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thoughts on games, the people who play them and the industry at large.
people at BioWare have told us that by their reckoning, 80 percent of Mass
Effect 2 players elected to play as a male version Commander Shepard. I can think of a couple of totally innocuous
explanations for this.
Some players don't want to go to the trouble of customizing their character
model at all, and accept the game's default as quickly as possible in order to
skip to the part where they can shoot stuff.
Many players approach the creation of their Shepard as a way to insert
themselves into the story, and they create a Shepard consistent with that
priority, i.e., male.
will begin by saying there is nothing
wrong with either of those play styles.
Above: It’s cool, really. Who doesn’t want
to play as a bald-ish space marine?
there is another way to play the Mass Effect series, and that is to try to
exploit the narrative possibilities of the franchise to their fullest, to push
the storytelling envelope as far as it will go. To do that, the first and most
important step is to create a female Commander Shepard.1
his book Pale Blue Dot, Carl Sagan writes:
will not be we who reach Alpha Centauri and the other nearby stars. It will be
a species very like us, but with more of our strengths, and fewer of our
weaknesses. More confident, farseeing, capable, and prudent."
reach the stars, Sagan felt very strongly that we would have to transcend
"sexism, racism, nationalism, and the other deadly chauvinisms that plague
way to hint at humanity's advancement in the centuries that separate the present
day from the Mass Effect universe would be to depict a species more at peace
with itself; a humanity that has made real strides toward solving the prejudice
and bigotry we still struggle with today. What better way to do this than to
not only depict its foremost warrior as a woman, but also, crucially, to let
that fact go almost entirely unremarked-on throughout the narrative?
as a female Commander Shepard, and except for a very few instances, the fact
that your character is a woman is a non-issue. Your combat prowess is neither
questioned nor used against you.2 Your deeds are evaluated on their
own merit, and it seems to never even occur to most characters in the game to
mention your gender, let alone use it to draw any sort of conclusion about the
kind of soldier or person you may or may not be.
tomorrow our greatest war hero were a woman, her femininity would be central to
everything said about her. But two centuries from now, it may be totally
unremarkable. With characters like Chief Ashley Williams, Mass Effect hints at
this future, but with a female Command Shepard, it embodies this future.
of course, is due in part to the technical constraints of the game. While BioWare
can afford the expense of recording two versions of the main character's voice,
they can’t record differing versions of every other character's interactions
with you (except for those few, gender-specific romance subplots). As a result,
the world of Mass Effect is a far more egalitarian one than our own, and this
in turn makes for better science fiction, because it is supposed to be a more egalitarian world.
the game is set in a refreshingly equitable society, its story is being
consumed here and now. I know that sounds just eye-rollingly obvious, but stay
with me. The real world of 2012 does not enjoy the sexism-free environment of
the Mass Effect games, and the consumption of its story is thus unavoidably
subject to our own unfortunate problems.
Shepard's encounter with Sha'ira, the Asari consort, on the Citadel in ME1.
Though it is never stated outright, we are meant to detect more than a whiff of
prostitution about her whole operation. Thus, when a male Shepard interacts
with her, their discourse carries the baggage of a historical power imbalance
between men and women in that context. But female Shepard can interact with
Sha'ira as a peer, bypassing that imbalance and addressing her as an equal.
Though their spoken lines may be identical, the subtext is profoundly
like this abound. While the test famously proposed by Alison Bechdel to
determine whether or not a movie was worth her time (does the film contain at
least two female characters, who have at least one conversation about something
besides a man?) is frequently over-applied, science fiction as a genre has
struggled with its portrayals of women, who too often are defined in terms of
their relationships with the men in the story. The genre can't help but inherit
some of the problems of the society that created it. But Mass Effect, played with
a female lead character, doesn't just pass Bechdel's test – it blows it out of
the water. Suddenly, there’s a rich cast of female characters, none of whom are
forced to negotiate with a man for their narrative payoff. This may not seem
important or significant, but it is.
2183, Commander Shepard being a woman isn't even newsworthy. But in 2012, it’s
nothing short of revolutionary.
: Some may disagree with me that there is a
"best" version of the Mass Effect story. I imagine the BioWare
developers themselves would say as much. They are all wrong.
: To be clear, I am not suggesting that there
are no strong female soldiers anywhere in SF. But when they exist, their
prowess frequently either comes at the expense of their femininity (Vasquez in
Aliens) or derives inherently from it (Sarah Connor in the Terminator films).
Frequently, they have very little to do (Uhura in Star Trek); are important
solely thanks to their feelings for the main, male characters (Trinity in The
Matrix); or die (Trudy Chacon in Avatar). Commander Shepard is a woman and a
soldier, but those two facets of her being have nothing to do with each other.