The following comes from an abstract I wrote for the Cultural Studies conference. It’s an idea I’m kicking around about how the old World War II narrative of “good pluralist power” versus “fascist monocultural power” gets reworked today in Bioware RPGs. Feedback is welcomed.
This essay will explore the management of cultural differences in perhaps the most profitable and widely circulating form of entertainment today: video games. Particularly, I will look at the Dragon Age and Mass Effect series from Bioware, which combined have sold over fourteen million units worldwide. I claim that both series rely heavily upon “neo-racist” assumptions of cultural difference, where culture is seen, as Etienne Balibar predicted, “like a nature,” and racial signifiers mark individuals “a priori into a genealogy, into a determination that is immutable and intangible in origin” (“Is There a Neo-Racism?” 22). This acceptance of cultural insurmountability opens the way to an unquestioned division of labor, which the player must maintain and manage if he wishes to win the game(s).
Set in a mythical European fantasy, the Dragon Age series depicts a time where segregation, race wars and religious fundamentalism were the norm, and likewise the player, after choosing a particular race to belong to, is limited to siding with the immigrant Qunari, the scapegoated mages, the enslaved dark elves, the religious chantry, or the power-hungry Templars. Any attempt by the player to create a bridge between either of these groups, or to remain neutral, becomes either impossible, or only increases the amount of ensuing racial violence. The Mass Effect series, set in a Sci-Fi universe, reverses these racial aspects of Dragon Age. Rather than choose to be a member of any race or species, the player must be “human,” and their ability to choose a skin color is reduced to a purely aesthetic decision, since skin-color does not affect any interaction (while gender and origin story often do). While Dragon Age—especially Dragon Age 2—sets races against each other in feudal grabs for power, in Mass Effect, the player joins a multicultural alliance—the Citadel—to defeat armies of “monocultures,” species who have kept so conservatively to their own traditions that they have become easily influenced and unnecessarily violent (à la the War on Terror). Implied in both of these series is that contemporary society stands somewhere “in-between” the feudal race wars of the mythic past and the multicultural ideal of the distant future.
Using the theories of Balibar, Lisa Lowe, Homi Bhabha and Wendy Brown, this paper will argue that both Bioware series reinforce the neo-racist assumption that each “race” be confined to a particular normative behavior. In doing so, these games support an unquestioned racialized division of labor, where each race is given special attributes and labor roles, while the humans—analogous to “whites” in western multiculturalism—are seen as “jacks-of-all-trades,” who can appropriate any specialty they wish. Strengthening this point are the group combat mechanics of the game, which allow the player to make decisions that can offend and even drive away his valuable, but more sensitive multiracial companions. The player thus learns not only to accept these assumptions, but also discover new ways of reinforcing and managing racial difference within an ideology that accepts cultural insurmountability and a racialized division of labor.