How To Become An Ally

Posted on May 13, 2016

PART 1: Play More Games

By Molly O’Grady

Games are important for more reasons than I can list here, but one thing they lack is diversity. An often used counterexample in the debate on the serious lack of main characters that include races other than white, gender identities other than cis male etc. is Role Playing Games (RPGs), in which you can create your own character. However this example is moot as many games with character creators, for instance the Soulcalibur series, graphically sexualise female characters and reinforce masculine power fantasies. And even games that laud their diversity like Mass Effect took until the third entry in the series to release box art with a (still white) female Shepherd, or have a same-sex relationship between two men. There are many many complaints from people of colour (POC) within the gaming community about character creators not providing the variety of skin tones, hairstyles, facial features etc. that would allow them replicate their own appearance, reinforcing the idea that these games are really made with white people in mind. In my experience the worst offender was Fallout: New Vegas, the darkest skin colour available could be easily mistaken for a caucasian with a tan.

That being said, for the past 5 years I have made a dedicated effort to create RPG characters that do not look like me, a white woman, in order to change my own attitudes to identifying with women of colour (WOC) because, as a white person, I am actively discouraged, personally and politically, from identifying with POC and especially WOC. As an ally, it is your duty to make the effort. If you call yourself a black ally or a feminist ally and never choose to portray a character that challenges your identity, you are holding back. You must make an effort to create black characters, or female characters, or even queer characters in the case of some Bioware games to call yourself an ally. Every time I start a new RPG, whether it be Fallout or The Sims, I will always choose a WOC. The main reasons are so that I can both visually and morally align myself with those usually marginalised, allowing me to undo the good work of years of racial conditioning. The added benefit of this tactic is that when I played the Bioware RPG Dragon Age: Inquisition, instead of being a generic white dude sticking flags in every untouched piece of ground, making decisions that can literally start wars, and generally telling everyone else what to do through nothing more than the divine word of God, there’s no Mighty­Whitey sting because I chose to play a black woman, an archetype not typically associated with religious oligarchies. This is not some kind of effort to alleviate guilt, guilt is a waste of time and only serves to highlight your own selfishness, because this may involve you but it is not about you.

In a Perfect World…

In the Dragon Age series of games, your choices are what drives the narrative forward. Who you choose to ally yourself with and who you choose to reject can have great consequences on the ending of the game. The pressure to ensure a perfect ending is, for me at least, a cause for great anxiety. For the sake of argument I’m going to talk about the particular kind of RPG that publishers like Bethesda and Bioware create, huge narratives involving choices that will result in multiple possible endings, depending on what flavour of saint or jerk you feel like being. I’ve never been someone who wanted to play “the bad guy” in an RPG. ‘Why on earth would you?’, I ask myself, ‘are you also the kind of person who finds humour in the misery of others, playing your pranks and responding when met with derision: “Learn to take a joke.”’

I question the need to “try out” being a jerk even in the context of a video game because it innately allows you to act from an incredibly privileged position, reinforcing a negative internalised notion of yourself, and to inevitably gain from the suffering of others. Oh, but you cry; ‘It is just a game! It does not affect me for I am impervious to any and all influences and stimuli!’ Dragon Age is just a game in the same way that The Bible is just a book, in that it is not, it is so much more. Art has influence, even if the context of the art is alien to us, i.e. wizards aren’t real, but the world of Harry Potter has some pretty important things to say about discrimination. Is it safe to say that Harry Potter rather than Malcolm X had more impact on me growing up? The answer is yes, however my father’s bedtime stories, often Robin Hood tales of Black Panthers protecting neighbourhoods from police brutality, perhaps paved the way for my innate acceptance, and approval, of Dumbledore’s Army. Art is not a one-­to-one allegory. However the art we create is reflective of our truth, and in turn the truth we seek vs the truth we need are often opposed.

But back to the Dragon Ages of the world. I want to create a game world wherein I do the things that one should do as an ally in real life, and that is unfortunately to act in a way that alienates the privileged, not intentionally, but as a result of needing to speak on behalf of those that cannot speak for themselves. The result is that I lose allies in the war, racist allies, allies that own slaves, that impose a hierarchy of class, that believe mages, those born with the ability to use magic, are dangerous from birth, that believe mages are superior to all others, that believe mages should be strictly controlled by the church. Practising making difficult decisions of morality helps you not only question why you feel the way you do, but also to live with the consequences of those decisions. The worst ally is one that is too afraid to challenge an oppressor, whether it be a colleague telling sexist jokes, or a long­time white friend who always specifies the race of everyone except white people in their stories, whether it is relevant to the tale or not. Practice makes perfect, and practice can come in many shapes and sizes.

Call A Mage A Mage…

As a woman playing a female character, it is satisfying to play Dragon Age Inquisition because I don’t have to prove myself as a female character, but within the context of the universe, I do have to prove myself as an elf, a race that can be chosen by the player within the character creation. Elves within the Dragon Age universe are enslaved and relegated to alienages by humans, more or less prison­esque ghettos within the larger cities. There is a particular point in the game when you, The Inquisitor, are invited to a ball held in Orlais, a fictional Italian country in which everyone is French. Upon arrival at the palace, a court approval meter appears, showing the player how much the court as a whole approves of their existence. I chose to play as an elf character, and elves are at best isolated nomadic communities and at worst slaves. Instantly I lose 10 approval for being an elf. ‘That is so unfair!’, I cry, to no one in particular. ‘They don’t even know me! They are making a racist presumption!’

Now I had to do more quests and tasks to “make up for” being the unprivileged race. Had I chosen to play as a human rogue or warrior, I would gain 5 approval. Another race, the Qunari, would have lost me 15 approval. I would not claim that after this incident the intricacies of racial inequality are so much more clear to me in a ‘This is what black people must feel like’ epiphany, because the point of being an ally is not to know exactly how systemic oppression feels because that is impossible and claiming so is an insult to those who do live within that system. To be able to see, and hear, rather than feel and know, is what matters.

So what does this have to do with being an ally in the real world? One aspect of being an ally, that is probably the easiest to trip up on, is that it is never about you. It involves you yes, as someone who, whether they accept it or not, is coming from a position that may socially or economically benefit from the oppression of, and/or suffers as a result of the oppression of the other. For example, a man who does work considered “for women” will suffer because he behaves “like a woman”, and women’s work is what is inferior, not the man doing it. However a white girl will not suffer for affixing a bindi to her forehead, while the women who wear them for their own cultural reasons continue receiving regular abuse. If you have not suffered systemic oppression you cannot relate to it. Suffering as a result of another group’s systemic oppression is not the same thing because the first triggers the second: without the oppression, the fallout doesn’t exist. You are no more or less than the last domino on the table, but also the finger that began the fall.

Whether we privileged few like it or not, the world we grow up in forms us to unsee oppression. As an ally, it is my duty to spend even my spare time identifying with POC and Queer POC, and RPGs are one the easiest way to start that. While we are continuously working on creating more representation in media, there is still a long way to go, and as such, even in your down time, the need to identify and humanise the people you claim to ally with is ever-present. So play a woman of colour today, and see for yourself how depressingly pale the darkest skin tone in the Mojave is.