Girl in the Machine
Monday, July 28, 2008
Diversity and Mass Effect


I've recently been replaying Mass Effect, Bioware's 2007 action RPG, and I'm totally in love. Though there's plenty of things I could babble on about, I want to discuss the first thing I noticed when I brought the game home back during the holidays.

Women and people of color. They aren't invisible . . . in fact, in this game, they're all over the place! Just like, you know, real life! Way too often, sci fi falls into the trap of showing us a universe where PoC and women have been sucked into a black hole or something and no longer exist. Mass Effect introduces a galaxy that's truly diverse, an experience we don't often get in video games.

An interesting facet of Mass Effect's immense cultural salad is the absence of racial tension among humans. Humanity's discovery of advanced Prothean artifacts is only quite recent; their technology jumps two hundred years, and thus all contact and interaction with alien races is relatively sudden. These aliens all look down on the human race and treat them as lesser beings. As the first human member of an elite agency called Spectre, the protagonist Shepard must combat prejudice and bigotry as well as your typical monsters and other foes.

Mass Effect pitches humanity into a situation where all racial tensions seem to vanish in order to unite against the prejudice of the alien races. Now, I realize that Bioware did not craft this game for the purpose of social commentary, so I don't blame it for not directly addressing human racial interaction along with the new problems presented by alien prejudice. It's a fascinating thought, though: could humanity put internal racism aside when all of us, collectively, face the same from an outside source?


Mass Effect's major hub of human-alien interaction is the Citadel, a massive space station in the Serpent Nebula. As Shepard, you're let loose there after the game's prologue, free to collect sidequests or continue the main storyline. Sidequests have always been my favorite part of role-playing games, and so I was thrilled to see the sheer variety of characters that seek your help. There's eldery crime boss Helena Blake, who sends you off to take out her competition. A mourning widower named Samesh Bhatia pleads you to retrieve the body of his wife, a marine who dies during the prologue. Reporter Emily Wong needs you to dig up some dirt on an organized crime syndicate. And there's many, many more.

So we have some pretty great diversity going on in this game -- with the special bonus of none it feeling forced or patronizing -- along with a springboard for racial discussion due to alien prejudice. However, Mass Effect takes things a step further.

It would have been easy to treat prejudice in a two-dimensional fashion with snarling, discriminative aliens and cowering humans, but many alien characters find such prejudice deplorable and many human characters despise aliens as a whole. Notably, two human members of Shepard's squad deal with their own race issues.

Ashley Williams begins the game with a deep mistrust of all alien races and often confesses to Shepard that she doesn't think the nonhuman squad members should go unsupervised. As Shepard, you can bring two squad members with you on your quests, and if you pick Ashley and a nonhuman member, such as Tali the quarian, they have some interesting conversations during the game's many elevator rides. In Tali's case, Ashley points out that the quarian's strange dress makes many humans think of the evil geth, and admits that she shares this opinion. As Tali answers her questions, Ashley displays a growing understanding of alien differences and slowly overcomes her prejudices.

Kaiden Alenko is a biotic (Mass Effect's "mage" class) who was subjected to Biotic Acclimation and Temperance Training, or "Brain Camp," as a child to temper his powers. He describes the experience as particularly brutal, staffed only by aliens since humanity had yet to fully understand biotics. Kaiden had a violent run-in with one of his instructors, an ex-military turian named Vyrnnus who loathed humans. After tragedy strikes and all is said and done, Kaiden points out that Vyrnnus, though terrible, was just one turian, and not representative of an entire race. Despite his traumatizing experiences at the hands of this instructor, Kaiden does not allow them to slant his own views of an entire race.

Over all, Mass Effect does an exceptional job on many accounts. Women and people of color share important roles and characters tangle with race issues that are relevant to us in the real world. Though the game is far from perfect (expect a post about the asari Consort in the future), it's a solid effort from Bioware and addresses many topics that most games won't even touch.

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 Posted by BomberGirl
 10:11 AM + Link to this post
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