Dragon Age’s post-racial (high) fantasy

“Humans are the dominant race of Thedas,” reads one of the many loading screens that accompany the lengthy transitions from region to region in BioWare’s 2014 mega-RPG, Dragon Age: Inquisition. There, in plain sight, lies one of the great and largely unexamined tropes of high fantasy (and, for that matter, science fiction): race is not a question of the color of one’s skin, but a product of one’s species.

It’s not fair, of course, to pick on BioWare for reproducing a convention found across popular high fantasy games, novels, and movies. And, to their credit, BioWare has been a leader (at least among major studios) in including characters who represent groups that have historically been left out of mainstream fantasy: Dorian and Sera resist heteronormative solipsism, while the sex-positive Vivienne, refreshingly, won’t simply sit around waiting for the Inquisitor’s erotic gaze to fall on her.

Yet, in many ways, Dragon Age’s progressive sexual politics do not extend to the game’s depiction of race. Though lead designer Mike Laidlaw touted in numerous interviews Dragon Age’s forward-thinking approach to race––in a 2013 interview, he said “We want [race] to have a significant impact on the player’s experience”––without the species-as-race trope, the color of the character’s skins matters only for the sake of appearances.

To be sure, inclusion is better than exclusion (which until fairly recently had been the norm in mainstream fantasy and science fiction), but inclusion for its own sake is largely a hollow gesture. If we believe that race matters, as we should, it’s because it has real consequences for real people’s lived experiences. Race, like gender, has a lot more to do with its social construction than its biological bases, and so there is no inherent contradiction that in the world of Dragon Age, “race” is understood as a quality that relates to a character’s species and not the color of his or her skin. And, in this sense, Bioware does make “race” matter. Rolling an elf, human, or dwarf will have significant consequences for the player’s character and his or her experience of Thedas.

What would it be like to live in a world where both species and skin mattered as race?

Yet, to borrow Jesper Juul’s resonant phrase, in the “half-real” experience of the player, we find ourselves caught between the construction of race in the digital imaginaire of Thedas and how race functions out here in the “real” world. Yes, we recognize that Vivienne is human and Varric is a dwarf; we simultaneously recognize that she is black and he is white. Yet only one of those distinctions has any perceptible effect on these characters: each will readily offer up their experiences as a human or a dwarf, but Vivienne never comments on her blackness (at least not in my two playthroughs), nor will Varric offer any maunderings on his whiteness.

It’s the nature of fiction that “real-world” issues are explored through metaphor––perhaps George Orwell’s Animal Farm is a telling example here. Yet Animal Farm’s efficacy as a form of critique lies in its novelty. Perhaps there was a time when species-as-race would have inspired critical thinking by virtue of its unexpectedness. Yet species-as-race has long since passed from novelty to convention, and now, to hackneyed trope. Name a few fantasy or science fiction games where phenotypical race matters as much for a character’s experience as species does.

When it comes to representation, difference itself, or even the recognition of difference, was never really the issue––it’s what the recognition of difference allowed the empowered to do to maintain their hegemony, a tactic usually played out in the cultural industry. The inclusion of characters whose stories have historically been left out of mainstream science fiction and high fantasy was itself progressive at one point; yet it is a condition of the progressive that it is always being renewed. Without any sense that race, as it is constructed and experienced in the “real world,” matters for anything beyond character customization, Dragon Age’s politics are little more than a post-racial (high) fantasy.

What would a science fiction or high fantasy game that took (more) seriously the question of race look like? Perhaps Dragon Age: Inquisition itself can provide a clue. Kotaku’s Mike Rougeau noted that in his own playthrough of Dragon Age: Inquisition that his character’s perfect match was homosexual Dorian, and that his vicariously gay experience helped him empathize with the experience of being gay. Sexuality, here, is not a superficial choice made in character customization, but an ongoing, lived performance that touches the lives of both the player character and non-player characters. What would it be like to live in a world where both species and skin mattered as race? How would the two inflect each other? How would an intersectional interplay between race and species affect the Inquisitor’s experience of a life in Thedas? For now, it’s only an open question, but one worth thinking about—if only as a flight of fantasy.