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PROMOTING DIVERSITY, INCLUSION, AND REPRESENTATION

When it comes to representation in and diversity of romance options, BioWare displays unique evolution, exploration, and expansion during the progression of the Dragon Age series. In Origins, regardless of gender selection, the player has three romance options: two opposite-gender NPCs and one same-gender NPC. While all four romanceable characters appear Caucasian, they each showcase different approaches to romance and sexuality. Alistair, who is only available to a female player character, is loyal, funny, capable, and willing to step aside and let the player lead; additionally, he’s honest and upbeat about being a virgin, providing a positive example of male vulnerability and healthy masculinity. On the other hand, Morrigan, who is only available to a male player character, is sarcastic, reserved, and focused on power and longevity rather than beauty and ephemeral emotions. Both Leliana and Zevran are available to male and female player characters, and they are generally more playful, cunning, and easygoing about romance than Alistair and Morrigan. While Leliana still prefers exclusivity, Zevran is open to a more casual sexual relationship. Providing two bisexual love interests was a unique offering in digital roleplaying games in 2009, when Origins was released, and their inclusion enables players to explore romantic and platonic relationships that they may not be able to safely experience in real life. The 2018 General Social Survey found that 3.3% of Americans identify as bisexual (Burkholder, 2019)—a notable rise from 1.1% in 2008—so Origins additionally gave a rising number of bisexual people—in America, at least—the chance to see themselves represented in a mainstream, triple-A video game.

DA2 provides a notable contrast with both Origins and Inquisition in that all non-DLC romanceable characters are “playersexual”; that is, “nonplayer characters in an otherwise heteronormative video game are romantically interested in the player regardless of the characters’ genders” (SJW Wiki contributors, 2019). In DA2, a player character of either gender can pursue a romance with any of four different party members: two male NPCs (Anders, Fenris) and two female NPCs (Merrill, Isabela). A fifth romance option, Sebastian, is available via DLC, although he is only amenable to a female player character. In some ways, playersexuality simplifies romance for both players and developers; players do not have to discuss relationship preferences with NPCs before pursuing them romantically, and developers can write more general NPC relationship dialogue that is not necessarily customized based on player character gender. However, this structure does not accurately reflect real life, as people tend to have a variety of preferences beyond sexual attraction that influence their relationship choices. If the narrative goal is for the Dragon Age series to showcase people and relationships with the same depth as their counterparts in real life, playersexuality misses the mark.

The eight more complex and individualized romanceable characters in Inquisition reflect BioWare’s awareness of the shortcomings of the playersexuality in DA2. Some companions and some advisors are available for romance, and they each have at least a few personal preferences when it comes to relationships, including gender, sexual orientation, sexual personality, and fantasy race. Inquisition offers players the greatest number of Dragon Age romance choices to date, maximizing the number of players who can see themselves and their ideal romantic partners in the game. Harkening back to Dragon Age series executive producer Mark Darrah’s PC Gamer interview, Darrah highlighted BioWare’s dedication to improving player representation and providing more expansive options in the Dragon Age series: “I think it’s important for people to play the characters that they want to play, that we give choice.. .for as broad of an audience as possible. A lot of this comes down to choice as opposed to forcing something upon the player” (Clark, 2014). Additionally, BioWare demonstrates marked sensitivity to and research into the lived experiences of people of different gender identities and sexualities. While bisexual love interests have existed in the Dragon Age series since Origins, Inquisitions hijinks-loving Sera is the first romanceable party member across the three main games who is only available to a female player character. BioWare writers also worked tirelessly to ensure that the series’ first in-game openly trans character, Cremisius “Krem” Aclassi, was represented as accurately and sensitively as possible, sharing drafts of the character and his dialogue with “friends in the genderqueer community for feedback” (Makuch, 2014). For another example, regarding the importance of including Dorian as an NPC and an exclusively homosexual romance option in Inquisition, openly-gay former BioWare lead writer David Gaider remarked: “No character ever has to justify why they’re straight, white, and male. The moment you make them anything else, you suddenly need reasons why that’s okay.. .or do you? A certain amount of deliberateness is required to challenge the idea of a default, and while it feels a bit unnatural to do so, it’s absolutely necessary” (Karmali, 2015).

According to a survey conducted by Quantic Foundry that was taken by more than 270,000 players worldwide, 48% of Inquisition players identify as female, which is substantially higher than the “open world” genre average of 26% (Yee, 2017). There are many factors that likely contributed to this interesting statistic, but in creating the romanceable NPCs in the Dragon Age series, BioWare’s writing team looked beyond the “the straight male gamer,” as Gaider put it, and sought to reflect the lived experiences of a variety of people, thereby enabling a variety of players to both connect with them and see themselves represented.

Video games—particularly those that can be saved and reloaded—can provide a safe, controlled environment to ask challenging questions and learn about new concepts without peer judgment or real-world social consequences. Particularly, Inquisition’s Cremisius “Krem” Aclassi may be the first openly transgender person that some players have encountered, in or outside of real life. While the player cannot play as Krem, they can ask Krem a variety of questions about his journey in casual, calm environments (e.g., outside Krem’s tent, inside a tavern). In an interview with GameSpot about creating Krem, Inquisition writer Patrick Weekes stated that “any conversation about the subject [being transgender] had to come up naturally in-game” and “the character had to serve a purpose beyond ‘being there to be a genderqueer person’....Krem’s status as a trans man... [emphasized] Bull’s character by opening up discussions of Qunari gender roles” (Makuch, 2014). In short, Krem not only supports gameplay by serving as party member Iron Bull’s capable lieutenant, but he also supports the narrative by organically discussing gender roles that are relevant to both Dragon Age’s world of Thedas and to real life. As long as developers do their good-faith research, consult with people who have relevant lived experience, and ensure that the diverse character serves a purpose beyond “ticking a box,” they can contribute to the encouraging trend of improved representation and diversity in games.

 
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