BioWare’s unfortunate stumble: Orientalist problems in Dragon Age post-Trespasser DLC
As part of the fandom around Dragon Age here on tumblr and elsewhere on the internet, I’ve read a lot of the meta surrounding what the end of Trespasser means for the Dalish, what it means for the future of the series, what it means for Lavellan inquisitors etc. but I have come to realize that there’s actually a huge problem I haven’t seen discussed anywhere else so far (and perhaps I missed it).
Pre-Trespasser DLC gives us the Elven civilization of Elvhenan that, somehow, was forcibly, violently and forcibly conquered by the Tevinter (human) people through a long and bloody war. For the most part, ever since the elves have been a race that has been harshly discriminated against - whether as slaves, kept in alienages or forced into diasporic tribes wandering far from human civilization. The effort on subjugating them, on making them weaker is placed on Tevinter. Post Trespasser we learn that Solas essentially destroyed all of Elven civilization because of its own problems and Tevinter pretty much just walked up to the elves and took what was left of their magic, and subjugated them. In a sense, the story now is that the elves caused their own subjugation. Had Solas not created the veil he there’s no way Tevinter would have ever conquered them. Thus, it’s sort of their own fault they are where they are.
And many of you might read this and go “What’s the problem? It’s just a story, it’s just how magic works and the things that happened?” And to this I’d have to say that this unfortunately follows a long line of racist, colonialist, orientalist thought from Western intelligentsia -the idea that colonized cultures were conquered and enslaved due to weaknesses and flaws inherent in their own racial, cultural, religious or other systems rather than forcibly conquered and enslaved due to objective, technological, and disease-based (etc.) difference. This idea is dangerous because it sees the subjugation and violence in such relationships as something that is natural, explainable and above all else: inevitable. When the violent conquering of another culture is framed this way, it essentially says that the dominated are such in the present because they were already weaker, they deserved it, they just weren’t good enough to resist. It’s a form of victim blaming not unlike those used in rape or other problems that face minority individuals.
For a real-world, contemporary example (and forgive me I can’t find the link) there was even a paper published by the University of Chiciago’s anthropology department a few years ago saying that Asian cultures were conquered and ruled because their myths sometimes had foreign kings in them (which totally ignores say, the Roman civilization’s founding myth, and other western societies that also shared this myth) so it easy to say that this myth is sadly not dead. This same myth was the very same one completely deconstructed in “Gun Germs and Steel” a thesis not without problems but very clearly stated that colonization happened because of, well gun germs and steel - things that gave a very clear technological advantage, and yet were for the most part all happenings of random chance - due to geography, trade, climate etc. rather than some inherent cultural superiority.
Tying this back to Dragon Age - we can see this in how the action that causes the fall of Elvhenan changed. It goes from all the effort being on the part of the human Tevinter tribe to instead placing the action on the elvish side. The subsequent subjugation of the elves is now simply seen as a consequence of Solas’ actions. And it can be inferred that he blames himself for the subjugation of the elves as well - which is why we learn he intends to restore the elves to their former glory.
I really do love the Dragon Age games, but unfortunately the fact that the writers are all mostly white, cis men is really starting to show. And as a person who experiences marginalization on multiple spectrums it’s really disheartening to see such a long-standing, yet entirely disproven, and very harmful line of thinking come out in their writing. I love the Dragon Age series specifically because you can choose your race, and you can choose how the character interacts with the (albeit small, superficial) amounts of racism and sexism that they receive. Very few to no other games really do this at all, or ever. Most race-lock you, and others (like Skyrim) give you “races” and have lore of “racism” but the player character themselves are never truly limited or effected by it. It is also one of the few games that somewhat-realistically constructs diasporic culture (both city elves and Dalish) which I love to see.
Sadly, I don’t know how BioWare can conceivably fix this after such a large misstep, but I think this is important to point out. i hope that, for the sake of the series (and Mass Effect which has its own problems with race) they can, as the entire industry should, not just focus on representation on screen but also behind it in writing, art, coding and all areas.