Dragon Age III’s Gaider On The Impracticality Of Sexism

All this talk of sexism isn’t going away, nor should it. The gaming industry’s sick, and the symptoms are plain as day. Mystifyingly often, however, the immediate reaction to even the faintest hint of that suggestion is “No, nuh-uh! You just want to censor expression! Give me one good reason we actually need to change.”* Well, if you really want to move beyond “Because jeez, it’s basic human decency to treat someone else the way you’d like to be treated,” Dragon Age III lead writer David Gaider’s got a laundry list of practical reasons for you. 14 years at one of the most influential studios out there, after all, will do that to you. Especially when it’s one that’s certainly not innocent of mistakes and missteps of its own. Prior to Gaider’s GDC talk on the very same subject, I caught up with him to discuss why sexism (and any sort of “-ism,” really) is bad for everyone: you, me, the industry, and of course, women or anyone else directly affected.

RPS: So what’s the basic thesis of your GDC talk? I know you’re discussing sex and sexism, but what conclusion are you ultimately trying to draw?

Gaider: Basically I’m saying that, from the perspective of a writer and a designer who’s had to deal with a lot of romance in games – romance and sex – which brings me directly into confrontation issues and sexism and sexuality… Until we had broached that topic, it was kind of a side issue. I guess back in the day, when we were first starting with it, it wasn’t something that the industry kept in mind at all. But the fact that we have charged directly into that field, that means… Sexism and sexuality issues are things that I end up having to deal with on a regular basis. I thought I could offer some feedback on that.

The fact that we’ve had to confront these issues has made us better developers.

Essentially I guess the thrust of what I’m talking about is, the fact that we’ve had to confront these issues has made us better developers and has made our games more inclusive. That’s a good thing. In the talk I’m discussing why the industry doesn’t often treat that as more important, and maybe what we as an industry should be considering moving forward.

RPS: Did you see the recent thing about Remember Me, and the fact that the developer had to shop it around a bunch simply because their main character was female?

Gaider: Yeah, I find it interesting. I call it “accepted industry wisdom.” The thing about accepted industry wisdom is that you can’t question it. Everyone just agrees. It’s weird. The things that the industry decides are treated as incontrovertibly true until someone else comes along and proves them definitively wrong in a way that we cannot ignore. Then, of course, everyone jumps on it.

It’s like back when EverQuest was at its height. I think it had about 800,000 subscribers. At the time, accepted industry wisdom said, “Okay, some other MMOs have tried to come out and jump on EverQuest’s bandwagon and couldn’t do it. Obviously 800,000 subscribers is the MMO market. That’s capped out.” It was accepted. You couldn’t get more than that. Those were the only people who were interested in playing MMOs. Then World of Warcraft came out and it was a game-changer. Everyone said, “Oh, I guess we were wrong.”

To say that about female protagonists – that they just don’t sell [is myopic]. Over the last 10 years, how many titles have had female protagonists? And we’re supposed to accept, from those particular titles, that a) that constitutes a pattern, and b) the only reason those games were unsuccessful is because they had female protagonists? That is a real leap of logic. What it is, it’s just that accepted industry wisdom is often deciding that the reasons these things happen are because we’ve already come to an assumption and we’re trying to justify that assumption. So yes, there is lots of that in the industry.

RPS: You used the phrase “definitively wrong.” Generally, in triple-A, the only way to make people feel that way is the bottom line. Money.

Gaider: Right. Ultimately that will always be the bottom line for the industry. Now, I think you would be wrong to characterize everyone in the industry as heartless and only driven by money. That’s not true. But ultimately the industry at large is only going to listen once money is involved. If you were to ask me, not that by any means I’m an authority on the subject… If you were to ask me what would make the industry change its mind about female protagonists, it would take some game coming out and being completely financially successful such that people in the industry couldn’t say, “Well, it was just because of this. Not because female protagonists are suddenly marketable.” It has to be something they couldn’t ignore. The only way the industry can’t ignore something is when money is involved.

RPS: The thing that throws me, though, is that it makes perfect monetary sense. It always has. Boring bald space commandos and city commandos and jungle commandos and shark commandos appeal to a pretty narrow group. Why do so many publishers refuse to see past them?

Gaider: They say this isn’t something guys want to do. It’s a strange bit of logic, to me anyway. It seems to say that maybe the people who are saying that, they wouldn’t like that idea, and they’re trying to justify it by projecting on that larger audience. I’m sure that if you talk to somebody who has experience in marketing, they would have lots of reasons or statistics to throw up as to why that would be the case. I’m not educated on it. This is coming from me with an outsider’s perspective. I just find some of the logic involved a little self-serving. It seems to justify what we want to do instead of looking at what it’s actually going to do.

RPS: But I would say you are in a position to really do something about it.

Gaider: Am I?

RPS: Well, you’re helping guide a gigantic franchise on the creative side. That’s a fair deal of power.

Gaider: I’m not in charge of anything. I’m a writer, which means that I have a lead designer, a project director, people higher up who provide me with parameters inside which I work. I can’t just say, “You know what? Dragon Age is going to have a female protagonist on the box.” That’s not my calling.

RPS: Nothing’s that easy, no. But you are in a place that affords you significant influence.

Gaider: I’m in a place to offer input, and I do that, yes. There are lots of people on the team and we’re all going to discuss it as a group. I think that the more discussion we have on issues like that, there will become a sense that [it’s an issue]. I think what actually happens a lot in the industry is that some things are taken for granted. Nobody challenges them and talks about them. They’re just accepted as a given. The more discussion there is about those issues, the more we will stop accepting these little nuggets of accepted industry wisdom as beyond question.

RPS: For you personally, is that the next step: to discuss more and create awareness? I mean, clearly, that’s what your doing here.

Gaider: That’s something that we’ve always done, at least on the BioWare side. I don’t know that it’s an agenda of mine, per se. I have an actual game to write. That’s not my first concern. But it is a concern. If we’re talking about how we need our big-budget games to sell to more people and have a larger audience, to say that that larger audience should only be 18-25 males exclusively… So, what, we’re all going to fight over the same demographic? There are actual reasons why having diversity in your games and being inclusive of a larger audience has sound financial backing. If you’re talking about that, maybe that’s the only way the industry is going to listen. It takes somebody to do it and do it well and prove that this is something that makes financial sense before the industry will accept that maybe it’s a thing.

RPS: You noted that it doesn’t make sense to restrict audiences down to this tiny, largely young male demographic, and BioWare’s trying to avoid that where its characters and themes are concerned. What about subject matter, though? Sci-fi and fantasy carry fairly narrow connotations – regardless of gender associations or whatever – and even subversions only get so much attention. How much will expanding game stories to more diverse audiences require moving outside that range of subject matter? How badly do you want to see games venture to new places?

Gaider: Don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting the young male demographic is tiny. All I’m suggesting is that games shouldn’t be limiting their audience right out of the gate. As you point out, things like choice of genre and mature content are already going to limit your audience to a degree… the answer isn’t to only make family-rated games or to only make games of the most popular genres – though I’m sure that would work for some – but rather to keep our games accessible to as large an audience as we can. Let’s experiment with difficult subjects and venture to new places, absolutely. Let’s just take as many people with us to those new places as we can.

RPS: There’s also the other side of it, in that there’s a subset of people who are openly hostile toward the idea. This interview’s going to get a string of incredibly negative comments. “Why would you talk about this? Why wouldn’t you talk about dragons and ages?”

Gaider: Well, it’s privilege, right? A lot of people treat that word with a very hostile attitude, because they feel like it’s an attack word. But it’s not. Privilege is just the assumption that something isn’t a problem because it’s not a problem for you personally. You’re in a group that’s normally being serviced, that’s part of the majority. You’re privileged because you’re accustomed to being in that group that gets all the content. You’re not necessarily interested in equality, because equality for you adds up to a lesser position – from your perspective – than you enjoyed before.

So yeah, there are definitely people who are going to be hostile to that idea. As nice as it is to be in the group that is being catered to exclusively, though… We’re talking about the industry at large needing to have broader appeal and a larger fanbase. Yeah, there are some people who don’t want that, because this is their playground. This is their treehouse, get out! But that’s where the industry is going.

RPS: Then there’s the other side of that particular coin. There was a thing on your Tumblr about it a while back, the stuff with the way that Isabela was dressed in Dragon Age II. There were a lot of people calling that out and saying, “Clearly, this is a very sexual depiction of a character.”

Gaider: Yeah. The thing I was discussing about that is, I understand why they would address it, because you have to look at Isabela in the context of the game she’s in. I think there was balance in her depiction versus the depiction of other female characters. There was a reason why she was sexualized. And she was sexualized – it was on purpose. The thing that would bother me more is having a character who was sexualized who has no reason to be sexualized. If Aveline had had her armor cut to show her cleavage and stuff, how bizarre would that be?

But they’re justified in challenging Isabela’s depiction. Aside from the context of Isabela in her game, there is Isabela in the industry at large, and because this sexualization of female characters is so pervasive in the industry, to expect that anybody could at a glance look at Isabela and know that she’s different is quite a leap. I mean, it’s arguable. I’m not gonna say she’s above reproach. In that context, maybe she’s okay. But that’s a big thing to expect. Of course there’s a lot of people who are up in arms. Why wouldn’t you be, because it seems like this is everywhere? At a glance, yes, you can look at Isabela and say, “Yes, that’s a great example of what I’m talking about.”

RPS: Do you think that’s an example of why, especially now, quality writing is becoming more important for games? In that context, Isabela could have been a very offensive character, had she not been an actual character, essentially.

Gaider: It’s a funny line to walk. When someone starts arguing about something like sexualization of female characters, the automatic argument that some people go to is that they think you’re arguing the exact opposite, that the only answer to having sexualized characters is to have every character be non-sexual completely. I don’t think that’s what anyone’s suggesting. That’s an extreme reaction to the problem, so I can see why some people might go that way – the answer is to cover everybody up with burqas or whatever.

These things do have to be individually challenged.

The difference between sexy and sexualized… Sexy is good, but I think that a lot of people, they have a sexualized character and they think, “That’s sexy. Everyone should think that’s sexy and think that’s a good thing to look at.” It becomes this pattern across the industry. That’s when it becomes an issue. So yeah, these things do have to be individually challenged. They do have to be supported by the writing. I don’t necessarily think it’s a reason why writing is more important. I just think that it’s a process you can’t just cut out. The idea that, “Okay, we’re going to have a female character. Let’s create her as a sexualized character without even considering her place in the game or the variety of depictions of female characters.”

Or people of color in games. Those are things you should at some point stop and think about. If we happen to make a game that has a lot of female characters and every single one of them is sexualized… Even then, let’s say the writing actually supported that and every one of those characters had a very valid reason to be sexualized. Well, maybe, at that point, you need to step back and say, “Why did we create a whole bunch of justifiably sexualized characters? What are we saying about those characters and about women that might end up being hostile to a female audience?”

It’s not that you have to make a game that says, “Hey, female audience! We’re here just for you!” No. It’s about making a game that isn’t telling the female audience, “You’re not who we want to play this game.” Just disinviting them. That’s something that the industry needs to get to. Not figuring out whether they should have pink boxes and unicorns because they think that would appeal to women. That’s not what anybody is talking about, at least that I’ve ever seen.

Check back tomorrow for part two, in which we discuss fan reaction to Dragon Age 2, why it maybe got a bit more appreciation than it got, themes Dragon Age 3 will explore, and fantasy’s ability to be more than simple wish fulfillment.

*This can also be translated as “I’m a blathering numbskull. Gobble gobble gobble ptttthrtppt” I’m sorry. I tried to be mature. Instead I just made you read more of the article.


  1. MayteraIndica says:

    First time posting.

    Just wanted to say a superb article. I particularly liked the question “How much will expanding game stories to more diverse audiences require moving outside that range of subject matter?” Thank you for asking it. Wished he had more to say about people of color in videogames than just a throwaway line, but who gets everything they want, eh?

    I’m curious about what he said regarding writing not necessarily becoming more important as the industry matures. Aren’t better, more mature ideas (i.e., more subtle, more open to interpretation, academic discussion, etc) usually bolstered by superior writing? By more competent writers? Eh, either way, I love Bioware. Despite or because of EA. Still not sure about that one.

  2. Liudeius says:

    “Well, it’s privilege, right? A lot of people treat that word with a very hostile attitude, because they feel like it’s an attack word. But it’s not. Privilege is just the assumption that something isn’t a problem because it’s not a problem for you personally.”

    Yeah, Dragon Age III duuuuuude(tte), what gender is your main character and who are they going to get homo/hetero-dirty with?
    Fight the Man!

    On a non-exaggerating the importance note, the first half is pretty surprising. Publishers didn’t want Remember Me just because of the female protagonist?
    I mean watching the trailer, I’m not excited for it. By the looks of that video, it is yet another AssCreed/Uncharted cinematic platformer/fighter, but they straight up said “because it’s a woman”?

    “The way that Isabela was dressed in Dragon Age II. There were a lot of people calling that out and saying, ‘Clearly, this is a very sexual depiction of a character.'”

    Really? I mean I certainly would agree with complaining had female armor been designed like that (if I recall right, some, but not most, was), but all I have to do it walk ten feet out the door and I see 20 women dressed more sexually… I don’t even think most women these days consider showing the tops of their breasts as “sexual,” that’s just how you dress as an American woman. And isn’t Isabella a prostitute? (I’ve not played DA2, only Origins.)

    On a demographic point, I dread the day when games become saturated with the video game equivalent of romantic comedies. At least popcorn action doesn’t pretend “this is what YOUR life should be like.”

  3. Beyond the Sea says:

    Gaider is wrong about the word “privilege”. To say that someone has “privilege” is to imply that they enjoy advantages that they are not legitimately entitled to, which in turn implies that those advantages should be taken away. So in practice it is nearly always used as an “attack word” and that is especially true in a political context. A discussion about how particular groups should be represented in fiction is inherently political because it is discussing the relative status of each group and by extension the power that each should be able to exercise over how they are portrayed. But power is a zero-sum game because each player can only gain it at somebody else’s expense. You can’t call someone privileged without implying that you want to take something away from them and that’s why it provokes such a negative reaction.

    • Canisa says:

      Well, essentially privilege *is* unjust entitlement to superior treatment. But removing privilege does not have to be a zero-sum game. You do not have to treat a privileged person any worse than they already are being treated in order to address their privilege. You just have to treat the marginalised people as well as you treat the privileged people. The only power that is taken away from the privileged is the ability to shit on the marginalised, and I’m sure you’ll agree that’s hardly something worth letting them keep.

    • Josh W says:

      That is a great summary, the relationship of privilege in the feminist/anti-racist sense to inherited wealth is pretty close, and understandably our sympathies should be with the underprivileged first of all.

      But of course, the only thing that makes it not an attack word is it’s use, as it can just as easily be used to silence people in discussion, or disregard their experiences, as any conventional racist description, or indeed to group people into a class and claim a negative common agenda between them. It’s negative undertones are mild, but easy to accentuate if you want to.

      Is there any solution to this? Well it helps if you never turn it into a collective noun, eg talking about “privilege” constituted as a group of people. Even talking about “the privileged” can be dodgy, but not half as dodgy. The second part that is tied to that is assuming as a starting point that the agents of privilege are not those who are benefiting from it; that privilege is given not taken.

      That way at least, you avoid the most lazy and obvious in-group/out-group use of the word, so it never becomes about “us” and “them”, and if anyone does use it that way you correct them. If you can short circuit that, then the word starts to get to do the work it was designed for, looking beyond group interests or a “class” model of social difference, where the men directly or unconsciously oppress the women (with it’s implicit assumptions of “unconscious malice”), to one where the men are often just lucky, because we accidentally favour them over women, even when attempting to be fair.

      Putting systemic bias in this unemotional context allows people to work together, rather than encouraging people to assume that the hurt they feel is directly matched by conscious or unconscious motives in another person (which is a common human assumption). Then you can come from the better perspective of “this is one of those obviously stupid things of our society, it’s really hurting people for no good reason, how can we fix it?”.

  4. Beyond the Sea says:

    Gaider is right to say that it’s legitimate for Isabela to be a “sexualized” character because “it was on purpose”. If we don’t allow game characters to have sexuality we are excluding a pretty major part of human experience. We would be intentionally limiting how real our characters are allowed to be. But if we do accept that we should have a realistic depiction of human sexuality then we must also accept that some characters would flaunt their sexuality or use it as a tool to manipulate others, because those are things that happen in real life.

    The key question is why a character is acting in a certain way. If they have a proper backstory and exist in a social context that’s been properly thought-out then it is possible to have them acting like realistic human beings. That should even be true of characters who only exist to implement game mechanics. For example, a mission-giver should have plausible reasons for why they want these things done and why they think the player-character might be able to help them.

    Problems arise when an NPC is treated purely as a mechanical element, with any characterisation added as an afterthought. In that case you will inevitably get a stereotype or a caricature and that’s when it’s reasonable to complain about how that individual is depicted, because they’ve not really been treated as an individual at all. That’s also why Gaider is wrong to talk about “people of color in games”. To think about a character in those terms is to put them into a category based on one physical attribute and then assume that they must have whatever arbitrary characteristics you associate with that category. In fiction as in reality we must always think about individuals not types.

  5. alm says:

    I think a lot of this ‘blatant misogyny’ is just eye-for-an-eye arguments from people who can’t express themselves against people who are bias and don’t give all the facts. I am all for more inspiring female representation in games, but I can’t help but feel that a lot of the arguments for such a movement come from the feeling of perceived marginalisation of women rather than the will to inform. I funded the Feminist Frequency video project and in doing so I hoped to push feminism in games, but I do feel that the first video produced is more an attack on misogyny rather than a promotion of feminism.

  6. Ender7 says:

    Bah, I do not care what this assclown says. Gaider is too full of himself, he was in total denial about how bad DA2 was and thought it was the best game ever. Saying that those who hated it were basically just stupid and can’t see the amazing things DA2 was. nero playing his flute as rome burned.

    I am not surprised he is mouthing this shit, he is just trying to deflect from his horrible writing and the DA2 fiasco. Hey, we could talk about dragon age and stuff you want to hear, but screw that, you might ask me some tough questions like what the hellI was thinking writing that turd and why I keep defending it. So instead, let me get on this artificial sexist meme and deflect your questions that way.

    I am glad to know he is writing DA3, now I know for sure to ignore it. It was already on my ignore list since its EA, but this idiot as lead writer? easy pickings. EA learning from its lesson? You still believe that for a moment?

    Now, one minor things since this is the overused sexist meme bullshit that goes around, so I feel obligated to reply to this dress. Games are made for certain targeted audiance. Men are the biggest buyers of HARDCORE games. Period. I know a lot of people on forums like to pretend women are a high percentage and are quick to point out that the ESA says women are %50 gamers bullshit. Ok, lets clear that up, the ESA figures in EVERYTHING that calls itself a game. Facebook, mobile games, etc. If we go buy that logic, everyone who ever cooked a microwave dinner is a master chef. When we talk about games, we talk about hardcore games (cod, splintercell, old school rpg’s, etc), a lot of people like to muddy the waters and pretend all games are equal, they are not.

    So, stripping out the hardcore games, there are a lot less women, I doubt there are many more than they were before the fudged numbers. I know from personal observation at gamestop/walmart..etc. Men FAR outbuy hardcore games than women and I am sure these companies have hard numbers that show exactly who is buying what, so they are not buying the coolaid some people are selling.

    With that said, there is NOTHING wrong with making games targeted for a demographic and making games designed for them in mind. Nor games designed for a personal taste, its a game, a work of fiction, if they want a game with women being strong and intelligent, that is fine, if they want to make bimbos and big breasted women, that is fine, it is find if they do the same with males. If you do not like it then do not buy it. Make your own game. Hell, even try using some constructive critisicm and say, it would be nice to have (blank) character in the future. But DO NOT, go in and call them sexist, rape supporters, mysogonist..or whatever shock words are popular for those extremist groups.

    I am not a fan of censorship (which is what most of the groups try to do while saying they aren’t), nor making games a platform to shove political messages and view points. Games that do this, or try to make something that appeals to everyone and not offend anyone are always shitty in the end because they compromised everything to try and please everybody. Screw that, make games like devs WANT to make, keep your politics out of it. Here is something I keep saying, if you want to change the industry, then create your own company and make whatever politically correct game you want, let the market decide. Hell, set up a kickstarter, I do not care. Just stop with this bullshit manufactured ‘controversy’ that is being spearheaded by extremist groups and journalists using it to get people on its website for page counts.

  7. trajan says:

    I am really excited about the games industry right now. I have a read several articles about GDC discussion of sexuality, violence, the women vs tropes issue. Yes, there are a lot of problem, but the industry is discussing them and saying they aren’t happy with the current situation. I feel that the industry has reached an adolescence of sorts. The first steps in fixing a problem are recognizing that there is a problem and beginning a discussion about it. I think the industry is moving to a better place, hopefully, a place where the media is considered art as much as any movie.

    It will take time to change as society has to change along with, but I am hopeful.

  8. TODD says:

    link to youtube.com

    Shut up, David Gaider.

  9. Werd says:

    Oh look another article about someones pet issue on a site that is supposed to be about video games.


  10. Prime says:


  11. Dintin says:

    >Implying Bioware’s EVERYONE IS BISEXUAL strategy is any better.
    >Implying portraying things realistically isn’t far better than portraying things idealistically.
    >Implying implications.
    Check the le may-may arrows.

  12. hello-schadenfreude says:

    I realize this is an irrational complain, but I’m bummed out by the fact that Gaider kept talking about sexism in videogames as something that alienates female audience. It most definitely is, but reducing it to an audience-blocker it’s sad, considering how sexism is a sickening and disgusting practice in which everyone (incudingly women, sadly) at least once indulges, and also how the notorious demographic of 18-25 het white males MUST be educated about it.

    But hey, it’s the Industry, am I right?

  13. Contrafibularity says:

    The wrongful assumptions ruining “the industry” in this regard:

    1. Gamers are mostly males
    2. People of either gender find difficulty “identifying” with protagonists of the opposite sex
    3. It’s difficult to have female protagonists because you have to “do it right” and “touch upon the issues” (what?)

    And I don’t use the word “ruin” lightly here. To call it ‘bald space marine syndrome’ and leave it at that would be an understatement; the industry is oozing with so much testosterone-emo bullshit I’m surprised people even buy AAA games any more. Things are improving ever so slightly (though I expect great strides) but it never ceases to amaze me how conservative and frankly, cowardly, such a promising art form can be. To be clear I’m talking about the risk-averse, anti-innovative corporate machines that make up 95% of the industry, and though we’d all love to pretend they are basically irrelevant still serve an overwhelming majority of gamers worldwide.

    It’s not so much a question even of change; it’s a question of normalisation. It’s not politically correct, it’s correct, period. It’s not placing boundaries, but shattering them.

  14. cmac2000 says:

    Here’s a revolutionary idea start with gameplay being FUN. Then a story-line being interesting but not overwhelming. Then if you’re really that worried about sexism but lets be honest the average gamer doesn’t give rats rear end about it’s just most gamers are guys so they either wanna be looking at Lara Croft style bodies(as far as good boobs and butts not the old blocky graphics), or be a character they can depict themselves as in an action movie. So if you’re REALLY that concerned let them design the characters themselves. Character creation is ancient tech, and all you have to do with it is re-do the stuff you did for one gender/race, change things up a bit, and congratulations sexism = not noticable except in the players own gameplay and character creation.

  15. Josh W says:

    I found it really funny the way that things span around when you started suggesting that David use his position in bioware to agitate for stuff, up until that point it was nice and academic, and I could imagine him going still like a martial artist, or having a similar kind of “jaws beach-chair” moment when you mentioned his personal capacity to change these things!

  16. adlock4 says:

    i’ve been lurking at rps a little—at least in the comment sections that include discussion about dragon age (dao and da2 both). i’m developing a growing affection for it. people seemed to by-pass the usual misogynistic rants that accompany these articles and have launched straight into their opinions about why da2 was such a terrible game. :-) there’s something to be said for that.

  17. adlock4 says:

    eep, i missed the entire second page. i see that the topic is being discussed, still minus the misogynistic rants i’ve been seeing elsewhere. my point is: i’m relieved to see this comments section… so relieved.

    i have my share of complaints about da2, but i love isabela. i think both she and zevran are the perfect rogues— they’re not given to law and order overall, including in matters of sexuality, but they’re both essentially on side of good. in other words, they’re complex characters. i think gaider’s right—the solution isn’t to stop portraying women as sexual beings–that would just cause more problems than it solves, since it can leave out a whole dimension of someone’s personality. but if that’s all there is to a particular female character—she’s there to be boobs and butt, and that’s about the end of her story—then it becomes a problem, i find it very alienating.