What you want to see …

I was watching the video of Anita Sarkeesian on “The Colbert Report” on this site, and in Colbert’s introduction they show a sequence from the starting story of “Dragon Age: Origins”. It happens to be the City Elf starting story. Which I played. As a female protagonist. Which drove my characterization of her as a bitter, angry person who didn’t really care about anyone but herself and kinda her elvish kin, up until the point they proved to be utter jerks as well. Except that her personality had to moderate a bit because she really liked Leliana, and Leliana was nicer than that, if a bit irreverent. Now, I haven’t finished that game yet, but I was wondering what point including that story — which is just one of six to start the game — was, and if that was something that Sarkeesian herself had actually done. And it turns out she did:

So in addition to helping paint a gritty picture for the rest of the game experience, this kind of sexualized violence against inessential female characters is exploited by developers as a sort of cheap one-note character development for the “bad guys”.

CLIP: Dragon Age: Origins
“Let go of me, stop, please!”
“It’s a party isn’t it? Grab a whore and have a good time. Savor the hunt boys.”

It’s a lazy shorthand for “evil” meant to further motivate the protagonist to take the villain down and help justify the excessive violence committed by the player in these games.

After all, if the random thugs or villains are so heartless and vile they attack helpless women, then the player can feel completely justified and even take pleasure in murdering them in ever more gruesome ways.

I snipped out the other clip she used in this sequence, but I think including these statements helps to keep her argument in context and makes a better case for it. Now, I’ve already talked about her argument here and some of the issues with it, but what I think is important here is to note how the context changes if you are playing as a female protagonist here, which, since this is a Bioware game, the game in no way impedes you from doing. From this Gamefaqs FAQ, the differences between the story with a female protagonist and a male protagonist:

Vaughan will interrupt and take the women including you if you are female.Talk with Shianni and men enter, slaying the woman that resists. Fortunately,Soris enters and gives you a [BORROWED LONGSWORD] and [CROSSBOW], kill the Guards and leave the room. Go to the second paragraph in the Male Characters section and continue from there.

Male characters will speak with Valendrian and Duncan who agree to go afterthe women. Duncan will lend you a [BORROWED LONGSWORD] and [CROSSBOW]. Soris joins the party, so head north and enter the estate. Kill the Guard and then go east to run into two Mabari. Continue south killing more Mabari then loot the single [DEATHROOT]. Turn the corner and enter the Palace.

So, if you are playing as a male protagonist, it’s a fairly standard damsel-in-distress rescue sequence. If you play as a female protagonist, what happens is that with some help, you kill your guards, rescue yourself and your companions, and can end up, at the end, taking revenge on the person who tried to exploit you sexually by killing them (which my character did).

Isn’t this exactly the sort of game and game sequence that Sarkeesian wants to see? And other than not having an option for a male protagonist here (and possibly inventing another story), how could you have done this in a way that allowed for that massive, kick-ass statement of female empowerment and for a male protagonist to have a reason to rescue the women, in this case his bride? Heck, if I recall correctly you can even gripe about the arranged marriage. So, instead of this being seen as a trite example of the villains using violence against women to establish their evilness for a male protagonist, why isn’t this seen as an example of using violence against women to provide a backdrop against which the female protagonist is ultimately empowered and freed? It’s the same scene in both cases.

And, you know, I knew that that happened before creating my character, because in order to build an interesting character I looked up the starting stories — because I knew they were different — and picked one that I thought would be cool … and not Magi, because I had already gone through that one once (didn’t finish that game either). I looked them up in the FAQ on Gamefaqs. It looks like Sarkeesian didn’t, or at least didn’t want to let it get in the way of her overall impression of games as a whole. Which means that she might have seen only what she wanted to see … and, in so doing, missed what she really wants to see.

This shallow analysis does both the game and Sarkeesian’s project a disservice. We can do better than this.

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One Response to “What you want to see …”

  1. Feminist Moments in Video Games … | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] Dragon Age: Origins, Female City Elf Starting Story: Essentially, in this story a woman rises up against an oppressive Lord who wanted to rape her and some of her friends, fights her way out of captivity, and rescues herself and them. No damsel in distress, this. Since Sarkessian was impressed by a game where a character was thrown a staff and told to free herself, surely she’d be more impressed by one that was thrown a sword and saved herself and everyone else. I talk more about this scene here. […]

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