‘It’s the Middle Ages, Yo!’: Race, Neo/medievalisms, and the World of Dragon Age

“It’s the Middle Ages, Yo!”: Race, Neo/medievalisms, and the World of Dragon Age

By Helen Young

The Year’s Work in Medievalism, Vol.27 (2012)


Introduction: The fantasy genre, with its great popularity and transmedia reach, is one of the most common locations for medieval and pseudo-medieval elements in contemporary Western popular culture. Video games make varying attempts to represent the historical realities of medieval society and culture accurately. For scholars fantasy role-playing games (RPGs) – and the entire fantasy genre in all media forms – are generally considered to be either not medievalism at all, because of its non-realist elements, or neomedievalist. David Marshall has recently offered a useful summation of the many different manifestations of neomedievalism as: “a self-conscious, ahistorical, non-nostalgic imagining or reuse of the historical Middle Ages that selectively appropriates iconic images…to construct a presentist space that disrupts traditional depictions of the medieval.” The world of the Dragon Age video games and their spin-off franchise draws on the Middle Ages in precisely these kinds of ways. It is selective, draws inspiration from multiple temporal and geographic locations in medieval Europe, and is overtly presentist as it engages with contemporary social issues including gender, sexual orientation, and race.

The neomedievalism of fantasy RPGs provides game-makers with short-cuts in the process of creating an internally coherent world through references to both history and genre. The believability of the game-world is a critical issue for them because it is of paramount importance to players and, as a result, to the success of the game as a commercial product. Historical authenticity is a key factor in the believability of a neomedieval game-world like that found in Dragon Age and other fantasy RPGs such as World of Warcraft, as well as for the wider genre. Some authors, most notably George R. R. Martin, whose A Song of Ice and Fire series has become the wildly successful Game of Thrones franchise, claim their books represent the Middle Ages as they really were. Dragon Age has not achieved the success of Martin’s works and their derivations, but players are also users of other games, are highly likely to be fantasy readers, and are inevitably consumers of other popular culture texts within and outside the genre. Thus, player attitudes to the world of Dragon Age are a useful case-study, offering insight into the neo/medievalisms not only of the fantasy genre, but of popular culture more broadly.


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