(Image from Afterellen.com-credit to them)
Mass Effect: Andromeda is out, and early reviews are mixed, as one would expect in a game that is continuing a series that many people love. The original trilogy was…well, a trilogy. It had an ending (which many people hated!). I didn’t play ME3, and I haven’t played the new game either. I very much enjoyed the second installment, but I didn’t have the console to play 3 when it was released, and then the negative feedback hit concerning the ending. I mistook it for an overall criticism of the game; or perhaps I was afraid the (allegedly) awful ending would ruin my memories of the series. In any case, I rarely finish a game, so I’m not sure why that deterred me.
But I don’t want to talk about whether the new game is good or not. I want to talk about the idea of Mass Effect, which allows you to choose between playing a male or female character (affectionately truncated to ManShep vs. FemShep in the video game community). Both choices have been excellently voice acted, though many people prefer Jennifer Hale’s rendition of the character, at least among my friends. She does do an amazing job, but I’ve tended to play as ManShep.
Ok, brief history time: Bioware has had an interesting relationship with gamers that have wanted to have more diverse (sexually) characters in their games. In the first Mass Effect, you could sort of have a same sex relationship, if you played FemShep, but only because of how Asari work (see below). In the second game, they played it safer, basically making everything hetero-normative. Then, in the third, they tried to open it up more, allowing a male-male pairing, but it was pretty lackluster by most counts. The latest in the series, Andromeda, has included more same sex pairings, to mixed reviews.
I think Bioware is trying to allow people to engage in a variety of sexual orientations, but they aren’t totally sure how to pull it off properly (maybe hire more writers that actually experience these feelings?). Whether you play as ManShep or FemShep, you can romance crew members of either gender, and each iteration has tried to be more inclusive in this regard. I’m going to set aside the troubling notion of romancing subordinates (though that would also be interesting to examine!) and focus on what Bioware is doing right here and what misses the mark.
Let’s start with the right: I like the idea of allowing players to decide whom they wish to romance and what sexual orientation their character has. In theory, it allows players to experiment with different roles, which is what a roleplaying game is all about. More importantly, it might increase representation among groups that have been grossly unrepresented in gaming: members of the LGBTQ+ community (note: I do not mean to exclude any of the groups that have since been included in this acronym…I use + to indicate them).
Furthermore, I think there can be value in presenting the choice of romantic partners as if gender were irrelevant, if only to get people to consider that as a possibility. Perhaps the world would be a better place if this were how things worked, and maybe in the Mass Effect universe, gender is no longer a barrier to romance. Cool.
However, if that’s what Bioware is trying to achieve, it misses the mark in several important ways. Let’s start with the most common complaint on this front: The Asari. The Asari are a race of aliens that have only one gender…which just happens to have the appearance of attractive human women (but with blue or gray skin!).
Mass Effect has tried to correct this a bit, with the most recent game in the series adding the notion that some Asari identify as masculine. As the linked article notes, such Asari do not actually appear in any of the games, but good for Bioware to at least acknowledge the issue. I think they are sincerely trying here, and I give them a lot of credit for that. Maybe they shouldn’t have started with the idea of “space babes” in the first place! Anyway, I’ll let this go now…
As for the number of options of characters to romance, one might argue that in the real world, people who are gay have less options for romantic partners too (statistically speaking), but then, this isn’t a real world. It’s a game. So, the realist argument may not hold water here. Bioware could simply allow people to romance anyone, and treat all romances the same, regardless of whether you are playing ManShep or FemShep. Romance whomever you wish, and have the scenes play out the same.
That could be very interesting, if the goal is to look at the future in a certain way, but it certainly would not capture what it’s like in today’s world to be a member of the LGBTQ+ community. Their romances are often not the same, precisely because of social conventions. The essential love is close enough to the same and deserves the same respect. But living as a transgender or homosexual or bisexual person is likely not the same as living as a heterosexual, cisgendered person, and treating these relationships as if they would be just like choosing what clothes to wear probably misses the point and would not actually help represent the views of players who are transgender. As a hetero-cis person myself, I’m not going to pretend to know how best to represent these differences. I’m just saying that ignoring them is probably not the best approach.
Beyond these issues, it would probably minimize sexual identity to present romances in such terms. Making every gender choice interchangeable suggests that there are no differences among us, but as feminists like Catharine MacKinnon have noted, the “treat the same the same and treat differences differently” approach doesn’t work well in practice. There are too many differences in people, and this approach tends to make sexism and other issues pretty easy to defend. Instead, MacKinnon suggests that we look for power imbalances, which we all recognize as being exploitative when not appropriate.
Of course, this suggestion gets us back to the original issue that I decided to set aside…why is a military commander romancing his/her/their crew, when an obvious power differential makes this very problematic?? Guess I never fully set that aside after all….
Anyway, Bioware is in a tough position, trying to represent all viewpoints while also trying to tell a particular story about a particular character. Hopefully, they find a way to get it right….eventually.