Vivienne, a mage in Dragon Age: Inquisition

Mages, social justice, and morality in the Dragon Age series

It’s obligatory, I think, for any fantasy fan who plays video games to do a post about the mages in the Dragon Age series. This post has major spoilers for the story of the first two games, Dragon Age: Origins (DA:O) and Dragon Age 2 (DA2), and some minor ones for the world building revealed in Dragon Age: Inquisition.

For those of you unfamiliar with Dragon Age, it’s a series of roleplaying games (RPGs) in a high fantasy setting. It’s put out by Bioware, a game studio also known for its shooter/RPG space opera series Mass Effect. Bioware games are famous for good writing (most of its dialog and plot would make a totally fun and watchable TV show) their good characterization, and their embracing of social justice related themes, particularly in their attempts to include people of color and gay/bisexual characters. This hasn’t always been popular, and they don’t always manage to do a good job, but they seem to get a little better in every game.

Though the series’ stories deal with marginalization in a lot of ways (including institutionalized oppression of elves, the plight of refugees fleeing something between a war and a natural disaster, and the split between aristocracy and commoners), the biggest issue that we see is the issue of what to do with mages. In the world of Dragon Age, mages are born with magical power; mages tend to have mage children but they can appear in any bloodline, and they can be extremely dangerous if they aren’t trained. “Mage” is the game’s stand-in for what would be called witches or wizards in stories like Harry Potter; they possess the unique ability to cast magical spells, which are generally used for healing and combat.

A mage that has been possessed by a demon and turned into an abomination; this one is being possessed by a demon of Pride.

Mages have a marginalized status because there are significant institutions in place to impose control on their magic and because they can be a danger to the public if they lose control of their magic. From the way the characters talk about it, mages have to practice serious self-discipline in order to keep themselves from becoming possessed by demons or turning into “abominations”, where a demon takes them over and turns them into rampaging monsters.

The institutions that keep mages “under control” are called Circles of Magi and they seem to vary in the levels of freedom given to the mages in their care. Some act as a sort of magic school that it’s illegal to leave, others are more like prisons. The fact that they’re under the purview of the church, with a sort of order of religious knights (called templars) who act as guards and hunt down all mages outside the Circles, just complicates matters and makes them more problematic. Over the course of the game series you find similar atrocities committed by the templars on their mage charges/prisoners to the ones you see in real world prisons, including physical, sexual and emotional abuse.

There aren’t really any game mechanics that show that mage player characters have many issues with self control; almost all of the “bad guy” options where you can perform various acts of cruelty and human sacrifice in order to get more powers in the in-game combat system are available to all character classes. This might be an issue of game/story segregation, but it does call into question how easy it is to be possessed; it is entirely possible, given the information you get in the games and the experience of playing them as a mage character, that demon summoning and possession are less a common danger faced by mages and more a last-resort lashing out of an oppressed group without other options, and that the in-game characterization of it is similar to the real-world characterization of rioting by the media and pop culture.

Obviously, mages have unique magical talents available to use when they’re pushed to their limits, but we often see other groups getting access to other, related magical resources. However, the way the game treats mages acts as if they are the only people who have magic available to them. They are the only people with an inborn ability to cast spells, but again and again we see characters who are not mages but who tamper with magic anyway and end up summoning demons, going mad, getting possessed and/or gaining abnormal and uncontrollable magical powers:

  • A warrior protagonist of DA:O is able to desecrate a sacred religious artifact in a way that allows them to draw upon their own life force to damage their enemies, similarly to how mages using forbidden “blood magic” are able to draw from the life of themselves and others
  • Sandal, a savant enchanter of magical items, is a dwarf; dwarves are supposedly resistant to magic and cannot be mages, but exposure to the magical rocks known as lyrium seems to have taken some of his mind and given him the ability to make both items that help the main character and the magical equivalent of small bombs
  • The templars themselves eat lyrium and in using it get special magical powers that allow them to more efficiently hunt rogue mages; this actually induces a lifelong addiction that guarantees that they are unable to leave the order unless they can find a supply of the stuff on the black market, making it a sort of combination of magical amphetamines and the Spice in Frank Herbert’s Dune
  • Anyone who messes with red lyrium (a corrupt form regular lyrium) gains magical powers and usually goes mad; the main villain of DA2 loses her mind, becomes enraged and starts bringing statues to life for the final battle of the game
  • The heroic warrior order that the protagonist of DA:O belongs to, the Grey Wardens, gain their special powers by drinking the blood of the darkspawn, the monsters whom they are sworn to fight. This is not commonly known by characters in the game because it would likely cause controversy and because it kills a large quantity of the recruits upon ingestion; characters who survive this ritual are generally rendered sterile and have their lifespans significantly reduced. In fact, Wardens generally only live about thirty years after this, and they usually commit suicide by entering darkspawn-infested caverns, choosing to die in combat instead of succumbing to a slow and painful death
  • Protagonist characters of all classes (that is, both combat and magic based characters) playing an optional quest in DA:O are able to “enhance” the powers they received from the blood-drinking ritual; it is clearly stated that the magical research that came up with this ritual was incredibly unethical
  • Probably a lot more I can’t think of right now.

So we have people born with the ability to use and control magic as a subjugated class, but it’s entirely possible for non-mages to seek out and use magical power, and when they do, they seem to lose control of it more often than not.

Additionally, we have the issue of other mages: the nomadic Dalish elves teach their mages through an apprenticeship model, which seems to work most of the time (though the major exception to this did unnaturally extend his lifespan and create werewolves, so the consequences are fairly dire when it fails).

The methods for controlling mages can be particularly horrible: when a Circle mage is deemed unable to control their magic, they can be made Tranquil, which basically makes them soulless automatons with little free will or feeling. The Tranquil make excellent researchers and servants and are used as such; there also has been at least one Templar who uses the fact that they cannot fight back to sexually abuse them. They are basically made into the perfect slaves, and generally end up working for the Circles, so there’s a heavy incentive to create more of them, since they not only reduce the mage-watching workload of the templars but also are free, uncomplaining labor.

There’s an interesting contrast between the Circles and the way the Qunari, a group of giant horned humanoids who mostly follow a highly strict religious code, treat their mages. The Qunari actually sew their mages’ lips together and force them to walk around in a sort of armored cage; they are kept from rebelling or acting against any religious tenants with the use of what looks to be a magic torture wand.

A qunari mage. Note the chains and sewn shut mouth.

Additionally, we hear a lot in the story about Tevinter, where mages rule, strange and horrific experiments give non-mages awful powers, and slavery is commonplace. I don’t doubt that it’s an oppressive, horrible place, and the fact that there’s one major country where slavery is legal creates a huge human (and elf) trafficking problem worldwide. But we don’t know that this is because it’s a magocracy, and both of the main alternatives given– physically restraining and torturing mages or putting them in Circles and turning the dangerous ones (including, often, ones who are merely politically dangerous) into Tranquil slaves– are ugly enough that it seems risking another Tevinter might actually be worth it in order to break that kind of power structure. (The Dalish method is never seriously offered as a mainstream solution; one assumes that no one believes it would scale.)

There’s a couple of ways this seems to relate to the real world, and it asks a lot of questions based on actual social justice issues. First of all, the comparison of the two main ways of “controlling” mages is an interesting one, because it’s clear that no one outside the Qunari would accept the way that they treat their mages. However, they mostly seem fine with the Circles and with Tranquility; Tranquil mages often run public-facing shops, so they aren’t unknown to the general population, and the tight connection between the Circles and religion means that accepting it is a part of their faith. Tranquility– a sort of spiritual lobotomy– unlike the Qunari cage-and-torture method– is sanitary, and the Circles are respectable; the propaganda issued that says that they are necessary is powerful.

I made the connection to riots earlier, but I want to make it clear what exactly I was invoking: in the real world, what is and isn’t called a riot is political and definitively racist; the reactions to Ferguson were characterized as a riot and many people in the media used that as an attempt to add to the racist characterization of Black people as aggressive and out of control. When a mostly white group does the same thing– generally for much more trivial reasons, including sports and pumpkins — it’s not characterized the same way, and it’s not used to make the same assumptions about that group of people.

This is, of course, a part of the narrative in which the actions of individuals who are part of a minority group are taken as representative of the group as a whole, often in a way that misses significant context; it also manages the marginalizing double-whammy of characterizing a group with perfectly justified anger as threateningly angry or aggressive and adds to negative stereotypes about that group as a whole.

I’m not equating these two situations, obviously. Mages aren’t real, Dragon Age is a fantasy video game, and the actual struggles that the definitional issues of what constitutes rioting are not something that those effected by it can make go away by turning their game off. Also, I’m only speaking to the power of these narratives from an outside perspective– I’m white and can’t speak to the experiences of Black people with racism. But these are common narratives in marginalization, and video games are a part of a pop culture narrative that effects how we see them.

There are some pretty clear ways that Bioware is invoking political issues in the Dragon Age series, particularly with its use of terrorism in DA2 and the obvious questions about religion it poses in regards to pretty much every fictional religion in the game. But it’s also bringing up some serious moral issues, and the fact that over the course of the series we find that many of the set-in-stone ideas about history are wrong or misleading makes readings that question the accuracy of the in-game lore potentially quite valid. I’m also hoping that looking critically at the way these stories are shown in the media that we consume might tell us something useful about the culture that produced and consumes these games.

SIDE NOTE: I want to provide some context for what I’m talking about regarding rioting and social narratives, but I’m not qualified to do so (both because it’s not something I feel like I’ve studied enough and because I’m white and so don’t have the specific experience to speak usefully on it anyway). If you want pieces on the subject by people who are way smarter than me, I recommend Ta-Nehisi Coates, Jay Smooth, Austin C. McCoy and Juan Thompson.


Originally published at barrl.net on February 19, 2015.

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