Badassery Incarnate, pt2: Feeling Excluded When You’re Not a Straight White Dude (aka my time as a gamer)

When I watched “The Men Who Built America” trailer, I saw red partly because this is just one in a long line of trailers I’ve had to sit through where (often rich and/or straight) white men are running around doing badass things and after about the twentieth trailer it starts to feel like you are getting the message, “This is what badassery looks like. And if you don’t look like this–if you don’t see yourself in these people on the screen–then you are not capable of being a badass like they are.” And while it’s possible to identify with someone who doesn’t share your class, gender, race, sexuality, etc., it can be extra hard to when these trailers play up “This is a MASCULINE guy and this is a HIGH CLASS rich person and this is a EUROPEAN American.”

I had a pretty similar experience last year when I watched a trailer for the video game Dragon Age II. I’m an avid gamer who identifies strongly as a gamer and who is invested in gamer culture, so it felt like a slap in the face to see this series play into the same “by white men for white men” crap that currently permeates the majority of gamer culture–specifically the RPGs that I play. It’s fine for any one game to be by white men about white men. But when it’s game after game after game it’s hard to shake the feeling that, “hey, maybe you don’t belong here.” I got this same feeling when I ran around my high school spouting about how much I loved Fight Club until several different people told me, “Oh, I thought that movie was about masculinity.” Suddenly, I felt cut off from this thing that I love, that I identified with. It’s the feeling of This Is Not For You; this thing and you are mutually exclusive.

Here’s the DA II trailer I got all in a huff about:

For some context, Dragon Age: Origins (the first game in the series) was amazing in that you could play as a woman or a man, straight, bi, or gay, and occupy a whole host of different socio-economic positions (commoner, noble, royal, outcast, ward of the state (sorta), etc). On my first play through, my character was from an inner-city ghetto (albeit a white, elfish one) and I had to basically get recruited into a special ops military group (to save me from execution) after I killed a noble who raped my friend and killed my fiancee because he (the noble) felt entitled to a prima nocta. As far as video games go, the gender/class/sexuality consciousness of DAO was astounding. (Not perfect–but definitely above the norm.)

That’s why it was an extra kick in the gut for the trailer of DA II to represent itself–and all the different kinds of heroes you can play as–with the same old trope of, “Here’s you–the beefy nordic-looking male fighter.”

(I’m also pissed that they used the voice of Flemeth–one of the most bad ass characters of the series who is supposed to be this witch of mythic status who may literally eat men’s souls–and she’s sitting there narrating about how there are a few “men” who manage to grab destiny by the balls. WTF.  It’s such a weird dissonance to realize, this is not what this character would say.  This is a bunch of men putting words into this woman’s mouth.  Flemeth, the actual character, would instead say something like this: ‘Some men change the world forever.  Then I change into a dragon and eat them.  Because that’s how I roll.’)

7 thoughts on “Badassery Incarnate, pt2: Feeling Excluded When You’re Not a Straight White Dude (aka my time as a gamer)

  1. I likewise wish that the trailer could be a little less “heroic white guy” (I think the token character they design always look like a frat boy, fwiw). But if we’re criticizing gaming and gamer culture, I think it’s a little unfair to pick on Dragon Age just because of this trailer. Yeah, it would be nice if the trailer featured a female/non-white protagonist. But that doesn’t change the fact that the Dragon Age games allow you to build all sorts of characters – gay or straight, male or female, and a range of racial identities. Not to mention that both Dragon Age games – but particularly DAII – have been strikingly progressive in how they handled gender and sexuality (even when it meant taking flack from some of their less progressive fans).

    So yeah, the trailer isn’t what it could be. (The trailer for Dragon Age Origins was similar: also featuring a heroic token white guy.) But if we’re looking for video games to criticize for their depictions of gender and masculinity, I think there’s a big long list that comes above Dragon Age. As an occasional gamer (and and endless viewer of gaming, thanks to the exploits of ersatz-partner), I’m really grateful that there are games like the Dragon Age franchise out there.

  2. On the whole, BioWare are ahead of the curve on this, as magicalersatz says — and this is true of the Mass Effect series as well as the Dragon Age series. I think it’s an issue with their marketing in general, though, not just with this trailer: in the promos for Mass Effect, and on the box art, Shepard is always a man — even though you can (like in DAII) choose to make the main character female instead of male if you wish.

  3. Carl: things got better with Mass Effect 3 – female Shepard was used in marketing.

    I agree, the Bioware games have been pretty good when it comes to representations of gender/sexuality/race, etc, even though the adverts haven’t always made that clear. But Bioware’s response to people complaining about homosexual relationships in their games was great!

    I’m kind of dubious about the claim that ‘made by white guys for white guys’ permeates gamer culture to such an extent, given the size and influence of the Japanese games industry. But certainly, there don’t seem to be many women working in the games industry, which is sad.

  4. Hah so I deleted a paragraph from this post b/c I figured it wasn’t that important, but I see I should have kept it. It explains why I’m picking on the Dragon Age series.

    The issue is exactly that Bioware is normally great about not being misogynistic, homophobic, overly racist, classist, etc. DAO is a “safe” game for me. That means I can play it and know my blood pressure isn’t going to hit the roof at any point. It means I can let my guard down and explore the game, even the parts that seem like they could easily veer towards major woman-hating themes, because I *trust* Bioware not to pull that crap on me.
    (This is unlike, for instance, the Witcher. I hear it’s a great game. I am never going to play it though–merely watching someone else play it and collect cards of for all the women they’ve slept with made me feel whatever the opposite of warm & fuzzy is.)

    So with DA II, even though I already knew that this game was probably going to be as inclusive as DAO, the trailer stuck out as this giant reminder: “Hey, you know how you love video games and all? Well, here’s a reminder that they’re not fully a safe space for you. Even the ones that seem extra awesome might throw this erasure crap at you. So keep your guard up. Because you never know when we’re gonna treat straight white men as being the default. Here’s a remindee that this awesome world we created–we didn’t really think that hard about making a place for you in it.”

    I’m sure there’s a more sophisticated way to explain this psychological phenomena, but I think it has something to do with the intensely personal relationships you can build with these kinds of games and gaming companies. So I recognize that this is a very individual, personal reaction I’m having to these trailers. (But it is tied up with my social identity.) I’m sure there are women though who have played DA II and the Witcher and never felt so much as a twinge of unpleasantness.

    Just to note, a similar thing happens to me with novels. There are some ‘safe’ authors that I’m always in the mood to read, but there are other authors who don’t feel so ‘safe’ so even if on the whole I’ve like their work, some days I don’t have the energy to read them b/c I don’t have the energy to put up my guard in case one of their characters goes on an unchecked misogynistic rant.

    Am I on my own with this or does anyone else experience something like this? (Even if not with video games.)

  5. A few other scattered responses:

    @magicalersatz: I’m with you on the gratefulness. DAO is a “comfort” game for me, in the same way we can have comfort foods. It’s hands down of my favorite RPGs of all time. I recently re-watched one of it’s cut scenes where an army is facing darkspawn, and I remembered how emotional I got the first time I watched this (years back) because as it panned across the line of infantry, there were women. Just standing there. Doing infantry things. This is the flip side to the DA II trailer: after playing dozens and dozens and dozens of games in these fantasy worlds where anything is possible yet the soldiers and politicians are all/mostly men–this kind image of women at the front lines of war (and it not being a big deal) is immensely powerful.
    (Here’s the cutscene for anyone who wants to watch it: The stuff I mention is in the first 50 seconds or so.)

    @Carl & Ross: One thing about ME3 that made me laugh was that they made the cover art for the xbox cases double-sided. One featured the male Shepard and the other the female Shepard. But as far as I could tell, all the cases originally shipped with the male Shepard picture on the front. (Some players didn’t even realize it was double sided until I pointed it out to them.)

    Also, with the ‘made by white guys for white guys’ comment, I added the addendum “specifically the RPGs that I play” for this reason. I used to play the Final Fantasy serious, but as I’ve gotten older I haven’t picked up as many non-US(?) games as I used to. So I’ve found that for most of the stuff I play, whenever I watch behind-the-scenes videos, I’m more often than not presented with white men. Whenever I see images of game creators, they are usually white men. So then when I see trailers for these games, and the main characters are presented as white men, it’s hard not to take the tag line “By gamers for gamers” as having the subtitle: “By white men for white men.” But from what I’ve seen of media that portrays itself as representing gaming or RPG games as a whole, this over abundance of white men doesn’t seem to be a thing specific to my personal collection of high fantasy, gothic fantasy, and post-apocalyptic RPGS.

    For example, I’ve looked at videos from these games in the past few years:,,

  6. I actually sympathize with the DA point. My game of choice is Call of Duty, and the game is awful with respect to gender (that is, there just are absolutely no women), and the online community is even worse. Well, maybe that’s not quite fair. The vocal aspects of the online community are often openly misogynistic, homophobic, racist, etc. There are a lot of folks who don’t fit that description who play online, they just tend to not talk as much. It definitely bothers me, but I also expect it. I’m significantly more disappointed when I don’t have that expectation.

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