Dragon Age: White Origins

I will note that while I am critical of Dragon Age in this post, I am enjoying the game and it has taken over most of my gaming time.

Ronia is a character I make in most games where I can customize. She is the first ‘best friend’ I made who made me realize the impact of a true friendship based on respect and admiration. She is both similar enough to me while having a very distinct personality from my own that playing a game while imagining how she would see things presents a delight. Like many, I started creating characters in the pre-released generator that BioWare provided for Dragon Age: Origins. Ronia was the second of these characters. I have not mentioned it yet, but Ronia is black.

Ronia has great, curly hair that I wanted in game. Nothing doing. Okay. Maybe something close? Nope. My options for non-European centric hair for both sexes were cornrows, cropped hair, or bald. I went with bald, because I know real Ronia doesn’t use chemical relaxers and straighteners, and this character would be no different. In general, the hair options in the game are wanting, for a POC they are beyond wanting, and border on the non-existent. Unfortunately, this is nothing new in games.

Seeking Avalon has written much more about this issue, and expresses aptly other issues I have with the character generator and race. The same blog also explores the issues I have with Tolkien and how this game falls into the old tropes.

I will continue by examining the game as I have played it. After selecting Human Noble Warrior and assigning skills, talents and attributes, I was given a brief video explaining my origin. Then I show up in a castle with my father talking to me. My white father (pictured left). Proceeding, I meet my white mother. My white brother.

As a noble, I find it difficult to believe I am adopted, but I think back on my other character, the mage who is a blown up personification of my misanthropy. Perhaps it might be true that I was adopted and not one person mentions it, but that does not explain this troubling question: Have I seen any POC in this game? If so, no one notable. Certainly not enough to explain my presence.

What I am presented with is another Tolkien-esque, Eurocentric fantasy game that has a dark-skinned menace, with all the ‘good’ races being white, even if I have the option of opting out of such.

However, the nail in the coffin is hammered some more when I begin to realize that the game has a lot to say about race. I was rather taken aback when I first met Sten, asked him about the Qunari, and he told me my ignorance was my own fault, not his (nor his problem to correct).

The non-human races, both dwarves and elves, have strong allusions to race problems and issues we know in our own world: a belief of inferiority leading to enslavement and being treated as lesser, ghettos, isolationism, a main religion that subjugates others’, et cetera. In fact, there’s a lot to explicate in terms of what that says in a rather smart manner, but is for another post.

All these parallels to racial tensions and mistreatment are just that, however: abstract reflections of what we know in our own world. As soon as I create a POC and start playing him or her, it strikes me when I see no other POC and no one comments on it, but they are willing to see elves as slaves. If we are talking immersive gaming, I am already shunted out of any role playing, because I was never allowed to enter the role.

There are many ways to address such issues, but ignoring it shows a big gaping hole of logic. If the game wanted to have a cast that is almost all white (I have not fully played the game thus far, but the front-end of it is packed with them), then turn off the option to select skin tone in the character generator. That is a poor option, and not one I would endorse.

Then it behooves putting NPCs of color in the game. Since most major characters look to be designed individually, this would merely require someone to decide that this particular NPC will not be white. The character generator already exists (flawed as it is), and it tells us that we can choose these options for ourselves, after all.

I do want mature games, and that includes games that focus less on blood spatters that cling to me ridiculously while distracting from the scenes in which I am interacting (yes, I did turn this off, as it was making me giggle at its ludicrousness) and more on making a world in which I can believe the inherent logic concerning not just the races as it concerns humans, elves, and dwarves, but also the inclusion of a variety of skin colors. BioWare set out to make a game to divorce itself from others’ stories, and create something original, but they still brought the Tolkien-esque privilege with them. Which is odd, as right before this I was in the middle of playing Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and was impressed with how many POC I encountered.

When someone creating a story decides that it is okay to talk at length about race issues but ignore the fact that as the only person of color in the world, I might feel a bit alienated (and I’m white), we’ve reached a point where I believe the developers wanted to say, “Your skin color doesn’t matter! We won’t treat you any differently! You are Human! Elf! Dwarf!”

Yet all I hear is, “While you may want to create POC, we are still blinded by our own privilege and didn’t think you might want to see others!”

About Denis Farr

Writer interested in intersectionality, games, comics, nerdy stuff in general, theater, and how it all mixes. Graduate of Wabash College, with studies in Theater, English, German, and Gender Studies.
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6 Responses to Dragon Age: White Origins

  1. Kateri says:

    Yes!! I’m not too far in, but I had the same thought: why did they bother letting me make a character of colour at all, if they were just going to present me with a white family, white hometown and white world? And that after the options in the character creator were so limited and sucky. Not that I would have preferred to only be allowed to make white characters, but… ffs, people!

    While I am loving this game in so many ways, I’m constantly reminded that my character looks totally different to everyone else she meets, which is ok if she’s meant to be in some far flung locale, but in her own city? At her family dinner table? Fallout 3 changed your father’s appearance based on the face you made for your character, so it’s not like they couldn’t have done it.

  2. WorldMaker says:

    Interesting, I recall a good balance of POC in Mass Effect, as well. (Heck, the coolest NPC in the game, IMO, is a POC.) I think that it does say a lot about DAO’s writers/artists that they fell back to the Tolkien-fantasy euro-centric universe, all the while trying to tell a tale of racism with regards to Tolkien races of elves/dwarves.

  3. Seth says:

    As a man of mocha pigmentation, this is something I run into in every RPG I play; it’s worse in JRPGs where individuals of pigmentation are often ridiculous caricatures if they exist at all (and are rarely available as a selection option for one’s own character). I do tend to default to creating a character whose skin tone, at least, resembles mine when playing a game like KotOR or NWN. I don’t when it’s an MMO or party-based RPG because, like you, I have a stable of go-to characters I create and few of them are actually black/tan/etc (one is gray).

    On the whole, though, I place more value in game on NOT facing issues of skin tone than necessarily running into folks of different pigmentation. To get a little fantasy-focused, this tends to be because I don’t think humans are all that hot shit. In a world rife with elves, dwarves, orcs, and dragons, the idea that the human race lacks a world-spanning empire which would result in myriad racial distinctions actually makes MORE sense to me than a “multicultural” human representation. I haven’t had the pleasure of playing Dragon Age yet and don’t know the particular story there, but I’ve ingested so much fantasy over the years that I apply a sort of blank fantastic template to the experience. If all the humans in a campaign are nordic-european in appearance, I just assume that some other race is rocking the jungles and keeping them from attaining a natural pigmentation deeper than swarthy.

    As I said, on the whole I prefer the idea of racial distinction being on the level of “Your ears are pointed and he has tusks, so that’s why we’re different,” rather than skin tone. Which may be part of why I’ve never liked Drow.

  4. Sparky says:

    This was something I was looking for as well, mostly because it became apparent very early that the people of Thedas love segregation as a solution to their problems. Starting as male city elf, I ran into a speaking person of color early (an elf who’s a servant at the Arl’s estate and sneaks you in), but do not recall encountering any speaking ones since.

    It’s very disappointing. Even if your fiction is meant to use Ferelden as a stand-in for medieval Britain, there’s no reason this must hold true for the surrounding principalities, which contribute several playable characters to the game. The world design could easily have been adapted to include at least some. Moreover, having a population of humans that has no discrimination among our “races” would make the segregation of elves, mages, etc. more pointed. Nor would it be out of line with Dragon Age‘s supposed history of literally having a world-spanning human empire (sorry, Seth). And, as Kateri mentioned, the failure to adapt the parents’ appearance to the player’s is just plain bad game design, period. Either force the player into a single look or alter the parents to match — this is the worst possible compromise.

  5. danb says:

    To jump off from what Seth said, I find that fantasy mythoi tend to group humans together as one “race,” as biologists would. They can then create their own conflicts (e.g., humans hate elves) to stand in for real-world racial tensions, perhaps because they’d prefer to address sensitive issues obliquely.

    Consider Harry Potter. There are students of various races at Hogwarts, but that fact is only mentioned in passing; certainly it doesn’t ever cause any strife. Meanwhile, the conflict between wizards and non-wizards comes complete with hate crimes, attempted ethnic cleansing, and offensive language.

    In any case, I agree that Dragon Age has a pretty ham-fisted treatment of race. Kateri’s idea of changing your family’s appearance based on your choices in the character creator would have been an elegant solution.

  6. direfish says:

    It seems like there’s more to it than just substituting fantasy speciesism for racism. So far in my playthrough there’s plenty of not-actually-Englishmen humans hating not-actually-Frenchman humans and even hiring not-actually-Spanish humans (and elves) to kill them. Plenty of inter-human racism (or i guess ethnic discrimination) to be had.

    The dissonance between being able to make a person of color PC and then not see anyone else looking like that in the entire game seems like a conflict between game design and storytelling. The player gets to make his/her own character, and will presumably want to look like any racial group from real life. Failing to include at least half-cocked ethnic diversity would probably upset players.

    On the other hand, Dragon Age is supposed to be the end-all traditional Western hack ‘n slash RPG, and so takes place in a world that’s pretty much Western Europe circa 1100. I think that Bioware had to choose between compromising their storytelling and intentionally limiting the flexibility (such as it is) of that character creator.

    Not that limiting the creator would necessarily be a bad thing. A lot of people mentioned Fallout 3’s adaptable Dad as a way of dealing with the ethnicity issue, and that’s an excellent example of how to do it realistically without compromising the player’s choice (leaving out, for example, how it is that only your dwarf noble house has dark skin, or whatever).

    Another way they could have done it is the Fable II method, where the PCs basically stuck with a white Anglo-Saxon whose appearance changes based on gameplay choices. There is exactly one NPC of color, who is explicitly stated to be from somewhere far away and more civilized. This favors the setting over player choice, but to my mind at least not in a way that’s offensive.

    There are advantages and flaws with both way of doing things, but I do think it’s better to pick one or the other and stick with it than to sit on the halfway point as Dragon Age seems to.

    And for the record, I’m a passing quadroon. My experience of having a family that by and large doesn’t look much like me is that nobody ever asks, but they probably do a lot of wondering. Given how dark the Dragon Age setting is, odds are good that a PC of color probably has a widely-travelled, not especially faithful recent ancestor nobody talks about. :)

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