The Basics -
When other gamers find out I’m a fan of the Mass Effect trilogy, I hear the same three questions repeated again and again; “DudeShep or FemShep?”, “Paragon or Renegade?”, and most importantly “Who did you romance?”. From these statements, one unfamiliar with the series might make some incorrect assumptions about the content and genre of the Mass Effect games.
The series is centered around a futuristic sci-fi story told through interactive dialogue and third-person shooter style gameplay. Released in 2007, the first game in the trilogy was extremely well-received. It won numerous mentions and awards at E3 2006 prior to its release and was later named The New York Time’s “Game of the Year”. Gamespy declared that this title would “undoubtedly be remembered as one of the greatest games ever made”. Eurogamer was slightly harsher on the game, pointing out that, while making significant advances in interactive storytelling methods, it did “not quite deserve unquestioning praise”. The focus on the storytelling and branching dialogue choices interfered with portions of the rest of the game. While most of the critics found flaws in squad AI or other elements of combat, I began to see issues in character presentation, gender roles, and reflection of a player’s self through their avatar.
The Avatar -
One of the greater aspects of the Mass Effect games is the provided option to play as either a male or female avatar. Though it must be acknowledged that the default avatar is male, the option to change genders and appearance of the avatar is allowed and has no impact on the base plot of the story. I decided, as 82% of players did, to stick to the default male avatar during my first playthrough (The Escapist). By doing so, I became attached to my avatar as a character, but not as a representation of myself or of my own decisions in the game. Upon playing the game a second time, I decided to customize a female avatar to reflect an idealized version of myself. Here’s where I started to feel a little cheated. As mentioned earlier, the underlying plot doesn’t change at all if you alter the avatar’s gender. While this is a good thing and a step forward in the equal treatment of male and female players, the player to avatar connection was still lacking. Even though my avatar was female, she was filling the role of an ‘ideal’ man. The cutscenes and dialogue choices were all the same down to every ‘suck it up, soldier’ pep-talk. The customization of a character is entirely superficial and the method in which you play remains restricted. This is because the focus of the game remains on the plot and on the storytelling. I may have been able to give my character breasts and red hair, but I was still fundamentally playing “a character not created by [me] at all, but by the designers” (TheFeministGamer).
The Mass Effect universe is immensely fleshed out. So much so that one might compare it to Tolkien’s Middle-earth, recognized as one of the most developed fantasy worlds to ever be created. In Mass Effect, each character, planet, organization, and race has purpose and backstory, making the societies feel realistic and altogether plausible.
The races of the Mass Effect universe are as varied as planets in the universe. For the purpose of this argument and to display a variety of social structures, we’ll focus on a number of what are considered to be the ‘main’ and iconic races of the series. These include the Human, Turian, and Asari.
Though this series takes place in the fairly distant future (the year 2183), gender roles in human society haven’t progressed much. In portions of the game where the player interacts with civilian NPCs, it’s extremely difficult to find a human woman not wearing a spandex dress or a tight-fitting space suit. In fact, the game’s main cast fails to include any human female who isn’t given some sort of ‘excuse’ for being a part of the elite team. In the first game, the only human female who players are able to take into combat with them is Ashley, a soldier who stumbles across your avatar during the first mission of the game after her entire team is destroyed by enemy forces. However, by being forced to later choose between her survival and the survival of another core character, her entire presence in the series is made optional.
In Mass Effect 2, we get two new female squad members. The first, Miranda, has become infamous in the fandom for having a butt that defies all laws of anatomy and, for some reason, always seems to be awkwardly in the shot whenever your avatar has any sort of conversation with her. In the context of her role in the game, she’s a superhuman who has been genetically engineered to blah, blah, blah. Again, here we see a justification for her inclusion in the playable team. I personally felt uncomfortable and silly having her strut along behind me in her high heels and spandex suit during missions, so I almost never included her in my team. She felt too much like a hyper-sexualized barbie doll. Miranda also demonstrates a twisted need for male authority. Though she’s genetically engineered to be ‘perfect’ and is a high up member of the organization sponsoring the whole mission, for some reason Shepard (your avatar) is put in charge of the operation. Your avatar must exist to ‘keep her in line’.
Given the scope of the series, the game designers had such an extraordinary opportunity to imagine civilizations and peoples which could have been so fundamentally different from our own. Each race has it’s own origin story, which gives reasoning for the type of government and society roles they utilize. Jumping quickly to the Turian, an avian-like people with hard-ridged flesh developed due to the strong solar radiation on their home planet. The Turian are known for their high level of discipline and militaristic society. They have the strongest fleets and some of the most advanced war technology. Because of this, the Turian were the third race to join the elite ‘Council’, thus solidifying their importance as one of the galactic superpowers.
Upon doing some research for my argument, I found it strange that I couldn’t remember what a female Turian looked like, so I hit up Google for some information. I was surprised to learn that no female Turian had ever appeared in any of the Mass Effect titles. It wasn’t that I had forgotten (I’ll be honest, it’s been a while since I’ve booted up the first couple games), but rather that there was an actual lack of any female presence in the Turian military or in any of the civilian social scenes players experience throughout the game. Looking to the Mass Effect Wiki for answers, where players discussed how “the fact that the Turian society is centered around the military and appears to be patriarchal would affect the presence of their females in Galactic community” (An Ceannaire, Mass Effect Wiki). Other comments went on to claim that the monetary cost to develop female Turian was not justifiable as they weren’t necessary to the main plot of the game (war). The same commenter went on to discuss the prospect of having a “Turian chick” (specifically “quite BANGable ones”) as a romance option in the game (Anonymous User, Mass Effect Wiki), imagining what they would look like had the developers deemed them worth the small amount of time, money, and effort which would have been needed to develop them for the game.
On the other end of the spectrum we find the Asari, a mono-gender race which is technically neither male nor female in nature. I say ‘technically’ because, quite frankly, the breasts, rounded thighs, and delicate faces fooled me entirely. Upon designing this “non-gender specific” race, the designers took inspiration from the classic “blue space woman” which has appeared in scifi films and concepts for decades. Similarly, the grooved backs of the Asari head was modeled to imitate “a woman’s hair as she comes out of water”.
The totally "mono-gender" Asari.
Many of my male friends have taken the opinion that the Asari are examples of strong, smart, and proud women in the Mass Effect universe. While I acknowledge the efforts made by the development team to incorporate a powerful ‘female’ race into the mix of male dominant and military based societies, but this is another example of an attempt for feminism which falls extraordinarily short.
In all three games, players get to experience some serious Asari eye-candy. You would think that in a plot based around saving the galaxy from imminent destruction there probably wouldn’t be time to hang out at a strip club. Fortunately enough, Mass Effect designers deemed that aspect of the game absolutely necessary, and subsequently made space for it.
The Asari continue to be hyper-sexualized throughout the series, despite the small detail that they don’t actually reproduce via sexual means. That’s obviously not important. What does matter is that the players (mostly male) are entertained. The Asari transcend sexuality and Liara, the lone Asari on the player’s squad in the first game, is a romance option for both male and female avatars.
Earlier we discussed the effects of gender on the role of your avatar (virtually none). The lone impact is has is on who the avatar is allowed to romance. In the first installment of the series, male avatars choose between Ashley, the human female mentioned earlier, and Liara, the Asari. Similarly, female avatars choose between a human male, Kaidan (essentially Ashley’s male counterpart), and Liara. This prompted some thought on my part. Why was Liara an option for both male and female? If the developers were looking to offer romantic options of the same gender as your avatar, why not just make Kaidan and Ashley the defaults for both avatar genders? The answer is ultimately that this solution wouldn’t be widely accepted by the target audience (ie. male gamers). In a game which champions shooting enemies dead and heroically saving the galaxy, what typical male player would feel inclined to choose a gay relationship over a sexy female soldier? At the same time, developers would have a hard time explaining their avoidance of this taboo if they were to implement a lesbian relationship with a human female. Their solution: throw in a sexy blue alien who isn’t ‘technically’ female. This allows male players controlling a female avatar to be allowed to live out their sexual fantasies while straight female players are having their options decimated in favor of their male counterparts. If we look at our own modern day society, we can infer that a sexual situations between two females is often deemed acceptable because it is for the entertainment of male onlookers. Relationships between two males, however, is incredibly taboo, especially in the testosterone rules world of gaming.
‘True’ lesbian relationships with human women weren’t implemented until the release of Mass Effect 2. Even then, it wasn’t a feature that made headlines. This was accepted as a ‘norm’ for a video game, where the more women you can hop in bed with, the more appeal points the game gets (take a look a popular titles such as Witcher, where I lost track of how many prostitutes were offered as sex options). However, when Mass Effect 3 was released, there was one big change that everyone was talking about. Finally a gay relationship, and not even one with a ‘male’ alien lifeform, was being implemented. Kaidan Alenko (remember? Ashley’s counterpart) was now a romance option for male avatars. That is, if you didn’t kill him off in favor of Ashley in the first game, as the majority of players did. We see this phenomena of “save the one with boobs” again in Telltale’s The Walking Dead Game, in which players are forced to choose between a nerdy looking man and a skirt-wearing, gun-wielding news reporter girl. A whopping 75% picked the female character over the male, despite having just met both of the characters .
The Mass Effect developers were braver than most and ventured into territories of character creation and sexuality expression which was previously unheard of in any mass market video game. Unfortunately, their final decisions could have used some female touches. I’ll give them credit for trying, but many of their more daring choices were made too late in the series to have any real effect. The “hyper masculine elements in gaming culture” (Natalie Hill, “Playing with Patriarchy”) is an aspect which is slowly moving to a decreased level, thanks to the deeper understanding of social issues and the discussion of inequality of gender roles that is being promoted.