The Kirkwaller’s Guide to Social Justice

The following is a guest post from Alis Dee:

Alis Dee runs a gaming blog at azeroth.me which, despite the title, is not always about World of Warcraft. She is a multi-ethnic white-passing bisexual Australian ciswoman. The following post has been edited slightly from its original incarnation at her blog.

Stylised in-game art of the six companions' heads, arranged in a hexagon.

Stylised in-game art of the six companions' heads, arranged in a hexagon.

(Spoilers ahoy!)

It’s fairly safe to say that Dragon Age 2 has been polarising, at best; considering the mechanical and the thematic changes it introduced over its predecessor, I suppose that’s hardly surprising. And while the “mainstream” gamer press has been busy debating the merits of dialogue wheels and sped-up combat sequences, a parallel conversation has been going around the social justice gaming blog (a-har) circle, in part spurred by DA2 lead writer David Gaider’s unexpectedly accurate understanding of the concept of privilege.

Hence this post. It’s about social justice (mostly). And where and how BioWare nails it, with examples.

Before we continue: Yes, I know there’s still a bit of fail in DA2. Its handling of mental illness isn’t awesome, for example, and the game is fairly white-washed (though not nearly as badly as it could’ve been, and it probably scores higher marks than nearly every other title out there). That being said, I think it’s almost easier to pick on what BioWare has done “wrong” that what it does right here, because the exceptional elements are integrated so well into the rest of the game that they’re easy to overlook, particularly for those of us who are used to our fail beating us about the face with its obviousness. It’s hard to see what isn’t there.

Here’s what I’ve noticed so far.

Knight-Commander Meredith, a white blonde middle-aged woman in heavy armour, holding a glowing red sword.

Meredith laughs at your feeble attempts at gender policing!

#1. Subverting the worst excuse.

You know the one. It’s like the medieval fantasy equivalent of Goodwin’s Law or something. The whole, “No this homophobia/misogyny isn’t offensive! It’s realistic! This is the Dark Ages and That’s Just How Things Were.”

Loki’s stitched lips how much do I hate that excuse. Because, you know; dragons and elves and wizards and whatever are totally realistic, but treating women like they’re people rather than property? Woah! Hold on there, Captain Outrageous!

Thedas might be medieval fantasy, but it’s explicitly more gender- and sexuality-blind than the Really Real World. For starters, Thedas’ Crystal Dragon Jesus religion is basically matriarchal Christianity, and yet BioWare hasn’t fallen into the cringe-worthy traps of depicting the Chantry as either a bunch of, a) ineffectual too-pure-to-live all-hail-the-earth-mother types, or b) ball-crushing misandrists. The Chantry is a human institution staffed by humans, with both the strengths and frailties that implies. It’s neither merely a caricature of male fear of matriarchal power, nor is it an author tract against the evils (or inherent goodness) of religion. Thinking about how the Chantry could’ve been portrayed is an exercise in appreciating how it is portrayed.

The Chantry isn’t the only example; women are not denied positions of power and authority in Thedas, nor does anyone at all — from rich nobles to poor street gangs — appear to think female leaders of any kind are in any way remarkable. Women in Thedas occupy every level of the secular, sectarian and military hierarchies, and historic instances of social injustice against women, such as the story of Ser Aveline, are shown as being exactly that; historic and unjust.

Similarly, since there is no lore justification for institutionalised homophobia in Thedas, it doesn’t exist; homosexuality is neither a taboo nor a fetishised “virtue” (a la the pederastic social structures of, say, Ancient Greece/Feudal Japan, or the woeful modern Magical Queer trope). Queerness, or the lack thereof, is treated as an apolitical personal quirk; where social pressure for heterosexual relationships exist, it’s shown to be based on pragmatism (i.e. the need for children) rather than any dogmatic belief in the inherent “wrongness” of certain sexual preferences.

If you wanted to be a real smartass, you could argue that a lack of both rigid gender roles and social stigma against same-sex relationships is the justification for Thedas’ apparent rampant bisexuality. Gender-blindness in Thedas is personal, as well as institutional, with its citizens thus more likely to form relationships based on the partner as a holistic package as opposed to just, a-ha, a “package” (in fact, if you can dig it out of Anders’ dialogue trees, this is exactly the reason he gives you). This also explains why (Almost) Everyone Wants Hawke; you are, after all, the most awesome person in the story by definition, so of course your companions are more likely to subvert their usual sexual leanings under the weight of your sheer win (and utter lack of negative social consequences for doing so).

Whether you buy that explanation or not, it’s still major props to BioWare for apparently putting some thought into their setting’s sexuality and gender expectations, rather than just copypasta’ing things out-of-context from the Really Real World.

I... don't think this scene bodes anything good.

#2. How to kill a hypotenuse.

From the Death of the Hypotenuse page at TVTropes:

Alice, Bob, and Charlie are in a Love Triangle. Alice loves Bob, but also has feelings for Charlie — or maybe she doesn’t, but can’t or doesn’t want to turn him down (maybe she’s even in a relationship with or married to Charlie while pining after Bob). However will she resolve this dilemma? Well, fortunately, she doesn’t have to — Charlie meets with a convenient illness, accident, or other such fatal situation, freeing Alice up to go after Bob without guilt. If Charlie is aware of Alice’s feelings for Bob, he may tell her with his dying breath that she shouldn’t mourn him too much, because he wants his beloved to be happy.

Sound familiar?

Feminists tend to hate the Death of the Hypotenuse situation when it appears in media since, well:

[W]hen we see [Aveline's] husband die in the opening chapter of the game, my immediate thought was “of course.” Not only does this serve to remove an obstacle that might keep her from being a party member, it makes her sexually available to the player–at least in spirit. While it has already been made clear that she isn’t one of the game’s romance options, the situation appears to follow a traditional formula of male fantasy, in which there are no male competitors for a woman’s attention.

Except Aveline isn’t interested in you. At all. In fact, she’s so not interested in you that she’ll go out of her way to solicit your assistance in obtaining the actual object of her affections; the resulting side-quest is both amusingly cute and incredibly, ahem, Hawkward.

There is one character whose hypotenuse you do end up murdering, however, and you (well, “you”) do it quite explicitly to set up this trope. I’ll give you a minute to guess, since you might not have noticed it at the time.

Figured it out?

Hands up who remembered why Anders is hanging around in Kirkwall as of Act I; sure, he has a clinic, but he’s only recently set up shop and it’s mostly just to keep him busy while he figures out how to rescue his ex-lover from the Circle. You know; the ex-lover you end up killing. And once those unfortunate former romantic entanglements are handily disposed of? Go nuts with the ♥s on the dialogue wheel!

It’s also interesting that Anders only mentions Karl was his lover if your Hawke happens to be a guy. Traditional formulae of male fantasy, indeed…

Hawke, Anders, Isabela and Fenris look down on the defeated form of Meredith, surrounded by templars.

No serah, no mages her-- damn I think our cover is blown, man.

#3. The Thedas guide to passing.

From elsewhere:

First up, we must address the nature of passing. Sometimes it is active (one chooses to pass) and sometimes passive (one is passed). Sometimes it’s an interaction of expectation and experience, habit and circumstance. One cannot untangle one’s own efforts to pass or to not from the point of the idea of passing. That is, whether one passes or not is dependant on the outside observer. The whole idea of passing hinges not on what the (non)passer does, but on the observer’s response to that person. There’s an extent to which one can control it — and people have developed quite some techniques — but it’s not always a matter of choice as to whether to pass or not.

Two things on this one, both of which I’ve heard criticised as being “bad writing” on the part of DA2, and both of which I actually think were very deliberate and done to illustrate roughly the same issue.

Part the first: Remember Feynriel, the “elf-blooded human” kid? His questline aside, some people have expressed dislike with the whole “elf + human = human” thing, crying erasure. ((For anyone who hasn’t yet figured it out; elves are the “race oppression” analogy in Thedas. You could possibly argue mages are the “gender/sexuality oppression” analogy (which results in a somewhat nasty Broken Aesop), but I’d make the case that they’re actually the imperialism analogy, albeit writ down onto a social level rather than a national one.)) I think this totally manages to ignore the fact that, while Feynriel doesn’t look like an elf, he’s a lot more (ahem) fey than your average human, not to mention has a distinctly elvish name. If you bother paying attention to the dialogue, it becomes heavily apparent this is intentional.

Feynriel will actually give you Passing Privilege 101 — he even uses the word — if you talk to him in the Dalish camp. In Kirkwall, his “elfness” was erased by the humans who assumed he was “one of them”; amongst the Dalish, he will never be anything other than “the elf-blooded human”. Like all of its dealings with privilege, DA2 doesn’t pretend to give any pat answers to this; Feynriel is Othered when you meet him and he’s still Othered when he writes you his final letter about life in the Imperium. But writing Feynriel off as BioWare erasing ethnic identities is, in my opinion, a bit of missing the forest for the trees.

Part the second: I think everyone who plays DA2, particularly anyone who plays as mage!Hawke, gets to a point where the disconnect between “all mages must hide or be locked up!” and “whee I have robes and a staff and set people on fire and, oh, may I introduce my BFFs the abomination and the blood mage!” really starts to set in. I discussed this a bit elsewhere, essentially coming to the conclusion that the disconnect is a very deliberate. From the relevant footnote:

Early on the in game, if you’re a mage, you get the sense the Templars in Kirkwall have a particularly vicious form of genre blindness re. someone walking around in robe carrying a staff setting fire to people. By the end of the game, it’s fairly evident that they’re perfectly aware you’re a mage, and have deliberately left you alone; at first due to bribes, and later due to your social status. The presence of characters like Fenris’ ex-master — as well as Varric’s judicious application of bribes on behalf of Anders — indicate this isn’t an unusual situation; money and influence can buy a sort of “freedom” for mages. [...] In short, you’re privileged. And BioWare, a) knows it, and b) has set it up that way deliberately.

Some of the discussions you can have with other characters (Fenris and Anders in particular) also highlight this. It’s frequently mentioned that the main distinction between the Tevinter Circles and those elsewhere is due to Imperium mages mostly coming from noble families, while non-Imperium mages are impoverished social outcasts; either by virtue of birth or due to the forced disinheritance that comes from being taken to the Circle. When Alistair showed up for me in Act III his dialogue made it apparent that the slightly improved conditions for mages in Ferelden are due to the Crown being sympathetic (he’s there protecting apostates Kirkwall wants extradited). Not to mention the fact that my Warden — the kingdom’s hero, king-maker and Alistair’s BFF — was a mage; a fact Anders points out at least once.

This is another kind of “passing”; one bought by conferred social/financial privilege. It’s not that the mages in Ferelden are any less prone to blood magic (q.v. DA:O) or that the kingdom’s Chantry teachings against magic are any more forgiving (Anders, who’s from the Ferelden Circle, makes it clear that they aren’t, extra kissing aside). The “privilege” of the Ferelden mages isn’t really their own; it comes purely from the fact that they have the sympathies of a powerful non-mage… and one who, while popular, won’t be in power for very much longer. ((Ferelden political system aside, remember being a Grey Warden is a death sentence; Alistair has maybe another fifteen years before he books his One Way Ticket To The Deep Roads.)) Similarly, by Act III Meredith makes it pretty clear that, whilst Hawke has bought a kind of freedom due to his social position, his cage is gilded at best; if you annoy her, she makes quite a few “don’t forget I own you!” style speeches re. you and your friends. In short, the privilege mage!Hawke does have is both tenuous and relies entirely on the perceptions of others. He’s not free because of some innate right, he’s free because mainstream society finds it amusing/advantageous to “allow” him to be so. It’s not a state that was ever going to last.

Finally, and most interestingly, the need to “pass” as mage!Hawke can bleed over onto the player; I can’t be the only person who deliberately ended up wearing the least “magey” looking armour I could find — cumulating, amusingly, in a brief stint at the start of Act III dressed as a bearded Chantry Mother — despite there being no game-based incentive for me to do so. Not to mention the Mage Champion set doesn’t exactly scream “wizard” in any classical sense, particularly if you also end up wielding the suspiciously spear-like Bassrath-Kata.

Quotes again:

There’s a friction between passing and solidarity with one’s group. Those who can pass as being a member of a dominant group may miss out on many experiences and forms of discrimination that are held to be facets of that group’s commonalities. One of the main problems with passing is that in doing so an inequitable system is being held up (by those who pass others, by those choosing to pass). This is to say that passing supports the idea that equality, better treatment, is gained by melting into the dominant group.

Isabela stands back-lit in a cave/forest setting.

Seriously. I would not have picked this for my favourite character. Ever.

#4. The secret life of them.

DA2 does something I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen before in a game. Not only does it give Hawke an existence that’s partially independent of the player, but it gives your companions the same thing. Unlike DA:O, your “unused” party members aren’t just hanging around in the camp waiting for you to call on them; they actually do things when you’re not around. Anders runs his clinic. Aveline runs the guard. Varric looks after his family’s business. Fenris… broods around and plays cards with Donnic. Whatever their day job, running around babysitting Hawke isn’t actually it; helping you out is something they do for lulz on the weekends when they’ve got nothing more pressing to get on with.

The side-effect of this is that your companions end up going through character development that, again, has nothing to do with your actions as a player. The best example is probably what happens between Aveline and Isabela.

We’re all used to the set-up; the competent-but-shy tomboy versus the gregarious sex kitten. I mean, of course they hate each other, right? Except — unlike practically every other time this sort of rivalry comes up — in DA2′s case neither woman is fighting over you. They aren’t two members of your harem vying jealously for your attention; you could probably convincingly argue that Aveline’s dislike of Isabela (which seems almost entirely one-way) does stem from a sort of sexual jealousy, but the ultimate moral of the tale isn’t women need to tear each other down in order to get ahead. By the end of the game, Aveline and Isabela are pretty much Type 2 Vitriolic Best Buds, and Isabela even gives Aveline (and Merrill) several actually-not-terrible “you go girl” type speeches about self-confidence.

Actually, Isabela is pretty much an all-round legitimate harbinger of female positivity, when it gets right down to it; an actually honest-to-gods example of how to do a confident female character who not only legitimately owns her own sexuality ((For the record, I love Isabela’s outfit. Unlike every other provocatively-dressed women in a fantasy setting ever in the history of time, Isabela’s choice of revealing attire does, in fact, come across as a deliberate choice made to attract sexual partners. She dresses sexy because she wants sex. Now. Possibly with you (if you’re hot). She has agency, in other words; she’s the subject of her own sexuality and not the object of yours, oh you assumed-straight-cismale-viewer you.)) but goes out of her way to be a mentor and friend to other women. And, I think, the relationship between Aveline and Isabela is also a sneaky meta-comment on the relationship players like me have with characters like Isabela. From Isabela’s promo renders, I would in no way have been able to tell you that I think she pretty much single-handedly constitutes a good deal of the reason DA2 doesn’t just pass the Bechdel Test on technicality, but blows the entire spirit of it (i.e. the presence of multiple developed female characters capable of powering their own narratives sans the presence of men) right out of the water. Future game developers take note; this is how you do it.

That aside, there’s another sneaky inversion here a la the hypotenuse scenario mentioned above. Because no, the women do not tear each other down in their attempts to fight for your attentions… but Fenris and Anders certainly do, particularly if you sleep with Fenris. Asides from just general viciousness toward each other, they’ll even get into the requisite “but why don’t you love someone more like me-ee-ee?” and “if you break his/her heart I will kill you!” speeches at various points (the latter from Fenris if you switch romance paths post freakout in Act II, you heartbreaker you).

And, yeah, I admit it; fanservicey pandering aside, I love the fact that this sort of petty bitchiness is being done by male characters for once. I particularly love that male players subsequently whinge about it. Oh, delicious irony! You bring joy to my black little heart…

The Chantry exploding with red light.

Kaboom!

#5. You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

A lot of the criticisms levelled at Dragon Age 2 seem to be from people who’ve mistaken it for a particularly badly-executed Heroic or High Fantasy story. This is not entirely surprising; Dragon Age: Origins could be gently said to have straddled the border between Heroic and High, probably only not qualifying for 100% High Fantasy due to the setting’s cynical approach to morality (even the Always Chaotic Evil Darkspawn get a bit… trickier if you play Awakening). Unlike its predecessor, DA2 is deliberately and unashamedly Low Fantasy; to borrow an analogy originally used for something else, the difference between DA:O and DA2 is like unto the difference between The Colour of Magic and Night Watch. I’ll let you guess which one is which.

People who went into DA2 expecting an oldskool BioWare RPG game were always going to be disappointed; as was anyone who was after a narrative they could skim through pressing-one-for-lawful-good without thinking too much. Neither of those things were going to work out; the former because the mechanics of the actual game part of DA2 were kinda bad, and the latter because the story of DA2 really does require you to drink its Kool-Aid and play it for its own sake. The game isn’t morally-agnostic; it does have something it’s trying to tell you, and not listening to that is going to make the narrative very frustrating. This, incidentally, is why I went back and re-played the game as BioWare!Hawke; imagining myself as a dude caught up in forces far beyond his control rather than as My Expy the Chosen One who was going to storm out and fix everything.

With that in mind, the story worked much better. And this is what I mean about the game being Low Fantasy. In Low Fantasy, shit happens. In Low Fantasy, the cavalry aren’t going to arrive on shining gryphons. In Low Fantasy, the bad guys might be both everyone, no-one and you, all at once. And, most importantly, in Low Fantasy you can’t save the world; if you work really hard, however, you just might be able to save yourself.

This, I think, is the point of Anders’ character; apparently he didn’t get the memo about the genre-shift since Awakening, and still thinks all the world’s ills come down to Good Guys vs. Bad Guys and can be solved by storming in committing massive acts of terrorism. The game is quite careful about pointing out — loudly and repeatedly — that, no matter how much you might end up liking Anders personally, ((And YMMV. I’ve seen a lot of gross misogyny floating around because, by the Maker, how dare any male character in a videogame not be an inarticulate, hyper-aggressive Duke Nukem expy and/or ultra-stoic, personality-free Gordon Freeman-esque killing machine! I believe Anders’ primary writer was a woman, which makes all the snide little remarks about “emasculation” particularly cringe-worthy. Anders certainly is a bit… whiny, but this is intentional and essentially his main character flaw — your other companions find it tiring sometimes too — and he’s neither completely unsympathetic nor in any way unrealistic (men, I hate to break it to you guys, but you’re frequently extremely whiny; just clearing that up, since apparently a lot of you haven’t noticed). I found him a lot more flat-out sympathetic on my first playthrough than my second, however, where I found myself yelling, “Shut up, Anders!” in fond exasperation at the screen a fair bit.)) this attitude is both irrational and dangerously naive. Isabela gets a great line of party dialogue lampshading this, mentioning something along the line of “justice only making sense in a world of ideas”.

Hawke gets to be a little more genre savvy than that, assuming the player figures it out, which he or she may not; a lot of people didn’t, judging from what I’ve read. Like Anders, they still tried to play the game like a Heroic Fantasy and got angry when that didn’t work out for them, particularly because the main theme of DA2 is one of oppression and privilege. You can’t “solve” the kyriarchy — even a fake one in a made-up fantasy land — in a Low Fantasy setting. You can’t even really do it convincingly in a High Fantasy setting, and at least DA2 is honest about that instead of indulging in the usual rug-sweeping.

Screencap of the game's credits listing the writers.

I'm just... going to put this screenshot here and let you make up your own mind about what I think it means.

Strength as weakness.

Ultimately, the main “problem” with DA2′s narrative is that it really does have Social Justice 101 and Feminist Media Deconstruction 201 as prerequisite courses; almost all of the game’s point is lost if you don’t read it from that angle (and, for gods’ sakes, one of the main characters is called “Justice”, just in case everything else was too subtle a hint for you). Even people who do will find it highly contentious — maybe even more-so — purely because the game does try and doesn’t hit 100% of all targets at all times; SJers are used to writing off non-starters, but they’re absolutely brutal with anything that tries and doesn’t make perfection.

The criticisms of DA2′s portrayal of mental illness and its whitewashing are valid, but I think they’re also almost threatening to drown out the ways in which DA2 does work. The game hits so many amazing marks — on its portrayal of women, on its treatment of sexuality, on its ability to portray complex intersectional concepts in a not-completely-cringe-worthy way — it’s almost unsurprising that it’s caused so much confusion. Because it really isn’t like anything else out there, and I think maybe that’s not going to be readily apparently anywhere other than retrospect (and once people get over the mechanical changes from its predecessor).

Everyone who likes videogames and has even a passing interest in feminism/social justice (or vice versa) needs to play this game; I can’t even stress that enough. Whether you love it or hate it or buy it or pirate it, Dragon Age 2 is closer to what people like you and me want to see on the market than anything else that’s ever been produced. No, it’s not perfect — it’s not perfect as a game and it’s not perfect as a social justice narrative — but if we don’t hold it up and scream, “YES! THIS! MORE OF THIS!” we’re going to keep getting games like Duke Nukem Forever, well, forever.

And, really. You can’t possibly tell me that’s a better option.

Hawke, Anders, Isabela and Fenris stand in front of a sunset on the Wounded Coast.

See you in the expansion, guys!

(Originally posted here on Azeroth.me)

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73 Responses to The Kirkwaller’s Guide to Social Justice

  1. Laurentius says:

    I would happily play DA2 „Light” version if Biowere ever decided to release it: just story, dialogues, choices , cutscenes, with removed elements such as: boring to death fights with enemies spawning out of nowhere, no world to explore, weak sauce skills and character development. The story and narrative concepts might be ace but “rpg skeleton” don’t hold up and do them justice. Personally I can’t gulp it down, while Bioware hit imo the limit with ME formula:…dialogue/cutscene–fight– dialogue/cutscene–fight… at least it has the flow.

  2. Thefremen says:

    I hate to deputize myself the activism police, but: Gender Blind, Sexuality Blind and Genre Blind, shame this bit of ableism permeates an otherwise fine article.

    I would likely have more to add if I played DA2. Unlike River Song, I’m not very concerned with Spoilers.

    (also there’s no image descriptions…)

    • Jayle Enn says:

      I wasn’t going to say anything about the use of net coinages like ‘win’, or the implication that TVTropes is a credible source, or even the scattered footnotes used as mildly snarky asides, but the caption that reads ‘I’m just… going to put this screenshot here and let you make up your own mind about what I think it means.’ is really, stunningly, sloppy. It’s an expository essay: explain what you think it means, or leave it out.

      • Jayle Enn says:

        Whoops, hit the shiny ‘reply’ button instead of using the fresh comment dialogue, I think.

      • Dee says:

        I do sort of feel obliged to point out that this really isn’t an academia-style expository essay (for one, I’m not an academic… quite deliberately so, in fact), and wasn’t written as such; it originated as a post in my personal gaming blog, so the tone of the prose and the pop culture references are very deliberate.

        I might write for a living… but I blog for fun. Blatant disregard for traditional academic and journalistic conventions are one of the hobby’s perks. :)

    • Dee says:

      Fair cop; I admit perceiving ableism is one of the things I’m… not very good at.

  3. Alex says:

    Thefremen, if you don’t want to be the activism police, then don’t be it.

    And Jayle Enn, can we please be constructive here? You usually leave very thoughtful comments. If you don’t like the style of the post, then whatever, but there’s no need to be rude.

    Maybe y’all could try ASKING for clarification on things?

    Gang, we invited Dee to guest post here. She is a guest in our space. Please treat her as such.

    • Jayle Enn says:

      I’m sorry, but your whining about these comments via Twitter is far ruder than anything, anyone has posted so far.

  4. z says:

    Thank you for posting this. Sometimes Border House tends to verge too much on the negative side of things too often, it’s refreshing to hear a more balanced criticism here, and I wholeheartedly agree with a lot of this.

    • Elbi says:

      ^ this.
      (Although DA2′s getting a LOT of positive feedback already. But a bit more can’t hurt these days, when one has to explain why DN:F should’ve stayed down, imho.)

      The article is auto-validated by this sentence alone – everything before that’s just in addition:
      “No, it’s not perfect [...] but if we don’t hold it up and scream, “YES! THIS! MORE OF THIS!” we’re going to keep getting games like Duke Nukem Forever, well, forever.”

  5. YelloBird says:

    I think I can fully agree with the conclusion, but I could have also happiliy lived without “(…)homosexuality is neither a taboo nor a fetishised “virtue” (a la the pederastic social structures of, say, Ancient Greece/Feudal Japan (…)”.

    sorry, got my touchy day.

    • Dee says:

      I’d be interested to know why, if you’re up to explaining it.

      As I understand it (and I could be wrong), the sort of pederasty that was considered as “ideal love” in societies a la Ancient Greece has nothing to do with what the LGBTQI (add/remove letters as appropriate) community would identify with — or even want to identify with — nowadays. The traditions people like to cite as being “proof” that the Greeks/whomever were “gay friendly” weren’t usually about loving relationships between same-sex equals; they were closer to a kind of idealised “deflowering of innocence”. Sort of a same-sex version of the obsession with female “virginity” we’re more used to seeing nowadays. Hence my dislike of the association.

      If… that makes sense?

      Also: Having explained that, it does occur to me that the original sentence is conceptually sloppy (since it’s implicitly associating two concepts when really what I was originally trying to do was disassociate them). /facepalm

    • pyrofennec says:

      Right? What a strange, shitty-sounding thing to say. The phrasing sounds like this: “Hurrrrr these cultures I know shit-all about were defined by pederasty!1!! lulz!”

      • Shamgar says:

        What? That’s not what the phrasing sounds like at all. Could you please elaborate on what you find objectionable about that sentence?

        • Ikkin says:

          I think pyrofennec interpreted the phrase “the pederastic social structures of, say, Ancient Greece/Feudal Japan” to mean “the social structures of Ancient Greece/Feudal Japan, which were pederastic” (which would define those two cultures by their pederasty) instead of “the pederastic social structures that existed in Ancient Greece/Feudal Japan” (which I presume was Dee’s intended meaning, and suggests only that such a structure existed in those societies).

          It’s not a particularly charitable reading, but it’s kind of understandable as a strong immediate reaction to somewhat ambiguous grammar. It’s not really helped all that much by the fact that a constructed society that demonstrates “inclusiveness” by romanticizing child abuse seems very much like a non-existent boogeyman to anyone without enough familiarity with certain segments of the yaoi fandom, which makes Dee’s motivations in raising that point seem questionable to someone who doesn’t know why she considers it relevant.

          …which is all to say that the same words can mean very different things depending on what one believes the topic of conversation to be, and it’s important to know where a writer is coming from before chastising them for a belief they do not actually hold (and, of course, for writers to do their best to communicate what they actually believe to the audience, though I see no reason to believe Dee didn’t try her hardest in this regard). =/

          • Dee says:

            It’s not really helped all that much by the fact that a constructed society that demonstrates “inclusiveness” by romanticizing child abuse seems very much like a non-existent boogeyman to anyone without enough familiarity with certain segments of the yaoi fandom, which makes Dee’s motivations in raising that point seem questionable to someone who doesn’t know why she considers it relevant.

            FWIW, I do come “originally” from yaoi fandom (many, many years ago), so… yes. Partially.

  6. pyrofennec says:

    SJers are used to writing off non-starters, but they’re absolutely brutal with anything that tries and doesn’t make perfection.

    The criticisms of DA2′s portrayal of mental illness and its whitewashing are valid, but I think they’re also almost threatening to drown out the ways in which DA2 does work.

    Oh for god’s sake.

    You know the problem with your straw man? You’re chanting “hey at least they’re ~trying~” as if it means anything. Maybe my perspective is different, but for me personally, it doesn’t: do it right or shut the fuck up. Oh, and here’s the other problem: what do you mean when you say “SJers”? Is that “social justice warriors,” a label applied broadly across allies and loud-mouthed faux-allies who try too hard to look more progressive than anyone else? Are you talking about actual marginalized people? Because I’d never fault a disabled person for finding Sandal absolutely, shittingly offensive and accusing them of being unnecessarily brutal is seven kinds of ridiculous. That’s not to mention that some gay people find it weird that nobody in DA2 is actually gay, they just all have sexual orientations that shift to suit Hawke’s gender.

    By praising DA2 to high heavens you’re excusing failure and saying that we should lower the bar. Which misses the crux: if it fails at race, it fails at race and anything it does with gender is quite beside the point because while both may intersect, they’re still two different things (and as a non-passing through-and-through Asian I’m going to be brutal about things that try and fail at racial discourse, sorry to say: see the shittastic appropriation of racism in DA:O). If it fails at ableism–and I don’t know about DA2 but DA:O was fucking obnoxious, and I’m not usually sensitive to ableism!–then it fails at ableism. Being marginalized isn’t a monolith, we don’t all fall under some huge umbrella where we weigh a piece of media and tick off what it does well against what it doesn’t, and if it does enough well it passes scrutiny which should then be acceptable to all marginalized people. The idea that we should do this, which appears to be what you insist on, is asinine beyond belief.

    Everyone who likes videogames and has even a passing interest in feminism/social justice (or vice versa) needs to play this game; I can’t even stress that enough.

    That’s a hideous thought. “Come look at the ableism! And the whitewashing! Oh, asexuals? You’re still invisible, lololololol. BUT IGNORE THE FAIL, I FANGIRL BIOWARE SO YOU SHOULD TOO.”

    • Jasmine says:

      While I understand that the first statement you quoted comes off as a bit flippant toward DA2′s failings, I think what the author intended with it was to point out that A) DA2 is generally held under a higher standard in regards to how it handles social issues compared to other games, which is an unusual phenomenon if nothing else, and B) the discussion of what has been done wrong has already taken place–I’m sure the author is aware that there have already been articles on that matter on this very blog. What she seems to be trying to say is that she recognizes the game’s failings, but that is not the discussion she is trying to have with this particular article. Not every discussion of social issues necessarily needs to be about the “fails”, especially when those conversations have already taken place in this space. Of course, intention doesn’t necessarily excuse problematic wording- or tone-choice, but giving the author the benefit of the doubt, that’s how I interpreted her statement.

      Considering the rest of her article, though, I seems clear to me that she means to emphasize what the game does right for future games to aspire to, rather than dismiss its faults as irrelevant or harmless. Your claim that she suggests that gamers should accept DA2′s approach as good enough seems to run counter to her entire conclusion. Again, I understand that I am giving her quite a bit of benefit of the doubt as some of her statements do come off as dismissive, but I feel as though your reading of her article does ignore some of what she actually says.

      “That’s not to mention that some gay people find it weird that nobody in DA2 is actually gay, they just all have sexual orientations that shift to suit Hawke’s gender.”

      I find that to be problematic evidence to your argument about DA2′s faults. I agree, the game has faults even in regards to how it handles sexuality and gender, which are generally its strong points, and I don’t mean to say that people don’t have the right to be offended by any of the game’s content, but there is an assumption in that statement is not factually correct. The game’s writing team has stated that characters’ sexuality do NOT flip-flop, and this can be seen in the actual game content (although for some characters, particularly Merrill, the matter of sexual attraction or sexual orientation comes up rarely if the player doesn’t romance them, so I can see how some people might miss this playing through the game only once or twice).

      Additionally, your statement dismisses the possibility of pansexuality, demisexuality, bisexuality, or sexual fluidity without an ascribed orientation, as though none of those expressions of sexuality are valid or in existence. This seems especially odd considering that you called the game out on not giving asexuality any visibility. I respect that you disagree with the author’s points, and I don’t disbelieve that some people are offended by the handling of sexuality if they did not realize that the romance options are all bisexual rather than “Hawke”-sexual, but if you want to produce a counter-argument, it would be more useful to the discourse if you checked your facts and did not dismiss or recognize the existences of certain social minorities only as is convenient for supporting your point of view.

      • pyrofennec says:

        Not every discussion of social issues necessarily needs to be about the “fails”, especially when those conversations have already taken place in this space.

        There’s a galaxy of differences between “I acknowledge this, but I’m not gonna talk about these things” and “I acknowledge this but please will you stop drowning out the issues I care about, kindly prioritize things just as I do.” The latter is dismissive and insulting.

        Additionally, your statement dismisses the possibility of pansexuality, demisexuality, bisexuality, or sexual fluidity without an ascribed orientation, as though none of those expressions of sexuality are valid or in existence.

        Hahahaha. As if Gaider hadn’t come right out and stated, quite explicitly, that the characters’ sexuality depends on the PC’s gender because it makes economic sense and is budget-friendly. See that “gay and always been gay, straight and always been straight” bit? But sure, sure, they were totally going for fluid orientations and REPRESENTING PANSEXUALS OMG WOOO BIOWARE IS TEH INCLUSIVE FUCK YEAH. How’s that for facts?

        did not dismiss or recognize the existences of certain social minorities only as is convenient for supporting your point of view.

        Assuming I brought up asexual visibility as a ~convenient~ tool for my viewpoint is super-cute. Or maybe you should’ve just sat on your hands, if you know what I mean.

      • pyrofennec says:

        I mean consider–

        If Hawke is male, Anders mentions that he’s had a male lover

        +

        If Hawke is female, this little factoid goes completely unmentioned; indeed the relationship w/ male ex-lover appears non-existent

        = ??

        I mean help me here, what keeps Anders from mentioning that he’s had a male lover to a female Hawke exactly? Is it fear of homophobia? ‘Cuz seeing that this entire article belabors how fantastically accepting Banal-Shit-Boring Fantasia Generica #54768797 is about non-hetero sexuality you’d think that would be a non-issue. Is Anders in one version of reality bi or gay or whatever, whereas Anders in a different version of reality straight or still bi/gay but has had no prior experience with those of the same gender? Why? Is there something you see that I don’t? Please share.

        • Jasmine says:

          “what keeps Anders from mentioning that he’s had a male lover to a female Hawke exactly?”

          That is a valid point and something that I’ve wondered about, too, and even with Gaider’s statements establishing that Anders’ sexuality does not change depending on Hawke’s gender, I agree that it doesn’t make sense that he only brings it up with one gender. Until Gaider’s explicit statements on the matter, I assumed that Anders’ sexuality did flip-flop, but I agree with Gaider’s point that just because someone doesn’t talk about their sexual history doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not there. The fact that it only comes up with male Hawke is odd and somewhat problematic, and I’m sorry to say that I don’t really have an answer as to why they might have chosen to do it that way since (as you mentioned) this setting doesn’t seem to include homophobia, but it still stands that just because Anders didn’t mention the relationship doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen. Presumably, Hawke’s gender does not retroactively change the back-stories of other characters (to my knowledge, at least).

          For the other characters, though, it is clear that Isabela is attracted to both men and women regardless of Hawke’s gender, and this comes up no matter how you play the game, and for Fenris it may come up under certain circumstances. For Merrill, there simply is not enough information on her orientation to accurately label her as anything, really, but assuming that characters are essentially the same on each play through and considering that she is an either-sex romance option, it seems fair to say that she is neither exclusively straight nor exclusively gay.

          I suppose my interpretation really does rely on the assumption that the characters only change in any sense in response to Hawke’s actions, meaning that regardless of Hawke’s gender (or class, or personality early on in the game), the companions always start off the game at the same point, with the same histories.

          • Sas says:

            I wouldn’t say there’s no homophobia in this setting. I haven’t played DA2 yet, but from DAO, there are a few points where it seems like although people are not as openly hostile to same sex relationships as this world, it’s still not treated as fully equal. Zevran’s dialogue trees have some options for reacting to his same-sex attraction with shock (“But you’re a man!” was one IIRC), and Oghren apparently gets nervous in background dialogue if the male Warden and Zev are lovers. Plus the failtacular trans women at the Pearl allude to a milder form of trans-panic which, while not the same as homophobia, is certainly a hint that not all is right in Thedas.

            So I don’t know much about Anders but I would not be surprised if someone in that situation would just neglect to mention their past same-sex lovers to avoid the whole conversation.

          • mim says:

            As noble as Gaider’s statement was, I have a feeling that we should go by the end product rather than something said i the heat of the moment. When is comes to homophobia, I find that there’s often a good deal of sexism included, which makes it impossible to predict the male relationships by the female ones. There is just so much hatred for male homosexuality among the intended consumers here that its relative absence can’t be an accident.

            Furthermore, we have to remember that the characters here aren’t real people – they don’t actually exist independently of what we see in the game and of what exists within the minds of writers and audience – the same goes for their sexuality. We live in a heteronormative society, so that means that they’ll be regarded as straight unless otherwise stated, and as the series progresses I’worried that the same sex romances will be reduced to a game mechanic, at least among the fans.

            • Jasmine says:

              “from DAO, there are a few points where it seems like although people are not as openly hostile to same sex relationships as this world, it’s still not treated as fully equal.”

              That’s true, I had forgotten about that, and although I think DAII plays that much less, it still can be seen to some extent. I guess it would be fairer to say that the game gives no apparent reason for Anders keeping quiet about his sexuality to female Hawke.

              “We live in a heteronormative society, so that means that they’ll be regarded as straight unless otherwise stated…”

              That’s what I found interesting about DAII’s approach, though. They gave just enough information to establish that the characters are not heteronormative (and I do mean within the context of the game–Gaider’s comments only confirm what can already be inferred or is glaringly obvious from the actual content), but not enough that they could be accurately labeled with the terms we use in Western society.

              I read this not as BioWare trying to sweep their sexualities under the rug (especially considering the statements that have been made outside the context of the game by the Gaider and other members of the writing team), but rather as a showcase of the complexity and fluidity of human sexuality, and I saw that as an extremely positive point in the game’s approach to social justice. DAII’s portrayal of sexuality seems to be its strongest point, and I think it does it well. Is it the game’s fault if not all of its audience gets the point because they interpret the characters as being “straight by default”?

            • mim says:

              Jasmine: You’re right, but the problem is that hinting at a society that isn’t heteronormative is only half the battle. Most people aren’t taught to queston the norms they live in, and so most people won’t catch on unlessthey’re beaten oever the head with bare facts, which wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t that these people happen to rule the world.

              As for Anders’ monologue, it struck me that it might be explained by plain old shame. He obvioiusly had a strong connection to Karl, but through most of Awakening the possibility of being with a man again seems absent for him. Then you get this dialogue where he can’t even bring himself to state that they were of the same sex (“like you” seems very a awkward choice of words) and it ends with seeking reassurance with Hawke, who already has shown himself to be in the same position. Then again, when he gets the big love scene, he stated that no mage he ever knew had dared to fall in love, so I get a bit confused about wether or not it’s supposed to be cannon.

    • Dee says:

      You’re chanting “hey at least they’re ~trying~” as if it means anything. Maybe my perspective is different, but for me personally, it doesn’t

      Point taken, but — as you may have figured out by now — I do actually disagree, and I thought I was fairly explicit about that fact (FWIW, I also think the game is trying to tell you it disagrees, which is why I find some of these reactions amusingly ironic).

      So no, I’m not going to begrudge someone who, say, actually lives with mental illness any potential hate at this game; if nothing else, Anders’ relationship with Justice has been word-of-god said to be an allegory for mental illness, which has some pretty nasty ramifications I can imagine a lot of people would be, a-har, justifiably pissed off at.

      From reading your comment, I think your confusion is coming from assuming I’m lecturing to an audience of “marginalised people” about what they should or should not be feeling. Which… just no. The intended audience is people who are interested in social justice (the so-called “SJers”), with which there may or may not be varying points of intersection with the former (to put it in slightly less awkward words, think of the difference between “women” and “feminists”). If DA2 gives you personal raeg because it does [whatever] badly, then I totally get that. What I do object to are the self-appointed Social Justice Police who like to rail against the game because they feel it fails some kind of imaginary ideological challenge.

      Thing is, if you’re going to say that loving DA2 for what it does right is silencing the groups it represents poorly, then the reverse is also true. That is, refusing to hear anything positive about the game is just as silencing. As someone who does identify as bi, for example, a lot of the stuff people have been spewing about the character sexualities is really personally hurtful and erasing (not to mention I don’t, a-har, buy it intellectually, either, for reasons I’ve spoken about elsewhere).

      As far as I’m concerned, it cuts both ways. YMMV.

  7. Ben says:

    Uh, yeah, I’m not going to pay sixty bucks for a bad game just because it got some aspects of social justice right. Especially when they’re basically the same aspects that the much better Origins got right too.

    • Dee says:

      I would actually disagree with this.

      I started a re-replay of DA:O after my second run of DA2. I was actually kind of shocked at how, uh, regressive it feels in comparison to DA2 (at least with the gender and sexuality stuff).

      YMMV, but for me it was sort of alarming to confront just what rosy-tinted memory-glasses I’d been seeing DA:O though.

  8. Sif says:

    “Whether you love it or hate it or buy it or pirate it”

    Please don’t encourage people to pirate it.

    I’m sure that’s not your intention, Alis Dee, but pirating games is a lousy, lousy thing to do.

  9. Deviija says:

    I appreciated the article. I do believe that praise should be given when something is done well (or at least better), and criticism where something fails (or is insulting). Encourage progression and nurture what efforts or successess were made. It isn’t the same as giving a blanket excuse from the negatives, however. Or a get out of jail free card on everything else because x, y, and z are done well/better. But I think it important to send positives as well as critiques in our gamer feedback.

    I truly disagree with the sentiment of ‘if you can’t portray x right, don’t portray it at all.’ Because as minorities, then we’d really rarely or never get portrayed at all (in this industry). If a company, writing team, game series, is at least trying to develop itself and its social responsibility and trying to be inclusive, then that is at least something marginally meaningful to me. Again, there are no ‘get off scotch free from your wrongs’ cards, here, but I rather an entity show some forward momentum (especially in this mired industry) than no momentum at all.

    Back to the game specifically, while I realize there are some portrayals and some moves it did right, it’s still not enough to get me to purchase the game (rather than renting it or playing it at a friend’s house) at its new release pricing. For many reasons beyond just the social issues.

  10. Great read. Haven’t played the game yet, but this helped convince me I should pick it up soon. It’s so easy to pick on what game developers do wrong, that it was a bit of fresh air to read about what they did right. This sort of positive reinforcement is much appreciated!

  11. clever endeavor says:

    Thank you for writing this – I appreciate that you’ve taken a moment to point out some of the things that Bioware has done well with DA2 (which for me, outweighs the faults in the game). It is a nice to see them being recognized for their steps forward to counter-balance criticism for short-comings. Give praise where due, criticize where due.

    A couple of things came to mind while reading:
    1. Another point in the favor of, “you aren’t called out on being a mage on purpose,” would just be that your PC takes so much flack for it in DA:O if you play as a mage. (It gets doubled if you take on the elf mage origin.) I would say the distinct lack of resistance by comparison is, in and of itself, telling.

    2. I can actually think of one nasty line with regard to a same sex relationship in DA2. If you are a male Hawke and in a relationship with Fenris, Gamlen will make a snide remark along the lines of, “So, you and the elf, eh? I guess I don’t have to ask which one of you is the girl.” Combine that with the fact that Anders is very clear with a male Hawke to be sure that male Hawke is okay with the fact that Anders had a previous sexual relationship with a man, and I would say that characters in the DA universe are still judged based upon their sexuality, just in a different way than in the Real World. Also of interest, neither Isabella nor Merrill ever check to see if you are okay with sleeping with a woman as a woman (that I remember). I can’t personally confirm if Fenris reacts differently with a man than a woman.

    • Cinnabar says:

      Gamlen says the same thing if you’re with Anders, BTW. “So, you and the apostate boy, eh? I guess I don’t have to ask which one of you is the girl.” Laughed my ass off at the absurdity of that one because none of them fit the pathetic stereotype as far as I can see, so I read it specifically as poking fun of the kind of people who say ridiculous shit like that.

      But you’re right about the judging homosexuality part. That struck me as well on my playthroughs of both DAO and DA2. If it was completely okay in Thedas, then why the need for Anders and Zevran to ask you if it bothers you that they slept with other men? Why would Leliana question you about a relationship with Zevran and eventually concede with, “They say you should try everything once, except incest and Qunari”? Clearly there is some judgement, even if a lot more subdued than in our world.

      • Cinnabar says:

        Umm… Just in case it read differently than I intended, I meant that the Bioware writers were poking fun through making Gamlen say that line, not that the character of Gamlen was being sarcastic and poking fun as commentary himself.

  12. 12Sided says:

    I’m just kind of worried because even though it gets some things right DA2 is a terribly rushed and buggy game that also took a drastic turn in some of it’s visual designs. These problems have turned people off the game including me. My worry is what usually happens in the media industry when a sub-par product with good representations of minorities gets panned: keep the bad rushed design, loose the wider audience and try to pander to straight white males exclusively again.

  13. Astraia says:

    Thank you for writing this! I’ve just bought this game, and from what you’ve written I now look forward even more to playing it. I was *very* impressed by BioWare’s awareness of privilege in response to that angry hetero male gamer.

    Sure, it’s not unproblematic – but it’s a lot *less* problematic than the overwhelming majority of mass-marketed games.

    For what it’s worth, I also loved your writing style. As a TVTropes fan myself, the references didn’t go unappreciated!

  14. Ouyang Dan says:

    I am quite disturbed that the calling out of ableist language in this post was met with such hostility. It should be called out, especially in SJ circles. If we don’t hold each other up to higher standards, then who will? This was an overall decent look at a game I thoroughly enjoy, but it just really rubs me raw to see someone claim to be championing Social Justice and toss ableism around so handily.

    Another note: When quoting someone as extensively as you did Chally Kalcenik from Zero at the Bone, I don’t think it is too much effort to name her along with the quote, rather than just saying “from elsewhere”. I might not be so touchy about it if this very blog hadn’t done this to my own work just recently, calling me “Bitch Magazine” as if I am one and the same as the blog hosting my guest work on the whitewashing of Isabela, and as if Bitch doesn’t have many, many bloggers. A writer and blogger works hard, whether we are paid for that work or not (not all of us view that work as a hobby, for some of us it is our actual job) and getting our name written right next to the link isn’t too much to ask for. You wrote out TVTropes, and took care to name your other sources. I guess it is just polite to give those of us who are lesser well-known that courtesy?

    This is a good look at the many layers of a good game that hits many things right. I fully agree that we should be demanding more games like DA2, games that examine topics like privilege and oppression, but not forgetting to still hold the company to the standards they seem they are trying to set. As a gamer, I want more games that examine oppression and privilege; as a social justice advocate I want people to better understand how race, class, oppression, sexuality, gender, and disability play into the media we consume.

  15. Ultraviolet says:

    Thank you. It’s pretty much how i feel about the game. Except i still do perceive mages as gender/sexuality analogue on Thedas, where conventional mages stand roughly for sexuality and mind and blood mages represent outright blood-runes-on-carbonsteel-staves brand biomech – and Kirkwall/Ferelden stand for West/rest in my book.

  16. Keely says:

    I’m a bit bewildered at all the hate you’re getting for this post. For one thing, god forbid a post WRITTEN ELSEWHERE not conform to the presentational standards of a blog you never had any reason to expect would run your article.

    I also fail to understand the mindset of people going “These people should be dealing with every social justice issue perfectly or they shouldn’t be making games at all and deserve our contempt!” Okay, let’s wave goodbye to Bioware and turn to… who? Who else is making games that are even this progressive? Entertainment industries (film, television, gaming) will latch onto any excuse to stick to the status quo; if games like DA do poorly, do you think EA is going to be all “Well, damn, let’s try to be less ablist next time” or are they going to say “See, we told you that gay shit doesn’t sell”? I’m not trying to discount ablism, but there seems little point to me in focusing so exclusively on the things a progressive game does wrong that you refuse to acknowledge the myriad things it does right. Look at that other Bioware franchise: ME ranks pretty poorly as far as sexuality issues are concerned, but when it comes to race (and possibly ablism?) they seem to know pretty damn well what they’re doing. Saying “That’s not good enough, and I won’t settle for any game that isn’t perfect, even though it means we might be waiting forever!” will just give them an excuse to stop trying. The best we can do to encourage better representation of all sorts of people in games is to go “This is great–now please take it even further!”

    • Ultraviolet says:

      Keely: Very much so. It actually hurts to read this. I have stated over and over again how disencouraged i would feel in the place of Bioware now. I’d freaking do the next game about the advantages of military dictatorship and a positive spin on fetishization of uniforms, out of spite. But that’s fucked up little me, they won’t stop what they’re doing, have been fairly competent and before them we could not even imagine a game big time ABOUT social justice.

      And total naysayers trust me, YOU aren’t perfect. Just for a little example I have my share of painful and traumatic background elements which i’d rather entrust the present Bioware than you to handle – despite their record (even in da2, nevermind da:o) being appaling in a way i legitimately could feel like the one left out, they have proved they are able to learn, while if someone has been given 45 years resulting in remarkably little progress – it’s pretty clear where it’s going.

      And Alis Dee, got to thank you one more time and looks like you got a new reader. That’s all i’m going to say, DA2 case closed, with this fangirl at least. And thank you for SJA term, it fits me when none else would.

    • mim says:

      Well, for one I haave found that the positive articles on Dragon Age 2, as well as its predecessor vastly outweigh the negative ones, in fact I’ve found it hard to find any on the subjects of sexism and heteronormativity. Secondly, if Will and Grace, Philadelphia and Pride and Prejudice hand been written today, would you have thought of them as progressive? Because they sure were for the mainstream of their time, but that doesn’t mean that they were without their faults.

      Point is, these works may have done something to sway the general public of their time, but without people pushing further, there would have been no development. It’s the same thing in politics: you get civil unions and the general public forgets about gay issues for a few years. It’s not until we start prodding for gender neutral marriages and yes, annoying those in power, that they pick up tha ball again. It is nice to think that social development follows with time, but humans are lazy ny nature and nothing will never ever happen by itself, and especially not if we act as if the development isn’t more than a bonus to what we already have.

      • Keely says:

        I agree, which is exactly why we should be going “YES, Bioware, now let’s do EVEN BETTER!” If there’s no pushing, there will be no progression. But if there’s no encouragement for even trying (and doing a pretty damn good–if flawed–job), especially when trying IS a taking risk in this industry, nobody’s going to even bother putting in the extra work.

  17. TalieC says:

    I really expected a lot better than this comment thread. Whenever I’ve been lurking, The Border House has always seemed better on intersectionality than this.

    “but we have to give the (privileged people/game company) (cookies/our money)! Otherwise they’ll go away”.

    And of course social justice activist types can get really angry about something that goes halfway but not all the way. Because it’s not like anything universally goes halfway. Anything that doesn’t go all the way portrays some groups well and other groups just as badly as everything else, if they’re not erased. And when all your friends are praising something really highly for being one of the rare video games that isn’t hideously sexist/racist/heterosexist, and then it goes and says something bigoted about you, through the entire work, you’re going to feel angry and betrayed. And deservedly so.

    Even if they’re telling you about these great feminist games and you’re warned about each one that fails badly on, say, ableism, you (hypothetical disabled you) are going to be angry at being left behind. Being angry is justified.

    • Ike says:

      “Even if they’re telling you about these great feminist games and you’re warned about each one that fails badly on, say, ableism, you (hypothetical disabled you) are going to be angry at being left behind. Being angry is justified.”

      Agreed.

      The big question is: How do we send a message that says “good job on x, y, z, but you missed the mark on a, b, c”?

  18. Raz says:

    “The criticisms of DA2′s portrayal of mental illness and its whitewashing are valid, but I think they’re also almost threatening to drown out the ways in which DA2 does work.”

    The danger of these kinds of statements are that they’re suggesting that those who have valid complaints about Dragon Age 2 should be quiet, least they ruin the good for everyone else.

    That idea is deeply troubling. That a site that proclaims to be for members of all marginalised groups would publish an article that seeks to silence some of those groups.

    So should those of us who are being discriminated against by those portrayals be quiet? The media depictions of those with mental illness has a very direct and real effect on influencing peoples views of those who have a mental illness. Mental illness already carries a huge social stigma and is seriously misunderstood. While I doubt anyone will get their understanding of mental illness from a computer game, it is reinforcing negative stereotypes that are shown in other media.

    Statements by the writers of the game about how their characters are an analogy for mental illness go unchallenged because who wants to rock the boat? I don’t.

    Yes, Bioware are getting some things right. They’re also getting some things wrong. It is fully possible to support the good that they’re doing as well as to discuss their failures.

    Discussion of where they’re going wrong is not going to drown out where they went right. I’ve seen it on a number of sites, people who’re scared to offer the slightest criticism of Bioware least they whisk away a game that’s made steps in the right direction. There seems to be a genuine fear that if we offer criticism Bioware will suddenly revert to making games like everyone else.

    Dragon Age provides progress, just as a number of games before it did. It is not the end result by a long stretch. Yes, people should buy (not pirate) it if they are so inclined. If people want more games like Dragon Age 2 then they should vote with their cash and buy it.

    But those of us who can’t, or who don’t, want to buy the game shouldn’t be made to feel like they’re letting everyone else down or that they should be silent about their complaints. That we’re somehow dooming the games industry to forever remain a place where Duke Nukem rules all. Because we’re not.

    • ProdiGal says:

      I don’t think Alis Dee is suggesting that members of marginalized groups who were badly misrepresented in this game (or any other game) should remain silent. Rather, she’s saying that instead of ALWAYS focusing on what a game has messed up on, we should give credit where credit is due for what the game does well. I think it’s more a commentary on the tendency we sometimes have to throw the baby out with the bathwater than anything else.

      • Dee says:

        This, basically.

        Calling out the fail in DA2? Useful and good, go right on ahead.

        Using that fail as an excuse to vociferously silence and shame anyone who (gasp!) dares to mention they felt their [whatever] was portrayed well? Not such a fan.

        And thank you; “baby and the bathwater” was the exact idiom I was looking for the entire post but couldn’t dredge out of memory. /facepalm

        • ProdiGal says:

          Glad to be of service =)

          I really enjoyed reading your post… after playing the demo and reading various reviews, I figured I would wait for a price drop to buy DA2, but I think I might have to move it up on my list of games to play.

  19. tossca says:

    I found your points about Isabella interesting to read. During my playthrough, the minute I was introduced to her I immediately brushed her off as fanservice, and never even bothered to use her in my party.

    I guess I mentally treated her sort of the same way Aveline did, which after reading this post makes me laugh at myself. So, now I think I’ll have to give her another chance and try her out as a main party member in another playthrough.

    On another note, I have always enjoyed how Bioware displays social friction and I think it’s great that they seem to be doing more and more of it with each coming game. This post pointed that out nicely.

    Thanks for a very enjoyable read.

  20. mim says:

    Well written. It’s hard to give works credit when they do something good, though I must say that it’s probably a good thing, seeing as complacency might be the worst threat against social justice – we can’t hope to achieve equality if we can’t see how this kind of game might become an example of social injustice in the future. Sadly, that makes the job of these writers an unthankful one indeed.

    Personally though, I think that a death of the hypothenuse might have been a good thing anyway in Aveline’s case, because she is the only female companion whose personality isn’t formed with heteronormative ideas of attractiveness in mind, which becomes clear when you compare her to the virgin-whore(albeit one in positive light) archetypes of Merril and Isabela or how Fenris and Anders fit quite well into molds of the classic romantic hero and the byronic one. Of course as I read somewhere else, converting Avline and Varric, the other non-romantic companion, into love interests might have forced them into these molds as well. It’s sad that this trade off even exists.

  21. Rob says:

    I think this article offers an interesting perspective, at the very least. Not only am I guilty of missing what’s being done wrong, but I often miss what’s being done right as well. So, kudos, Alis Dee, for helping me see some of the things in DA2 in a new light. (Like the Death of the Hypotenuse thing.)

    That said, I appreciate the criticisms leveled in the comments too; although I dislike the venom in a couple of them, they are nevertheless a suitable rebuke to not forget the things that are still wrong.

    Thanks for the engrossing read. I find myself on the side of, “This is great–now please take it even further!”

  22. BMKane says:

    I must say, I find it odd that in all this praising of DA2′s portrayal of women, nobody is mentioning the visual design of the game.

    The female Hawke’s idle animations are all either sexy stripper poses or the sort of demure poses you might see in a damsel-in-distress princess from a 1950s film. Even just standing still, Hawke can’t stop with the sexypose, standing with her hips cocked and eyes downcast. And the ass-shaking isn’t the only thing that’s insulting about the run animation.

    And then there’s the appearance of the female characters. Every female character–including the ones who are ostensibly warriors–looks like a dainty underwear model with huge breasts (and there’s jiggle physics for at least Isabel, Bethany, and Hawke). Every female warrior in the game looks like she’d weigh about 60 pounds, far less than the total weight of her armour and weapons.

    There’s no reason for any of it. The sexyposes and jiggle physics didn’t exist in DA:O, and there’s nothing stopping them from giving female characters SOME visible muscle, even if they’re bound and determined to have exactly one female body type. And they would even save money from using the same run animation for male and female Hawke.

    This has been a consistent problem in Bioware games. I remember the particularly egregrious ass cheeks modelled into the female medium armours in Mass Effect. I mean, I’ll grant, the writing IS less sexist than DA:O’s was. The writing is a small step forward. But to suggest that it “hits amazing marks … on its portrayal of women” seems like a huge leap, given the visual design issues.

    Surely I’m not the only one who finds this incredibly aggravating. Have people just given up on games ever having non-insulting visual designs for their female characters? Have we decided that Bioware’s art department is utterly unsalvageable, and so we’re just desperately ignoring it and focusing exclusively on the parts of the writing that are inoffensive?

    • Pewter says:

      I would say that criticism of jiggle physics have certainly not ceased (see a number of posts about RIFT around the blogosphere), it’s just that there is more to characters than their looks, and the actions of characters and the themes explored in games are worth focusing on separately.

    • M. Caliban says:

      “And then there’s the appearance of the female characters. Every female character–including the ones who are ostensibly warriors–looks like a dainty underwear model with huge breasts (and there’s jiggle physics for at least Isabel, Bethany, and Hawke). Every female warrior in the game looks like she’d weigh about 60 pounds, far less than the total weight of her armour and weapons.”

      I didn’t perceive Aveline or Templar-Commander Meredith as being 60 pounds.

      As well, there have been a wide range of negative comments about Aveline being too large, masculine, muscular, and butch. This suggests to me that many people are not perceiving her as being a ‘dainty underwear model with huge breasts.’

      • BMKane says:

        Granted, Aveline’s guard armour makes her look a lot bigger than she is. (Although, in the beginning, when she’s just wearing the bodice, she’s the same size and build as Hawke and Bethany.) And her animations don’t have the problems Hawke’s do. Aveline (in the guard armour) is certainly an exception, I was very impressed with Bioware for her design.

        But the negative comments about her, I imagine, are not coming from people who care overmuch about social justice ;). Those comments I can easily predict. What I’m curious about is why feminists don’t seem to be bothered by the female character design in the game. Especially for the protagonist.

        There have been two very long posts on Borderhouse discussing DA2 post-release, both have focused at least somewhat on the characters’ appearances, and both have stated that Bioware deserves huge respect for their treatment of women in the game.

        They seem to have just completely skipped over the appearances and animations of female characters, which for a visual medium is kind of important. Especially since the appearances are so vastly contradictory to what many of the characters are supposed to be. Particularly in Hawke’s case.

    • UbiquitousGrue says:

      I have spotted a number of places discussing the er, aesthetics of the game, but most were offhanded comments to the effect of Bioware relying on breasts to sell their game and nothing more. So I’m very much glad you brought it up here. I can… enjoy the game despite these things, but then I’ve been having to ignore particular aspects of games for years now, and my coping method of choice at present is to not play a female Hawke at all. (Given a recent mod that switches out the running/idle animations, I might give it a try)
      Much like Dragon Age: Origins, which prevented me ever playing a female character thanks to its “I’m the bravest one here…and I’m a woman!” style of gender differentiation.

      Whereas I like how Mass Effect’s animations lack that exaggerated performativity, but I hate the sexism and mishandling of “dramatic” themes in the setting/narrative itself too much to get into the game. :/

      Anyway. You are not aloooone, was my point, and I got rambly.

      • BMKane says:

        The thing I find oddest about the Dragon Age vs. Mass Effect thing is the impression I get that they’re made by two utterly unrelated companies, who don’t communicate with each other. DA2 finally does away with breastplates with breasts moulded into them, and ME2 exaggerates them even more. ME2 gets rid of sexywalk animations for the female Shepard, DA2 adds them in for the female Hawke. It’s bizarre.

        It actually goes back farther. In NWN, there were actually three body types for female characters: one dainty noblewoman type like DA2′s Hawke, one sexualised but at least fairly average type, and a big burly bruiser. That kind of customisation vanished from their subsequent games. This is why I feel like praising Bioware for DA2 is a bit premature. Bioware’s sexism doesn’t decrease, I don’t think, it’s a sine graph. It goes up and down.

        In Jade Empire, women served equally in the military, with no comments on gender at all, and they even had equal numbers of male and female NPCs in most roles (something DA2 lacks). Then they made Mass Effect, where Ashley and Garrus make specific comments that women almost never serve in combat in the Alliance military, they only serve in support roles, placing the 22nd century Systems Alliance behind 1980s Canada in military gender equality. Now DA2 has the same gender-blindness in the writing that Jade Empire did. Up and down, up and down.

        • FarisScherwiz says:

          From what I recall, DA and ME are actually by two totally separate groups in the company. They’re both still Bioware, but I don’t think they communicate with each other really.

          It’s definitely frustrating, they have a long history of doing it right in one game and then messing it up in the very next one. It’s really hard to know what to expect from them a lot of the time :/

    • Korva says:

      (The usual caveat: I don’t own DA2. Second caveat: wildly off-topic.)

      Bioware first pissed me off with absolutely ridiculous animations and poses for female characters in KotOR — you cannot possibly take a character seriously when her “I’m annoyed right now” animations consist of her waggling her ass left and right like a two-bit hooker. I don’t recall being that annoyed with Jade Empire, where IIRC they did a pretty good job putting the protagonist in a warrior-stance.

      Mass Effect actually catches a good deal of flak for using “male” (read: unisex) animations, and I remember similar complaints about DA:O. Of course, the “masculine” stances are what I liked because I don’t see them as such at all, but as a sign of a person who is competent and in charge and bloody well knows it too — which certainly befits a professional soldier and commanding officer much more than the ass-wriggling. I honestly cannot wrap my mind around why women WANT to look perma-”sexy” and hyper-”feminine”, but that’s the all-but-asexual in me talking, I guess. *shrug*

      I saw screenshots of the body types for Bioware’s upcoming Star Wars MMO and boy did they raise my blood pressure. It has been a while so my memory is not all that clear, but I remember four clearly distinct ones for male characters, while the female ones were just four slightly different sizes of the usual huge-breasted, sexy-posed Barbie dolls with toothpick arms. Ugh.

      I’d really love to see more muscle on my female characters. :( And no monster teats.

      And the issue of female versus male costumes/armor/clothing is another can of worms, yes.

      • XIV says:

        “Mass Effect actually catches a good deal of flak for using “male” (read: unisex) animations, and I remember similar complaints about DA:O. Of course, the “masculine” stances are what I liked because I don’t see them as such at all, but as a sign of a person who is competent and in charge and bloody well knows it too — which certainly befits a professional soldier and commanding officer much more than the ass-wriggling. I honestly cannot wrap my mind around why women WANT to look perma-”sexy” and hyper-”feminine”, but that’s the all-but-asexual in me talking, I guess. *shrug*”

        Oh no, Korva, it’s not just you. I really hate the idea that cocking your hips, swinging your ass, and doing other such sexual gestures means a woman is ‘more feminine’ in the gaming world. Because it sounds like the idea is that women are there to be Sexy (unspoken: for men) and that men are just there to be Characters. It’d be hard to deny it when there are complaints like a neutral stance on a woman is somehow ‘masculine’, because whoever thinks that complaint is legitimate surely is putting forward the idea that women are there to be sexually displayed /first/ and be -insert profession here- second.

        And in a way it also feels like yet another way to prop up a stupid gender dichotomy. We shouldn’t be getting used to that idea and gaming companies shouldn’t be perpetuating this squicky way of defining femininity and women.

    • mim says:

      Thank you, this was probably what bothered me the most about the people praising Isabela’s character. She’s clearly meant as a the seductress as much as any playboy bunny or woman within a game, if only with a somewhat freer mind than usual. The clothes are awful too, and the way that Bethany’s neckline goes down just about as much as possible without showing the nipples was one of the first things I noticed in the game. Unless they’re dressed for melee combat there’s not a single woman in this game who isn’t dressed for the male gaze, wether she’s an old woman, a waitress or a beggar. But to be honest, I think that this is just too common a problem for most people to put energy on when there’s actually a goo story in it. It seems like there’s been a tradeoff here: Give us character that don’t cause major offense in one dimension, and we’ll try to look past the mistakes in the other.

    • Deviija says:

      You are not the only one that finds this kind of narrow depiction and go-to character representation (‘aesthetically’) aggravating and irritating. It is something I’ve talked about here, on Border House, before as well. And something I am and was vocal about on the Bioware forums.

      Part of it, I believe, is because regurgitated imagery and male-gaze visual design and exaggerated femininity/sexuality has been so perverse and overwhelming in the gaming industry for so long that it has become something people ‘deal with’ in order to enjoy the rest of their gaming hobby. Becoming desensitized, as it were, from something that has gone on so long and being faced with little options in terms of great games to play without the obvious sexualiztion/exploitation of female characters. But I agree that we shouldn’t give such things a free pass — it all deserves criticism and an ongoing dialogue. Especially when it comes to these designs affecting your customizable avatar.

      I has incredible trouble getting into Lady Hawke due to her walk/idle animations and rather, uh, chesty visuals. It wasn’t the latter that, push come to shove, I’d be unforgiving about, but it is the combination of the endowed visual design and animations that created this dislike and irritation in me. Wiggling one’s buttocks from side to side in a manner that would break your spine, and flailing one’s arms feebly from side to side in ‘flailyrun’ and standing in leg-out, hips jaunty stances, with a large chest and thin, weak-looking noodle arms… it’s just too much of a portrayal to not be seen as feminized and sexual for a specific gaze imo.

      General gaming sidenote, too: Jiggle physics are ridiculous and never something portrayed realistically anyway. There is no need for it in gaming. All the time (design, implementation, etc) and tech spent on that? Really.

      Anyway, when they originally announced that Lady Hawke would have her own idle and walk animations, I was cautiously optimistic. I liked the IDEA of female PCs having their own unique animations, to show that game designers are giving proper attention to female characters as well. Especially good since BW games continue to use iconic white hetero men as their marketing faces. It’d at least be something, right? My fears about it were it would become too sexualized or too sauntery and exaggerated and she’d be seen as a woman or a sex object first and profession last. That’s the downside to such ‘unique’ designs… and DA2 proved my fears founded. That’s exactly the kind of uniqueness that I do not want on my female PCs. Particularly if they are supposed to be so combat-savy and martial.

      I rather we use a unisex animation set for male and female PCs. FemShep, for her role and her design, is a great model example for this. With some tweaks in gesturing and interacting animations to avoid clipping or height differentiations etc etc. If games are going to be about people of prowess in combat situations, then I expect them to be designed more in alignment with that. And actually have more realistic and strong muscle tone, for starters. If a game is about Victorian Era seduction, then maybe I’d be alright with all the hip wiggling and corsets. ;P

      This is not to say that femininity and all things feminine cannot be heroic or cannot be strong. it is the usual pandering/hypersexualization that comes with these things in gaming that is the bigger problem.

  23. Jen B says:

    Good article. I think you presented your ideas well, saying early on that you were going to talk about social justice and where DA2 went *right.* It’s a little odd to me that people don’t seem to think those things can recognized as long as other things went wrong.

    I came to really enjoy Isabela, too. I didn’t think I would (boy didn’t I!) but there was one conversation between her and Aveline that I loved, and I started to see her differently.

    ■Aveline: You’re right.
    ■Isabela: About?
    ■Aveline: About knowing who you are.
    ■Aveline: I’m the captain of the guard. I’m loyal, strong, and I don’t look too bad naked.
    ■Isabela: Exactly. And if I called you a mannish, awkward, ball-crushing do-gooder, you’d say…?
    ■Aveline: Shut up, whore.
    ■Isabela: That’s my girl.

    I also love the idea that Hawke is allowed to be a mage because of privilege. I hadn’t thought of it that way at all, and it really fits.

  24. Clariana says:

    Liked the article a hell of a lot. Thought it missed out one aspect, though, that as a Fereldan fleeing Fereldan and becoming refugee you and your compatriots find yourselves second class citizens and social undesirables in Kirkwall. A nice contrast with DA:O which being set in Ferelden meant that native human non-mage Fereldans were top of the pile. Admittedly not a very high pile, but still…

    The mine quests highlight this. Hubert (an Orlesian) only hires Fereldans because only they will put with the piss poor terms and conditions he offers. Likewise when Aveline makes it to captain of the city guard purely on merit, a disgruntled Kirkwaller attempts to stir up dissent against her on the basis of her ethnic origin…

    • mim says:

      That’s true. And don’t forget the Kirkwallers who band together to harass the foreigners!

  25. M. Caliban says:

    I found Dragon Age 2 very good when it came to the visual depiction of women. The number of women showing skin is quite low. Women are shown in a wide-range of occupations/roles. Very rarely did I interact with a female NPC and feel as though she was designed for the male-gaze.

    For me, the presentation of Merrill, Aveline, and Isabela were all good. Bethany’s original costume I disliked, though I liked the Circle and Grey Warden costumes.

    I would have liked to see more than a single male and female body model for each race. And where were the female dwarves? They were in DA:O but now they’ve vanished. I hope to see them in DA 3 along with female kossith/qunari.

    BMKane:
    “They seem to have just completely skipped over the appearances and animations of female characters, which for a visual medium is kind of important. Especially since the appearances are so vastly contradictory to what many of the characters are supposed to be. Particularly in Hawke’s case.”

    Korva:
    “Bioware first pissed me off with absolutely ridiculous animations and poses for female characters in KotOR — you cannot possibly take a character seriously when her “I’m annoyed right now” animations consist of her waggling her ass left and right like a two-bit hooker.”

    I find comments like these slightly problematic. I dislike that video games and other media often only express good or desirable womanhood in a very narrow, feminine manner. That is not to suggest that a feminine presentation is incompatible with heroism, strength, or being respected.

    The default animations fit my first PC quite well. When I did a warrior run-through, I modded the game to give female Hawke the male PC walk and idle animations. I wonder if a ‘stance toggle’ would be in order?

    • Ophelia Stornoway says:

      I would like to play a more rough-and-tumble Hawke on my next playthrough, but have no idea where/how to mod my game to use male animations for a female character. Would you be able to link me to a site that provides them/would explain how to go about it?

    • idvo says:

      “I wonder if a ‘stance toggle’ would be in order?”

      I think this would be a wonderful idea. Volition included something similar in their Saints Row 2 game, with the ability to select your character’s walking animation from a list of several different ones. It doesn’t seem like this feature would be all that difficult to include in other games, as well.

  26. PlusSizedGamerWoman says:

    1. There is a bit of homophobia in the game. When you are a male Hawke and you romance Fenris, Gamlen will make the following remark:

    “An elf? Well at least we know who’s the girl in the relationship…”

    Yeah. Totally not cool, Gamlen….

    2. I thought I was the ONLY ONE who loved the fact that Fenris and Anders totally bitch at each other when one of them is in a relationship with your Hawke!!!! You usually see bitchiness with women, and I’m glad they flipped the script.

    3. One thing I didn’t like in DA2 was the fact that there is literally NO BODY DIVERSITY in the entire game. NONE. Where are the fat people in Kirkwall? Everyone is either skinny or muscular. No in between.

    4. I found some of the interactions between Aveline and Isabella to be problematic in the sense that we have the lily white virtuous woman who is the upstanding arm of the law calling the darker skinned sexualized woman who is a pirate a whore every 10 minutes when they are together. That dichotomy is tired and reeks of privilege.

    5. The poses that femHawke has in the game annoy me, and she also has this arms flailing run that looks absolutely ridiculous. I concur with those who say that gender neutral stances should be utilized.

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