The Blue Pill or the Red Pill…or the Purple Pill?: Decisions on Culture, Ethics, and Romance in ME2

  • 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 4, Response #3

There is soooooo much to cover in the second half of ME2, so I’m breaking it down into 3 categories: culture, ethics, and romance.


#1: Culture

As Shepard traverses the galaxy, building her team and their loyalty, she becomes involved in many cross-cultural conflicts and is often deferred to as the sole person who can fix them.  As a female player and a fem Shep, I admit, I was initially flattered that someone was taking my/her opinion seriously at all, especially in politics.  However, the amount of times that Shepard–gender ignored–is given the reigns to entire civilizations and their fates is concerning.  On one hand, I’m glad that ME2 gives you a diverse crew and the chance to explore some of their homes and origins. The game doesn’t shy away from explaining up front the intricacies of different races and cultures, from relationships to governing bodies to rites of passage. However, this game, which ironically hinges on decisions, doesn’t leave much breathing room when it comes to who is actually in charge: Shepard.  In Christopher Patterson’s “Role-Playing the Multiculturalist Umpire,” he addresses the game’s “assumption that both nationalist and imperial governance are failed systems, part of exploitative cycles of violence. In contrast, the system of the multiculturalist umpire exists outside of history, and it overcomes the imperial violence and capitalist exploitation that defined all of history before it. In the game, the humans—analogous to western civilization—are best suited for this task” (Patterson n.pag).  In the game, there is an unspoken pride and fact that the human race has transcended all of the terrible -isms (racism/sexism/imperialism/etc), unlike those [insert random ME alien race here] who are so primitive that they still [insert discriminatory action here].  Even though Shepard has no Earth country of origin, Bioware does, and a lot of those messages leak through.  Patternson points this out when he explains that “texts and discourses that trumpet liberal tolerance can also work to make American multiculturalism appear exceptional and thus to legitimate the violence of U.S. imperial projects” (Patternson n.pag).  Although Shepard’s identity has flexible aspects for the player, their (pre-designed) decisions and the direction of their missions are often charged with an American imperialist agenda.  Shepard, the logical, civilized human (whose default is a white guy, don’t forget), must “fix” the savages of the galaxy and save them from themselves. In every situation, Shepard is looked to as the faultless, wise guru of all galactic issues, even though–in most situations–she is hardly qualified or informed enough to even logically make a good choice.  In the few situations where, on the dialogue wheel, Shepard can ask her teammates for their opinion, they–all experts in their own fields and (obviously) cultures–instantly lose their authoritativeness and defer to Shepard.

#1.5: Imperialism and Environmentalism

Although Patterson tackles many aspects of postcolonial critique, he does fail to mention a somewhat-hidden, yet power instance of imperialism: harvesting resources.  I didn’t figure out this part of the game til much later (although it is necessary to afford upgrades, even though there is literally no instruction on how to do it), but when I did, I binge-cleared out each star system.  I admit, I was very impressed on the detail of each planet you can observe.  Each planet had a history, a detailed account of vital resources, population (if it could sustain one), approximate age, etc… All of this only, while impressive, only further emphasized my actions: I was harvesting.  I scanned each planet, harvested every bit of precious materials, and then left. Most of these planets were lifeless, but each belonged to a life-sustaining planet that used its resources for itself. So I was either gutting someone’s homeworld or taking their resources.  And it’s such a minor part of the game that it doesn’t even tie into the story. No one comments on it. No one can stop you. I almost wish there had been some conflict concerning this mini-game.  Just like the gender stereotypes, the Western/American influence on perspective in ME2 is so ingrained, it isn’t even considered a problem; it’s an accomplishment.  And because you are the galaxy’s savior, everything done is “for the greater good,” which is probably one of the most dangerous concepts ever conceived, since that “good” is always subjective to the one determining it.


#2: Ethics

A lot of the ethical decisions in ME2 mix with interventions with alien cultures.  Some of the most jarring cross-cultural moments of ME2 for me was discussing the genophage (a virus engineered to stunt Krogan birth rates) with Mordin and deciding the Geth’s fate with Legion. I have not played ME1 (yes, yes, I’m a terrible person for doing 2 before 1.), so learning about the significant impact of the genophage, and many of the races’ defenses of it, was alarming.  Even more alarming was that if you wanted to become more buddy-buddy with Mordin, you would agree with his research and could, later on, destroy the only potential for a cure.  For points and for achievements, you could choose to play God and cripple an entire race…because they were “too violent” for you.


Another instance when an entire race’s fate lay in Shepard’s hands was during Legion’s loyalty mission.  Legion, a rational, non-violent (words intentionally chosen) Geth, joins Shepard and asks that she help them re-purpose a Geth virus that was meant to turn all Geth into killers.  In a clever move, Shepard is lead to believe that the only mission is to destroy the “bad” Geth.  However, towards the mission’s end, Legion throws a curve-ball and tells Shepard that the virus could be used to change the Geth to “see their truth.”  When the moment of truth arrives, Legion says that they are too conflicted to decide, so Shepard must.  To brainwash or to destroy? I personally wrestled with this one for awhile. Was there any difference? Yes, the “heretic” Geth were literally just trying to destroy all synthetic life (which is pretty bad no matter what), but never once is it considered that the Geth might have their own correct truth. They should either be rehabilitated to be like Shepard or destroyed.  In the end I chose brainwashing, but only because committing genocide seemed the greater of two evils.

#2.5: Gender

Also, I noticed something interesting about what decisions, in general, you are encouraged to make.  Even though Renegade decisions are often brutal, excessively violent, and inconsiderate of others, a note at the bottom of my screen during a loading sequence told me that “[if you want to be more badass, improve your Renegade scores].” I can’t remember the exact wording, but it did equate “badass-ness” with the (often) self-centered, hyper-violent options of Renegade.  Paramour options, I have found, are not powerless or indecisive. Shepard can still be Paramour and get in people’s faces and assert herself.  But I never saw a note encouraging the good qualities of Paramour.  The connection between selfish violence and being awesome or “badass” shouldn’t have surprised me, considering who the game’s intended audience is, but it bothered me that the male players were encouraged to stick to stereotypes.  Violence = badass, and badass = manly.  Or so I’ve been told.

So what does that make the Paramour?

Even the awesome Lesley Kinzel seems to slip on this, attributing the male assertiveness to being badass, when she says “When I played Dragon Age 2, I walked away from my Lady Hawke feeling frustrated because I realized I had made many choices in the game based on what is considered “appropriate” behavior for a woman- soft, peacemaking, appeasing decisions. While that led me to consider my behavior in real life, it wasn’t exactly satisfying! I walk away from a ME session feeling like a badass” (“Shepard ain’t white…” Kinzel).  While it is a wonderful, very important change of pace for a female character to have power and assertiveness in games, the assumption that her attitude validates the greatness of her gender is a problem.  Even if Shepard played into all of the usual gender stereotypes and was “soft, peacemaking” and “appeasing,” as Kinzel says, she could still be amazing. Her violence or her assertiveness does not make her a badass, just as a soft-spoken man is not weak.

Action vs. Passivity isn’t the only gendered binary in this game though.  The races also exhibit very polarized traits.  The Asari, for example, are the only race we see that is entirely female in appearance.  While a very intelligent and diversely accomplished race, they are presented mainly through very sexualized characters.  Samara, Morinth, and Aria–the three main Asari you encounter in the game–are created with a view in mind. Samara, even though she’s a warrior, wears a very impractical, low-cut catsuit, complete with heels.  The first time you see her, the camera pans up, getting a very gratuitous view of her chest before reaching her face.  Her daughter, Morinth, is limited to the very typical role of femme fatal and is a genetic sexual predator.  And Aria, tight leather and all, is a pimp (and of course, all of her dancers are Asari, and all of the dancers in the game are female).  Meanwhile, the other race we see most of is the Krogan, which are presented entirely through male characters. While it is proven that there are female Krogan, the only time one is seen in the game is at a researchers lab, dead after undergoing cruel experiments.  Krogan warriors are male only, and they have very hyper-masculine rules and traditions. Acceptance is based on violence, pride, and a demanding attitude. In fact, the Krogan council only responds with respect towards Shepard once she threatens violence.  They would, according to Kinzel and the game’s standards, be “badass.”  While the races in ME2 seem diverse in culture, their incredibly gendered presentations reveal that the game designer’s intended audience was certainly heterosexual male.  Patterson describes a concept called “neo-racism” in which racial labor stereotypes are enforced while claiming to support multiculturalism (“Role-Playing…” n.pag).  Mass Effect 2, for all of its support of equal gender power, reinforces social stereotypes of hyper-sexualized women and tribal, violent men.  Mirroring neo-racism in practice, this neo-sexism appears a lot in current, big-name games and claims to support a feminist equality but actually changes very little to the status quo.

Some of the races avoid these stereotypes though. The one that comes first to mind is the Quarians.  Aside from some minor physical differences (females are more slender and males have broader shoulders), nothing seems to separate the male and female Quarians from sharing equal opportunities at respect, authority, jobs, etc… Tali, one of my favorite crew mates, is a brilliant scientist and mechanic. She is just as prone to express rage and authoritativeness as sweetness and kindness. Neither her job nor her personality is contingent on gender stereotypes.

12714344_10208704890204773_1934487074_nBut actions taken are not the only signifiers of gender in ME2. Dialogue and camera angles speak a lot to the game designers’ views as well. While the dialogue directed at Shepard is relatively gender-neutral (because Shep’s default is a guy), interactions with a few other characters attack gender directly. The earliest one that comes to mind is during Miranda’s loyalty mission. An Asari merc calls Miranda a “bitch” and says that she’s “surprised Cerberus lets you whore around in that outfit.” The female merc is in full-body armor, so perhaps script writers thought this dig would come off as humorous since Miranda does wear an impractical battle outfit. No matter what, they were wrong. No matter the outfit, her identity as a female or as someone feminine should not have been used as an insult. This confrontation is one of the many times Miranda is degraded as a female in the game.  Another is the player’s view of her.  While much of ME2 can be judged based on what you as a player can do (decisions, interactions, romance, etc…), the act of spectator can be just as interactive and influential. In almost every conversation (especially the ones in her office), Miranda is viewed from below and behind, giving the player a full view of her spandex-clad butt.  Even though Miranda and her story are interesting and empowering, the camera guides players’ eyes to what they’re meant to deem as important: her body.

Another loyalty mission which had gender-directed insults was Samara’s. While navigating the Eternity VIP section, Shepard overhears a Turian harassing an Asari dancer into coming home with him.  Shepard can intervene, but not before hearing the Turian threaten the Asari, saying “You’ve got a mouth on you! I can’t wait to see how you’ll use it.”  This is the only time in the game that I can recall where sexual violence is threatened towards a female character.  As a female player/Shepard, I was particularly happy that my only reaction was to beat the crap out of him.  However, I then realize that, yet again, Shepard’s “badass” mode is measured in violence.  As both male and female Shep, the dancer thanks you and then leaves.

While there are instances in the game that put females/femininity at a disadvantage, I cannot think of a single time when any of the female characters are intentionally granted any sort of advantage or respectful complement on their gender identity. On one hand, ME2 does give a lot of the female characters strong qualities and stories not connected with their gender. However, ignoring their gender does not necessarily empower it.  While femShep is a very powerful and female-empowering character (especially for female players) and I’m glad BioWare made her an option, all of her non-gender conforming aspects are due primarily to her basic frame/dialogue being copied and pasted from broShep.  While these copied aspects allow her to move between gender stereotypes without complaint or comment, I question whether Shepard is more empowered as a female because of this or are companies like BioWare ignoring the challenge of creating a game that intentionally addresses the female gender in a respectful and in-depth way?

#3: Romance

Even though the romance in ME2 does not take up most of the gameplay (props to Bioware for not making a story hinge on romance but still providing it), the decisions made in that department are yet another opportunity for diversity in the game.  Also, as Bioware is all about making decisions with consequences, your relationship can be long-term and carry over to ME3, which I felt made it more meaningful.

Before beginning the romance options, I did look up basic lists of who my options would be.  I was pleased to see that 1.) options were not limited to only humans and 2.) Shepard did not have to be straight.  BUT…only femShep has the option to romance same-gender (or at least, same-gender appearing) shipmates. And if she does, they do not count for the Paramour Achievement you would receive for romancing a male/male-appearing shipmate.

This breadcrumb is similar to the one tossed at players for participating in multi-cultural/racial situations. On one hand, the (stereotypically white male) player is supposed to feel accomplished for having such a diverse crew and interactions. BUT (but’s are the worst)…you are always in power and always making the decisions for them. You direct the diversity, not include it.

Just as Lesley Kinzel quotes Susan Bright who looks for “crumbs” of sexuality/gender representation in films, I would say that BioWare does something similar (“Probe Away!…” Kinzel). Yes, it is good that there are options. In most first-shooter adventure games, you get one protagonist (the white, straight dude) and you don’t even get to choose a romance. But just because the gay relationship is possible, just because the crumb is there, doesn’t mean that it counts as a loaf of bread. The relationships are never validated in the game’s achievements nor in the actual cut-scenes of the game (Shepard can always have sex with their straight partner, but not with their gay/lesbian relationships). Samara’s romance isn’t even fully acknowledged until ME3, and Kelly dances in a stripper outfit in Shepard’s quarters.  The interactions and dialogue for femShep’s potential lesbian romances aren’t nearly as fleshed out as her straight relationships. Considering that femShep, especially when ME2 came out, was treated as a side-option (and so were the only homosexual relationships in the game), I am fairly certain that I would be right in assuming that Bioware wasn’t catering her and her romances to potential lesbian/bi players, but to the usual male players who just want to watch and treat non-straight relationships as a game.

All of that being said, I am glad to hear that Bioware has opened up more relationships for both Sheps in ME3.  As for the cultural interactions, I will have to test the game out myself to see if the balance of power shifts.

This is Commander Shepard, signing out.



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