April 26, 2017

On Tokenism and Diversity

So, I have a problem, and his name is Cremisius Aclassi. Cremisius, better known as Krem, is a side character in Dragon Age: Inquisition and, to the best of my knowledge, he’s the first trans character I ever came across in a game.

I really, really love Krem, both as a character and as an important step in representation and diversity. Though there are a handful of earlier trans video game characters, they’re few and far between, especially in AAA games. At the same time, he also seems like something of a missed opportunity. Why couldn’t he have been a companion, with his own backstory and quests? Why couldn’t there have been more trans characters (including trans women and non-binary characters)? Why couldn’t the Inquisitor (the playable character) have been trans?

This kind of representation is known as tokenism; defined as “the policy and practice of making a perfunctory gesture towards the inclusion of members of minority groups.” It’s a really common problem in video games, and I’ll get into that more later. For now just imagine how many times you’ve heard the idea that a diverse character is merely there to be PC, or is just checking a box. This is because tokenistic representation still prioritises straight, white, male characters by making them more prevalent both numerically and in terms of their story roles.

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It also leads to this fun situation

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Patrick Weekes, writer for Dragon Age: Inquisition, wrote a very interesting article about the development of Krem as a character. It is, I think, overall very positive. However, he states that “we do not have the budget for someone who is just there to tick off a box.” He is referring to the fact that Krem has key factors in the story of Inquisition that go beyond his status as a trans man, such as allowing the player to get a better understanding of the Qunari and the Iron Bull’s character development. This is, in many ways, a good thing, because it means that Krem’s character is less two dimensional and is not solely focused on the fact that he is trans. However, it puts him squarely in the situation of a minor character, one whose purpose revolves around the Iron Bull, a much more major character and companion. He might have purpose beyond just ticking a box, but he could still have been much less tokenistic if he was a companion in his own right, or one of the other companions was canonically trans. Additionally, whilst Jennifer Hale is undeniably great, it would have been nice to hire a trans voice actor.

Having said that, Krem gets off somewhat lightly, because I discovered while writing this that he’s actually the second trans character in the Dragon Age series. The first was Maevaris Tilani, who appeared in the comic Until We Sleep. She’s a Tevinter magister and friend of Dorian’s, but never appears in the games. That’s some seriously minor representation.

maevaris dragon age, until we sleep, trans women in games, trans video game characters
Which is a real shame, because she looks like a fantastic character.

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Dragon Age isn’t the only culprit in this, however. The recently released Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate also has a trans character: Ned Wynert. I haven’t yet been able to play the game, but it appears that he has a relatively interesting and well thought out back story, and is treated respectfully by the narrative. The same could be said of an Indian immigrant that protagonists Jacob and Evie befriend, called Henry Green (or, to use his original name, Jayadeep Mir. Isn’t that cooler?!). Considering that the tagline for Syndicate is “oppression has to end,” having Henry or Ned as the protagonist would have been a fascinating take on the history of Victorian London, rather than the white and cis Jacob and Evie (of which cis man Jacob takes somewhere around 75% of the main story missions). Instead, Henry and Ned are merely side characters (though Henry does get to star in a spin-off novel, Underworld). Between Ned, Henry, and Evie, Ubisoft is taking steps forward in inclusion. However, their choice in Syndicate of leading with Jacob just doesn’t line up with their claimed goals in investigating historical oppression where Henry, Ned, or Evie could have in engaging and thought-provoking ways.

assassin's creed synidcate, jacob and evie frie, diversity in games, women in games
Ironically, I couldn’t get a good picture of either Ned or Henry. Instead, heave the marketing image with very front and centre Jacob, with (literally) side character Evie and a scattering of other white, mainly male faces.

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These problems are incredibly widespread in the industry, and take many forms. Assassin’s Creed has a tendency to put diverse characters in their books, like Henry, or in poorly advertised spin-off games, like Aveline de Grandpré, the black female protagonist of Assassin’s Creed: Liberation or sidekick Adewalé who was playable only in the DLC for Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. Games that do relatively well in some areas fall down in others, like Life is Strange, which features two LGBTQ+ female protagonists, but relegates people of colour to minor roles. There’s a whole trope – the Smurfette Principle – where an ensemble cast inexplicably has just a single (usually straight, cis, and white) woman.

It also happens in real life. Cons, panels, and discussions often invite just a single woman or person of colour (or one woman of colour to cover both). They are then expected to talk only about their experiences as women or as people of colour, rather than their overall knowledge and skill.

Now, representation is important, and industry inclusivity is coming along, slowly. However, tokenism holds its own problems. A character that serves to represent the whole of an oppressed group can never represent the diversity that is present within any one of these groups. Sure, Krem is great, but he cannot represent every trans man. Until there are a good range of these characters, it’s impossible for them to be a full and fair representation for any group. It also sends the message that heroes are just one kind of person, and anyone else is, at best, support.

So, there are legitimate problems with tokenism (also, I just really want to play as a Nicaraguan trans lady, or a Pakistani lesbian in a wheelchair. Like, these aren’t unrealistic and they would be fun and incredibly conducive to telling interesting stories, so, what’s the problem?). However, oftentimes, the people I hear complaining about including a single diverse character aren’t people like me. They’re people who are against diversity in any way. They’re the ones who, in the same breath as pointing out that tokenism is an unsatisfactory way of diversifying your game, will complain that it’s also historically inaccurate, or that it’s ‘just there to be PC’ or to ‘pander to the SJWs.’

It really intrigues me that someone I disagree with so fundamentally can state something that is true to what I understand about inclusivity, and yet use it to argue the exact opposite of what I’m trying to argue. We know there are problems with tokenism, so we should strive to include diverse characters more often and in larger roles. However, these other commentators would have you believe that tokenism is bad, so you just shouldn’t bother to include a diverse character at all. After all, it’s just sucking up to those pesky feminists and they don’t even play games, right?

At a guess, I would say that diversity detractors feel strongly about tokenism because they see it as a ‘gateway’ to more full and frequent representation, which they’re opposed to for one reason or another. Perhaps others are so used to seeing homogeneous casts of cis, straight, white men that any changes to this feels forced and prompts an adverse reaction. Thus it seems to them that any inclusion of diverse characters is tokenism. For example, if the next Assassin’s Creed featured a respectfully done black trans lesbian as the protagonist, with a supporting cast of all kinds (hey, I can dream), they would still believe that this was purely for “pandering” purposes. Whereas we know it would be a victory for diversity, representation, and storytelling.

This is something that I think deserves more investigation, and it’ll certainly be interesting to see how both sides’ rhetoric changes as protagonists, playable characters, love interests, and supporting casts become more diverse.

For now, I have my fingers crossed for Krem as a companion in Dragon Age 4.

 

Krem image source

Jay
About Jay 18 Articles
Writer, gamer, human, though not necessarily in that order. Both happiest and at my most critical with a controller in my hand. You can email me at jayplaysthings@gmail.com.
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