Sunday, March 4, 2012

4 reasons why all women should play Mass Effect

Another adventure outside of the 'cellular neuroscience' walls for The Cellular Scale.  Today we are traveling to the land of video games, video games and women. 

Commander Shepard, the most badass woman in the galaxy

Mass Effect 3 is being released in a few days and I thought I would use this time (while my xbox is downloading the free demo) to write about why the world would be a better (or at least slightly more gender-neutral) place if all women played Mass Effect. 

Update: Just beat Mass Effect 3, see my thoughts on the endings here

There are four main reasons people (especially women) should play this video game.

4. it's fun.

This is reason enough to play the game. Mass Effect is a sci-fi video game with some of the best world-building in book, movie or game to date (I expect angry comments bringing up Star Wars, Star Trek or Dune below, but I'm standing by that statement). Mass Effect presents a rich world with a cohesive believable history. You can literally read volumes about each species, each planet, each mercenary group, and each weapon if you are so inclined. There are nuances and details hidden everywhere that subtlety but strongly enrich the game.

A quick summary **SPOILERS**

You play as Commander Shepard (you can choose to be male or female), who is a human in the Alliance military. 

troubled, but handsome
In Mass Effect 1, you have to track down and defeat a rogue spectre, Saren.  He is an obvious bad-guy (the first thing you see him do is shoot his 'friend' point blank), but he does the job. You have to deal with some anti-human speciesism from the alien council, but they are generally on your side. You recruit some companions: a badass soldier in pink, a troubled but handsome biotic, an engineer on her pilgrimage, an ex-cop, an archaeological scientist, and a merc-for-hire tough guy.  Then you go save the galaxy. Upon saving the galaxy your realize that the threat was much bigger than just the one rogue spectre.... which brings us to Mass Effect 2 (in which the shooting-game play is much improved) 

'being perfect is so difficult'
In Mass Effect 2, you have been dead for two years, but are being rebuilt by Cerberus, a company that you only heard about in passing in ME1, but what you heard was bad.  Cerberus is a human-supremacist group and it rebuilt you to help humanity, not the galaxy.  So under the Cerberus logo, you attempt to face the 'bigger threat' that you discovered at the end of ME1. Human colonies are being destroyed, but in a really weird way where everything is left perfectly intact but all the humans are gone.  You investigate these colonies, discover the reason behind these weird disappearances. Of course, you recruit some companions: a woman who likes to complain about being genetically modified to be 'perfect', a troubled but handsome biotic (not the same one), the same engineer after her pilgrimage, the same ex-cop, a killing-addict tattooed biotic, a pod-grown tough-guy, a geneticist/doctor, a morally rigid monastic biotic (or her evil daughter), a negligent father/assassin,  and a robot.  In this game you spend most of your time recruiting these companions and doing 'loyalty' missions for them.  Then you save the galaxy.... and in saving the galaxy, you realize the threat isn't over...which bring us to Mass Effect 3 (in which a cooperative multi-player aspect has been added) 

So the game is fun.  The graphics are good, the action play is fun, leveling up is fun, the characters are great, the story is entertaining, but what really brings this game up a notch from other is the:

3. Complex morality

Like a lot of modern video games, you can make decisions in Mass Effect that have short and long term consequences. In fact, the decisions you make in ME1 effects who you see in ME2 and how you interact with them. Like other games you can become 'good' or 'bad' (Fable and Knights of the Old Republic are some of the games which pioneered this morality system), but in Mass Effect it is called "Paragon" or "Renegade" and it is a little more complex than in the other games.  Paragon isn't necessarily good and everyone likes you, and Renegade isn't necessarily evil and everyone dies.
source: 'facebook' if this is yours,
let me know and I will credit you

Some of the moral dilemmas you face in this game remind me of game theory and morality experiments.  Do you follow the law in all situations or do you break it for the greater good?  Do you kill one to save many, or do you protect your friends and let strangers die? 

The biggest moral dilemma in Mass Effect 1 is when you have to decide between two of your teammates, you don't have time to save both of them.  Who do you choose?

Interestingly, it's not all 'thanks for saving me' from the person you rescue either, they feel guilty and upset because you chose them instead of the other person.  This choice carries over all the way to ME3, where whichever person you saved apparently plays an important part. 

My favorite moral dilemma is in Mass Effect 2 though, because it is related to science!  Your teammate, the geneticist, confesses to you that he took part in producing the genophage, a mutation that drastically reduces the fertility rate in a particularly aggressive alien species.  These aliens previously lived on a very hostile world and the constant environmental threats kept their population low.  However, when they came into contact with other aliens and moved off their hostile world, their population exploded under their new non-threatening conditions.  The geneticist in your group had lead the initiative to infect this alien species with a mutation (yes the fake science gets iffy here) that would decrease the fertility rate in females to like 1%.  In your discussion with him he makes a convincing argument for 'galaxy safety' and this not being 'sterilization' or 'genocide' but simply a check on the population. But the other side is easy to see too, deploying the genophage is playing god with this species, deciding for them what their population should be.  Why does the geneticist on your ship get to decide that? and how can he possibly know what the right population should be for this species? But then again, do you really want the galaxy completely over-run with these aggressive aliens? Tough choices.

This game is good because aside from being entertaining, there are points in this game that actually make you think.

2. Seeing women in positions of power

As explained in an Io9 article, by Kyle Munkittrick, sci-fi is historically able to push boundaries further than other media. A quote from that article:

"Science fiction is one of the best forms of social satire and critique. Want to sneak in some absolutely scandalous social mores, like, say, oh, I don't know, a black woman into a position of power in the 1960s? Put her on a starship command deck." 

And Mass Effect does that.  The 'tough soldier with a lot of health' character (you know the one, it shows up in every video game ever) is the second character you meet in ME1 and she is named Ashley. The all-powerful ruler of Omega who no one in their right mind would mess with is named Aria (also is voiced by Carrie-Ann Moss, who you might recognize from The Matrix and Memento).  The game is full of stereotype-destroying characters. It's not another sci-fi story where all the male characters have distinct personalities, but the one token woman character has the personality of 'woman'.  The women in Mass Effect show the same range of morality, toughness, power, and emotion that the men do. 

Omega only has one law: Don't fuck with Carrie-Ann Moss

However, Mass Effect is not a completely non-sexist game or anything.  There are plenty of females with comic-book proportions and there are even strip clubs.  The characters aren't all respectful of Commander Shepard when she is a woman (or man for that matter).  In a particularly brutal corner of the galaxy (Miranda calls it a 'piss hole'), you go to sign up for a mercenary mission and the jackass at the counter says 'sweetie, you're in the wrong place, strippers sign up over there.' (You can put him in his place for that remark if you choose to though).  It's not only sexism that runs rampant in the galaxy, people are speciesist to you too, one bar tender even tries to poison you because you are human. The thing that makes it a good game for women to play is because you see commander Shepard deal with people being rude to her, confront them, earn respect, do her job, and save the galaxy. 

1. Being a woman in a position of power. 

More important and more effective than just watching women in power, is actually 'being' a woman in power.  Modern video games like Mass Effect are highly immersive.  You move a character around, you see through her eyes, and you can even make her look like you.

In 2008, Galinsky et al. published a paper testing the effects of perspective taking.  That is, they had people pretend to be someone else, either by writing about their day as that person or by pretending to be that person in an interview.  They found that after pretending to be someone else, the participants of the study actually took on some of the stereotypes associated with the person they were imagining themselves to be.  For example, when they pretended to be a university professor, they rated themselves as smarter and actually performed better on an analytical task.  In contrast when they pretended to be a cheerleader, they rated themselves as more attractive but actually did worse on the analytical task. The most interesting thing here is that the effect was stronger when the participants were told to 'write about your day as if you were this cheerleader' than when they were told 'here is a cheerleader, write about her day.'

In short, pretending to be someone can influence how you feel about yourself and even how you act.
This is where Mass Effect can potentially have benefits even beyond watching a powerful woman role model on tv.  You actually pretend to be this woman: the commander of the ship, the leader of the team, the hero of the galaxy.  You answer as her during conversations. You make the tough decisions described above in Reason 3: Complex Morality. You stand up for yourself when you know you are right, but the alien council doesn't believe you. The fate of the galaxy rests on your shoulders.
If the perspective effect works in a video game setting, then pretending to be a strong woman for an hour a day, might actually make you a more confident person in real life.

I would love to see a study actually using this game to test the perspective taking effect in video games. Galinsky, are you listening? you should do this study:

Have women play Mass Effect (select some key conversations where respect is shown or tough decisions are made) and test whether it affects their self-reported confidence or intelligence.  An interesting control might be to have these women play Mass Effect as the male character and run through the exact same conversations.

Does taking the perspective of Commander Shepard boost confidence or ability? And if so is the effect increased when a woman plays as female Shepard compared to male Shepard? What if a man plays as female or male Shepard? The Cellular Scale wants to know!

© TheCellularScale
Galinsky AD, Wang CS, & Ku G (2008). Perspective-takers behave more stereotypically. Journal of personality and social psychology, 95 (2), 404-19 PMID: 18665710


  1. While you (and some comments from others at a convention) convinced me to get and play this game; I have reservations regarding 'perspective taking' and the conclusions of Galinsky. Whether it is mental modeling, goal oriented or perspective taking, a focus where the stereotypical viewpoint of what holds value will create an individual and life change regarding that. In this arguement, one which is as old as violent video games and music, there is no value in acting with kindness in Grand Theft Auto, so thus, in life, a person becomes more callous. Is this true? Studies and law cases have shown it does...and does not.

    I am not sure if playing the game will enhance experiences of leadership, but I am certain they will, for those who are empathetic, create a bond of understanding between the makers/creators of the game and the players. This will give weight and value to some things over others. Does that create, in a non tangable outcome, enough of a stimulous to permanently change behavoir? And how reflective or beneficial is that to real world experience? Perhaps worthy of a study but studies of individual teachers with 10/15/20 year follow ups have already done this - demonstrating that the kind of feedback needed to make lifelong change, has not yet been created in a home gaming environment.

    But it might allow for a better reflective mirror upon which to focus expectations and alter self assessments.

  2. Thanks for the comment! I am not trying to say that all video games will make you a better person, and not even that Mass Effect will. I do think that it is possible that perspective taking of a powerful leading individual for 60 hours of your life might make you more confident. But studies are needed to actually show this.

    That is a good point about GTA, does playing at running innocents in your car make you less emathetic to actual disasters? or how about pretending to kill police and prostitutes, what might that do to a person? I would argue that the 'believability' of the situation in GTA is low compared to Mass Effect, and that might have an effect on how it 'rubs off' on the player.
    It would be interesting to investigate what factors in a game (realism in graphics, believability of dialogue, perspective of gameplay (1st, 3rd person) etc) impact its real world effects.