|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|
|'being perfect is so difficult'|
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!
Galinsky AD, Wang CS, & Ku G (2008). Perspective-takers behave more stereotypically. Journal of personality and social psychology, 95 (2), 404-19 PMID: 18665710