The Historian Achievement in Video Gaming
When I’m not writing my history PhD, you can find me playing the Dragon Age video game series in the free time between 9 PM and midnight. For those of you who haven’t played it *yet*, it’s a fantasy game series which takes place in a land called ‘Thedas’. Unlike some games, Dragon Age critically engages with the concept of ‘history’. During gameplay, it soon becomes clear that history is used to manipulate, deceive and create identity – even while it compromises a character’s (or a player’s) integrity.
As you progress through the games, you find ‘codex’ entries, represented as segments of books, poetry, letters, or songs which teach you about the culture of Thedas. The game draws a number of parallels with our world: the religion of Thedas bears some resemblance to Christianity, in that the Chantry is the unifying symbol that speaks across diverse cultures and languages. It also defines culture and politics, just as the Catholic Church did for Europe for many centuries.
More importantly, the humans that inhabit Thedas are racist towards elves, dwarves and the Qunari. Humans have enslaved most of the elves – and you, the protagonist, discover that the Chantry has purposely changed the race of important historical figures from elf to human throughout recorded history. This whitewashing of the historical narrative is causes you to question the beliefs of non-playable characters as you navigate Thedas.
This codex entry describes the difficulty of being a historian in ThedasBeing a historian in Thedas is also hard work, as a codex entry describes:
“Gathering accurate information is challenging in a place as vast and fragmented as Thedas. One man may go on at length about lurid dealings with a king, then refuse to provide his name or some proof of the account. Other sources may conflict wildly. Fixing travel to some of the more remote areas of the continent is nothing compared to the difficulty I’ve had finding contacts I can trust. I cannot tell you how many times “reputable people” have tried to deceive me, sometimes for personal notoriety, more often in the interest of a pet cause. Trustworthy Qunari, Dalish, and Tevinter contacts are especially scarce, and I prize those I have kept friendly. Often it is I who must earn their trust.” – Excerpt from a lecture by Brother Genitivi at the University of Orlais, delivered shortly after the release of his seminal work, In Pursuit of Knowledge: The Travels of a Chantry Scholar
The same codex entry by Brother Genitivi further illustrates the frustration of the source material, and being unsure about what has been changed, what is an accurate portrayal of an event. As the character describes: ‘While my belief in the Maker is absolute, only a fool would ignore the lessons to be learned from other societies and religions.’ This line is rather striking because it hints at how in our world, we ignore, lessen, and devalue other cultures due to religious differences. Whilst in academia we strive to take into account different viewpoints, bias still exists.
In one of the more recent DLCs (Downloadable Content), you traipse through various archeological sites, ultimately killing a dragon with a soul of a god (as one does in a game about dragons). In so doing, you learn about the first Inquisition whose purpose is to maintain security in Thedas. The Chantry spun the first Inquisitor into a human, obscuring the fact that he was an elf, and changing his religious beliefs to match those of the Chantry. In this way, the DLC forces you to question the information you were given earlier in the game, along with its sources.
Whilst this is a fictional example, it reminds us that history has repeatedly been put to malicious use; conversely, it shows that history can create a united front of nationalism and cultural identity to prevent conflict. Even so, we must always be aware of who is telling us what. This message is incredibly important, and goes beyond Dragon Age. Brother Genitivi’s codex enables those with an interest in history, but who aren’t practicing historians, to understand and appreciate the difficulty of gauging source accuracy and reliability. As a video game series, Dragon Age may be fantastical – however, it has the potential to teach players critical thinking skills. You can never leave History behind…even in video gaming.