Over at Border House, Alis Dee really, really wants you to play Dragon Age 2.
Which is, hey, good for her. She drops a bizarre statement,1 but okay, whatever. Reading down the article, though, gave me pause.
: “homosexuality is neither a taboo nor a fetishised “virtue” (a la the pederastic social structures of, say, Ancient Greece/Feudal Japan, or the woeful modern Magical Queer trope).” Yeah I didn’t know those cultures were defined by pederasty either. Learn something new every day, eh?
Ultimately, the main “problem” with DA2′s narrative is that it really does have Social Justice 101 and Feminist Media Deconstruction 201 as prerequisite courses; almost all of the game’s point is lost if you don’t read it from that angle (and, for gods’ sakes, one of the main characters is called “Justice”, just in case everything else was too subtle a hint for you). Even people who do will find it highly contentious — maybe even more-so — purely because the game does try and doesn’t hit 100% of all targets at all times; SJers are used to writing off non-starters, but they’re absolutely brutal with anything that tries and doesn’t make perfection.
The criticisms of DA2′s portrayal of mental illness and its whitewashing are valid, but I think they’re also almost threatening to drown out the ways in which DA2 does work.
See, this is why sometimes criticism and fannishness should be kept apart. It’s like Harry Potter fans who refuse to hear anything about Rowling’s dubious handling of sexual politics and problematic racial discourse. You defend your object of fannishness to the death. You laud it for virtues it may or may not have, and ignore anything you realize isn’t quite right with it. All that is still more or less inoffensive, if daft and myopic, but when your fannishness edges into shutting other people down, it’s no longer okay.
And that’s what she is doing. I feel I need to emphasize: “The criticisms of DA2′s portrayal of mental illness and its whitewashing are valid, but I think they’re also almost threatening to drown out the ways in which DA2 does work.”
Threatening to drown out. Let that sink in. Dismissive? Patronizing? Why yes! The failboat has arrived.
On one hand, she faux-acknowledges that these are valid criticisms. On the other, she’s asking you–suppose you have a mental condition, suppose you are not white–to either shut up with those criticisms or keep it down to a dull roar, please, you’re drowning out the wonder and delight of Bioware’s amazing handling of other completely unrelated issues. I don’t know if Alis Dee ever got the memo but, while there’s such a thing as intersectionality and it’s a complex and nuanced issue, social justice isn’t some giant umbrella under which all marginalized persons join hands and sing kumbaya. It’s possible to acknowledge that a piece of media may pull off portraying women positively2 but still take issue with its handling of race or homosexuality. And that is fine. You shouldn’t be told “But you’re harshing my squee drowning out my very politically progressive appreciation of this work with your nasty icky issues I care less about! Your priorities should be just like mine!”
: Does it even do that very well? For the record, one of the major characters is a woman who wears no pants whatsoever and there’s a scene where her having a lot of sex is played for laughs: i.e. that she ends up with STDs.
Social justice is about inclusivity, and there are few things more exclusive than this strange checklist rhetoric: it ticks gender, it ticks (some) sexuality, it doesn’t tick race or disability, but two out of four–or five or ten even–isn’t so bad, so we’re giving it a pass, right? Never mind the reactions and feelings of those who leveled criticism regarding Dragon Age 2′s problematic ideas of race and disability. The conclusion of this article pleads for exclusion.
I also take issue with her calling out “SJers” for being brutal. What does the label “SJer” mean? If she is talking about “social justice warriors,” it’s a term I’ve seen commonly applied to allies and obnoxious know-it-all faux-allies whose main purpose in engaging with social justice is to show the world how much more enlightened and progressive they are than anyone else through useless armchair blogging. But it also seems like she’s talking about people interested in social justice in general, and that includes the marginalized rather than just allies.
The game hits so many amazing marks — on its portrayal of women, on its treatment of sexuality, on its ability to portray complex intersectional concepts in a not-completely-cringe-worthy way — it’s almost unsurprising that it’s caused so much confusion.
Everyone who likes videogames and has even a passing interest in feminism/social justice (or vice versa) needs to play this game; I can’t even stress that enough. Whether you love it or hate it or buy it or pirate it, Dragon Age 2 is closer to what people like you and me want to see on the market than anything else that’s ever been produced. No, it’s not perfect — it’s not perfect as a game and it’s not perfect as a social justice narrative — but if we don’t hold it up and scream, “YES! THIS! MORE OF THIS!” we’re going to keep getting games like Duke Nukem Forever, well, forever.
And at this point, I cringed like fuck.
What Alis Dee presents is a dichotomy, and it’s one I find rather unpalatable: harking back to my post on tokenism, I still think almost isn’t enough. The suggestion is that we must choose between “failtastic fail” and “almost but no cigar because it still fails on several fronts” is not something I get behind–in fact it’s something I actively, severely reject. Do it right or shut up. Do it right or don’t try: the dwarf Sandal–whose face is always slack-featured and who is every pop-media stereotype of autism rolled into one giant package of godawful insult–never had to be included in either Dragon Age, let alone included so he can play cheap comic relief who screams ENCHANTMENT over and over because someone at Bioware and a lot of their fans think it’s hilarious.