Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Fantasy Cyborg: Reading Passing Narratives in Dragon Age

Spoiler Warning for the Dragon Age Series.

Topics about social minorities in video games typically manifest in the relationship humans have with other sentient characters of their world or universe. Games often present humanity as space-warfaring Americans or in a setting reminiscent of feudal England, making the “Other” someone of a different species or robot of some sort, since contemporary minority rights don’t exist in these situations. Games haven’t produced a sizable amount of characters that make their cross-species (like Half-Elves) or cyborg identity important to the theme or action, effectively cutting out a large portion of already scant analysis on multi-racial and transgender politics in games.

Passing narratives, the experiences of a multi-racial or transgender character in relation to the identity society views them as, in media appear in LeiLani Nishime’s “The Mulatto Cyborg,” citing cyborg characters from films as expressions of anxiety over miscegenation. While the popular imagining of cyborgs are part human, part machine beings, the mages from the Dragon Age series act as a high fantasy response as part human, part spirit characters. Mages can receive equal treatment if their mage status is unknown; however, once revealed, they are treated with skepticism, good or evil, a practitioner of blood magic or not. Most of the mages that travel with the Warden and Hawke live passing as human while managing their cyborg identity. Using Nishime’s “The Good, the Bad, and the Mulatto Cyborg” structure, Dragon Age 2 shows a successful beginning of representing multi-racial and transgender politics.

The Good Mage

Elsa, Knight-Commander Meredith's assistant.

The Good Cyborg is the tragic figure trying to become more (white, cisgender ) human, but still outcast by society. In Dragon Age: Origins, the player encounters Tranquil mages, who celebrate their disconnection from the Fade even though it came at a high cost. Many mages volunteer for the Rite of Tranquility, as a self-loathing mage can be convinced to do in the mage starting section of Origins. The plight of the good mage rests in the essentialism of society; once born outside of the standard, one could never hope to achieve the status of a “true” human. The Tranquil are often put into positions of servitude and practical application that mages are absent from, now seen as acceptable and safe to interact with other humans. The player’s interaction with one such Tranquil shopkeeper broaches the topic of humanity, implying the general assumption of the Tranquil being less than human and mage. As Nishime puts it, the Good Cyborgs are nostalgic for something that never existed for them, and can only occur inside their own minds. It is telling that taking away the mage’s connection with the Fade and spirits takes away what is mage-like about them, and leaves something other than human as a result.

The Bad Mage

Jowan using blood magic, to the surprise of everyone involved.

These mages confirm the suspicions and accusations made against their kind by the Templars and Chantry. How the player encounters them is telling: the main character battles demons and blood mages, many in scenes of destruction and rebellion. Dramatic cut scenes depict the use of blood magic and demonic transformation than any other type of magic, mirroring the unmasking of the Bad Cyborgs in films like The Terminator. They embrace dealings with demons and any grab at power that their magic affords them. Rejecting humanity by attacking it, Bad Mages resonate with the fears our culture has of identities that defy binaries. Dragon Age 2’s Meredith plays on this anxiety by highlighting the mages’ ability to hide amongst the populace and strike down the everyday person, very similar rhetoric to opponents of minority rights. This also places value in being purely human, with anything different on the path to taint that purity. Nishime observes the only way towards redemption for Bad Cyborgs and Mages alike: total sacrifice and submission. Meredith acknowledges this sacrifice near the end of the game, but forces it on the mages, seeing the “people” of Kirkwall the real victims, not the mages. Juxtaposed in this manner, mages are second-class humans without all the rights that come along with being human, even if they are well behaved.

The Mixed/Trans Mage

Anders overtaken by Justice.

Instead of looking to pass as completely human or of the Fade, the Mixed/Trans Mage embraces their hybridity and shapes their circumstances to fit their identity. These characters disturb and confuse onlookers by occupying a space that lies outside of the binary of good and bad. The progressive tone of the Dragon Age series arises from the many Mixed/Trans Mages the player can encounter, namely Morrigan, Anders, and Merrill. Mage-skeptical characters, such as Alistair, Fenris, and Aveline, are bewildered each time they attempt to apply the Good/Bad Mage mentality on them only to hear a rebuttal traversing into a gray area. Much like multi-racial and transgender people in reality, these characters manage their lives under the pressure to pass as standard while typecast as the bad cyborg and avoiding the fate of the good one. They often talk to the player as a teacher or from an enlightened viewpoint of someone who sees the social construction of being human and a mage. What is confusing to both Dragon Age’s society and our own is the perceived hubris of the Mixed/Trans Mage; why are these people being so loud? Who are they to disrupt the natural order of things? Why do we have to change for them? The struggles Anders and Merrill fight to achieve their identity-driven objectives while negotiating respect with their party members and evading Templars successfully speak to passing and identity issues for multi-racial and transgender people.

Identifying the Mixed/Trans Cyborg/Mage amongst the numerous Good and Bad ones serves as a tool for not only reading multi-racial and transgender topics in games, but also creating successful minority characters overall. Development teams need more encouragement to include these identities and their issues in games; revealing and discussing passing narratives will lend material for more diverse game characters.


  1. Interesting post! I'll argue against your use of "trans" to label the third category, however: I don't see trans people as embracing hybridity, I see trans people (in general) as embracing their psychological gender, which doesn't match their biological gender. If I wanted a gender-identity term that speaks to hybridity, I might go with hermaphroditic; or I might switch to a metaphor of sexuality and go with bi. But trans doesn't feel right to me in the context of your article, if I'm understanding you correctly.

  2. Thanks so much :) A little bit on the transgender part: Being transgender doesn't mean the ultimate goal to is eventually assimilate completely as the other sex and leave behind every bit of your identity. Even if you're someone who transitions fully, your experience of being transgender doesn't just leave you. As well, most people who are transgender reveal their transgender status to at least their partner, as it is a large part of their life and identity as an individual. A cisgender woman and a transgender woman are two very different people because of the experiences they have with gender identity.

    Hermaphrodite is a rather dated term, you might be thinking of 'intersexed,' which, you're right, would also apply to my article.

    I'd have to think more on it, but bisexuality is tricky, especially because of how our culture treats it. We have a different view on a woman being bisexual than a man being bisexual. This would more closely go for men's bisexuality, or a bisexual's relationship with the LGBT community and heternormative culture.

    If you're interested, you can look into 'passing' issues for transgender people, or we can have a conversation about it :) I did stretch Nishime's analysis from multi-racial to include transgender, but I feel passing narratives speak to this group, though you can't lump multi-racial and transgender in all instances.

  3. Yes, of course you're right, intersexed is much better than hermaphroditic, thanks for the correction. Re trans: I'm not arguing that being trans doesn't strongly affect your identity, but I suspect that, for most trans people, it comes out in a form that I wouldn't describe as embracing hybridity. Having said that, maybe I'm focusing too much on the word "hybridity", certainly trans brings up issues of passing very strongly. (And it's not like I've got tons of trans friends, I could easily be misrepresenting that community.)

    I can certainly agree with the statement that bisexuality is tricky. :-) And what you said about bisexuals' relationship with LGBT and heteronormative cultures is mainly what I was thinking of, yeah.

  4. I think I've been assuming something that might not be very obvious in my article. I appreciate the comments, making me think through the bumps in my argument :)

    I definitely mean to use the idea of hybridity, but the way I put it might have made it seem I meant the transgender individual is blending man and woman, when in my head I'm thinking being transgender vs adopting a 'recognized' gender (man or woman). I'm realizing that's not clear in my article; the trans cyborg would be blending a transgender identity and a man/woman one.

    I tried to tackle many things that probably deserve a longer, more developed length. Will have to revisit this with more evidence and outside the scope of DA.

  5. Great post.

    I felt DA2 really missed an opportunity in that the mage protagonist did not feel different than the other two. By which I mean there was a lot of talk about the discrimination against mages, but none of it really affected mageHawke. By not letting the player face, and respond, to the same pressures facing Bethany, Anders, and Merrill, the themes discussed in this post were not addressed as fully as they could have been.

  6. I completely agree wsn. There's two ways to take that, the first being what you said, and the player is missing the opportunity to empathize, or serve as an ally narrative. I would have liked it if they emphasized the cyborg identity as a mage and the ally narrative as a warrior or rogue to give narrative meaning to your choice. It is similar to Denis Farr's article at The Border House, where Hawke was immune and looking in on the situation, which creates dissonance as Bethany goes through a lot, but when Hawke's a mage, they do not. It shows that even DAII still has aspects to make the player feel super important even when it's at odds with the culture of the game.

    Thanks for reading though!

  7. I think the problem stems from the fact they designed the story around these themes, but the gameplay around min-max combat.

    Do you have a link to that post? I read one by dee of AzerothMe at the Borderhouse that makes a similar point. I couldn't find the article by Denis Farr, but then my search skills aren't always great.

    Still, my disappointment in this regard stems from how good they did. Here's hoping they'll get it even better next time.

    BTW - the Lewd-onarrative Dissonance podcast was great.

  8. Thanks, I'm loving the oppertunity to make podcasts. Glad people are enjoying them!

    Here's the link to Denis's article, it has spoilers about Half-Life 2, just as a warning:

    I agree that it's gradual steps forward. I think BioWare only heard their criticisms and not the things they did correctly, do hopefully they go even stronger into DAIII!