October 24, 2014
Analysis of Mass Effect 2: Gender, Ideology & Learning Principles
This critique will delve into my personal playthrough of Mass Effect 2, providing background on my experience with the series as a whole, and how having played through the series before affects my comprehension. It will also touch on topics of gender, ideology, and learning principles that are found in the writings of Cassell, Bogost, and Gee, respectively. Finally, it will provide connections as to how these topics affected my gameplay experience, while offering that my overall experience with Mass Effect may have altered my perception of these topics within the game.
The Mass Effect trilogy is a series that transcends itself, creating a massive culture that includes -among other things- cosplayers, artists and videographers; all of whom get to share their experiences that allow for this game to live on in the real world. This fandom is an earnest one, wishing to get the best experience from this series. In fact, after Mass Effect 3’s huge ending upset, the outcry of the dedicated fandom was enough to earn results from the developers and fans alike. A free ‘Extended Cut’ DLC was offered to provide more “satisfying” conclusions, and one fan even developed their own ending for others to encode into their game!
Each game in the trilogy can be played on its own, at the player’s risk of not learning full background on the motivations of the characters nor fully understanding the game lore. When I first played Mass Effect 2 (two years ago), I did not have access to the first game and instead watched it in its entirety online so that I would have a clear understanding of the story. This time, it is important to note that I have become involved in the culture of the series. I have played each of the games, started getting involved with the multiplayer community, and always look for art and cosplays of my favorite characters at Phoenix Comicon. In some ways, my investment in the series makes me something of an expert on the game’s background and lore. But I have discovered that by not entering the play field with a fresh eye meant that the gender, ideological and learning implications that can be found within the game were a bit more difficult to detect.
So began my playthrough. In Mass Effect 2, you play as Commander Shepard: a distinguished soldier who is charged to lead a team on a suicide mission to fight a hostile alien species that is abducting colonies of humans. In order to be successful in this mission, you must gather teammates and make decisions that can increase their capability of surviving the mission. At the beginning, I elected to play as the female Commander Shepard, rather than male. In the past, I was able to enjoy the gameplay much more, playing as “FemShep.” Perhaps this was based on the simple fact that it was easier for me, as a female, to put myself in her shoes. Shepard would feel more like me. I enjoyed being able to customize her appearance to my liking, and choose what combat style she specialized in. The controls took a bit of time to comfortably settle into, as there were some differences between the multiplayer and this game. But it was nowhere near the frustrating difficulty of my first playthrough (I had never played a “shooter” prior to Mass Effect 2). Eventually I fell into my usual sway. Despite playing for the first time on the highest difficulty, I was still doing better than my initial playthrough.
A unique feature of the game is the ability to select choices throughout, allowing Shepard to respond a certain way to a situation. While you are always given the choice to remain neutral, you are encouraged to select Paragon responses (which are idealistic and by-the-book) or Renegade responses (more authoritarian and results-seeking) to see more effective results as you play. I found myself selecting the Paragon options, as I always have. There were times where I tried the Renegade responses, but found myself being really displeased by the results. For instance, within the first couple hours of play, you have to collect a potential teammate by infiltrating a group of gangs. One gang member that you interact with is trying to fix a gunship. The game gives you the option to kill him via electrocution (resulting in the gunship having fewer shields when you fight it later on). Although he was technically a “bad guy,” it felt so wrong of me to electrocute him that I actually wound up replaying that part, sparing him (opting for a slightly more difficult battle against the gunship). This instance will later tie into my study of Gee’s Identity Principle.
Attempting to keep a sharp eye out, I noticed one small instance of in-game sexism in my playthrough. In order to infiltrate the gangs, you must get hired on as a freelancer. Playing as female Shepard, the recruiter will question your capabilities, calling you “sweet” and telling you the “strippers’ quarters are that way.” This is one of very few instances where a non-teammate will have a sex-differentiated dialogue with your character. Because this game is meant to take place in the future (in the year 2185), I thought it was an interesting design choice to include insults based on the sex of the character. It made me wonder if the developers were suggesting that sexism will still exist in the future, or if the gender biases of today have colored their decisions as to how the main character could be insulted by non-teammates. Other than this small instance, I had found the representation of gender to be very balanced. However, this perception is one that has been clouded by my having played through the whole series, and factoring in changes that had been made along the way (found particularly in the last game of the trilogy).
To start, we know that Commander Shepard can be either male or female, any (human) race, and be of any sexual orientation, all of which can be determined by the player. An interesting note is that I played as female Shepard in my first playthrough of Mass Effect 2, despite watching a playthrough of Mass Effect  featuring male Shepard on YouTube, since it was not available for PlayStation 3 at the time. I felt comfortable doing this because the game was designed to allow anyone to have nearly the same exact play options when it comes to character development and decisions. Even the male and female voice actors essentially have the same dialogue scripts. The only differences come into play when interacting with other characters; namely, your teammates. For instance, you may choose to pursue a romantic interest in the game. Male and female Shepard have different options of who they may pursue, depending on the sexual preferences of the various characters. Your teammates may also only divulge certain information about themselves, depending on whether Shepard is male or female (usually based on their romantic interest in you). And, as expressed before, there is occasionally varied dialogue from non-teammates that relies on Shepard’s sex. Aside from that, Shepard’s influence -as both a soldier and a leader- is exactly the same regardless of the chosen gender. Because the virtual identity that I connected to bore little to no imbalances, I had almost completely forgotten a tremendous aspect of design that had boggled me during my first playthrough of the game. That is, all but two non-human species had zero female representation. And of those that did have female representation, one was an all-female race: the Asari. They served as the alien eye-candy of the series, holding roles as pole-dancers, seductresses and receptionists (though plenty were soldiers). I failed to notice this in my initial analysis of the game because I had played through the final game, which provided more female representation for the species that had once lacked them. The lack of females in the other races was not because they were a single-gendered species like the Asari; but rather, the developers only afforded their efforts into making the males of the species, saying that it would take much longer to create models for both genders of every single species. This is where Justine Cassell’s article, Genderizing HCI, has ground. Throughout the article she provides studies and specific examples of games that are “genderized,” or tailored to suit one gender over the other. So despite an overall balanced experience as Commander Shepard, the evidence still points to the idea that BioWare -the game’s developer- had planned on a mostly-male audience. Oddly enough, the effort put into allowing the player a choice of gender for their main character was enough for the series to gain a sizeable female following. One that clearly had to be catered to by the third game, where all of the females started making appearances.
Another concept that was easy for me to overlook was that of ideology. Ideology is a strong influence of plot and perception within video games. Some developers will use this method heavy-handedly, while others will use a more subtle approach. Mass Effect 2 can be both subtle and obvious in its use, which can be noted within the first few hours of gameplay.
First, to provide background, players will either know or become aware that there is a notable political presence in the Mass Effect universe. This presence is called the “Council,” an assemblance of one member of each prestigious race in a galaxy of numerous aliens, where humanity is a newcomer. The other Council races are wary of humans, not sure if they are responsible enough to hold such a vital role in the galactic community so early on. Because most aliens tend to focus on the stigmas of humanity, nearly all humans within the game hold a grudge against the other alien species and develop the belief that humanity should stand alone and above the alien races. This idea is reinforced when human colonies begin vanishing (taken by a hostile alien race) and the Council refuses to get involved, even suggesting that the human colonies brought it upon themselves by populating worlds that are on the fringes of Terminus Space –which is not under Council jurisdiction, and is presumed dangerous. Ultimately, this background reinforces a frame of mind where you are compelled to stand as pro-human, and perhaps anti-alien, as you are constantly placed in the position of the disrespected underdog.
However, as you delve into the realm of Mass Effect 2, numerous elements come into play to contest the anti-alien frame of mind. First, is the group that Commander Shepard works for to deal with the hostile threat. This group -Cerberus- is infamous for its domineering tactics and harsh experiments. Shepard has some history opposing the group, but you as the player may decide whether you have tension or compatibility with the group during your temporary alliance. While the player is always welcome to agree with Cerberus and its tactics, the game has much in way of contesting this (anti-alien) mindset. Again, the fact that the human-centric Cerberus has a disturbing past is the first among these reasons, providing negative reinforcement by painting them as a group of extremists.
Another form of contestation is in the brief interactions you have in the Mass Effect universe. For instance, on the Citadel (where many varieties of species reside peacefully, along with housing the Council and Embassies) you can speak with shop owners to get supplies. How they interact with you is quite heavily dependant on whether you sacrificed human ships in the first game to save the Council, with the alternative of letting them perish. I remembered in my first playthrough, one shop owner berated me for the death of the original Council. Although he still allowed me to purchase goods, he did so with disdain. In my current playthrough, I had Shepard save the Council in the previous game, and that same shop owner spoke with me in adoration, beyond pleased that I came to his store. Naturally, the second reaction made me feel much better than the first, enforcing goodwill toward alien cooperation.
Finally, the strongest form of contestation is the team of allies you collect for your suicide mission. This team is who you build relationships with, whether they are friendships, romantic pursuits, or rivalries. Nearly all members are skeptical of Cerberus, but they respect and are willing to help Shepard. The relationships comprise a huge part of gameplay experience, in attempt to build emotional connections with the player. If those connections are successful and the interactions are meaningful, then the player can be influenced by the opinions of the other characters. Because your closest relationships are with your alien allies, you develop sympathy and understanding toward their cultures, seeing the value in each of them. Furthermore, as you progress through the game, working with alien allies establishes the idea that the greatest successes can come from the cooperation of different species.
Now, to draw real-world parallels. By now you may notice that while Mass Effect 2 always gives you the freedom of choice and beliefs, nearly all positive reinforcement stems from the idea of intercultural cooperation. In fact, this concept drives the entire series, providing the most pleasing outcomes when your decisions align with a pursuit of cooperation. The underlying ideology is decidedly liberal, painting multiculturalism in a positive light. Those who may oppose this ideology may call it naïve or idealistic, as opposed to realistic, while believers say that the cooperation of differing cultures will bring out the best in each; a gratifying strength that can overcome any obstacle (suicide missions and alien invasions included). Meanwhile, although the game suggests it is perfectly natural to view situations through a conservative scope -because other cultures are not helping while yours is in need, and the group you work for is the only one willing to go out and do something to help humanity- the game pushes you to contest this frame of mind. For instance, nearly any time you make a humanity-first decision or are uncooperative with other species (“cultures”), they appear as Renegade options, implying you are being something of a “bad guy” or “bully” when making those selections. Renegade options most often provide the most unfavorable results, providing contestation toward a conservative mindset.
Finally, by having the opportunity to play again, I am able to reflect on the learning style and experience it offers to players. Of James Paul Gee’s 36 Learning Principles, the Identity Principle is what truly immerses players into the Mass Effect universe. When the Identity Principle is employed, it will allow the player to make “real choices” in the game environment that will affect the identity of his/her virtual character, and offer them the chance to reflect on their own character in the real world. What makes Mass Effect a distinguishing series is the fact that one can decide on certain dialogues and actions that not only determine the overall personality of the main character, but can affect the relationships and fates of your teammates and outcomes of certain in-game missions. Some players use this as an opportunity to test their own judgements as a leader, and react in the ways they can most easily perceive themselves. Others use this opportunity to respond in ways they normally would/could not, in order to see the consequences, positive or negative. During or after play, learners can reflect on their choices. The game can give people an understanding of their real-world identity, as well as provide insights on how they would like their identity to evolve, based on their feelings toward the consequences of their virtual identity. Recall my personal reflection on electrocuting the gang member. Even though the game is not real life, and I could play however I pleased, I felt that my identity was tied to Shepard’s. Thus the decisions I made as Shepard had to be ones I personally felt comfortable with. However, if I wanted to see certain consequences of a different personality, I could always connect with other gamers via YouTube, conventions, or even in-person, which is something remarkable for this game. It has become something real for people.
In conclusion, I can say with certainty that the most impressive thing about this game (and the series) is the culture that has stemmed from it, where people have changed, connected and become involved in one another’s lives. It has become something where the producers of the game look to its fanbase for direction in its proceedings. And although the analysis has allowed me to break through the cultural fog to see some shortcomings, idiosyncrasies, and implications, I have to commend the creators for investing in player choice. I think these are steps in the right direction to make games that are relevant and meaningful to a greater variety of people.
Bogost, Ian. “Videogames and Ideological Frames.” Popular Communication 4(3) (2006): 165-83. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc. Article.
Cassell, Justine. “Genderizing HCI.” E15-315 (2002). MIT Media Lab. Article.
Gee, James Paul, What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy, (2003). Palgrave Macmillan