Elsewhere on the Internet: Representation in Games

I’ve been enjoying PBS Game/Show, a smart, engaging, and well-presented video series on gaming issues that was recommended to me by several clever friends. Perhaps I like the series particularly well because the presenter appears to share my politics on many issues–and he’s great at addressing or deflecting comments to keep the conversation inclusive and constructive.

So I was at first a little surprised when one of the recent videos called out games I like to play for the way they depict race in NPC characters. Specifically, the show called out BioWare for giving Dragon Age series background characters a diversity of complexions but not addressing human racial difference in a world where otherwise race (elves vs. dwarves vs. humans) matters a lot. Kill Screen (which was founded by the Game/Show host Jamin Warren) followed up with that idea in more detail, looking at the way DA: Inquisition party members deal with race (or not):

Yes, we recognize that Vivienne is human and Varric is a dwarf; we simultaneously recognize that she is black and he is white. Yet only one of those distinctions has any perceptible effect on these characters: each will readily offer up their experiences as a human or a dwarf, but Vivienne never comments on her blackness (at least not in my two playthroughs), nor will Varric offer any maunderings on his whiteness.

Both the video and the post made compelling arguments, but at first I was not inclined to agree. Having a game narrative explicitly address difference is one narrative decision, and certainly it can be rewarding one. For example, another DA:I character, Dorian, is often held up as an exemplary model of representation: Dorian is gay and can be romanced by male PCs, but his sexuality is also an important part of his backstory and his personal in-game quest. I haven’t played DA:I yet, but know some players see themselves in Dorian; others learn something new in getting to know him. That’s valuable.

But I’ve also longed to see oppression less represented in the games I play. In fact, that’s an element of many BioWare games that has long troubled me: despite a sort of lip service played to equality (by in-game lore or game reviews)  there is still evident discrimination against certain populations in the gameworld. In Dragon Age, Ferelden is supposedly a land where “men and women are generally equal,” yet a female Warden is met with incredulity at nearly every turn, and the country’s queen regnant is literally imprisoned in a castle by her father. Minor female characters mostly take on their usual roles in high fantasy–witches, washerwomen, noblewomen, prostitutes and brothel madams–and significantly fewer everyday roles like soldiers, messengers, shopkeepers, and crowd members. In Mass Effect, the asari are supposedly one of the most advanced races of the galaxy, yet they also just happen to be galaxy’s preferred sexual object; bars are almost exclusively staffed with svelte asari dancers. Most other alien races are depicted as predominantly male; some female aliens are introduced late in the series and weirdly designed, though there’s no reason that all these races have to be sexually dimorphic in the first place. This is high fantasy: we imagine magic and dragons, we imagine interstellar travel and aliens that live hundreds of years, so why can’t we imagine a world unburdened by the same oppressions that dog ours?

So that was my first reaction: isn’t it nice to have some diverse representation in a fantasy game without replicating racial oppression?

But I was wrong, and here is why.

First, neither Dragon Age nor any of the other games mentioned here and in the linked articles is actually racially diverse. Some games read that way, due to some cognitive bias that allows us to read “a handful of nonwhite characters” as “an equal distribution of white and nonwhite characters.” But Tanya D at BoingBoing’s newly relaunched Offworld does the count, and finds Thedas (and particularly the Free Marches) to be very white worlds indeed. How did I not notice? No doubt the usual culprit, privilege blindness, but also, like most folks, I just want to enjoy the entertainment I enjoy and I’ll voluntarily or involuntarily look past a lot of problems. Case in point: at the very same time I was reading Killscreen’s take on race in Dragon Age, I saw this piece at FemHype that examines the female characters in Skyrim. Now, Skyrim is about as close as I’ve gotten to that utopic gameworld in which femaleness is not a handicap or a special sexualized class: you can play as a woman and no NPCs give you flak for winning the game while female, and you’ll come across other female NPC adventurers who want to team up with you or kill you. But Jillian at FemHype points out how few female characters hold positions of power, the weird exceptionalism of the few fleshed-out female characters that play major roles in quests, and of course the sexual divisions of enemies. Even the rare female Draugr aren’t dressed for war.

So one issue is that you can’t really have a post-racial, post-feminist, post-anything fantasy world if the world’s population defaults to white and male. If you only have a handful of characters to represent other kinds of players who might like to see themselves in the game, then those few characters end up working overtime as tokens, burdened with representing ideas or whole populations instead of existing as unique characters in their own right. Case in point: Vivienne in DA:I. Vivienne seems like a great character: she’s powerful, beautiful, and gets a lot of the good lines. She is undeniably black, and as Game/Show’s rundown demonstrates, there aren’t too many black characters in contemporary games that aren’t nameless enemies or horrifying stereotypes. Vivienne is her own person; her story is that she is a BAMF. When I was first mulling over the argument set forth by Game/Show and KillScreeen, I thought that I’d be interested in a backstory about Vivienne becoming a BAMF despite structural racism, but I wouldn’t be interested in such a story done badly or lazily. (I mean, Bioshock Infinite is free this week on Xbox Live, so I’ve had my fill of lazy writing and white savior narrative.)

Instead what happens with Vivienne, according to N.K. Jemisin, is that she has very little story at all.

Vivienne is affiliated with many groups but few of them seem to have contributed anything to who she’s become. She’s the only playable black woman seen in the entire trilogy of games so far, and she is cultureless, rootless, and quintessentially raceless.

Jemisin’s argument–and y’all, this is my favorite argument I’ve read on this topic so far, although everything I’ve linked is well done–is not that we need more racism in our fantasy worlds, but that our fantasy worlds have erased people of color so completely for so long that it does no good to simply drop one or two people of color into the game with no context or acknowledgement. “It’s nigh-impossible to get fantasy readers just to acknowledge that people of color even existed in medieval Europe,” she writes. “The reality is, and has always been, diverse. Denial of this reality is the modern — racist — addition to the pot.” Rather than simulating racial diversity without approaching equality and without context, Jemisin would prefer to see Vivienne’s lived experience as a dark-skinned woman in an overwhelmingly white world given more depth and connection, even just with party banter details that fill in the holes of her backstory.

I’d still like to see a game one day in which racial diversity and gender parity is so much a given that the plot does not reenact the micro and major aggressions we live with in the real world. But in the meantime, why don’t we create stories and worlds that depict difference with the depth, range, and detail that have been missing in fantasy for so long?


Note: Many of these links came to my attention via Critical Distance, always a great resource for critical issues in gaming; others I saw on MedievalPOC, a great tumblr which catalogs art from the Middle Ages that depicts people of color just hanging out and being European, despite our modern day insistence on the implacable whiteness of medieval Europe as well as medievalish fantasy realms.

Circles and Traces

For a side project, I’ve been scouring over the notes and bibliographies of books I haven’t read in some years. For example: Cooking, Eating, Thinking, an anthology of philosophical approaches to food studies which I came across early in my research and haven’t revisited since, though I thought it was a solid collection. As I opened my copy, my fingers brushed against a familiar texture: an embossed seal on the first page, the kind that an overzealous bibliophile might use to stamp her name in books she’d prefer not to lose. Okay, to be specific: I have such an embossing tool, a gift from my mom actually, and I impress “Library of Sara Elizabeth Davis” on any book that I lend.

I had no recollection of lending this anthology, so I looked closer and saw that the seal was not mine at all: it reads “Library of Sarah Lucia Hoagland.” I realized that I must have ordered a used copy of this book online some time ago, and I didn’t give it further thought as I paged through the bibliographies.

But because I was looking so closely at the notes, I came across a familiar name at the end of one chapter:
Hoagland, Sarah Lucia. Lesbian Ethics: Toward New Value. Palo Alto: Institute of Lesbian Studies, 1988.

I flipped back and forth between the front page and bibliography. How did this happen? Did she just happen to buy this book that cites her work? That seems unlikely. Did she get a gratis copy for reviewing it? I don’t see such a review online. Was it perhaps a gift from the editors, were they friends? That seems plausible; the previous owner of my book and one of the editors of the book were both publishing in the same feminist journals in the late 80s, perhaps they knew one another. But then why give it away?

I cull my bookshelf mercilessly every time I have to move, particularly in the last few years. I had amassed a large collection of assigned reading for graduate school, and at first I kept all of the books, believing myself to be building a library of selections for the survey and intro courses I would inevitably teach. But my life changed course, and I shed classic and canonical texts like a distressed bird sheds feathers. Did I press my mark into any of them? Is anyone reading my former schoolbooks, wondering who SED is and why she gave them away?
Will my brilliant, talented, published and to-be-published friends and I ever get to a point where we’ve given each other so many of our own books that each book is not a little miracle but something to be disposed of or replaced?


One day my gentleman friend came by for a visit with a T-shirt and a story. “I’m not sure if you’ll want this…” he began, tentatively, but the story is that he was hanging out with some friends of his in a bar (one of my favorite bars, too) and one of his friends found the shirt, just abandoned at one of the tables littered with curled-up menus and plastic spider rings. The friend thought she’d keep the shirt, but she forgot to take it with her. Thus the shirt passed into the gentleman’s possession, and he took it home and laundered it and brought it to me, because it advertises The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies, an awfully bad movie that I enjoyed an awful lot and gleefully reenact whenever I have the opportunity.

Astonishingly, the T-shirt fits. It is designed for women but is not a babydoll tee or similar horror; it accommodates my figure and has long enough sleeves to cover my shoulder tattoos.

What are the odds? Where was this T-shirt last time I was at that bar? Are there often T-shirts just lying around there? (This would not be surprising, actually, but I have never witnessed such a thing.) Who left this shirt there and where did she get it (and are there more of them, because my friends want some)? Why did she take it off or drop it? Does she miss it? Because I’m not sure I would give it back. This shirt is Relevant To My Interests. I love the happy accident of it, the ridiculous serendipity.


Here’s another story I like to tell about serendipity. When I last looked for a new apartment, I had some difficulty with a realtor who advertised some amenities that the apartment didn’t have, and then waffled about when and how he would go about adding them. I wanted that apartment badly: it was located on a convenient corner in my comfortable neighborhood, had gorgeous parquet floors, an extra little room for a study. I gave the realtor an application and a partial deposit for the apartment, telling him that I would be happy to sign the lease just as soon as he committed to adding the promised amenities and put an outside date for that in writing.

A busy week went by and I didn’t hear anything, so I gave the realtor a call. I could come pick up my deposit at my convenience, he said, as he’d rented the apartment to another tenant.

This left me in a bad position, since it was near the end of the month and I’d already put in my notice on the apartment where I lived. I got back on the market in a hurry, calling realtors on my lunch break and visiting apartments after work every day. I had my eye on one apartment above a nice restaurant, but the realtor wouldn’t take me there until the tenant moved out, saying that he was rather bad-tempered and she didn’t want to rile him up.

But a day or two before I was scheduled to look at the place, I walked past the apartment to catch a bus and saw the bad-tempered tenant moving out. I apologized for interrupting his move but wanted to ask him a question or two, since I’d be seeing the apartment in a couple of days. He was actually quite friendly and offered to show me the place himself. So while movers came and went with his boxes, he walked me through the narrow but pretty apartment, talking about the good points and bad. The realtor was included among the latter, and he told me about the troubles and frustrations he had when the property was bought up by an aggressive neighborhood company. “Oh, I could tell you about frustrating rental experiences in this neighborhood,” I said, and offered up the story of my lost parqueted apartment.
When I finished, he was quiet for a moment, then asked me if the address of that apartment was ### Nearby Street.
It was, actually.
I was touring the soon-to-be-former apartment of the tenant who became the lessee of the apartment I thought I had put a deposit on.

I told this story to a coworker shortly after it happened. “Wow!” she replied, then paused. “So are you dating that guy now, or what?”
I thought this was a hilarious question, so I told it to another friend. “Well, yeah,” she said. “I was gonna ask the same thing.”

I suppose that would be a fair question if we were in a book or a film, in which two worlds never collide except in service of an overarching plot. This would have been an excellent premise for such a plot: the man had inadvertantly taken away something I wanted, offering the perfect excuse to start a pointless rivalry that devolves into attraction, or to form a forced team in pursuit of real estate justice.

Even if we abandon the narrative tropes of romance, we still expect a certain amount of plot resolution from our coincidences. In a book or film narrative, if your plot arc coincides with the arc of another person or thing once, it will likely do so again and again. Fictional coincidences are the sign of a cosmic arrangement or a divine sense of symmetry that brings together what fits together. Insignificant choices would be proven significant by virtue of a shared trajectory: the book is a foreshadowing of an academic future, the shirt is the trace of another geeky girl’s past.

In reality, a coincidence happens precisely because different trajectories don’t intersect at more than one point. The arcs only cross once, and the only thing I can be definitely said to have in common with the owners of the book and shirt is that we inhabited the same place once, albeit at different times. I marveled and wondered at my used book and my rescued shirt, but they don’t make really good stories because the questions they raise must go unanswered.

So here is what happened after the momentous apartment coincidence was revealed. I sincerely wished the not-actually-bad-tempered tenant good luck with his new terrible realtor, and I moved into another nice apartment above a flower shop, leased by an entirely different company. As for the tenant, he presumably moved into that apartment with the lovely parquet floors, and may still be there. Perhaps the backstory I shared about the slippery realtor became a shield or a weapon he could use to insist on his tenant’s rights. Perhaps he never had an issue with the place and never gave it another thought. But I never saw him again, so I do not and may never know.

Where did we come from? What are we? Where are we going?


Painting by Paul Gauguin

Ten years ago, I conducted ghost tours in New Orleans. This era of my life has become one of my party tricks, an ace tucked in the sleeve: the job title itself is an attention grabber, but with it comes a cast of colorful characters, a louche lifestyle, and a sort of appealing tenebrousness that surprises new acquaintances nearly as much as my tattoos do. My opportunistic storytelling–this reminds me of the time I learned to read palms and that sort of thing–is what prompted a Toast commentor to encourage me to pitch something to the site, which I did.

It’s easier to tell that reminds me of a time stories than it is to string one together in a coherent arc. I didn’t want to use the piece to retell the ghost stories themselves–they are really all over the internet, and in fact I’d need to use internet versions to reconstruct my own, since the memory of my scripted tour spiel has eroded with time. So instead I wrote about my impressions: how the streets looked, what was said, how it felt. These were much easier to remember, especially with the help of my old journals. I had a lot of time on my hands in those days, and have numerous files  and notebooks full of prose dedicated to the particular chartreuse light by the river and the winter fogs and the sound of hooves.

My journals also record my preoccupations of that time: yearning for a purpose or career, frustration with my lack of focus, hopeless crushes, detailed play-by-plays of parties or fun nights out. These were startling: in them I can very clearly see myself as I am now, ten years later. In some entries I am only just starting to articulate the values I hold now, or casting about for the language to describe observations I now hold as beliefs, but “I” am already there in those entries, such as “I” am.

It has always been important to me to think that I have changed, and that change is always possible. Everything I believe in depends on the conviction that people can and do evolve. Writing 101: your fictional character should change as events unfold. How surprising to think that maybe we don’t. How humbling to see my emotional core exposed, wanting the same things it has always wanted.

About a month ago I hosted a friend who had once lived in my city and was returning to see it, and me. We took a stroll in West Philly: he wanted to see the campus where he’d gone to college, and as we walked around he pointed out places where he had lived, gone to classes, had parties, met girls. “What do you think your self at 20 would think of yourself today?” he asked me.

I was surprised by his question and even more by my answer. I think that myself at 20 would admire myself in my early thirties. On paper I sound pretty good. I have an extensive education and an interesting job in a related field. I write when I can, and sometimes the things I write earn me attention and even money. I have a nice apartment, a comfortably busy social life, no spouse, no kids. That is more or less what 20-year-old me imagined as glamourous, desirable adulthood.

This was surprising because I spend no small amount of time complaining about my job, my bank account, my degree, and my perfectly lovely apartment. The question made me feel a little defensive, as though I had to justify my restlessness to this younger version of me.

20-year-old me is not necessarily the expert on who I am and what I want. 20-year-old me knew a lot less and experienced very little of the world, and she was likely to be impressed by things that seem stale or uncertain to me now. I don’t think that experience is the opposite of innocence: the life my 20-year-old self wanted isn’t more true or pure just because I wanted it first.

Still, that’s something to think about. What she wanted, and why. What I now want, and why. Why want is the core constant.

My mom has been going through our old things: notebooks, drawings, photos upon photos from when we still took our film to the drug store and got extra copies of everything. Some time ago she sent me a package that included a peach-colored envelope on which my teenaged self had written:

1. If you know what you want, find a way to get it.
2. Always be friendly, but don’t always make the first move.
3. Pay close attention to people, but seem to not notice them if they’re not talking to you.
4. To be happy you must be independent. To be independent you must be strong.
5. Should a cat walk by herself? Only if she feels like it.

I posted it on Facebook because I thought it very funny. How Machiavellian of my teenaged self. I wonder what I was reading or doing to prompt a back-of-envelope manifesto.

It’s also funny because the list so recognizably me. Rule #3 became a deeply rooted self-preservation instinct. Rule #4 is the north star of my love life. Rule #5, of course, refers to Kipling’s Just-So cat who refuses to be domesticated yet insinuates himself into domestic comforts such as warmth and milk. I’m still like that, I still don’t see why I can’t have it both ways.

I want to tell a story about myself that goes in a straight line, preferably forward and up: I endured and now I am stronger; I learned and now I know. But how many times have I had to relearn the lessons I tried to teach myself on the back of an envelope so many years ago? Suppose a character arc doesn’t arc at all, but loops back itself over and over? What can I do differently? What should I?

A blog post that ends in a question begs an answer. A painting that ends in a question provides itself as the answer: an landscape, a mood, something that exists in space and not in time. That’s how I intend this post. It’s an artifact, something to return to in a later year and ask again.