yes, like Allegra touched on, I was very refreshed and did not think anything of it to see that both Shepards used the same basic animations. Some could be tweaked to stop some clipping and height issues, but overall the use of the mannerisms for both dude and lady Shepard was a delight for me. Shepard is a trained military special ops (Spectre) kind of person, so having him/her go about in a specific manner made sense to me. And, I rather liked seeing female Shepard exude an air of toughness rather than be undercut by getting ‘girly’ or ‘overly feminine’ animations.

            Which brings me to the DA2 demo. I was excited (ages ago) when I first heard that Lady Hawke will have her own unique animations independent from Dude Hawke. But then I started to get worried that the artists and animators would overdo the lady = feminine side of her to the point where I’d be more disappointed and offended at her portrayal than not. Unfortunately, playing the demo, I found that my fears came true more or less. Lady Hawke’s running animation includes overt saunter and swish in her hips, IMO, like her legs are not rooted to her hips. Her arms sway back and forth, flailing around, like the classic ‘girlyflail run’ (or ‘t-rex arms as I call it) that we see often in games. And her idle/standing stance is the obvious jaunty hip jutting out to the side and chest out pose.

            I prefer playing Lady protagonists in my games, when I have the choice, but these kind of things are things I may not be able to get past (because they frustrate me in their overt and borderline sexualized portrayal).

            • But the difference is they weren’t making female Shepard more masculine, they gave her the exact same animations as male Shepard. You would never ever see male Hawke with animations that were originally intended for a woman.

              And having distinct animations for a woman shouldn’t automatically mean “girly!” But it also shouldn’t mean that she sits around in her Kasumi DLC dress like this: http://www.gamesetwatch.com/female_shepard_legs_200.jpg
              That’s ridiculous because it wasn’t some tongue-in-cheek joke, it was literally an afterthought.

              The point is we should push the industry to be more thoughtful of women in games as well as minorities in games (though it’s ambitious seeing as both in games period are still considered unusual… for now, I’ll take what I can get) because the standard operating procedure for both is using sweeping generalizations and stereotypes.

            • Allegra says:

              @Deviija I have to say, I hadn’t noticed the difference in animation between the male and female Hawkes (probably because I was too busy mashing the keypad and yelling at the television trying to kill that second ogre… Turns out I’m pretty much as shit at DA2 as I was at DA1). Ima take another look at it tonight with that in mind because the problems with gender that seem to be sneaking into DA2 are important too, and I may try and write something about it. That is, if no one beats me to it :)

              @Jessica Merizan You sort of missed the point I was trying to make, which is that people’s movements and gender expressions can have very little to do with their biological sex. I am all up for seeing a male character using animations originally intended for a woman, and vice versa. Why the hell shouldn’t we see that?

              I’m also going to give Bioware the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the Kasumi DLC dress. I don’t think that it was an afterthought from the point of view of the animation, I think it was an afterthought in that DLC is by its very nature an afterthought. I would be far, far keener to argue that they shouldn’t have forced FemShep into a dress for that DLC (it was entirely out of character for my Shepard, and so it bothered me and was entirely immersion breaking) than argue that they should have given her separate animations.

              To me, BioWare have created this character and they are who they are. They’re the same person with the same background and the same range of dialogue and personalities regardless, so the choice to use the same animations for both sexes makes perfect sense to me: Shepard is who they are, regardless of their biological sex. So to me, the fact that she doesn’t know how to sit around in a skirt makes perfect sense. She’s had exactly the same sort of life that any male Shepard would do, and she hasn’t learned how to strut around in heels and a dress any more than he has.

              I also can’t really agree with your last paragraph. You say “the standard operating procedure … is using sweeping generalizations and stereotypes,” but this is exactly what BioWare weren’t doing when they used the same animation for both Shepards. To have them dictate to me that because I’m playing a woman, I obviously need to move more like a woman and know how to sit in a skirt is imposing those exact same sweeping generalisations and stereotypes that you were talking about.

            • @Allegra: Ah ok. You’re right, I misunderstood and completely agree with you. It’s actually kind of embarrassing because I wrote a chapter of my undergraduate thesis at Berkeley on that exact subject (yay Judith Butler!).

              Nonetheless, thanks for the insightful article and brilliant discussion :D

            • Allegra says:

              @Jessica

              Same goes! Thanks very much for the discussion. I do like a good debate :)

    • “The problem is, however, that not enough games are diverging outside of this realm and exploring the rich history on other continents.”

      I agree with that to a certain extent–though there have been some very good games that try to do that (Bioware’s Jade Empire and Ubisoft’s Prince of Persia). I think the reason we see so much of the European and American culture is that a majority of game consumers are either in the US, Canada, or Europe. Game companies are going to make what sells and what sells is most often culturally similar to the people buying it.

      It’s interesting when you see some successful games that come from non-western cultures or former soviet states Such as GSC Gameworld’s S.T.A.L.K.E.R. or 4A Games Metro 2033 that don’t share our Americanized view of things. They feel different, a bit awkward, but are often rewarding and “fresh” because of that.

      Bioware has been historically quite open minded (homosexual love interests in Jade Empire, Dragon Age Origins, and Mass Effect, etc.) but I’ve noticed that their newer games are much tamer. For instance, the homosexual sequences in Mass Effect 2 are extremely short lived while the heterosexual encounters drag on a bit too long.

      Ethnicity is one of the things which (foolishly) is still a hot button topic in games. You can have all the sex and violence you want but if you make your main protagonist black, native american, or hispanic you’re going to get some press for sure.

      I agree that a much better way to handle the thing would have been to obscure the identity of the hero as in Mass Effect until the player created it. I don’t know why they didn’t do that.

      I’ll stop ranting now–I’m beginning to ramble.

      Thanks.

      I think the company has responded to pressure from somebody (probably EA) and pulled back from the cutting edge stuff that made their games quite enjoyable.

      • pyrofennec says:

        yeah the ethnicity of Altair and Ezio sure stopped lots of people from picking up AssCreed/AssCreed 2, and the presence of a black space marine in DOW2: Chaos Rising certainly poured cold water on its sales figures, so much so it killed the franchise and stopped the devs from making sequels/xpacks

        no wait it didn’t, the myth of “what sells” is frankly ridiculous and has less and less bearing on reality; the general public is still going to prefer cliches and heteronormative wish-fulfillment power fantasies, but as long as those criteria are filled the ethnicity of the character they play (especially in games where the PC can be customized) is a much less significant factor

        • Trodamus says:

          I don’t really get your comment. The first half shows how these things don’t tend to impact sales figures, then you basically insult the gaming diaspora for what is essentially an idiotic hangup in marketing. A few people just care about gameplay; we’ve all got friends that skip cutscenes as a matter of course.

          When marketing feeds us the line that they have to stick to what sells, it’s a total load. They know what sells, but they don’t know what we’re buying, which I think in many cases is divorced from these concepts that they leap to defend with utterly ridiculous arguments. Gamers are a hardy bunch and the idiots you see with the truly poor behavior are a very vocal minority; most of us just buy games we like to play.

          • “When marketing feeds us the line that they have to stick to what sells, it’s a total load.”

            Marketing plays a huge, huge part in the gaming industry. The big publishers will always have to stick with what sells.

            They cannot afford to take a chance on a game (no matter how awesome) if they cannot make a profit on it (A.K.A. it doesn’t appeal to the masses of gamers–or pseudo gamers).

            Games are scrapped even if the developer has spent thousands of dollars and hours on a project if the publisher thinks they can’t make enough cash.

            It’s happened time and time again.

            However, I agree that gamers are hardy folks and will play anything they like whether or not it made a splash (one of my favorite games was Oni because it was so different than the first person shooters that I was playing at the time of its release.)

            That’s why Japanese imports are so hot over here in the States–gamers play what they like and will get it where they can.

            However, the scope of games we have to choose from (at least those readily available) will always be limited by what publishers are willing to release and that is 95% controlled by the almighty dollar.

            Sure, there will be some really awesome games that come out ot weak reception and poor sales–some developers even lose money but are thrilled because they’re games become cult classics. But those games will never see wide release, they’ll never earn their developers a spot in a big publisher’s coral (which may be a good thing), they’ll often be forgotten by all but those diehard fans in the blink of an eye.

        • I don’t think you can truly consider Etzio and Altair as diferent ethnicities. True they are from foreign countries but when you really examine the characters more closely they’re really just the same person with a different accent and outfit. They’re not African or Japanese–they’re not even Italian or Arabic. They’re really just the standard “white” hero dressed up to look different.

          And as far as black space marines go, that’s not a valid point either because the fact that the character is a space marine trumps the fact that they are black. (Though some prejudice people don’t like to think so).

          If, however, that marine was African or Jamaican rather than just a “dude playin’ a dude disguised as a another dude” you might seen more of an effect on the game’s reception.

      • Having a blatantly male-gaze pandering but-it’s-not-actually-gay-honest relationship in Mass Effect (and then nothing in the sequels) does not strike me as particularly open minded. It comes across more as someone trying to get Ally Cookies.

        Put it this way, if you stick content in your game that I cannot actually get to because of the sex of the character I am playing, you’re not being inclusive, you’re being blatantly exclusive. (And seriously, I cannot play a male character in games like Mass Effect; it’ll set of my gender dysphoria and make playing the game a profoundly unpleasant experience)

        Oh, and if you’re gay relationship includes lines like “I’m not exactly a woman, my species only has one gender” (translation: BUT IT’S NOT REALLY GAY) when the topic of your character’s lesbianism is brought up, it’s pretty clear you’re not trying to be inclusive. Or if you are, you’re doing it for entirely the wrong reasons.

        • ‘Having a blatantly male-gaze pandering but-it’s-not-actually-gay-honest relationship in Mass Effect (and then nothing in the sequels) does not strike me as particularly open minded.”

          I didn’t say Mass Effect 2 was open minded. In fact, I said it was much more restrictive than previous BioWare games. And any open mindedness must be viewed through the lens of games already on the market. True the homosexual relationships weren’t explicit and you kind of had to connect the dots but compared to pretty much anything else on the market they’re a gay pride parade.

          You have to remember that BioWare was acquired by EA sometime between the success of Mass Effect and the release of Mass Effect 2. they can be a bit heavy-handed when it comes to some of their policies.

          As for gender exclusivity, when given the option, I always play RPGs as women at least once. A lot of the time it leads to crude pandering and innuendo but sometimes it lets me find some really awesome voice acting and interesting twists on the story that I would have otherwise missed. (Jennifer Hale did an amazing job with the Female Shepard.)

          I can see how you might see that as being exclusive but if you view the two genders’ storylines as two separate games (which they aren’t most of the time–Fallout) I think you’re left with a rewarding experience overall.

          “Oh, and if you’re gay relationship includes lines like “I’m not exactly a woman, my species only has one gender” (translation: BUT IT’S NOT REALLY GAY) when the topic of your character’s lesbianism is brought up, it’s pretty clear you’re not trying to be inclusive. Or if you are, you’re doing it for entirely the wrong reasons.”

          I recall some bit of news about that line when the game first came out. I believe it was put in there to boil a little heat off the game and allow it to “pass under the radar” as it were. That failed miserably and some nearsighted congressman went all batsh*t about “blue alien butts” or something. I could be wrong about that though.

          • I was talking about the first Mass Effect there. To be fair, the second was even worse as far as male gaze goes. And if you’re sticking bits of dialog in there to deter criticism over inclusivity, you’re doing it wrong. The message you’re sending is “We want to be inclusive, so long as it doesn’t take any effort” or “People who are trying to commit genocide against you are just as important to us as you are.”

            And it doesn’t work. People are not going to see one line completely out of context and conclude that your gay relationships don’t actually count. They are entirely capable of understanding what you’re doing. (or if they really don’t care what your saying and just want to make up their own controversy, it won’t matter, because they are completely making things up.)

            And re: …if you regard the two genders storylines as entirely seperate games…

            Except that doesn’t work. Because I’ve already mentioned I have absolutely no desire to play a game with a male lead. If they are two separate games, I want a 50% discount. You know who can treat male and female protagonists as entirely separate games? People with privilege. (And they’re entirely separate games in the same way Pokemon Red and Pokemon Blue are separate games. 90% of the gameplay is redundant.)

        • Sharks says:

          “Having a blatantly male-gaze pandering but-it’s-not-actually-gay-honest relationship in Mass Effect (and then nothing in the sequels) does not strike me as particularly open minded. It comes across more as someone trying to get Ally Cookies.”

          Awesome. Just awesome. +100.

          I totally agree, and that irked the royal hell out of me when I played Mass Effect, coming right after Jade Empire, which I think did gay relationships pretty decently. Mass Effect feels like too much of a grab for the mainstream audience (and what do you know? They completely cut out the gay male relationships and left the female ones, because all the pervy straight guys love that stuff), and that second game just plain sucked with its male-gaze pandering of Miranda’s ass cleavage, etc.

          Yeah, I still like Bioware because they’ll at least do gay relationships when basically no one else will, but it’s getting a little harder to like them when they pull all sorts of dumb sh*t.

          • That, and they react pretty terribly any time someone tells them they aren’t doing inclusion well enough. Like, while they’ll put mediocre gay relationships in their games, they don’t listen to criticism well AT ALL.

            Hence, Ally Cookies. I think if we’re looking for inclusive company’s we’d better look somewhere else; for people who actually pay attention when you say they need to improve.

    • Allegra says:

      To me, this is a good example of the “Dragon Age doesn’t need people of colour because it’s Western fantasy” argument that Callan was talking about. It also seems closely related to the “It’s fantasy!” argument that I hear a lot in the steampunk community, and I think it hits a lot of the same problems.

      Don’t get me wrong, I agree with you that we need more games (and more everything, for that matter) that explore cultures other than Western English-speaking ones. Absolutely. However I can’t agree when you go on to say that we should have more of them, and not worry about games dealing with ‘Western’ mythology.

      We’re not living in the Dark Ages, or even in the 1950s when Tolkien was writing. We’re living in an age where fewer and fewer people have their identities and cultures dictated to them by the colour of their skin. I grew up in a town in the southeast of England where over three percent of the population were of Pakistani origin (it doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s a fair way above the national average). These are predominantly people whose families moved to the UK generations ago, and who are as British as I am.

      By saying that Western fantasy can just ignore any ethnic minority that it fancies because it’s Western fantasy, we’re making a good proportion of the population (who are both people of colour and have grown up in the West) entirely invisible.

      More than that, you can’t avoid the fact that this ‘fantasy world’ that Bioware have created (or else borrowed and adapted from Tolkien) isn’t a product of pure unreality that’s been created in a vacuum. It’s something that has been created by people living in the real world, based on certain thoughts and ideas that exist in the real world. Of course it is, or else it would make no sense us. Because of this, it has the power to either combat or reinforce real-world ideas and prejudices in the minds of the people that play it.

      Now, I don’t put a huge amount of stock in re-enforcing the prejudices of the past in the name of ‘historical accuracy’, so I’m sure as hell not going to swallow that when it comes to creating fantasy.

  3. Zaewen says:

    “And, apparently, the way people perceive the Hero of Kirkwall is as a white man or white woman, regardless of their actual ethnicity. Granted, this could make for a very interesting plot device should BioWare wish to use Dragon Age 2 to challenge this assumption in game, but unfortunately the demo makes no sign of doing anything of the sort.”

    Something I noticed when watching my husband play through the demo (I’ve been to busy on Rift to play thru myself) was that Hawke’s sister in the ‘Epic’ version of the story has HUGE breasts, like absurdly huge, but when Cassandra says cut the crap and the ‘real’ version of events is relayed, Hawke’s sister had a much more normal figure (she still had fairly large breasts but it was at least proportional). It seemed to me at the time to be like a subtle commentary on ‘ideal’ characters in the story and in the game. Now, with the issue you’ve brought up, I think it may be that BioWare is planning on doing some sort of commentary on it, and the ethnicity thing, perhaps something about how the real people that make up a story get erased and replaced with caricatures when it gets retold.

    Or it could just be another oversight on BioWare’s part, like having absolutely no female aliens beside Quarian and Asari, in Mass Effect. Here’s to hoping it’s not and that we get to customize ourselves very early in the game (cause seriously, that’s one of the defining parts of RPGs, who doesn’t want to do that right off the bat?)

    • FarisScherwiz says:

      That’s interesting about the POV thing, perhaps this will play out the same way and not just be an oversight. I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt for now since demos can be horribly misleading.

      I’m happy to hear that your family will change with you this time. I made a black dwarf in DAO and was really annoyed when my family was all white.

    • Jayle Enn says:

      I have the sneaking suspicion that Bethany’s bosom was part of a silent ‘huge… tracts of land!’ joke more than anything else. I’d love to be wrong about that, though.

    • Sharks says:

      I’d love for them to actually tackle that sort of stuff in DA2, but I get the creeping feeling they won’t. Did your husband get to the part where you meet Isabela? (I think that’s her name.) Good lord, I haven’t seen breasts that big ever. That was just terrible. I’m hoping you can at least dress your party and give them some clothes to cover up Bioware’s poor anatomy choices.

      • UbiquitousGrue says:

        According to the devs, the party members have set outfits (ala Mass Effect 2), so I don’t hold out much hope for that option. :(

      • Laurentius says:

        Actually it seems that all women are that well endowed, if there is clevege visible , even Hawke.

        • Cinnabar says:

          Oh dear god, NO! If this isn’t proof that marketing dudes wedged themselves into this, I don’t know what is. >:(

          • Deviija says:

            Indeed. They are all well endowed and top heavy, even your Lady PC, your sister and your mother. Isabela’s ‘costume’ that she has on is basically a tunic. She literally has no pants on, just boots and her shirt-tunic. Aveline, the sword and board tank of the game wears something that appears to be a leather apron… Yes, I heard that it was supposed to be Celtic inspired attire or somesuch, but even the dude archer in the game wears more visible armor than she does. Everyone, except the lady elf companion perhaps (but she is marketed as the ‘virginal girl next door’ romance), is geared very much toward the male gaze, IMO.

            • Jasmin says:

              Even Flemeth, who described herself as “an old hag who talk too much” had revealing cleavage and a modelesque figure. She just had a few wrinkles. Even “old hags” aren’t allowed body diversity?

  4. Robin says:

    Yeah, I thought that was a pretty unfortunate stylistic choice. I mean, I get that the staff like the default Hawke designs and maybe they make a better impression than a faceless hero, but it would have been a lot less awkward to stick Hawke in some armour and Bethany in a hooded robe or something (or vice versa for mage!Hawke and Carver).

    I certainly hope there won’t be more cutscenes with the default Hawke because that would completely break the immersion mid-game, and the ‘exaggerated’ section was there as a tutorial anyway. Presumably once Varric has been persuaded to tell the ‘real’ story instead of the legend he won’t go back to it again. I’d go with ham-fisted attempt to get straight into the actual game.

    Personally I like to get the character creation bit out of the way right at the start of the game anyway. I can spend over an hour tinkering with all the different options to get something just right, and I don’t really want to have to do that sandwiched between the tutorial and the main game – by that point I’ll just be impatient to get back to the actual gameplay – but I guess I’ll have to put up with it at the start of every game (no mods to skip it for me – I play on a PS3).

  5. Elbi says:

    Not only did they remove leveling companions yourself or managing their equipment, but now they think players don’t want to create their own character in an RPG, but try to show them how much fun they can have if they’d just get across this optional character creator? *sigh*

    • Jobias says:

      In the interest of clarification, you do level up companions and can manage their weapons and accessories. You are totally correct about armor though; those are defined by pre-set story events and plot items.

  6. Denis Farr says:

    If this makes it into the real game, I really, really hope they make commentary on it somewhere in the game. How they would track that? That’s why I remain wary on it actually being in the game.

    But yes, with Bethany’s breasts becoming smaller when Varric is told to cut the shit, it makes me wonder how much commentary there might be. The unreliable narrator has the potential to underline a lot of issues–whether or not it will is another kettle of fish entirely.

  7. Jayle Enn says:

    I’m going to be honest: I think their argument about losing people over character generation is bullshit. It’s hardly difficult to present the player with a handful of default characters, and a small box marked ‘custom’ for the more adventurous players– or those of us who would like to see what our options are in that regard. It isn’t like we don’t have an army of identical male!shep clones out there, proving that people who want to get to the meat of the game will skip the optional bits.

    The lack of that, inventory control in the demo, and the generally poor design of the interface make me think that they weren’t properly implemented at the time the demo was spun off.

    • Callan says:

      Here’s my guess: someone–perhaps from EA marketing–handed BioWare a list of “metrics,” extracted from market testing, and said “Fix these.”

      One of them was probably, “You’re losing people during the beginning.”

      Another was probably, “You’ll get more players if you put a white dude on the cover.”

      Another might have been, “Sex up the women.”

      That’s just a guess. But that’s what it looks like to me, from the outside. And they sure haven’t said anything to contradict it except Gaider’s “This is a story about white dudes, cuz it’s Western fantasy.”

  8. Melthia says:

    The BioWare forum mod has declared the thread on this topic to be not about DA2 anymore, and has therefore locked it.

    http://social.bioware.com/forum/1/topic/141/index/6291507/29#6318941

    • Jayle Enn says:

      I used to wonder where the moderators for the official Star Wars Galaxies forums went, after SOE reduced the game to a dry husk. Now I know.

    • 12Sided says:

      the mods tend to lock anything that speaks ill of Biowares choices, especially if it’s a legitimate complaint

    • pyrofennec says:

      Bioware mods are useless, spineless shits; film at eleven.

      • Cinnabar says:

        *ahem* I feel the need to stick up for forum/game mods everywhere who’re forced to silently do the evil bidding of the almighty company overlords, even if they disagree with it, and then take the full brunt of player backlash because they’re the grunts on the front-lines. Of course I don’t know what conditions are like for the Bioware mods in particular, but just in case there are a few that are going though that… :)

  9. pyrofennec says:

    the funny thing is Bioware did okay with both ME2 and the now-ancient KotOR: in KotOR, Revan was, of course, masked in every cutscene (until the reveal) and ME2’s Shepard wears a helmet in the opening sequence

    Bioware: not just an animal that doesn’t learn, but also animal that forgets

  10. Korva says:

    … wow. I want to bang my head against the wall right now for having overlooked this. Cue my own white privilege in action as well as Bioware’s. When I played the demo, I already knew that there was no customization so I didn’t think about the implications of playing through the stupidly exaggerated first combat with a “iconic default Hawke”. But you are totally right.

    I’ll add this to the list of reasons why I will not pick up this game. I’ve been a Bioware fan since BG1 and I was really hoping that they would resurrect the genre with Origins, but everything they’ve done since then, all the action-y/mainstream changes to the sequel, make the first game feel like a bleedin’ bait and switch. Add the ridiculous statements about race, gender and predefined characters and … yeah. Maybe Origins was the last Bioware game I ever bought, which would make me sad.

    One thing I don’t get is that there are dozens of games for the “i dun wunna read lol wuts this shit with making faces i wunna see boobz and fite lolol” crowd. Why do RPGs have to pander to these people, too?

  11. Laurentius says:

    That’s something I don’t understand. Since American mass culture is turning everything significant and authentic into pulp, why it has to be whitewashed pulp is beyond me…

    • Melthia says:

      It’s a Canadian studio, not an American studio.

      I point at BioWare every time a Canadian tells me their nation handles diversity better than we do.

      • Jayle Enn says:

        As a Canadian, I’ll readily cop to that.

        On an official level, and only looking at the last… twenty, thirty years or so, we’re pretty solid. Ignoring ongoing grievances that aboriginal communities have with the government, that is. On an individual level, we can be just as despicable as the next guy. On an historic level… well, let’s just say that nobody likes to talk about how we started to force Japanese-Canadians into camps before the Yanks did, or about the Aboriginal residential schools that were intended to annihilate native culture (the last of which only closed in the latter half of the 20th century), or about Alberta’s forced sterilization programme.

        Because, you know, admitting that we have some mammoth skeletons in the closet makes the maple syrup and backbacon taste funny.

  12. Trodamus says:

    Korva, you’re acting like a genre shouldn’t change. It’s been over a decade since Baldur’s Gate, and Dragon Age: Origins showed up as some kind of screwed up overly-long homage to it and its gameplay suffered terribly for it.

    Baldur’s Gate was great, but people need to get over whatever entitlement leads them to believe that games shouldn’t change over hundreds of titles in the course of a decade.

    As for their writing? I think I could count the number of games that utilize actual literary devices — both providing an actual framing device, and an unreliable narrator — on one hand. The story was immediately more engaging than any game in recent memory; and hey, if the menus, item management and stat tracking manages to diminish the stat-mindfucks usually present in these games, I’m all for it.

    As for the whitewashing…there really isn’t a way around it if they keep their current framing device. I don’t really know why they’re doing it this way — 80% of ME players customized their Shepard — and I really, really like the introduction in the demo as above, so I really don’t want them to change it.

    That said, I don’t think there’s going to be any immersion-breaking default-Hawke cutscenes; those were just in the demo so you could fast-forward to Isabella’s introduction. I mean, come on, give them some credit. It is just a demo.

    • Korva says:

      Genres shouldn’t change? I never said that. In fact I’d be happiest with as much diversity as possible, but the industry is moving away from that and IMO that is bad. Bioware currently has two franchises: Mass Effect as the action-heavy “RP light” and Dragon Age which began as more “old school” (and beat ME in sales). Personally I don’t give a whit about ME (tried the first one, couldn’t find any motivation to play past Citadel) but I’m not going to clamor for it to be made “old school” either. I’d just like the occasional game that still appeals to me and frankly DA no longer does that so of course I’m disappointed.

      Another thing that bothers me is one that I’m not eloquent enough to express, but the gist of it is this: the whole business of “going mainstream” feels like a self-fulfilling prophecy more than anything.

      And no I don’t think that it just being a demo means things will be different in the full game. It might, and I (and I think many people) would be relieved to be proven wrong. But I don’t think that they’d go through the effort of moving character creation around simply for a demo.

  13. Deviija says:

    I am really happy to see this post. This was something I wanted to bring up in Friday’s open thread — but this is much better.

    I am very uncomfortable with the potential messages and social commentary this can send to the audience. Sure, this is Varric’s account of the Hawke story and it may be steeped in cultural norms of Fereldan, but I don’t think it gives this representation (or lack thereof) a free pass. Only a white dude/lady can save Kirkwall? Only a white dude/lady will be remembered in the public Legend of Hawke forevermore? Really?

    And it isn’t as if this recounting by Varric is some sixty or a hundred years after Hawke has died, either. Hawke is a *living* legend still. She’s still out there, roaming around or doing whatever, where many upon many people can see her or hear of her newest exploits, etc. etc. Either way, I find it a VERY poor choice, even if it is a design decision meant to allow twitchy gamers to ‘get into the action faster.’

    Why couldn’t they make Hawke’s appearance (and Bethany/Carver) be shrouded in the beginning, like Shepard in ME2 or KOTOR? Have Hawke in a full suit/mask that obscures his/her appearance, and then let the Character Creation pop up where you can either customize Hawke or not, etc.

    • Laurentius says:

      “Why couldn’t they make Hawke’s appearance (and Bethany/Carver) be shrouded in the beginning, like Shepard in ME2 or KOTOR? Have Hawke in a full suit/mask that obscures his/her appearance, and then let the Character Creation pop up where you can either customize Hawke or not, etc.?”

      heh, probably because they already stated their wish and put an effort into making Hawke ( white man ) “iconic” for DA like male Shepard for ME, and that fits nicle with this policy, that’s why….

      • Deviija says:

        I understand the “iconic” marketing tool stance from the marketing and media side (though it is still a very bs line, IMO), but pushing that in-game on people and making your Hawke’s public Legend to be that of a white dude or white lady is… ergh. :( Shepard is the marketing icon, but his Vanderloo default face isn’t forced on the player in the ME series. That’s why I am confused and uncomfortable by this decision — because it seems like it could be easily remedied.

        • Laurentius says:

          Isn’t forced in game b/c was already on the markating materials for two games, male Hawke on the other hand becoming “iconic” is rather new concept, since DA:O wasn’t puting PC Grey Warden upfront ( see the cover ).

          OK i finally played the demo and like many players i wasn’t impressed ( but i didn’t like DA:O in first place), unbelivable number of fights in first game was a chore for me and it seems that hasn’t chage despite making it more “actiony”: novelty wears off fast and i’m stuck with long road form point A to B with chore number fights ahead.. sigh…

          BUT i know it may not be Bioware’s own idea to make “the skin tones and facial structures of Hawke’s family members will now adapt themselves to compliment your customized character.” but execution IS really NEAT. Seeing how your family changes when you customizes your character is great. ( and actually i see a lot potential in that mechanism )

  14. lola says:

    this is a great article. as you’ve shown, BioWare’s reasoning doesn’t stand up to even the slightest criticism. keep calling people on bigotry and advocating for inclusion!
    http://lovelyentropy.wordpress.com/2011/03/14/10-reasons-i-wont-be-playing-dragon-age-2/

  15. Pingback: Inclusivity Review: Dragon Age 2 | Border House

  16. Jargo says:

    I just started to play Dragon Age 2 yesterday, and was instantly very angry about this issue.

    First i thought WTF i cant play a colored character anymore!
    And then WTF i cant even customize the appearance ?

    Until i figured out Bioware did the same thing as in Mass Effect 2 that they didn’t want to start a epic game with a boring character creation. But in ME2 this worked because Shepherd is in a Space Suit and i cant see her/his face or skin. What puzzled me why not doing the exactly the same ? Big shinny armor with a full helmet and for the mage class some mask or something. Everybody would be happy.

  17. Pingback: Inclusivity Review: Dragon Age 2 | Comunità online gaming community

  18. Darkrose says:

    I actually created a mod request for something that will allow you to use your own Hawke instead of the default. The response, unsurprisingly, was “It’s only five minutes; what’s the big deal?”

    Leaving aside the inclusivity issues that have already been well-discussed, there’s one other problem: it doesn’t make sense.

    Yes, Varric is exaggerating. But he gets Hawke’s gender and class right, so how does he get his skin color completely wrong?

    Also, the “people don’t want a complicated character creator” argument is bullshit. Someone actually pulled the character creator out of City of Heroes because many people think that’s the best part of the entire game. Roleplayers like to customize their characters.

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