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‘The Inevitable Patriarchy’
articles in english - Beiträge - Sonderausgabe "Play(his)story"

‘The Inevitable Patriarchy’

Abstract: In recent memory, whether Netflix Original, Blockbuster or Video Game, historical or historical adjacent fiction frequently finds itself facing ‘controversy’ for the inclusion of LGBTQ+ or ‘strong female characters’ on the notion that such inclusivity damages the verisimilitude and immersive properties of the fiction. Using the example of the Dragon Age series, this paper will address the diegetic inconsistencies of the world of Thedas relative to this notion of historical verisimilitude, and suggest an explanation for the inconsistencies that emerge and the persistence of the discourse at large.

Faux Verisimilitude and Naturalised Belief in Open Contradiction to Diegetic Reality in the Heteronormative Patriarchy of the Dragon Age Franchise

Where people of colour,1While this paper will focus specifically on the depictions of women and LGBTQ+ characters, it would be remiss to not at least mention how frequently these particular discourses intersect with similar discussions of race. queer people, women or other marginalized people appear depicted as characters in fantastical fictions, outcry is rarely far behind.2Cf. for example, Aguirre Quiroga: Forced Diversity’ in Movies is not a thing. 2022, or Todd: GamerGate and resistance to the diversification of gaming culture. 2015, for a breakdowns of examples of these outcries. While one might suspect a range of motives sparking such a reaction, the focus of this paper will be on a particular excuse that, especially in the realm of fantastical and other semi-historical fictions, frequently presents itself: The idea that inclusivity inherently clashes with authentic depictions of historical settings, that the sight of such characters would inherently be at odds with diegetic verisimilitude and would hinder immersion by infringing upon perceived realism.

The gaming sphere in particular is no stranger to this kind of suspect controversy, with players3For some (of unfortunately many) examples, one may consider the decidedly mixed social media (Twitter/Reddit et al.) responses to Tassi: Ghost of Tsushima 2’ has a clear hero in the waiting. 2020. And similar discussions or the events described in Plunkett: Idiots Fight to Keep a Medieval Game White. 2014. and sometimes even developers themselves4For a famous recent example, one only needs to look at the discourse surrounding Kingdom Come: Deliverance as outlined in Pfister: Why History in Digital Games matters. 2020, 60ff. arguing fervently that “Medieval Europe [and] fantasy as a genre […] are authentic as long as they are depicted as predominantly white, male and not queer”5Brandenburg: The Middle Ages of The Witcher 3. 2020, 215.. Similarly, while chronicling the early stages of the history of role-playing games, Gary Alan Fine asserts that “Medieval games are structured particularly for male characters, reflecting the contemporary view of the Middle Ages. […] [F]emale characters have little importance”.6Fine: Shared Fantasy. 1983. p. 65.

What all these arguments, if taken at face value at least, have in common is a core conceit of the medieval past7These patterns are by no means exclusive to the medieval past, but that is where the focus of this paper lies. as a monolith. A “mythic version of homogeneity”8Chu: The Inaccuracy Of “Historical Accuracy” In Gaming And Media. 2015. where action is firmly in the hands of straight, white, cis men, and anyone else is at best an object and at worst enemy or irritation. But history is oftentimes more complicated than that.

And contrary to that belief, contemporary research has no trouble acknowledging a spectrum of diversity in gender, sexuality and religion, as well as “entirely different ways of constructing ‘race’”9Ibid. across a variety of cultures. It has no difficulty finding women that lead men into battle10Blythe: Women in the Military. 2001. p. 248., or peasant Japanese daughters undertaking violent revenge11Taniguchi: Bushido and Revenge. 2010. and many more like them.

However, the primary concern of this paper is not to debate historical details, nor is it necessarily to observe the ideological implications of these assumptions on the past, which should by now be well documented. Rather, this paper wishes to observe the mechanics of this myth of homogeneity itself, and the significant pervasiveness it has developed. To outline that argument, the following sections will conduct a brief case study of a video game franchise that should, at first glance, not be of any concern in this context. After all, the Dragon Age franchise has been, depending on the speakers’ political leanings, praised12Baume.: Dorian of Dragon Age: Inquisition. 2015; Kane: How ‘Dragon Age: Inquisition’ Is Helping to Make a Better Future. 2015; Barnes: Why Dragon Age: Inquisition’s Transgender Character is So Important. 2022. for “celebrating our diversity and differences”13Statement made on Twitter by the Creative Director for the upcoming Dragon Age 4, John Epler. Cited as ‚Epler 01‘. or derided for this very inclusivity.14Article written as a direct response to John Epler’s Twitter thread, cited as ‘AngryGamer 01’.

Exceptional Women in Exceptional Boob-Plate

“What did you think I’d be?” asks a female Grey Warden when she is met with confusion. “Not a woman.”, her fellow recruit replies, bewildered by the presence of a woman at the Grey Warden camp in Ostegar during the beginning of Dragon Age: Origins.15Shortened for the remainder of the paper as Origins. And this is far from an isolated sentiment across the stories that the player gets to experience in the world of Thedas.

A player making their way through the franchise will find themselves confronted with no shortage of more or less overtly implied sexual violence and gendered injustice, especially as it pertains to the circle of Magi in Origins and Dragon Age II, and the treatment of elves in all three games. Although these occurrences are at the very least acts of diegetic ugliness, framed as to elicit repulsion and hostility towards the perpetrators, there is still a consistent undercurrent of gendered inequality permeating these stories.

A female Grey Warden in Origins has to justify or recuse herself not just towards her comrades during the “Joining” (where she remains the only female Warden for the bulk of Origins and one of precious few throughout the series), but to other NPCs as well.

In the ‘City Elf’ origin, a wedding is interrupted by human nobles prowling for victims. If the chosen player avatar is male, his spouse is forcibly taken, and he moves to her rescue, to his bride’s relief and gratitude. If the chosen player avatar is female, she herself is the one abducted. She manages to free herself, but her groom comes to her rescue nonetheless, and her partial independent success is met with surprise. Similarly, House Cousland, the family of the player avatar in the ‘human noble’ origin, is strictly organised along patriarchal lines. The father is the lord, handling politics and external affairs, the player character’s brother is the dedicated heir along a patrilineal line, while the mother oversees the household and dabbles in wedding planning.16While she does don an armour during the attack on the castle, that armour uses the same model as most of the leather armour in the game which leaves little to the imagination in terms of cleavage and much to be desired in terms of protection.

Indeed, much of what is shown of Thedas’ nobility follows in this style.

Anora, Queen of Ferelden, recently widowed in Origins, is depicted as politically savvy, competently handling court affairs and business decisions even before the death of her husband. She is smart, learned, and a touch conniving. Although she is ostensibly the queen, her reign is immediately threatened by a coup orchestrated by Arl Aemon to have the bastard son of the previous King installed, regardless of his recognition status and the Grey Warden laws that would prevent Alistair from ever holding any sort of political power, as Grey Wardens are not supposed to be enmeshed in political affairs. When the player is asked to determine who will be the ruler of Ferelden, Anora has little say in the matter and has already been framed as treacherous not only because of her traitorous father, but because she has unsuccessfully attempted to have the player and their allies arrested and tried for treason. Her depiction follows an old pattern in which the schemes and courtly machinations of women are often described and framed as more deceitful and treacherous than those of their male counterparts.17Cf. Blythe: Women in the Military. 2001. p. 248.

The empress of Orlais, Celene, is framed in a similar way. By the time the player gets to interact with her, she has already cultivated a reputation for schemes that rely on seduction, as evidenced by codex entries and letters from the DLC Return To Ostagar. When the player encounters her in Dragon Age: Inquisition18Shortened for the remainder of the paper as Inquisition., it is in the context of a ball full of schemes, and with the expressed intention of gathering leverage against Empress Celene as well as the two other contenders for the power behind the Orlesian throne: Gaspard, Celene’s cousin and an Orlesian duke, and Briala, an Elven woman and Celene’s former lover. Presenting both Celene and Briala as scheming frames them in the same light as Florianne, the antagonist of this section of the game, another woman attempting a coup; the player can either fight or arrest her. In this context, it bears mentioning that all the women vying for power are every bit as conniving and scheming as Anora earlier in the series. And indeed, the leverage that can be found to force these women into compliance with the Inquisitor’s goals relates directly to their (homo-)sexuality – Briala’s affair with the empress and a naked paramour chained up in Celene’s quarters respectively. Conversely, Duke Gaspard expresses open disdain for the schemes of the court – and the leverage to be gained against him, the fact that he has brought soldiers held close by in reserve, relates directly to his straight forward and martial persuasion.19This circumstance is made more significant as the player’s goal in this court is to find a reliable ally, and of the three potential partners, only Duke Gaspard is framed as someone dependable rather than treacherous and conniving.

Similarly, the only overtly matriarchal nation on the face of Thedas, the Kingdom of Rivain, is beset by its own problems. Unable to fend off numerous invaders and ravaged by the territorial and religious ambitions of its neighbours, the Kingdom is known for soft and liberal approaches to various diegetic conflicts, often with horrific results. Coincidentally, it is home to the darkest skinned humans in the setting. 20As the player never travels to Rivain, it remains a place, and a culture, hidden in codex entries.

The character of Isabela, first introduced in Origins as a permanent resident of the Denerim’s brothel and subsequently elevated to companion21Companions, in the Dragon Age series, are special characters designed to aid the player by providing additional fighting power and abilities. They can sometimes be romanced and might be thematically and/or narratively relevant to the plot. status in Dragon Age II, comes from Rivain and has nothing good to say about the place. When presented with a Rivaini talisman as a gift, she comments on the meaning of the etched pattern, claiming it is a fertility necklace; this encounter can lead the player to a fade-to-black sex scene with her. Her design is extremely sexualised: she wears tight leather thigh boots, a revealing tunic that barely covers her breasts and rear. The intended design communicates her sexual availability and sexual freedom. In fact, her very first encounter with the player during the events of Origins is framed by the promise of sex. Regardless of gender and prior commitments, Isabela can be a one-night stand once helped in defeating a group of bandits. Because of her sexual proclivity, she is routinely mocked as a whore and a “sluttern” by other companions in Dragon Age II, such as Aveline.

Aveline is introduced standing behind her wounded Templar husband, ready to support him. Once he dies, she picks up his shield and becomes typified by it. Aveline’s characterisation centres around protection: her tactics, taunts, and skill-tree are geared towards fulfilling the role of warrior and bulwark for the player. She is named after the Orlisian Ser Aveline, a woman knighted posthumously, her death serving as a catalyst to change Orlisian’s laws concerning women, as they were not allowed to participate in tournaments or be knights.22Worth noting that the personal guard of the Orlesian’s monarch is entirely composed of men, as it was established prior to the knighting of Ser Aveline. Amidst a cast of exceptional individuals, Aveline appears rather normal, lacking magical powers and special abilities. She is simply a woman that fights with sword and shield.

Another woman fighter who is treated similarly is the Seeker Cassandra who first appears in Dragon Age II and is mostly characterised by her relentless and ruthless search for the truth. Later, in Inquisition, as soon as the Inquisitor is established, she willingly relinquishes power to them, becoming their sword and shield. Like Aveline before her, Cassandra is typified as a strong fighter and warrior, but she quickly shows a hidden, more feminine side as she longs to be courted romantically and indulges in romance novels  – with both these indulgences, as well as her performative aggressiveness consistently played for humour.

Even magical enemies are not spared by the omnipresent gender stereotypes. The Darkspawn were created by the indiscriminate spreading of a magical plague, present in many different forms across the games. They are depicted almost exclusively as male bodied. The only Darkspawn that are explicitly gendered feminine are the Broodmothers – hulking incubators, literally unable to leave their brood chambers. Perpetual pregnancy and motherhood are their sole purpose in these armies of darkness. The horror of the Broodmothers is directly related to the spectre of sexual violence, of women being violated.

The demons, literal embodiments of sin or negative emotion, are equally strictly gendered. Demons of Pride, of Sloth or of Wrath are generally amorphous or bestial in their in-game models, but coded male in names and voices. Only the demons of Desire, their vice and power overtly sexual in nature, are coded feminine and possess bodies that are, in classical succubus fashion, visibly human enough to exhibit conventionally attractive characteristics. The only Desire demon to appear in the series who is not overtly sexualized, Inquisition’s Imshael, presents as masculine.

On the queer end of the spectrum, the character of Krem from Inquisition deserves particular mention. A trans masculine figure, voiced by a cis woman to the chagrin of some fans,23Croto: Dragon Age’ Contains Great Trans Character. 2014. Krem is loyally devoted to the Iron Bull,24So much so, that the player never even gets to see Krem unless they open their party to the Iron Bull, an avowed Qunari spy. and therefore the Qun – the one faction in the games that counts bio-determinism, of all things, as a core part of their ideology and theology. This incongruence is never addressed.25At first glance it might simply be thoughtless to place a trans character with a faction that draws strict distinctions between genders (cf Dragon Age II Codex Entry: The Ben-Hassrath) and who subject any unwilling to follow their assigned purpose to torture and (chemical) re-education. Since the game’s original release however, an association like this has come to read uncomfortably close to a number of transphobic narratives that have been pushed into the public eye. Additionally, Krem’s identity is allowed to be questioned by the Inquisitor, and so the act unwittingly mirrors discourse in which trans people are ‚required‘ to explain themselves to cis straight people. And although Krem is perhaps a more nuanced instance of trans representation compared to previous games in the series (Dragon Age II offered an elf in drag that accompanies a human noble mortified to be seen with her), he is still a minor character, relegated both formally and narratively to the fringe of Inquisition, hidden behind another character, easily missed if the player is so inclined.

Similarly, Zevran’s sexuality can be questioned by a male Grey Warden, and then downright rejected.26As there are no other examples in Origins of direct homophobia, it would appear that a male Grey Warden can be the only homophobe in Thedas. In fact, whenever a LGBTQ+ character appears, the player is allowed to ask probing questions, often resulting in a heteronormative affirmation: Zevran, in spite of his aggressively promiscuous bisexuality, is quick to assure the player character that he prefers women. Anders, of Dragon Age II, never mentions his bisexuality to a female Hawke.27While the majority of the romanceable companions in Dragon Age II are interested in whatever Gender the player chooses for their Hawke, Isabella and Anders specifically are known to be bisexual by virtue of their appearances in Origins. While Isabella is open about this, it will be considered of note that Anders is not, specifically and only when engaged by the player avatar in a heterosexual relationship. Regarding Dragon Age 2 and this topic, see Alan van Beek’s paper in this issue. Additionally, among the companions throughout the franchise, the more openly LGBTQ+ characters stick out as particularly unreliable and comparatively easily replaced. In Origins, both Zevran and Leliana, an assassin and a spy respectively, are the only characters that might attempt to assassinate the player if their interests and quests are not engaged with sufficiently. In Dragon Age II, the overly sexual Isabela is a thief directly responsible for the Qunari assault on Kirkwall, while Anders commits a terrorist attack to spark a bloody rebellion. In Inquisition, the mage Dorian is from the evil Tevinter Empire and hails from a family of slave owners – a fact he himself seems largely oblivious or apathetic towards –  while Sera is a petty thief and prone to fights and outbursts that the player has a hard time to manage.

Still, the existence of LGBTQ+ characters in the Dragon Age franchise is not hidden. They are present, sometimes overtly so, but their identities are all too often merely the object of players‘ interest or desire, rather than constituent parts of their characterisation. Zevran’s and Isabela’s (bi)sexuality are aggressive, Krem’s identity is overt, but in their overtness they are questioned and insulted.

Andraste Died for Our Sins

The Dragon Age series is by no means alone in these issues, and indeed far from the worst offender in the digital RPG genre. However, by virtue of its fantastical diegesis, it presents a particularly interesting case study as far as the question of verisimilitude is concerned.

David Gaider, lead writer of the first two entries in the series once argued that: “Men and women are generally equal in Thedas, certainly far more than they were in our own historical medieval period”.28The statement was originally made on David Gaider’s now defunct tumblr, which has been archived by other users and can be found in the Bibliography under Zearchive 01: Archive of David Gaiders tumblr posts. 2022.

As hinted earlier, arguments that rely on ‘historical accuracy’ are on shaky grounds. Not just because what is and is not known about a bygone era, its mores and how it was understood by the people of the period is complicated to discern and varies wildly by region and culture, but because Thedas, for all its clearly traceable if sometimes anachronistic or contradictory influences, is not medieval Europe and its ostensible divergences are significant.

Where we have clear records of institutionalised misogyny in (European) history, these attitudes are frequently closely entwined with faith and religion.29Cf. Brown: Body and Society. 1988. But the church that dominates the spiritual lives of the people of Thedas, however structurally reminiscent of European Catholicism it may be, is an entirely different beast.

Its original sin is one of male hubris, rather than female (and sexual) temptation.30Ibid. p. 83ff. The Christ-analog and central saviour figure of the religion of Thedas is a woman, Andraste.

And not just any woman – a woman that is first and foremost a leader in war, and a warrior herself. “She was not pure, was not valued by the children she bore, and was not perceived as any less of a woman for wielding a sword.”31From a private blog that succinctly sums up this core issue with the worldbuilding in Thedas, cited as Selene 01: Dragon Age: World Building with Internalized Misogyny. For: The Dragon That Eats Its Tail. 2017. Subsequently, the church that rose from her martyrdom, the Chantry, unlike historic European Christianity, is not a church where “women must be quiet and must not domineer over their husbands”32Parvey: The Theology and Leadership of Women in the New Testament. 1974 p.136. – it is a church where positions of power in the clergy are exclusive to women, where the highest religious authority can only ever be wielded by a woman. The Divine, the Pope-like figure of the Andrastian faith, has temporal as well as spiritual power. The Chantry possesses its own military branch, composed of Templars (again, a direct nod towards Christianity). The Divine can call upon them, as well as the nobles of Thedas, to fight in ‘Exalted Marches’, the in-universe version of a crusade; these can range from suppressing mage rebellions to repelling invading armies. As shown in Inquisition, the Chantry’s power and connection to the temporal world is deep: the death of the Divine sparks a political battle that involves almost all the major factions of Thedas.

Culturally, the Chantry of Thedas stands in contrast to the Chantry of the Tevinter Imperium, the Empire across the border which draws its inspiration – from architectural style to societal organisation – from a mix-and-match idea of the Roman Empire. Although Tevinter follows the Andrastian faith, it stands in contrast with Thedas’ version of the faith: the Imperial Chantry allows men in the higher ranks of the clergy and the Divine is always a man. The franchise has routinely portrayed Tevinter and its mages as evil and untrustworthy, especially for their use of Blood Magic, positioning Thedas’ Chantry as possessing more inherent positive qualities when compared to the Imperial Chantry.

Considering all this, the deep connection between the temporal and the spiritual, the omnipresent role of the female dominated Chantry in the world of Thedas, mirroring the medieval role of the Catholic church in Western and Central Europe, and its contrast with a patriarchal organisation of the same faith, one has to ask: Why is it then that the world of Thedas is so outwardly misogynist? Why were, according to a variety of codex entries, women in Orlais, the most devout of the Andrastian nations, barred from knighthood for the longest time and continue to be barred from service in the guard of the sovereign? Why are the noble houses of Thedas, even families like House Cousland, who owes its rise to the rank of teyrnir to a woman leading the local lords in battle33Codex entry: Highever found in Dragon Age: Origins., organised along patriarchal and patrilineal lines? Why is Aveline elevated as exceptional, rather than one of hundreds of girls aspiring to follow in the footsteps of her namesake? In a similar vein, why is it that a world accepting of homosexuality34As stated in the codex entry: Sexuality in Thedas, homosexuality is not forbidden anywhere in Thedas. to the point of same-sex marriage with ringing church bells35The marriage in question clearly, sartorially, casts the two women in distinct, stereotyped gender roles, positioning the Inquisitor as figuratively and literally wearing the pants, while presenting Sera, the free-spirited rebel, in a conservative full-length white gown. Perhaps a stride for inclusivity that nevertheless recuperates the character of Sera within the dynamic of marriage and suggests an understanding of queerness as rooted in normative societal conventions and customs., nevertheless, cannot shake persistent and pernicious undercurrents of homophobia? Why then, if Thedas appears unconcerned by questions of gender identity and sexuality, do the games reiterate that same-sex relationships and queer identities are affordances for the player?36Cf. Greer: Playing Queer: Affordances for Sexualities. 2013. p. 14.

The (Natural) Order Dictates…

At this point, a number of incongruences have emerged. Seemingly, the foundational lore of the world of Thedas finds itself at odds with the stories that the games of the Dragon Age franchise choose to tell therein. Indeed, many of  the attitudes exhibited by the writing and shining through the framing appear to be more in line with the belief that inclusion in historical or fantastical stories is a concession made to contemporary political discourse and contemporary recipients, at the expense of ‘verisimilitude’ and ‘realism’, as lead writer Gaider himself noted in response to fans.37David Gaider via his now defunct tumblr, quoted as Tsunderin 01.

One potential explanation is simply the idea of internalised misogyny. As journalist Anita Sarkeesian, herself no stranger to the backlash that follows feminist critique, puts it:

This dominant narrative surrounding the inevitability of female objectification and victimhood is so powerful that […] it even sets the parameters of how we think about entirely fictional worlds, even those taking place in the realms of fantasy […] It’s so normalized that when these elements are critiqued, the knee-jerk response I hear most often is that if these stories did not include the exploitation of women, then the game worlds would feel too “unrealistic” or “not historically accurate”38Sarkeesian: Women as Background Decoration. 2014.

However, the cultural mechanics of this concept deserve closer examination. After all, the world of Thedas, unlike games like Kingdom Come: Deliverance, which wear their political position on their sleeves, is flush with women in arms and armour, with openly queer characters, with women bearing religious authority and many more instances of what would be easily considered positive representation. Simply assuming that the developers made conscious concessions to what they deemed ‘realistic’ does not hold up.

Both producers of games and consumers of games make judgments on what constitutes a realistic portrayal in fiction based on the likelihood “that a depicted event could happen in the real world”39Shapiro et al.: Realism, Imagination, and Narrative Video Games. 2006. p. 278.. This perceived realism rests, then, on the preconceived notions of what could constitute reality, verisimilitude and history. If the preconceived notions rests on patterns of obfuscation of the achievements, existence and historical relevance of minority groups and women, it stands to reason that the audience ignorant, or selective, about the historical realities of many facets of the past would draw conclusions about the perceived realism of fiction based on those misconceptions.

As noted by Shapiro et al., the ability to judge the realism of fiction extends to depicted events that could never happen in reality, basing the judgement on the ability to imagine “what they would be like if they did happen”40Ibid.. Imagination, then, is the key to interpret what is judged to be realistic or not. To imagine Thedas as mired in misogynistic understandings of women hints at a conception of realism that does not take into account its own diegetic construction of society and power structures, let alone historicity. In spite of David Gaider’s rhetorical question: “how would the fact that … [Andraste was] a woman change … what religion is to people?”, it seems that the text of the Dragon Age franchise does not reflect on this very question beyond gender-swapping.41David Gaider in: Trenter: Interview with the Lead Designer Mike Laidlaw and Lead Writer David Gaider (and Lucas Christiansen) at BioWare about the Dragon Age games. 2016. p. 270.

Indeed, this paper means to go as far as to suggest that this ‘perceived realism’ has, in today’s discourse, become a form of mythic speech in the Barthesian sense. And while attempting to search for an answer to the immediate question – where such a myth may have originated from – would vastly exceed the scope of this paper,42Different scholars may find different venues of inquiry in this direction, many of whom might promise to be fruitful. At any rate, the first question that ought perhaps to be addressed here is the age-old ‘Qui bono?’. the core assertion will be this:

The narratives discussed throughout this paper, the ideas of a homogeneous past absent independent women or visible LGBTQ+ people, are signifiers in the Barthesian sense, one half of the sign. The other half of the sign that comprises the mythical speech, the signified,  the ‘actual history’43This phrase is here used in full acknowledgement that it is a simplification of a much more complex concept, used here largely for the sake of brevity. meanwhile contributes relatively little to the meaning of the sign. So the myth making takes its course:

We reach here the very principle of myth: it transforms history into nature. […] what causes mythical speech to be uttered is perfectly explicit, but it is immediately frozen into something natural, it is not read as a motive, but as a reason.44Barthes: Mythologies. 1973, p.128.

In other words, for the ‘messages’ to become nature, “the myth-consumer takes the signification for a system of facts.”.45Ibid. 130. At this point, one might suspect a cycle of self-affirming effects to occur. Once the myth (of for example historical women as helpless objects consigned to the hearth or of invisible or downright non-existent LGBTQ+ people, or a homogenous white European past) has coagulated into natural fact, it becomes more frequently repeated. It becomes more persuasive, both relative to to the signified (though it might beg to differ on both46For yet another example, cf. McLaughlin: The Woman Warrior. 1990. of those47Cf. Feinberg: Transgender Liberation. 1992. counts) and in terms of re-affirming the spectrum of what is perceived as realistic.

At the same time, once the myth has become naturalised, it is beyond reproach – simple fact, rather than conscious consideration for the purposes of, for instance, world building in a video game. And perhaps, if a myth is pervasive enough, even a game franchise that by its own stated intention wishes to “celebrate diversity” may find itself mired in the sexism and homophobia of a mythical homogenous past, and even many that are actively looking for change may, at least initially, overlook the signs.

The Dawn of a New (Dragon) Age?

What then remains to be taken away from this little case study?

To decry the representation of the marginalised in fantastical media on the basis of ‘realism’  or ‘verisimilitude’ is to suggest that the inclusion of active women, of people of colour, or of queer folk is ruinous to immersion, an assertion that may at worst be facetious, born of ideas of bio-trutherism or pernicious political agenda. It can also, however, be a result of irritation born out of misguided perceived realism of a genuine misunderstanding of the complexity and diversity of history – the result of a piece of fiction not corresponding to belief forged from centuries of historical revisionism, erasure of women,48Aside from  the examples given throughout  this  paper, the erasure of women particularly as scientists and writers is so prevalent, it has received its own specialised term. Cf. Rossiter: The Matthew Matilda Effect in Science. 1993. queer people49Cf. for example Keene/Martin: Coming Out. 2016. and people of colour,50Cf. for example Hondius: Blackness in Western Europe. 2014. and politically charged mythical speech.

Now this paper does not mean to attribute a pernicious agenda to the Dragon Age series. It does however mean to suggest that the conception of the world of Thedas was not free of bias, and it means to suggest that, all too often, considerations of ‘verisimilitude’ are measured, even subconsciously, against the expectation that fictions resemble an imagined past, a belief born from hearsay and myth, rather than against diegetic truth.

While it must be conceded that a single paper under dire constraint of space is hardly enough to fully back up a claim of this magnitude, this theory does at the very least offer an explanation for the inconsistencies observed across the world of Thedas, where the stories told are so much less inclusive than their setting would suggest they could and perhaps should be. It means to suggest that even when crafting fantastical stories, the imagined, naturalised idea of the past can easily seep into the diegesis, resulting in an almost inevitable rehearsal of expected patriarchal, queerphobic and racist structures.

And it means to end with a plea to those who consume or critique fiction, but especially to those who create it: A plea to interrogate those very biases. A plea to dare dream of worlds less mired in injustice than our own. And to approach those worlds on their own terms, rather than on the terms of centuries of mistakes, lies and injustice that have since coagulated into untimely belief.

Media index

Primary Sources

Deep Silver: Kingdom Come: Deliverance. PC. Czech Republic: Warhorse Studios 2018.

Electronic Arts: Dragon Age: Origins. PC. Canada: BioWare 2009.

Electronic Arts: Dragon Age 2. PC. Canada: BioWare 2011.

Electronic Arts: Dragon Age: Inquisition. Pc. Canada: BioWare 2014.

Sony Interactive: Ghost of Tsushima. PS5. USA: Sucker Punch Productions 2020.

AngryGamer 01: Dragon Age: Dread Wolf Rises Will Be Political And Celebrate Diversity, Says Narrative Director. For: One Angry Gamer https://web.archive.org/web/20200905122147/https://www.oneangrygamer.net/2018/12/dragon-age-dread-wolf-rises-will-be-political-and-celebrate-diversity-says-narrative-director/73122/amp/ [25.04.2022. Accessed through Wayback Machine].

Epler 01: Twitter Thread https://twitter.com/eplerjc/status/1071164223219228673 [23.04.2022].

Selene 01: Dragon Age: World Building with Internalized Misogyny. For: The Dragon That Eats Its Tail. https://casijaz.tumblr.com/post/128349878575/dragon-age-world-building-with-internalized [22.04.2022].

Tsunderin 01: https://ladygeekgirl.wordpress.com/2014/11/07/sexism-in-dragon-age-the-difference-between-intent-and-negligence/ [07.09.2022].

Zearchive 01: Archive of David Gaiders tumblr posts. https://zearchive.tumblr.com/post/108895761566/horny vivienne-are-there-people-under-the [19.04.2022].

Secondary Sources

Aguirre Quiroga, Stefan: ‘Forced Diversity’ in Movies is Not a Thing – But Here’s why Some People are so Scared of it. For: De Gruyter. https://blog.degruyter.com/forced-diversity-in-movies-is-not-a-thing-but-heres-why-some-people-are-so-scared-of-it/ [15.04.2022].

Barnes, Jessica.: Why Dragon Age: Inquisition’s Transgender Character is So Important. For: Gamerant https://gamerant.com/dragon-age-inquisition-transgender-character-inclu sion-representation-important/ [21.04.2022].

Barthes, Roland: Mythologies. New York: The Noonday Press 1973.

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Fußnoten   [ + ]

1. While this paper will focus specifically on the depictions of women and LGBTQ+ characters, it would be remiss to not at least mention how frequently these particular discourses intersect with similar discussions of race.
2. Cf. for example, Aguirre Quiroga: Forced Diversity’ in Movies is not a thing. 2022, or Todd: GamerGate and resistance to the diversification of gaming culture. 2015, for a breakdowns of examples of these outcries.
3. For some (of unfortunately many) examples, one may consider the decidedly mixed social media (Twitter/Reddit et al.) responses to Tassi: Ghost of Tsushima 2’ has a clear hero in the waiting. 2020. And similar discussions or the events described in Plunkett: Idiots Fight to Keep a Medieval Game White. 2014.
4. For a famous recent example, one only needs to look at the discourse surrounding Kingdom Come: Deliverance as outlined in Pfister: Why History in Digital Games matters. 2020, 60ff.
5. Brandenburg: The Middle Ages of The Witcher 3. 2020, 215.
6. Fine: Shared Fantasy. 1983. p. 65.
7. These patterns are by no means exclusive to the medieval past, but that is where the focus of this paper lies.
8. Chu: The Inaccuracy Of “Historical Accuracy” In Gaming And Media. 2015.
9. Ibid.
10. Blythe: Women in the Military. 2001. p. 248.
11. Taniguchi: Bushido and Revenge. 2010.
12. Baume.: Dorian of Dragon Age: Inquisition. 2015; Kane: How ‘Dragon Age: Inquisition’ Is Helping to Make a Better Future. 2015; Barnes: Why Dragon Age: Inquisition’s Transgender Character is So Important. 2022.
13. Statement made on Twitter by the Creative Director for the upcoming Dragon Age 4, John Epler. Cited as ‚Epler 01‘.
14. Article written as a direct response to John Epler’s Twitter thread, cited as ‘AngryGamer 01’.
15. Shortened for the remainder of the paper as Origins.
16. While she does don an armour during the attack on the castle, that armour uses the same model as most of the leather armour in the game which leaves little to the imagination in terms of cleavage and much to be desired in terms of protection.
17. Cf. Blythe: Women in the Military. 2001. p. 248.
18. Shortened for the remainder of the paper as Inquisition.
19. This circumstance is made more significant as the player’s goal in this court is to find a reliable ally, and of the three potential partners, only Duke Gaspard is framed as someone dependable rather than treacherous and conniving.
20. As the player never travels to Rivain, it remains a place, and a culture, hidden in codex entries.
21. Companions, in the Dragon Age series, are special characters designed to aid the player by providing additional fighting power and abilities. They can sometimes be romanced and might be thematically and/or narratively relevant to the plot.
22. Worth noting that the personal guard of the Orlesian’s monarch is entirely composed of men, as it was established prior to the knighting of Ser Aveline.
23. Croto: Dragon Age’ Contains Great Trans Character. 2014.
24. So much so, that the player never even gets to see Krem unless they open their party to the Iron Bull, an avowed Qunari spy.
25. At first glance it might simply be thoughtless to place a trans character with a faction that draws strict distinctions between genders (cf Dragon Age II Codex Entry: The Ben-Hassrath) and who subject any unwilling to follow their assigned purpose to torture and (chemical) re-education. Since the game’s original release however, an association like this has come to read uncomfortably close to a number of transphobic narratives that have been pushed into the public eye.
26. As there are no other examples in Origins of direct homophobia, it would appear that a male Grey Warden can be the only homophobe in Thedas.
27. While the majority of the romanceable companions in Dragon Age II are interested in whatever Gender the player chooses for their Hawke, Isabella and Anders specifically are known to be bisexual by virtue of their appearances in Origins. While Isabella is open about this, it will be considered of note that Anders is not, specifically and only when engaged by the player avatar in a heterosexual relationship. Regarding Dragon Age 2 and this topic, see Alan van Beek’s paper in this issue.
28. The statement was originally made on David Gaider’s now defunct tumblr, which has been archived by other users and can be found in the Bibliography under Zearchive 01: Archive of David Gaiders tumblr posts. 2022.
29. Cf. Brown: Body and Society. 1988.
30. Ibid. p. 83ff.
31. From a private blog that succinctly sums up this core issue with the worldbuilding in Thedas, cited as Selene 01: Dragon Age: World Building with Internalized Misogyny. For: The Dragon That Eats Its Tail. 2017.
32. Parvey: The Theology and Leadership of Women in the New Testament. 1974 p.136.
33. Codex entry: Highever found in Dragon Age: Origins.
34. As stated in the codex entry: Sexuality in Thedas, homosexuality is not forbidden anywhere in Thedas.
35. The marriage in question clearly, sartorially, casts the two women in distinct, stereotyped gender roles, positioning the Inquisitor as figuratively and literally wearing the pants, while presenting Sera, the free-spirited rebel, in a conservative full-length white gown. Perhaps a stride for inclusivity that nevertheless recuperates the character of Sera within the dynamic of marriage and suggests an understanding of queerness as rooted in normative societal conventions and customs.
36. Cf. Greer: Playing Queer: Affordances for Sexualities. 2013. p. 14.
37. David Gaider via his now defunct tumblr, quoted as Tsunderin 01.
38. Sarkeesian: Women as Background Decoration. 2014.
39. Shapiro et al.: Realism, Imagination, and Narrative Video Games. 2006. p. 278.
40. Ibid.
41. David Gaider in: Trenter: Interview with the Lead Designer Mike Laidlaw and Lead Writer David Gaider (and Lucas Christiansen) at BioWare about the Dragon Age games. 2016. p. 270.
42. Different scholars may find different venues of inquiry in this direction, many of whom might promise to be fruitful. At any rate, the first question that ought perhaps to be addressed here is the age-old ‘Qui bono?’.
43. This phrase is here used in full acknowledgement that it is a simplification of a much more complex concept, used here largely for the sake of brevity.
44. Barthes: Mythologies. 1973, p.128.
45. Ibid. 130.
46. For yet another example, cf. McLaughlin: The Woman Warrior. 1990.
47. Cf. Feinberg: Transgender Liberation. 1992.
48. Aside from  the examples given throughout  this  paper, the erasure of women particularly as scientists and writers is so prevalent, it has received its own specialised term. Cf. Rossiter: The Matthew Matilda Effect in Science. 1993.
49. Cf. for example Keene/Martin: Coming Out. 2016.
50. Cf. for example Hondius: Blackness in Western Europe. 2014.

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F. Schönberg

F. Schönberg hat an der JGU Mainz Mediendramaturgie, Filmwissenschaften und Englische Literaturwissenschaften studiert, schreibt Romane, designt Tabletop Rollenspiele und arbeitet im Narrativedesign-Bereich der deutschen Spielebranche.

Miriam Scuderi

Miriam Scuderi has studied English Literature and Culture and American Studies at the JGU Mainz and works as a freelance artist. Her academic research is focused on the intersection of game studies and queer theory.