Archive for the ‘Game Theory’ Category

Indoctrination, Assimilation, and Elimination: The Reaper Methodology in Mass Effect

The indoctrinated Matriarch Benezia

The indoctrinated Matriarch Benezia

It took three games, but at last now I have a more complete  understanding of how the Reapers go about conquering organic life every 50,000 years.  A warning though: if you have not completed the Mass Effect trilogy, you may want to skip this article for now.  There are spoilers for each game in the franchise.

From Commander Shepard’s first trip to Noveria and her confrontation with Matriarch Benezia, Mass Effect players have learned of indoctrination, the process by which Reapers convince organics that following the machines is the best course of action all the while presenting the appearance of free will. Our indoctrination education continues on Virmire during Shepard and Saren’s first battle.  Our hero realizes that the machines conditioned the former Spectre to think a Reaper takeover is inevitable.  Saren claims that aiding the Reaper Sovereign is the best way to help the species of our galaxy. This theme returns in Mass Effect 3 when Shepard and Anderson realize that the Reapers controlled the Illusive Man.  It is also quite possible that Shepard herself might be indoctrinated toward the end of ME3, though I do not agree with that argument.

The indoctrinated Saren Arterius on Virmire.

Yet this condition is only one possible method of Reaper control.  Obviously this works on the individual level when the machines need key individuals to influence other organics. However indoctrination is a slow process which ultimately burns out the thrall, though not before influencing governments at the highest level and causing all sorts of chaos.

In contrast the second method, assimilation, actually allows entire civilizations to “survive.”  The Reapers, though their agents, capture and then convert thousands of individuals for the specific purpose of creating new reapers.  In order to facilitate this process, the Reapers repurpose one species for the task of capturing and converting.  After the last cycle, the machines turned the Protheans into the Collectors, who were charged with assimilating humankind for the next Reaper. Assimilation normally is the process whereby the dominant social group absorbs a subordinate one to the point where only a few (desirable) traits of the lesser remain.  In the case of Mass Effect, one species is literally collected, processed, absorbed, repurposed and used as material for a new Reaper.  And yet some of that species remains, “alive” if you will inside the new creation.  Had the Collectors succeeded in Mass Effect 2, a successful Reaper invasion would have left humankind alive in the body of the youngest machine.

Human Reaper from Mass Effect 2

Mass Effect investigated indoctrination and Mass Effect 2 covered assimilation. The final act, ME3, told the story of elimination. Up until Shepard’s final confrontation with the Illusive Man Mass Effect 3 chronicles the organics struggle to avoid extinction.  However the final few minutes bring all three aspects of the Reapers methodology into one scene. With the defeat of the Collectors in Mass Effect 2, the Reapers needed to process more humans for the construction of another machine.  Earth of course, provided the greatest source of human beings for assimilation. After Shepard and company make a final assault on the Citadel in order to stave off elimination, she and Anderson find the indoctrinated Illusive Man who believes he can control the Reapers, not realizing he was fully converted into a pawn. From Shepard’s conversation with the Catalyst it is not clear (and the subject of much debate) if she is indeed indoctrinated or not.  Of the three choices presented to her by the Catalyst, two (synthesis and controlling the machines) not only keep the machines intact, but bring about a union of flesh and metal. The hardest choice is for Shepard to destroy the Reapers as she sacrifices herself.

Commander Shepard prevented the assimilation of humans in ME2.

However this choice also presents a possibility that the cycle will finally end.  Shepard had already prevented the assimilation and elimination of her species.  If she chose to also reject indoctrination, she would also remove the first and most insidious aspect of Reaper control.

I have no doubt that my analysis of Reaper methodology is incomplete.  As I work my way through another play through of the entire franchise, my views may change or evolve.


Airport Massacre Revisited: How “No Russian” Might Have Influenced a Killer

Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 (2009)

When I first read John Sutter’s CNN article detailing how Anders Behring Breivik used Modern Warfare 2 to train himself to kill 77 people in Norway last year I thought “here we go again.” We could now lump this with countless other reports and studies linking video games to violence.  As a game scholar, I know that the results of previous studies on game violence and its effects on players have been very mixed.  As a former soldier, I know that shooting a weapon in a game in no way prepares you for firing the real thing.   By the time I finished the article and read some of the comments, I had already filed it into the nonsense folder.

But then I realized the article missed something.

This is not about how to fire a weapon.  That involves aiming, breathing, and trigger squeeze.  Neither a mouse nor a controller can teach you to do any of those.  Nor can a game in any way provide the feel of actually killing another person.  But what it can do in a superficial way is simulate a sense of control when killing many people.  In this case, only Modern Warfare 2 could do that. Had the news report mentioned any other game, I would not have given it a second thought. But MW2 is unique among modern shooters for one reason: “No Russian.”

Modern Warfare 2 is one of the games I used in my dissertation.  Specifically I used the now infamous “No Russian” scene where your character is deep undercover and forced to participate in the massacre at a Russian airport and I used it because it caused so much controversy.  I spent a lot of time analyzing that scene and what I found is that if nothing else, those few minutes allow the player to listen to the panic of “people” fleeing for their lives.  In “No Russian” you can gun down dozens of people in a few short minutes.  You can even watch the wounded crawl away.  Some cower in fear in various corners while others lie dead in pools of blood. MW2 is the only game I know of where your character enters a closed environment with scores of people and systematically guns them down as they try to run, help wounded bystanders, and try to hide behind shelves and columns.

So I ask you: if you planned to commit a massacre, what better game and scene to use? Not Grand Theft Auto.  The NPCs in that game can get away as they have open streets to run through.  However the airport is a closed space.  The people can only run so far.  And they never, ever get away. Worse still, another CNN article states that Breivik planned to film the killings on his iPhone.  Had he done that, it would have been from a first person perspective, just like MW2.

Anders Behring Breivik. Photo via

Of course I don’t know the motivation behind his thinking, but I can imagine him playing that one scene time and again and listening to the screams of people trying to live. Now most of the people in my study dismissed the terror of the “massacre” as simply graphic fiction, something that had no bearing at all on their feelings about violence or their sense of identity.  However there were some gamers who would not play that scene because it felt real. And this is the catch: if games are not real and the people we “kill” are not real, then why are some of us bothered by what we do in the game world?

Perhaps to Breivik the idea of cornering helpless people in an enclosed space and killing all of them was the ideal preparation for the real thing as he methodically killed 77 people.  I can’t say, but it troubles me to think about him comparing the deaths of game characters to real people.  What I do know is that it is a mistake to dismiss violent games because they are games.  Obviously most gamers can play shooters and function perfectly in the real world. Other realize that games do affect them and stay away from the violent ones.  However there is the third group, small in number, who we should pay attention to when they demonstrate that violent games influence them.

Not that any of this is the fault of Infinity Ward or Activision, the makers of MW2.  Ultimately how we use and react to our media is up to us. There is a reason Infinity Ward gave players the option to skip “No Russian.” However I doubt MW2 was the only reason Anders Behring Breivik committed mass murder. I do think, however, that the airport scene allowed him visualize how his real-life victims might react.

This is certainly not the end of the video game violence debate.  Our medium has the unique distinction of allowing consumers to interact with the virtual environment and because of that many think the influence is greater than the passive media of television and film.  What the research has revealed is that still more research is needed.  Yet this case and this particular game show us that we should pay closer attention to the most graphic examples of violence that while extreme, should not define our medium to those who do not play video games.

Mass Effect 3, Marketing, and a Magic Bullet: Emily Wong Reporting

On October 30, 1938, Mercury Theatre of the Air performed H.G.Wells’ War of the Worlds, which was broadcasted over the Columbia Broadcast System radio network.  Orson Welles directed and narrated this now-infamous production.  Because many listeners missed the first few minutes, which included the disclaimer that the performance was only fiction, many believed that an actual invasion was taking place.  This event is often cited as an example of the Magic Bullet (or Hypodermic Needle) theory that states that media have swift and powerful effects on consumers because they believe the entire message.  You don’t hear too much about Magic Bullet nowadays but then a strange thing happened on the way to the release of Mass Effect 3. The 21st century version of War of the Worlds appeared via Twitter.

Emily Wong from Mass Effect.

It all started out with a simple retweet from an Alliance News Network message.  I didn’t pay much attention, but it said something about a mysterious object in the sky.  Another retweet revealed that reporter Emily Wong, from Mass Effect 1, was reporting that Earth communications were down just as this object descended from the clouds.  My interest piqued, I began to follow the Alliance News Network (ANN) so I could get all the tweets as they posted.  What followed was a brilliant re-enactment of War of the Worlds with the Reapers now taking the place of Martians.  Of course I did not realize this at first, but as I read tweet after tweet, I remembered listening to recordings of War of the Worlds and reading about the ensuing panic.

Soon I started following the hashtag connected to the tweets and found that many others were commenting on the messages.  Some even took to role-playing as they pretended to “panic” and in doing so began to “re-enact” the real panic of 1938. I began to see some slight similarities between the mayhem used to support an antiquated theory and the reach of social media.  Of course the reach of ANN is nowhere near the panic of 1938.  Some estimates run as high as 1.7 million people who thought the production was real.  I don’t believe anyone thinks the Reapers are really coming of course and only 8,000 people were on the receiving end of those Tweets, but my guess is that the “magic bullet” BioWare is looking for is an uptick in sales.  Is it a stretch to think that those consumers who are still undecided about buying Mass Effect 3 would do so because of this modern-day War of the Worlds? Or do these message simply reinforce the idea that this is a must-have game for those who have already decided to purchase Mass Effect 3?

As I sit here and read the messages from Emily Wong, I wonder if I will see her in the actual game. Or does her story end before the game begins?  Her frantic messages serve to heighten anticipation of the invasion of course, but they also reveal how quickly messages spread through social media thanks to retweeting and hashtags.  One of the aspects of the classic magic bullet theory is that mass media quickly effect those who consume them. A marketing magic bullet, in this case, might be powered by social media.

Will Defending the Homefront Mean Being Anti-Asian?

Kaos Studios' Homefront is due to release Q1 2011.

In a digital game market flooded with military shooters, Kaos Studios’ Homefront might just stand out.  As a gamer, I look forward to playing something different from a stilted campaign and the standard team deathmatch in multiplayer.  As a game researcher, however, I wonder if a strong, character-driven campaign might raise storytelling in this medium to a higher level while simultaneously engendering unwarranted animosity toward Asians in general and Koreans in particular.  Now you might think that is a stretch, but it seems that many of the needed elements are already in place.

If the title Homefront doesn’t ring a bell, you can check out the information on wikipedia and a brief interview with Kaos Studios head Dave Votypka. In the piece Votypka said he and his team looked to Half Life 2 for inspiration. Regular readers of this blog know HL2 is one of my all-time favorite shooters. HL2 resonated with me because I cared about the characters, particularly Eli and Alyx Vance.  If Homefront can make me care about its characters, then I might just come to hate their enemies. That’s the problem. Yes, we can debate the likelihood of a Korean invasion all day, but the real danger here is that making a connection with Americans under the heel of a brutal foreign power may very well cause hatred for the enemy. In addition, there is also the risk that some gamers may begin to agree with positive representations of the good guys (the Americans) while agreeing with the negative framing of the bad guys (the Koreans). After all, it is only natural that we promote and support positive portrayals of those we identify with (known as the in-group) while at the same time harboring negative perceptions of those not in our group (the out-group).

North Korean solder in Homefront

Now in-groups and out-groups won’t really matter all that much if the single-player campaign is simply about herding the player from large battle to next while killing as many enemy soldiers as possible. Those faceless, generic enemies could be Koreans, terrorists, Covenant, Geth, whatever.  It makes no difference.  That is exactly what you will find in most games: enemies that try to keep the player from his/her goal, but it’s just business (the business of winning). But if I can revisit HL2 for a moment, I really don’t like the oppressive Combine.  Not only do they threaten “people” I care about but the setting developer Valve created was quite convincing and thus I decided to immerse myself in it.

A Combine soldier from Half Life 2.

Can the same thing happen with an occupied United States? Kaos brought in former CIA field operative Tae Kim to add authenticity of the invasion scenario.  Add to that noted screenwriter John Milius (Red Dawn, The Hunt for Red October, Clear and Present Danger) and you have all the elements for an engrossing story. In fact, the assault has already started.  Early promotional images of Homefront typically have the enemy soldiers towering over the camera; the viewer has to look up at the occupier, who is the authority. From the beginning we are made to see the invader as large and intimidating. When you compare that to images of the Combine from HL2 you will see the propoganda machine from the world of Homefront already engaged and doings its best to imitate the atmosphere of a masterpiece.

Of course there are readers who will dismiss this as nothing more than entertainment.

The Other in charge.

Those who support that point of view will argue Homefront is simply fiction.  My response would be that even digital games carry certain messages embedded in their content.  One of those messages here is that a nation and a people most Americans barely know or understand has been written into this game as a merciless enemy who now sits on our shore. While all known intelligence suggests the North Koreans are in no shape to mount such an invasion, because they are (to us) so mysterious, can we really know what they are thinking and planning?  We believe they are aggressive (look at the recent artillery attack on South Korea) and we know they have nuclear ambitions.  What else are they capable of?  They are the classic “other.” It is too easy to demonize and hate that which is other.  Fear and oppression are often-times the consequences of categorizing groups we don’t care to know as “other.”  The phrase yellow peril is not used that much anymore; it has since been supplanted by fears of communism and terrorism, but all that can quickly change.  A triple-A release like Homefront can expose millions of Americans to a hostile Korea. It also happens that the upcoming Operation Flashpoint: Red River features possible conflict between the United States and China in Tajikistan. However Red River is a niche shooter for those who love realistic tactical military games. Homefront has broader appeal by far and the from the looks of reaction so far should steer clear of the outrage surrounding Six Days in Fallujah and Medal of Honor. Those games centered around present US conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Homefront represents a fictional war. To be more precise, Homefront presents a fictional conflict between the United States and Korea and is therefore more acceptable to the American public than those other two games.  However it also embodies cultural conflict with the last cold war enemy, which is also dangerous, albeit in a different way.

Cultivation Effects and Body Image in Gaming

I have to admit there are some beautiful characters in video games.  Not only do they look great but if they were any more photo-realistic and good-looking I might just develop a complex.  The men and women running around saving the nation/world/galaxy from evil are not only fearless, but the finest physical specimens you will ever see.  And that’s a shame.  In a media world where so many of the people we see have atypical body types we find that even our games display this skewed notion of what is beautiful.

The ever-sexy Lara Croft is the standard for female action stars.

Do you remember when the first Tomb Raider came out?  There was a large outcry over Lara Croft.  Simply put, she had very large breasts and a tiny waist.  She was agile as a cat and mean with a shotgun.  Over the years her body has come more in line with the rest of the (real) female world but if you look at her last major release, Tomb Raider Underworld, it’s clear she remains (nearly) as curvaceous and sexy as ever.

Kendra Daniels is smart and sexy, but still a shallow character.

Croft is far from alone.  Many main and secondary game characters all exhibit this same notion of what is beautiful.  When I first played Dead Space, I found myself spending way too much time staring at Kendra Daniels.  Darn EA (the publisher) for putting such a beautiful, and distracting, character in the game! There is an up side however to having so many characters in this category: more content is now available for study.

COG soldier Marcus Fenix from Gears of War

Thanks to this notion of body image and its effects on media consumers, there is quite a bit of research in mass media texts on this subject and rightly so.  However it’s not just the women. The male body image has also been distorted over the years and there seems to be a marriage of the over-aggressive male with the hyper-masculine body type. From a 7-foot tall Master Chief to an overly muscular Marcus Fenix, gamers know some of the greatest heroes in game lore by their physical attributes. Now as a mass media researcher, I have ask what effects, if any, these beautiful people have on gamers.  To put it another way: to what extent do these distorted images effect gamers perceptions of male and female bodies?

I am always cautious about using television theory for video games, but there have been a few studies involving cultivation theory and gaming that may be relevant to this discussion.  Simply put, cultivation theory says that heavy television views will begin to believe that the real world resembles the tv world.  Well, it is not quite that simple, but that is the gist of it.  Now this theory has been applied to violence, racial and gender stereotypes, and body image (to name a few).  The scant few studies available on cultivation and gaming have produced mixed results.  Some reveal minor cultivation in subjects while others only see the potential for it. And while I do not want to go into details about those studies here, I will offer some thoughts about this whole discussion.

First, does genre matter?  For television, cultivation theory asserts that all content carries the same messages.  What matters most is how much someone watches television. If we translate that to video games, then playing a shooter should be same as playing an adventure game.  Likewise, a role-playing game should have the same effect as a racing game.  To be honest, I am not sure if some sports games are applicable but I will table that thought for now.

Second, the intense, visceral experience of game play is such that many times, there is no time to observe much of the environment or characters because we get swept up in the action.  Gamers spend much of their time trying to “survive” in order to beat the level or finish the game.  If you have ever played a few minutes of any recent Call of Duty game, then you know what I mean. How much might the fact that I spend most of my time shooting or trying not to be shot play into or mitigate the possible effects of cultivation?

Call of Duty Black Ops. Is this character realistic enough for cultivation?

Third, I read where the uncanny valley may also diminish the effects of cultivation. The uncanny valley (as it relates to video games) is the notion that when game character models reach the point where they look human, people will notice the little things that are not human in them and be turned off.  However when the characters become human in all areas, then they are accepted again.  Conversely, if game characters only look somewhat human, it is their human qualities that make then endearing to consumers.  So do I need characters that are nearly human in order for cultivation to kick in?  Or is it the case that the inhuman appearance and qualities of these characters leads me away from thinking that the game world is like the real world?

Of course like any other theory, cultivation has its critics (I won’t get into all that here). However I think it is certainly worth while to explore this issue.  While race and violence may vary from genre to genre, it could very well be that body image could be the constant across genres. However consideration must also be given to the engrossing nature of game play, the uncanny valley, the aforementioned genres and other factors.

Christian Iconography in Dragon Age Origins

Numerous reviews of Dragon Age Origins knocked the game for its generous use of blood.  Not so much that the game has copious amounts of blood but rather the way that characters go about their business after battles while covered in it. I have to admit they do look rather silly having conversations with people without even bothering to wipe the blood off their faces and clothes but it doesn’t take too much away from an otherwise excellent game.

While DOA does not shy away from using blood on-screen whenever possible it seems, it also brilliantly uses symbolism in other areas.  In fact, the player does not even need to enter the game to see how well icons foreshadow the horror that is to come.  One need only look at the title screen to see how well developer BioWare has crafted Christian symbols into the mythology of Ferelden.

Christian icons abound in this image.

The dominant portion of this image is the sword in the foreground.  This weapon is not just stuck in the ground, but it is embedded in someone’s chest.  We can see blood runs halfway up the blade.  Visible in the background is another sword. It appears both have been left on the battlefield.  In the background we can see mountains and trees. Dark clouds move overhead.  Darkness shrouds the entire image.

Any analysis of the symbols gets easier thanks to George Ferguson. In 1955 he wrote Signs & Symbols in Christian Art. This work is a masterpiece in Christian iconography.  In it, Ferguson deftly places many items we see everyday into their proper connection with Christianity. Thanks to him, I can look into the overtly religious world of DOA and connect some of the dots to the Christian faith.

For example, Ferguson notes that clouds represent the unseen God. On DOA‘s title page, however, the clouds are a dark mixture of red and black.  Black means death and the underworld but can also represent the prince of darkness, witchcraft, mourning, sickness, and  negation.  In contrast to black, red symbolizes blood as well as the emotions of love and hate. Red also stands for martyred saints. I said before that the scene is quite dark.  Ferguson writes that in Christianity physical darkness represents spiritual darkness.

So before we even begin the game, Bioware presents the image of warfare and carnage, but not just on the physical level.  The rolling dark clouds indicate a spiritual battle taking place in the heavens.  In Dragon Age terms, the Maker and the arch-demons battle in the heavens while man and demon fight on earth. And the outcome seems to be in doubt.

Underneath the clouds we find rocks in the foreground and mountains in the distance.  While shadows shroud the far-off  mountain range, the rocks in the foreground appear brown. Now rocks symbolize the Lord while stones indicate firmness. However brown means spiritual death and degradation, a possible indication that evil prevails. A second indicator of the strength of evil in this game could be that the earth, meaning the Church/Chantry (which feeds man with spiritual faith and offers him shelter) is also covered in shadow.

Which brings me back to the pair of swords in the foreground.  Aside from the obvious connection to the Word of God, swords can also represent numerous saints in Christian history.  The number two stands for the two natures of Christ: human and divine while blood symbolizes life and the human soul as well as martyrs. Curiously, it appears that both swords are embedded in the same person. Furthermore, we cannot tell who that person is and if he was good or evil. Perhaps we were not meant to know.

The wonderful thing about all this analysis is that BioWare might now have known what was going on when they created this title page.  Or perhaps they did.  Whatever the case, I choose to read the page this way and it certainly helps me enjoy the game that much more.

The Message of The Normal Noble in Dragon Age Origins

Dragon Age Origins is my new favorite game.

Disclaimer: There are some minor spoilers for Dragon Age Origins in this blog.  You’ve been warned.

Disclaimer 2: I am still working on my first play through of DOA but I want to write down my thoughts as I play through. It may turn out I am wrong on a number of issues and if so I will blog about it at a later date.

I just bought a copy of Bioware’s Dragon Age Origins last week.  After playing for four days I am hooked.  Whereas before I was not sure if I would even like it, now I find myself thinking about it even when I’m not playing.  That’s when you know you’ve found a game that rocks.

I’ve enjoyed it so much it took me two days to realize something was wrong.

Let me go back to the beginning. For those who don’t know Dragon Age, like so many other role-playing games, lets you create your character and select a background before you plunge into the adventure.  I chose to be a human noble female. Now I don’t play RPGs that much but whenever I do, I always create a black woman.  That way, I can bring two under-represented groups at the same time.  However for some reason, I could not create a black woman this time.  All I could do was give her a bit of tan that just didn’t look right.  After trying four or five times I gave up, made her the best I could, and started the game.

Character creation for nobles is limited in Dragon Age Origins

When my character walked into the castle (she was a noble after all) I realized why my choices were so limited: my family was white.  Mentally I kicked myself for being so silly.  Noble.  Castle.  Very European.  Of course they were white.  That makes perfect historical sense.  And so with only a twinge of disappointment, I launched into the grand epic.

After two days of killing darkspawns and demons it finally dawned on me that something wasn’t right.  It turns out my character was not the problem.  The family was.  Well not exactly. Or maybe that’s really two problems.  The first problem was that I could not create the character I wanted to create because historical accuracy (in a fantasy game mind you) dictated otherwise.

The second problem is that I accepted the fact that a noble human family in a fantasy game should be white due to the setting.  Dragon Age is a fantasy, right?  If I can be a part of a world that contains the most honorable heroes, the Gray Wardens, and the most vile villains then why is it so hard to have a noble family of color?  In my days of traveling the land, I have seen NPCs of color, though none of significance yet.  I assume I will eventually run into one who will present me with a side quest or something.  So if that is the case that there are free NPCs of color in the land then why can they not be a part of the noble class?

Bioware went to great lengths to provide different backgrounds for players to select: human, elves, dwarves and so on. Moreover, they have carefully crafted a spectacular game with a rich and diverse mythology.  I am still amazed by what I have seen so far.  So then how hard would it have been for them to add code to change the family to fit the character?  If I wanted to create an Asian male, then the game should automatically create a family to match.

These were the choices I had in Knights of the Old Republic

The more complex and insidious issue here is that it took me a few days to realize something was wrong.  You see when I realized the European setting dictated a European family, I was okay with that.  It seemed very normal to me. Therein lies the problem.  Because it was normal, I did not question it, though I should have.  I probably should have been outraged that being white and noble was hardwired into the game as well as my consciousness.  But I was having such a great time playing the game that all thoughts of accepting (or rejecting) that particular messages soon fell by the wayside.  And yet this is a fantasy game.  In my fantasy games, I want my heroes to be people who look like me.  I did it that way in Knights of the Old Republic and I did it that way in Mass Effect. Bioware has spoiled me. What’s the difference between those two games and Dragon Age?  In Knights and ME the hero came from either a tragic or mysterious background.  We only got to hear about their origins.  In Dragon Age, I got to experience my character’s home and family.  There was a sense of community.  I had access to my parents, servants, and pets.  All very normal, even it all took place in a huge castle.  The hidden message here: in the better or preferred background, you can’t be black or Asian.  Those races are relegated to the abnormal. This other background is only acceptable for that mysterious person, that tragic survivor, the violent war hero, or the fallen dark lord.

What we are really taking about is re-imagining characters in-game and we should all be used to it by now.  Last summer the entire concept of Star Trek changed with the new movie.  Battlestar Galactica re-imagined the whole series including some of the main characters such as Starbuck (from Dirk Benedict to Katee Sackhoff) and Boomer (from Herb Jefferson Jr. to Grace Park).  In Marvel Comics’ Nick Fury went from white (comics) to black (movies). And who can forget Brandy as Cinderella? I would like the option to either embrace or reject those messages of what is normal in my games.

Now you might think that after all this I would stop playing Dragon Age Origins.  Not so.  I’ve had too much fun to stop anytime soon.  And it may turn out that when I choose another origin the result will be better.  I have yet to try being an elf or a dwarf.  But even if I run into the same problem, I believe this tale will be every bit as satisfying as Bioware’s other games. However fantasy above all else should be about escaping from the norm.  Whenever writers and developers only bring those norms into the game, they limit what the player can do to enrich his/her experience by not allowing that player’s notion of identity to be included.