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Dragon Age: Inquisition & Social Justice

So, I’ve been playing Dragon Age: Inquisition. It’s not the newest game on the block and I’d been ignoring it studiously for a long time, but then a friend of mine wouldn’t shut up about it and I finally decided I might as well try it. I almost fell off the wagon, as it were, but then some stuff happened and I got hooked. This post is going to be a big rant about social justice and Dragon Age: Inquisition. There’s a ton of spoilers to follow and I’m also not going to explain all of the context, so if you haven’t played the game, you might want to skip this unless you just love following links to Wikia pages. You’ve been warned.

A while ago, I decided that if a video game has a character creation mechanic, I would create a woman of color. Long before that, I’d decided to always create a woman and I’d noticed it changed the way I perceived the games I was playing and the (lack of) diversity in the cast and the way women were portrayed. I wanted to keep doing that, but also add in improved racial awareness. Therefore, I knew I was going to play, in this case, a black lady.

Then I had to pick a species (and background, but that’s beside the point, just now) and after a bit of thinking and talking with my friend, I decided to play as a Dalish elf. I don’t remember what, exactly, made me decide this, but early on in the game, I decided she wasn’t just Dalish, but she was Super Dalish. She believed strongly in Dalish culture and the Dalish philosophy. They have a saying: “We are the Dalish: keepers of the lost lore, walkers of the lonely path. We are the last of the Elvhenan, and never again shall we submit.” Emphasis mine.

So as part of her personal identity, she wants to improve the lot of elves everywhere (not just the Dalish), and try to undo the oppression many of her people suffer at the hands of humans across Thedas. Having decided this, I tried to get into that mindset when making decisions in the game. Basically: Assume anything Dalish is right until proven otherwise and distrust humans, but especially their institutions.

It turns out, this was a really good call on my part because so much of the game is about all the awful shit the humans (mostly the Orlesians) did to the Dalish elves. Some of the more gut-punchy examples:

  • You have to go to the Orlesian palace at Halamshiral to save the life of the empress. Halamshiral is built on the ruins of the capital of the most recent elven nation, which was ruined in a war that devastated the elven population and was instigated by the nation whose empress you’re meant to go save.
  • You go to a place called the Emerald Graves. It’s a beautiful, giant forest. See, the humans call their holy crusades Exalted Marches, and they did one against the elves, killing tons of them. There is a tree in the Emerald Graves for each elven warrior that fell to the Orlesians. It is a really big forest.

In the Exalted Plains (named after the above-mentioned Exalted March), some humans have taken refuge in an old elven fort. They are taking refuge from some undead. Which have risen because the humans are killing each other in such numbers. So they bar the doors and then, in panic, activate some ancient elven magical defense that they don’t fully understand.

At this point, I was done with humans. I thought, “Just. Stop. Everyone go home. This war thing is over. You are all so bad at life.” Meanwhile, 2 river valleys over, there’s a small band of Dalish and I thought, I should just send all the humans home and give the whole region back to the Dalish (it was originally promised to the elves by the human’s sort of jesus-analog, after all).

And then I realized something of actual importance to the real world. I’d previously intellectually understood people of color being fed up with white folks or genderqueer people being fed up with cis folks or, you know, various people being fed up with people like me by various degrees. Suddenly, though, I had empathy for people who say, “Kill all men,” or, “White people just stop,” or, “Ban cis people.”

Despite all our advantages (which we have gained via oppression, let’s be clear), we are still terrible at shit. The simplest example I can think of is black people looking at the musical artifacts produced by white people and seeing shitty, grainy photocopies of stuff they invented previously.

Now, I don’t want to say that my getting into the headspace of a fictional elven lady and learning about the fictional atrocities perpetrated against her people means I, like, Understand What It Means To Be Black or any shit. I’m saying that the interactive nature of the story telling in this game managed to communicate to me at least some amount, some pale shadow, perhaps, of this one aspect of being a member of some marginalized group interacting with the oppressor group in a world made by those oppressors. And I hope that this additional empathy can make me a better person and help me be less oppressive. Maybe it can help others, too.