Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Racism, Jews, and Elves: A Dragon Age Tale

Jews have been represented in literature for over hundreds of years, with varying degrees of racism.  As we explored in the age of Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale, Jews were often depicted as money oriented, dirty, and even violent murderers who were susceptible to Satan’s charms.  Over the last few centuries, the racism has seen little improvement.  Only seventy years ago, Jews were forced into ghettos and concentration camps by Nazi Germany, based entirely on their Jewish heritage alone.  While this overt form of anti-Semitism has not been seen on such a large scale in the modern era, city elves in Bioware’s Dragon Age series of video games reflect the plight Jewish people have dealt with since ancient times.

Unlike Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, where elves are largely similar to one another, the elves in Dragon Age are defined by their geographical locations in the continent of Thedas, where the game takes place.  After the fall of their home city Arlathan, elves were forced into slavery for many years.  During this time, the elves lost most of their cultural heritage and identity.  After attempting to rebuild their civilization several times (and failing), their few numbers have been scattered all over Thedas in either forests as primitive nomads, called the Dalish, or in cities as impoverished outcasts.  If you choose to be an elf in the first game, Dragon Age: Origins, human characters associate you with poverty, crime, barbarism, and treat you with disgust.  They blame you for their troubles, and often expect you to find a proper solution to fix it.
Vhenadahl Alienage

Another interesting component of the game is the difference between the Dalish elves and the city elves.  The Dalish elves, though nomadic in nature, do not have to deal with the overt racism that the elves in the cities must deal with.  In fact, in cities, elves are regulated to areas called “alienages”, where elven people and cultures are allowed to exist.  Tall walls surround the alienages, and are guarded by corrupt officials that the player must bribe to pass.  In some cities, these walls are so high that they block some sunlight and the rest of the city, symbolizing their unworthiness.  Guards will ignore crimes that elves commit in favor of prejudice, and elves may not experience traditional ceremonies (such as marriages) of their own people.  For many elves, going hungry is natural, and they are all struggling to get by.

The amount of detail Bioware put into the elven culture is remarkable, but much of the elven plight is influenced by Jewish history.  The conquering of Israel by Bablyon and Rome led to hundreds of years of diaspora and slavery, just as the elves are dispersed in the game.  Their restriction to Jewish ghettos, where racism, corruption, and starvation thrives is represented in the elven alienage’s.  While I don’t think Bioware was attempting to solve the racism problem that still exists for many cultures with the release of a videogame, the issues present in the game do present the dilemma as a question: why does this racism take place?  What is racism like if it affects you, the player?

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