Your groundbreaking is not my groundbreaking (N.K Jemisin on #DAI)

Reposted with permission from N.K Jemisin’s blog, on why “Your Groundbreaking is not My groundbreaking” Originally posted on her blog, November 25, 2014.

Your groundbreaking is not my groundbreaking

Note: I will be mentioning a few spoilers in this post. Look away now if you’re not ready for that yet!

So, a few nights ago I started Dragon Age: Inquisition, the third game in a franchise I’ve liked a lot over the years. Just for shits and giggles I livetweeted my game for a few hours. Most of the feed is pretty dull — like, me eating dinner while waiting half an hour for the game to finish installing on my XBox’s hard drive. But once I finally got the game going and dug into the character creator, I felt a moment of sharp bitterness at the realization that even though I write fantasy, there are times when this genre is really, really hard to love. My in-the-moment reaction:

I ended up with this when I was done rolling up my character (sorry for the terrible image; it’s just a photo of my TV screen):

image shows a DA: Inquisition character: middle-toned black female elf with white facial markings and nearly bald shaven head

She’s okay. Not what I wanted. But okay. And that’s pretty much how the experience left me feeling, despite the fact that I’ve been stupidly excited over this game for something like three years. That pretty much killed the excitement right out of the gate. I’m still playing, but I’m not raving about this game to anyone, anymore. It’s just something to do, now.

So, this little experience has me thinking a lot about the concept of “normal”.

It’s hilarious to talk about “normal” with respect to a game full of magical pseudo-uranium, holes in the sky, and shapeshifters. But a sense of normalcy is what you’re really selling, after all, in any media product: the chance for as many people as possible to feel some sense of engagement with what you’re trying to do. In fantasy — or any fiction, really — that tends to manifest as a sense of immersion, of I can relate to and feel part of this cracktastic world, and therefore I care about what happens within it. As a society, we’ve had a lot of problems with making media relevant toeveryone and not just a small subset of people — generally straight white guys. There’s nothing wrong with straight white guys, mind. It’s just that our society has a nasty habit of treating them as normal while treating everyone else as… not.

So why did such a simple thing — just customization; just hair, just skin — kill my enthusiasm so powerfully? Because being treated as abnormal destroys the ability to immerse in a thing. Kinda fucks up all the fun, too.

And I get that these things are rarely the result of game companies being “evil”. I met a couple of folks from Bioware at SDCC back in 2012; they seemed nice. I’m pretty sure nobody in the planning meetings for this game went Muahahaha, now we can really stick it to those curly-haired, dark-skinned people!* I think they just started from a completely different set of assumptions about what is “normal”, than… well, what actually is normal to a lot of people. And those assumptions have skewed the whole bell curve of the game.

It’s kind of like how camera film was originally calibrated on white skin. The people who made this decision probably weren’t being intentionally racist. Most likely it just didn’t occur to them that choosing a “normal” skewed to their own personal tastes and very limited experiences would create a barrier into the field of photography for, like, 80% of humanity. They probably didn’t think about what kinds of creepy, awful messages their choice would send to all the people who struggled to make cameras simply see them as they were: “Is that how you see me? Could you not see blackness? Its varying tones and textures? And do you see all of us that way?” (From the McFadden article linked above.) They probably didn’t understand that all it takes is one experience of being treated as irrelevant and abnormal — especially for people who get treated as irrelevant and abnormal frequently in other areas of society — to kill the sense of engagement for any newcomer to a medium. I suspect those old Kodak guys just didn’t give a shit about how many would-be photographers had that experience and then walked away from photography forever.

Bioware’s starting from a better place, theoretically; they at least say they care. The companyseems committed to inclusivity, and they’ve occasionally backed those words up with actions. There’s a trans man in DA:I, who thus far hasn’t been killed or subjected to tragedy; that’s good, I guess. The appearance customizer contains at least one slightly fuller face-model, so someone who wants to play as a character resembling the average Canadian woman (where Bioware is HQed; old link but probably still apropos) can get a little closer to that. Character skin colors start at colorless/albino and top out at maybe one shade darker than in previous DA games, which is a plus; still not as dark as actual human beings get, though. Maybe 2 hairstyles out of the full set of 25 have something resembling 4b hair, which is better than previous games’ texture-ambiguous buzz cuts or baldness — although that’s about it for textural variation; pretty much all the rest are type 1 hair only. Also, couple of the game trailers briefly feature shots of the default female Inquisitor. That’s an improvement over Bioware’s last big game, for which the female default character could only be featured in “alternate” marketing, at best.

But it’s all just so… little. Such creeping, grudging, tiny steps, implemented only after mass outcry. A little darker skin. One additional hair texture. A few moments in the foreground, instead of the perpetual background. Hey, there’s finally one [example of a thing], and hey, at least they’re not dead yet.

This is inclusivity? No. True inclusivity is ground-up, incorporated at every level from brainstorming to design to implementation. You can’t help but include everyone, if you’re doing it right, because inclusivity means starting from a “normal” calibrated to “humanity”. What this game displays? Is inclusivity as an afterthought. It’s standard deviations from a badly-skewed mean; to the people who think straight white guys really are (or should be) at the center of everything, these infinitesimal steps forward probably seem groundbreaking. To everyone else, they’re… nothing. Less than nothing. A loud and clear signal that we don’t really matter.

::sigh::

This is why I write fantasy the way I do, by the way — because showing the full breadth of human variance and complexity shouldn’t be groundbreaking. This is also how I often twist common tropes and play with reader expectations — because whether something is a cliche or a subversion frequently depends on who it happens to, in our society. Black women rarely get to be the prize that male heroes fight over, for example. White women are rarely depicted as thuggish or second banana to a woman of color in the beauty/charisma department; black men are rarely given the chance to (literally) explore their feminine side; even white men are rarely shown as marginalized and weak if they’re the hero. They say there are no new ideas, but it’s remarkably easy to freshen an old idea just by applying it to a wider variety of people. Correctly calibrating to the human norm opens up whole new matrices of storytelling richness.

So this is what I was expecting from Dragon Age: Inquisition. And this is why I’m so disappointed in the game so far. I’m still playing, like I said. My friends are helping me grind past the unpleasantness, giving me an incentive to stay engaged. I’ll post more thoughts on this game once I’ve finished at least one playthrough. It’s just gonna take more effort to get through it than I thought.


* Pretty sure they didn’t intentionally make Mother Giselle a Magical Negro, while we’re at it. Probably didn’t intentionally exclude humans who look Asian — or anything other than black or white — either. [Insert a few other unpleasant observations here.] What’s really surprising to me is that Mass Effect 3 did a decent job of these things. Why is DA:I so much worse at it?

** Sort of nonsensical hairstyles for the situation; who’s got time to precisely shave and edge every day in the middle of a global crisis? Also, totally Nineties! wtf.

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6 thoughts on “Your groundbreaking is not my groundbreaking (N.K Jemisin on #DAI)

  1. Can’t…stop…nodding in agreement.

    Neverwinter Nights, for its many flaws, was a PC game that came out more than 10 years before DA:I, and yet you could have Grey skin, Blue skin, Green skin, whatever. Why can’t a game this new have the same diversity as a game that broke in 2002? It’s not like fantasy fans aren’t ready for diversity. Look at R.A. Salvatore’s Drizzt series.

    So yah, very good point, and a great topic to broach. Thanks!

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  2. Ha, very good point. I think they’ve made huge steps forward in their gender politics and they’re clearly thinking about class (somewhat awkwardly), but it’s still set in fantasy Europe like every other western fantasy. I wonder what your take is on Vivienne? It’s a pain to judge on just one dark skinned character, but I dunno :/

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    • I’ve got a post planned on Vivenne, just day job keeps me busy, thus the flurry of other folks meta for the moment. There are other POC characters to consider as well, Ser Delwin Barris, Mother Giselle, Dorian (which for value of looks I consider POC, others mileage may vary), Josephine, etc.

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      • Brilliant, I look forward to reading it.

        I don’t think I dealt with Barris? But I felt like I had a good idea of where, in Thedas, the others all came from. Vivienne was the only character I got to know with a distinctly non European look. Maybe I didn’t get to know her well enough, but where she came from is still a mystery to me. Made me want to see more of the world outside of fantasy Europe.

        The elves are an interesting angle too though, a lot of their portrayal is used to explore cultural oppression, appropriation and marginalisation, but they’re mostly pearly white skinned. I might not have noticed, but I played an elf at the darkest they get, and I constantly felt like I stood out because of it…

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  3. Pingback: Links: Thursday, January 8th | Love in the Margins

  4. So for Ser Barris, you see him initially when you first go to Val Royeaux to find Lord Seeker with Cassandra. He’s not named, but if you take the Templar path, Champions of the Just, you will get to know him and provided you keep him alive during a portion of that quest, he will join the Inquisition.

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