My first attempt at Dragon Age: Origins fell short before I left the prologue. I was bothered about having rolled a dark-skinned city elf only for my family to turn out to be all visibly white, and I was further bothered by the city elves’ oppression compounded by the casual rape and murder exacted by our human “betters.” I closed the game and re-rolled as a rough and tumble thug within the dwarven underclass of Orzammar. My sister was still a prostitute, but at least this opening lacked the tinge of endless rape and degradation of the city elf origin.
I really enjoyed playing that casteless dwarf. I wore my Dust Town brand with pride when I crushed the best warriors in the city beneath my armored heel. On the surface, no one noticed my class and often enough tended to forget I was even a dwarf by the time that I was running them through with a blade. Dwarven merchants Bodahn and Sandal never commented on my tattoo, which I thought was plum nice of them. In no time at all, I was wooing prince’s hearts, running around in King Cailin’s armor and converting to Andrastianism, so satisfied I was that the game gave me openings to defy the constraints of the dwarven caste system without shunting me back into another system of oppression.
This perspective changed when I returned to Orzammar later in the game and my status as a former casteless was hardly remarked on. I had been fearing the worst. People spitting at my feet, perhaps, or trying to behead me. Yet even their grudging respect for my position as a Warden didn’t seem especially grudging. Despite my class being quite literally branded onto my face, it seemed that barely anyone in Orzammar (or, indeed, all of Thedas) cared about my humble origins—even those who were best positioned to be appalled. After so many hours being informed by the game that biases can’t be overturned overnight, that bigotry will find a way to outlast pretty much any good intention in the world, suddenly, my class was invisible to everyone but me.
This sort of class transcendance is far from rare in videogames and increasingly has come to bug the hell out of me. These rags-to-diamond-dragon-scale-armor tales of paupers turned legendary heroes are just one facet to the role-playing game’s “longing for a never-extant perfectly pastoral world” in which trust is easy, your misdeeds are ephemeral, and everything aligns itself just so to shape you into the hero that the epic narrative calls for (K. Cox, “The Chatty RPG”, Your Critic is in Another Castle, 19 May 2011). In these games, I am Luke Skywalker from my small ranch on a backwater planet; I am Hiro, peasant graverobber and lover of moon women; I am Cloud, army dropout and slayer of godlike beings. No one cares where I’m from, only that I look damned heroic right now.
My point is that though several game narratives exhibit an awareness of class, race, and the intersections of those two, the games themselves as systems display an exasperatingly predictable upper middle class image of social mobility, reliant upon fantasies of self-made wealth achieved at the expense of others and the local ecosystem.
I don’t wish to belabor this analogy, as the medieval capitalist fantasy has its origins much earlier than the modern RPG. But I should hope that the models of profiteering and social passing are not lost on the average gamer. Wealth, prestige, and access are interconnected with class as well as with race, the complex politics of which don’t happen to lend themselves to the comparatively easy mathematical functions of accumulation and free movement games use.
Few games will keep doors eternally closed to you. If the king won’t see you right now, come back when you’ve made more of a name for yourself. If the head of the church won’t lower herself to interact with someone of your race, chances are she’s evil and you’ll have to kill her—serves her right. In these games you are entitled to the key to every door and chest, provided you labor hard enough using the methods prescribed. The system will not choose to deny you a weapons upgrade because of your character’s skin color or what her parents did for a living. It’s all about you, the self-actualized hero, transcendentally unattached and unresisted as you float through life gaining friends, wealth, and property.
This, of course, is part of the attractiveness of games: that they are fairer and simpler than reality. Gaming is “about constants and conditions” (Tadhg Kelly, “The Enclosure Problem”, What Games Are, 26 May 2011). A game which is infinite, which has a history of breaking with its own rules, of double standards and contradictions, is not the sort of game that we’re typically drawn to, largely because we already experience it in our day to day lives.
To return to my Dragon Age playthrough, I believe part of why I found my casteless dwarf’s story so captivating is that I could buy her transition into a world of mobility. In the human world, class still existed, but her place within it was markedly different from the society she had just left. Moreover, her integration into this new culture was neither expected nor required, though she was working to protect a great deal of people that she didn’t honestly care for. She was mobile because she was sufficiently detached, not beholden to anything around her.
I couldn’t do this with my elf character. She was the subject of an enormous apparatus of oppression that would continue operating after I left the prologue. It made no sense for her to “pass” thanks to her status as a Grey Warden and to the way that I was characterizing her. She wasn’t likely to tolerate it.
We speak of ludonarrative dissonance often as coming through in small systemic things, like enemies ignoring certain plot points, forgetting that Clint Hocking’s original application of the word to BioShock was in comparing Objectivist philosophy to the game’s overall play sensibilities of “rational self-interest” (“Ludonarrative Dissonance in BioShock”, Click Nothing, 07 October 2007). Is there any ludonarrative dischord greater than the capitalist, white, middle-class attitudes of unrestrained play coming into conflict with issues of class and race so utterly failed by these biases? The class- and race-obliviousness of these pastoral, easy, and free game worlds don’t reflect the lives of the serf characters that we so often assume but reflect their lords instead.
In games, we always play as middle class. We just occasionally start out in peasant drag.
You can follow the Moving Pixels blog on Twitter.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong online. Please consider a donation to support our work as an independent publisher devoted to the arts and humanities. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where advertising no longer covers our costs. We need your help to keep PopMatters publishing. Thank you.