Whitewashing Dragon Age

By Guest Contributor Allegra, cross-posted from The Border House

Over the past few weeks I’ve been preparing myself for the release of Dragon Age 2, which is set for release on 11th March. I only managed to get my hands on the demo today, but already there are a few problematic elements bubbling away in the background.

The demo begins with a Chantry seeker named Cassandra calling on Varric, a dwarf who she knows spent time with Hawke – the game’s protagonist. In response to her questioning, Varric begins narrating a story in which Hawke and his/her sister Bethany are fleeing the darkspawn only to encounter a dragon. At this point, Cassandra calls shenanigans on Varric’s story, and he promises to relate ‘what really happened’.

The problem, however, is that BioWare have chosen (at least for the purposes of the demo) to give you the character creator only after this initial opening sequence. In fact, the beginning of the game gives you a simple choice between male/female and warrior/mage/rogue before throwing you into the action. This means that the first ten minutes of the game are always going to be played as BioWare’s default male or female Hawke, which in turn means that they are going to be Caucasian.

At the time of posting, the discussion on BioWare’s forum about this issue is already over twenty pages long (and really not recommended reading for the most part, with a lot of people making the point that this opening sequence presents Hawke as a legend, rather than who they really were. However, this raises the uncomfortable subtext that, while the real Hawke may be customized to suit the player’s tastes, the Hawke that people know from legends is always going to be white. Personally, I can’t help but be reminded of Jesse Houston’s assertion that BioWare’s female characters are less iconic than the male ones, and Stanley Woo’s utter failure to handle racial issues surrounding the Dragon Age games in the past couple of months.

BioWare’s reasoning behind this bizarre choice seems to be that they have concluded that they’re losing a lot of players who don’t want to be confronted with a character creator at the very start of a game. As Mike Laidlaw says in this interview:

We saw a lot of people disengaging at hour one, hour two […] You get to an RPG and fire it up, and it hits you in the face with a thousand stats. Those stats are very cool, but you may not be mentally or emotionally prepared to deal with them as your first thing to do in the game.

He also goes on to add:

Part of the glorious advantage of the frame narrative is [that] Varric kind of lies about you. We establish how people perceive the Champion. This figure is of some import to the world.

And, apparently, the way people perceive the Hero of Kirkwall is as a white man or white woman, regardless of their actual ethnicity. Granted, this could make for a very interesting plot device should BioWare wish to use Dragon Age 2 to challenge this assumption in game, but unfortunately the demo makes no sign of doing anything of the sort.

Granted, there has been some progress since the days of Dragon Age: Origins, where your Warden of color was furnished with an entirely white family. According to the Dragon Age Wiki, the skin tones and facial structures of Hawke’s family members will now adapt themselves to compliment your customized character. However I can’t help but feel that this is at least a small step back from Mass Effect 2, where the pre-character creation sequence has been craftily put together to only show Shepard in full armour obscuring her/his skin tone and facial features until you’ve played through the opening scene.

I have to wonder: would that have been so difficult to do this Dragon Age 2, as well? Why choose to present a legendary version of the main character, and their entire family as potentially whitewashed versions of themselves, without challenging or questioning it? Will this depiction of the Caucasian Hawke of legend appear in the full version of the game? And, if so, is it plot device that BioWare have used in a ham-fisted attempt to ‘hit the ground running’, or will we be seeing more cutscenes featuring the default versions of Hawke throughout the game?


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  • Sherrie

    Their reasoning is ridiculous. I haven’t played Dragon Age, but I have played Mass Effect, another one of Bioware’s games that lets you customize your character. You jump into the action immeadiately, going to the customization part after the intro and you know what they do?

    They obscure your character’s face with a helmet.

    You can’t see skin tone or facial features, only a little bit of hair briefly from the back. Why they couldn’t do something similar for Dragon Age is beyond me.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=7100419 Jamila Jamison Sinlao

    Having just spent the past 25 hours of my life playing Dragon Age 2, I’m glad to see that someone has brought this up. I will say that it’s nice to have a family that actually looks like it’s RELATED to my character, but I take *serious* issue with the customization mechanic as well. All of the darker skin tones either look ashy, weird, or make my character look like a Caucasian person with a really dark tan, which really isn’t what I was trying to go for.

    Using the full-armour opening scene in the way that ME2 did would have been a much better alternative. However, I will say that the opening is the only time when the default version of Hawke shows up; all subsequent cutscenes use the customized character created at the beginning.

  • Lovelyentropy

    great arguments. you don’t really see games with customizable characters forcing Caucasian characters on the player. games that do really stick out to me (like Fable 3, for example).
    one thing that freaked me out about the Dragon Age character creator was how weird the darker skin tones would turn out. if you wanted to play as a character with any amount of melanin you came out looking either ashy or purple. this isn’t a problem unique to Dragon Age–there are a lot of games that can’t seem to get characters quite right–it just seemed particularly bad in Dragon Age. i’ve been thinking about writing on this subject for a while, but i haven’t had the time. grad school, man.


  • http://twitter.com/33mhz Mark

    I call bull on Laidlaw’s excuse that character creators were turning people away. They’re a genre convention of this style of game and there’s no reason they couldn’t have made a flashy, glossed up appearance customization bit, jumped into the story, and then gone back for the details of skills and personality from within the world after starting the plot. Fallout 3 uses exactly this device–the first scene is your birth. Your father, whose appearance is obscured by a medical facemask and a trick with the lighting, uses a futuristic display to predict what you will look like as an adult. This is the panel the player uses to customize their appearance.

    After that scene ends, your father’s unobscured appearance will be based on your own. You choose your basic stats as a toddler and then you choose your learned skills during a highschool aptitude test.

    Fallout 3 is largely played in first person perspective, which makes it easier to conceal the player-character’s appearance in that first scene. Still, a high fantasy game like Dragon Age could just as easily have created a sequence where you, say, started as a nondescript spirit choosing an earthly body.