“Fight like a Girl”: ME2’s (nearly) Equal Character Options

  • Class: ENGL 797 — Feminist & Gender Critique in Critical Video Game Theory
  • Assignment: Weekly reading/game play responses, 1-2 pg length requirement, 1 scholarly source included
  • Week 3, Response #2

If this post had to have a subtitle, I would have made it “The Pros & Cons of Playing a Customize-able Game Designed for White Straight Dudes.” Because subtlety is overrated. I have only played a limited portion of the game so far, but so far, I’m enjoying it immensely.  I have completed 3 dossier missions with FemShep and 2 with BroShep.

 

Even though there are indicators as to BioWare’s white male Shep-preference, the opportunities that are in the game for many kinds of characters/players have opened up an empathetic accessibility that few other games provide.  Space adventure games, at least in my experience, are not known for engaging plots, interesting characters, or significant roles to be filled (and kept) by characters of varying races and genders.  More often than not, the games are basic seek-and-destroy missions with a space marine shooting down random, repeating aliens.  Or they are Star Wars games.  However ME2 has an interesting Elysium-Firefly-esque mix of a world, where a thinned-out humanity is struggling to keep its place in a very competitive universe.  Of course, there is a champion.  Unlike the burly, faceless (well, until the end of Halo 4 that is…) Master Chief or Barbie-blonde Samus Aran, Commander Shepard is whatever and whoever the heck you want them to be.  In the character design, you can select from a variety of skin tones, eye shapes, hair styles, nose height, and almost everything in between.  In Lesley Kinzel’s blog article “Shepard ain’t white: Playing with race and gender in Mass Effect,” she comments on her customization choices, saying that “The character I impose on the game avatar is multiracial, which is likely to be the norm by the year 2183 when Mass Effect takes place, although that’s not why I did it. I did it because I don’t see queer women of color as protagonists very often, not in video games, but not anywhere else in media either” (Kinzel).  Although there is a logical explanation as to why Shepard could be a queer woman of color in command, I appreciate that Kinzel admits that her choices were not because of that, but because Shepard could be different, it was time to break away from the norm.  I too followed a similar thought process in Shepard’s design, although I haven’t had much romancing opportunities yet.  However, now that I was committed to fleshing out my Shepard, I intentionally chose the War Hero psych (because Jennifer Hale’s voice is commanding and awesome, and because why the heck not) and the Colonist background (because I’m a sucker for tragic backstories).


 

However despite these great customization opportunities, I noticed something unfortunate in the promotional materials: every Shepard, except for white dude Shep, is missing. On the cover, it’s white dude Shep. On the main launch video, it’s white dude Shep (although even femShep’s launch made her white too). Even when you enter the game, the default options for Shepard, both male and female, are white. (Links to the trailers below)

Why? Of course I understand that there will be white gamers, of both sexes, but why should one percentage of this game’s audience revolve around that?  I am truly curious as to what would happen if the next Mass Effect game featured a non-white femShep on the cover, with a non-white broShep on the back.

However, to compliment BioWare, I do appreciate the variety of side-characters. There are several women (of course, all the human ones are white), who outnumber the amount of human men (one of whom is black, and the game makes no fuss about it, which is great, because why should it?), and there’s an equally good variety of aliens of varying sexes/genders.

But now that I have given them a compliment, I have to be critical again, this time about outfits.  Even though Shepard can be customized many ways, the game still presents many visual rewards for an obviously intentional male audience.  Shepard is the only woman I have seen so far who actually wears armor into battle. Miranda, Tali, Samara, Morinth, and Aria all wear clingy spandex space suits which are almost always chest-exposing. Miranda even has heels.  And don’t even get me started on Jack’s…harness.  Granted, all of these women, just like in a real world context, should be able to dress as they please.  The problem is not necessarily what they are wearing but in what context and why. As fighters in an intergalactic war, their outfits are out of place. And seeing that all but one female character (the customize-able one) is wearing ogle-worthy tight and revealing clothes reveals a flaw in their creators’ designs.   All of the male characters are either wearing casual cargo pants and t-shirts or full body armor.

But moving away from the purely visual, I found one aspect of the game’s movement mechanic very interesting.  When I was first moving around as Shepard–adjusting camera controls, learning the wonderfully easy weapons system, etc–I felt that something was off.  It took me a few minutes of just taking laps around my ship to figure out that femShep runs like broShep. She runs like a dude.  Granted, in real life, this isn’t much of a shocker; both sexes can and do run with similar motion.  However, I have noticed that in games like Mass Effect (where you can move your character at varying speeds and explore), that the male characters have a jostling, weight-throwing run (you feel, literally, that they are meant to be bigger and more powerful) and the female characters have a far less pronounced run, with movements that are usually less felt on the controller and which look more like gliding (with a lot of hip-swaying). I even noticed that Miranda moves this way (of course, because she’s in freaking heels).  But femShep runs like a dude soldier…like herself.  And that made me ridiculously happy.  Shep’s run shouldn’t be gendered. Granted, the same can be said of the dialogue options. Aside from the romances, all dialogue options for bro- and femShep are (at this point in my gameplay) the same.  No matter the action, no matter how polite or cruel, no one calls out Shepard on their gender.  Lesley Kinzel comments on this, saying:

No one ever blames Shepard’s moods on PMS and no one ever asks if she’s on the rag, no matter how much of an asshole she is. No one ever suggests that Shepard is unhappy or excessively driven because she has not known the miracle of child-rearing and therefore her life is oh-so-empty. In a firefight, no one tries to protect Shepard from the violence, and afterward, when Shepard picks up a crate full of spoils, no one asks if she needs help with that. Thugs do not spare her feelings, nor do they fail to take her threats seriously. When other aliens accuse her of being overemotional, it’s framed as a human failing, not a female one, and when they call her crazy, it’s because she is actually doing some mad shit, and not because she’s just some silly unbalanced female. (Kinzel)

As a female gamer who, whenever I actually get to play a chic, is used to my character’s sex (and my own) getting called out as an excuse or a problem, I was really glad that BioWare let femShep’s movements/dialogue stay the same as broShep’s.  I was earning my way through the game as my Shepard, not as a man or a woman.  Playing broShep and femShep right after the other also further emphasized the story, action, and character of Shepard as opposed to their sex or gender. Finally.

Once I get further in the game, I will definitely be exploring the romance options and how femShep gets different people and achievements (or lack thereof) because of them, and I will be bringing in Lesley Kinzel’s “Prove away! Mining for queerness in Mass Effect 1 & 2.”

Works Cited:

Kinzel, Lesley. “Shepard ain’t white: Playing with race and gender in Mass Effect.” Two Whole Cakes. 21 June 2011. Web. http://blog.twowholecakes.com/2011/06/shepard-aint-white-playing-with-race-and-gender-in-mass-effect/

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