This is sort of a tangential response to John Scalzi’s “Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting. Good article; you should read it… and the comments. Yeah, I know, I usually say don’t read the comments. But I think they’re illuminating, if frustrating, in this case. If you’re not a straight white male, it’s a good idea to understand how even the most liberal of them think. If you are a straight white male, Scalzi’s talking to you; listen.
I’ve been playing the hell out of Dragon Age and Dragon Age 2 on the Xbox 360 lately. This is partly because life’s been busy and killing electronic monsters and assholes is great stress relief. More than that, though, these are just incredibly good games. I’ve been something of a snob where it comes to RPGs in the past, preferring Japanese over Western-made RPGs because the Western ones usually sucked on the criteria I care most about: characterization and plot. I suspect Western eRPGs were originally made to emulate the fun of playing tabletop RPGs, within which nonlinearity, customization, and identification (“you are the character!”) are the main goal. In tabletop games, players are expected to provide most of the energy for plot and characterization themselves. Since 99% of the Western games I’ve played up ’til now have made it very clear I’m not the character — if I’m lucky, I might get to play as a white woman — the identification component has never been much of a draw for me. And as someone who spends her professional life churning out worldbuilding, plot, and characterization every day… well, I’d just rather sit back and let someone else do the heavy lifting when I’m trying to relax. Fortunately the DA games break the Western RPG mold in some really nice ways.
The “identification” component is still a problem in the DA games, because the best I could do for trying to assemble a character who looked like me was a sort of burnt-sienna-skinned woman with naturally straight hair. It’s frustrating that I couldn’t be black unless I somehow assumed that some kind of magic hair-straightening process existed, and every brown person used it. (I suppose it’s not a far stretch from dragons to sodium hydroxide. ::sigh::) Still, Bioware tried, which is more than most game companies have done, and they did it on more than a superficial level. I was thrilled to see that my DA2 character’s whole family turned brown along with her, and that there was one other playable character at the dark end of the spectrum*. There were also lots of characters of color in the background — not as many as I would’ve expected in DA2, which takes place in a port city; in our own world, port cities have historically been very heterogenous — but enough to have a real presence. That made it clear the dark skin option wasn’t just an afterthought.
I also liked the fact that I didn’t have to create a character like me, if I didn’t want to. I could be several flavors of white, which wouldn’t exactly be a novelty — but somehow it feels better when it’s a choice. I could be vaguely Asian or Middle Eastern; both of these options had the same limitations as the vaguely black model, but the option was there. I could be male or female. Better still, both games incorporated relationships with other characters as a game mechanic. I could be nice; I could be an asshole. I could pursue a romantic relationship or be “just friends” with everyone; I could have a completely non-sexual romance or burn up the bedrolls every time we hit camp. If I chose sex, I could settle down monogamously or jump every playable character in the game. (With frustrating exceptions. I can’t be the only one who thought Varrick was hot.** Le sigh.) And much has been made of how players can pursue these romances regardless of their own sexual orientation, or the other characters’ gender. Hell, that’s what ultimately made me give these games a try.
So at this point I’ve played as a vaguely black female rogue, a vaguely brown male mage, a vaguely black female elf warrior, and — in my most recent playthrough — a white guy. (Ah, what the hell.) I’ve romanced men as a woman, men as a man, and women as a woman; I’m currently debating whether I feel like making my white guy romance a woman, but since that would feel like every other game I’ve played ever I think I’ll stick to the men. Or maybe I’ll just skip the romances altogether this time around.
All these options have a real, meaningful impact on how the game’s story unfurls. Drive away a character by being carelessly rude, and a life-saving endgame option might not appear. Butter up the wrong woman and suddenly you’re embroiled in an interspecies war. And all along the way, other characters’ reactions to you are highly colored by what you are, not just your choices. Mages are second-class citizens in this world, so if you’re a mage, you can never become king/queen even after you save the world — and if you try, you might eventually be imprisoned or lynched. If you’re an elf — another maligned group — every merchant will assume you’re penniless; society ladies will clutch their pearls if you pass too near; and you’re doomed to a life of scorn and oppression no matter how much money and glory you accumulate. If you’re a refugee from a nation that was recently devastated by war, you can immigrate to a safer city… where you have no rights, everyone preys on you, and if you don’t do every dirty job you can find, you’ll starve or be sold to slavers. If you’re a man, serving in the priesthood is off-limits to you, though it’s clear this society is fundamentally patriarchial. If you’re a noble, you’re bound by a rigid set of social rules that you cannot violate without potentially losing everything.
So basically, the DA creators have had the sense to acknowledge that the non-optional demographics of a person’s background — her gender, her race, the class into which she was born, her sexual orientation — have as much of an impact on her life as her choices. Basically, privilege and oppression are built in as game mechanics. I can’t remember the last time I saw a game that so openly acknowledged the impact of privilege. Lots of games feature characters who have to deal with the consequences of being rich or poor, a privileged race or an oppressed one, but this is usually a linear, superficial thing. The title character in Nier, for example, is a poor single father who’s probably too old for the mercenary life (he looks about 50, but via the miracle of Japanese game traditions he’s probably only 30), but he keeps at it because otherwise his sick daughter will starve. His poverty is simply a motivation. No one refuses to hire him because they think poor people are lazy. He meets a well-dressed, well-groomed young man who lives in a mansion at one point, and the kid doesn’t snub him for being dirty and shirtless. (In fact the kid falls in love with him but that’s a digression.) His age and race and class don’t mean anything, even though in real life they would. So even though I love Nier — great music, fascinating and original world — I like the DA games better. Even in a fantasy world, realism has its place.
I’ve seen a lot of discussion in the SFF writing world about how to write “the other” — i.e., a character of a drastically different background from the writer’s own. It’s generally people of privileged backgrounds asking the question, because let’s face it: if you’re not a straight white able-bodied (etc.) male, you pretty much know how to write those guys already because that’s most of what’s out there. So right now I’m speaking to the white people. One technique that gets tossed around in these discussions is what I call the “Just Paint ‘Em Brown” technique: basically just write the non-white character the same as a white one, but mention somewhere in the text, briefly, that she’s not white. Lots of well-known SFF writers — Heinlein in Starship Troopers, Clarke in Childhood’s End, Card in Ender’s Game — have employed this technique. I’ve seen some books mention a character’s non-whiteness only as a belated “surprise” to the reader (near the end of the book in the Heinlein example). The idea, I guess, is that the reader will form impressions of the character sans racialized assumptions, and therefore still feel positively about the character even after he’s revealed to be one of “them.”
This technique is crap. For one thing, the reader does form racialized assumptions about the character; the assumption is just that he’s white. For another, the whole thing treats race as the punchline of a joke. A writer who does this doesn’t need to make any effort (e.g. researching history, meeting people, learning about social systems) to create verisimilitude between the character and the worldbuilding. The writer just writes the character as white, then “paints” him brown with a few words. Worse, this technique not only assumes but supports the reader’s racism. Characters of color are assumed to be so unacceptable to white readers that they cannot be named as such from the outset (even though in a visual medium or real life that’s practically the first thing most people would notice) without making the book unreadable. CoCs can be “tolerated”, though, if a) their race is treated like an afterthought, because b) they read like white people the rest of the time.
There’s nothing challenging about pulling this stunt. It’s lazy characterization on the writer’s part and lazy engagement on the reader’s part. A black person is not a white person painted brown, a woman is not a man with tits, and identity isn’t an afterthought or a trick. So why the hell do so many writers think this technique is a great idea?
(Rhetorical question. I know why.)
Better to do things the DA way: acknowledge the ways in which what we are affects what we can do — and how easy it is to do those things, and who we’ll get to do them with. Treat identity like something real, not a gimmick. Understand how the systems built around identity — many flavors of bigotry and privilege, socioeconomics, even science and history — impact every aspect of life from careers to relationships to survival, and don’t tiptoe around this reality. Your story will thank you for it. Your readers — all of them — will, too.
In the meantime, I guess I’ll get back to seducing Anders. I hate the guy, but what the hell; it’s just a game.
ETA for clarity. Wrote this pre-coffee, ya’ll.
* Although I had some issues with Isabela’s characterization. Woman who loves sex and does it lots, yay! Woman who does lots of sex being the only brown woman in the game? Argh, stereotype. (Still slept with her, tho’.)
** and the Arishok oh God I can’t believe I said that