Inclusion Without Color
Back in February, in the article Black, White, and Jade: Race in Video Games, and earlier in Ethnic Depictions in Video Games, I talked about a need for video games to become more inclusive with their characters, to depict the same diversity we see in the real world in these imaginary ones. Plainly, this translates to having more non-white characters in video games, particularly as the main characters. And furthermore to have those characters exist outside of stereotypes. With the exception of games built from pre-existing properties featuring characters of color – for example, Shadowman – there are very few games with non-white human protagonists.
In Black, White, and Jade, I mention that it is not merely about skin color or other physical features, but also about culture, and about experience. Regarding so-called “black” characters, I said:
What would be required for a character to be considered “black”? Appearance could be one qualifier … dubious due to … the extreme diversity to be found within such a vague and subjective category.
The “black experience” could be another qualifier, as in a situation where a character is forced to face certain indignities [as a result of her ethnicity].
As it turned out, I wouldn’t have to wait too long, and I may even have been overdue in giving proper credit. Bioware, a Canadian company that has risen to high acclaim in recent years for producing consecutive triple-A quality games, also deserves credit for being a trailblazer when it comes to inclusion. Back in 2005, Bioware released a game called Jade Empire, one that took place in a fictional world, but that borrowed extensively – and authentically – from Chinese culture, history, and mythology. Unlike other Asian-inspired properties that feature white protagonists – the list here is endless, from Kung-Fu with David Carradine to M. Night Shymalan’s whitewashing of Avatar: The Last Airbender – Jade Empire featured an entire cast of Asianesque characters – “esque” only for the fact that the game does not take place on Earth. It was evident in every detail of the game that Bioware had done their research.
2007 saw the release of Mass Effect, a space opera featuring an ethnically ambiguous main character – Commander Shepherd – who players had the option of customizing to resemble a variety of different ethnicities, and to be male or female. The majority of the crew were aliens, with special mention to Tali’Zorah nar Rayya (pictured right), whose name, appearance (clearly inspired by Muslim hijab), and accent invoked the Middle East.
Mass Effect challenged norms of sex and sexuality as well, with the possibility for a “lesbian” sexual encounter, and a race of aliens – Asari – who invoked human femininity, but in actuality had no separate sexes or genders. I quoted lesbian because the aforementioned encounter could happen between a female Commander Shepherd and Liara – a member of an alien race called the Asari, who all appear “feminine”, but who explained that she was not female. In this, the Asari might also be the closest we’ve come – or will come for a long time – to transgendered characters.
Finally, in 2009, Bioware released Dragon Age: Origins, a high fantasy game in a world populated by the usual suspects – humans, elves, and dwarves. At a glance, DA:O would appear to be a step backwards for the company in terms of inclusion, because there is nary a dark-skinned or almond-eyed character to be found in the world. Every character – with perhaps the exception of a random NPC or two – had European features. It could possibly be argued that one character, Sten (pictured right), for his cornrows hairstyle, was intended to invoke an African-American, but that would be a stretch, due to his otherwise European features.
There was also the character creation system, which again – like Mass Effect – allowed players to create a character inspired by a variety of ethnicities (my character is pictured left). The only trouble here is that regardless of the look of the character, the families of the character remain constant – and they invariably have a European countenance. Different world, different rules of genes and inheritance – I was willing to accept some creative liberties, although they could’ve taken a hint from Fallout 3, which demonstrated well how a character’s family can be changed to match the player’s ethnicity choices during character creation.
Thankfully, Bioware did not even attempt – or need – to rely on the weak “hair connection” of Sten, nor the minor concessions of the character creation system. They also didn’t simply rest on the laurels of creating two inclusive games for the mainstream years prior. Above I talked about how a character’s ethnic inspiration could come through in ways other than appearance – namely by invoking real human experiences. This is exactly what Bioware did in Dragon Age: Origins – and much like we saw with Jade Empire, there was clearly a fair amount of research done, or information drawn from a diverse or well-informed design team.
Without flinching from the possibility of controversy, Bioware boldly modeled the Elves of Dragon Age after the American “black experience” – the very thing I suggested back in February. The Elves, thousands of years before the events of the game, possessed a rich and vibrant culture until they were conquered and enslaved by a human empire. Fast forward to the present and slavery has ostensibly come to an end – although still practiced in some pockets of the world – but most Elves, living in cities, are confined, by a legacy of oppression, to what are called “alienages” or slums. Their social status as second-class citizens follows even those that leave the alienages, as happens if you play an Elven main character, with humans marveling at an elf that actually made something of him or herself.
There are other elves, too, not confined to the city slums, who live nomadic lives and remain extremely wary of humans. They also look down on their city brethren, referring to them as “flat-ears”, and thinking them weak for not casting off the yoke of human oppression. The parallels between the elven experience and the black experience is not at all superficial, with the game asking some tough philosophical and moral questions around these issues of race and racism.
For example, during a dialogue between my city-elf main character and one of the nomadic elves, she asked me whether or not I thought that humans were generally sorry for their history of enslaving the elves – a question that invokes the idea of “white guilt”. The potential answers to these questions were even more telling of the care that Bioware put into building this narrative. I had the option of saying “It depends, all humans are different.” – the enlightened response, for sure – or “I don’t think most of them (humans) think about it.” – invoking the all too common attitude of Americans today of dismissing slavery and its legacy to history, as something not necessary to consider in present day.
The moral question comes when you encounter an elf who long ago was wronged by humans – they killed his son and raped his daughter, who upon realizing she was pregnant, committed suicide. This fellow – through means I’ll leave for you to discover – continues to punish the humans for what they did way back in the past. As an intervening party, you need to decide whether or not he is justified in his actions, or whether it is time for him to let go of his hatred. In this we see the other side of the black experience – how should African-Americans respond to today’s white Americans – with hatred or resentment for crimes of the past, or with the possibility of forgiveness? This is a question left for every African-American to answer, not just once, but sometimes on a daily basis – and in Dragon Age, the player is left with a number of different ways to address the vengeful elf.
The Elven analogy is only one of many ways that Dragon Age demonstrates inclusion, albeit probably the richest example. There are also the Dwarves, who use a caste system clearly inspired by India – including the so-called “Castleless”, corresponding to India’s “untouchables”. There are also possibilities for gay and lesbian sexual encounters, depending upon the gender of your main character and the choices you make in relationships with your teammates. This marks the first time ever in a video game that we see an illustrated sexual encounter between two male characters, as two women had at least been done before in Mass Effect and in Fear Effect: Retro Helix back in 2000.
Going further than that, the male companion in question – Zevran (pictured right) – was not a stereotype of the gay male, but a very complex character with a rather Ancient Greek sensibilities about sexuality – partnering with whoever he finds beautiful, regardless of gender. And unlike many depictions of “gay” male characters in media, Zevran was not defined by his sexuality, but more by his life as an assassin.
In spite of the near unanimously European-inspired cast of characters, Dragon Age: Origins demonstrates inclusion of diverse experiences in ways that no game has ever done before. Bioware has again established themselves as a trailblazer in an industry that so far has shied away from challenging the status quo or tackling tough issues.
One can only hope that in addition to blazing a trail, Bioware has also set a trend, with other developers soon to be nipping at their heels in trying to be more inclusive.