This is another in a series of posts by PhD students in my Public Intellectuals seminar.
Queer Fate and Mass Effect
By Tyler Quick
Queer folks see potential where our peers see only impossibility. When I am told that escaping the bonds of normativity is hopeless, I think of José Muñoz’s famous summarizing of queerness: “Queerness is not here yet [...] but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality.” To be queer is to see all the choices that life affords you and still demand better, more just, more beautiful, more empowering options. In a culture increasingly saturated with the illusion of choice, I take comfort in my discomfort with the banality of the available courses of action to realize my dreams. I know that the alternatives I imagine now will one day inspire the resistance we communally undertake to make them possible, perhaps even after I’m long gone and not around to witness it.
This is not a position that I have come to easily, especially in my younger years. I came out in 2008 in an environment that was woefully non-hostile. This isn’t to say that it was welcoming, but rather that the normalization of gay existence underway in much of urban America, especially my hometown in Colorado, obfuscated the queer problems that I was confronting. I was accepted by my peers, but never really understood. I was told to act upon my true desires, but never presented the opportunity. I spent most of the year hiding in my parents’ basement playing video games.
But I wouldn’t just lie there mindlessly mashing buttons. I queered the shit out of my gaming. One of my favorite things to do on a Saturday night, when my friends were at parties trying to enact their heterosexual desires, was to run through the streets of the Imperial City in The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, refusing to follow the story-line and instead killing the entire civilian population and hoarding their bodies in the Temple of the One. I would attempt to force pigs to breed with lions in Viva Piñata and constantly disparage my unrequited love for a gender nonconforming octopus in Animal Crossing. The only game that I did not attempt to misplay was released the same year that I came out. It was a space opera RPG called Mass Effect—the only game I perceived to operate on as queer of a logic as my brain.
Mass Effect had the distinction of being one of the first video-games to become mired in the culture wars of the Bush years. The first game in the trilogy made waves because it allowed both male and female main characters to “romance” a bisexual, non-gender blue alien. Predictably, Fox News and right-wing media reacted with moral panic (peep the video above). Bioware, the company that produces Mass Effect responded by increasing the number of same-sex romance options in the in the 2012 final installment of the series’ initial trilogy, Mass Effect 3 (although notably not in the 2010 sequel Mass Effect 2)—which not only allowed for additional same-sex romance options, but also same-sex romance options with characters that had hitherto been considered heterosexual. Mass Effect was at the forefront of “queering” gaming at the beginning of this decade, but that has not left it without its queer discontents.
In an article published this year by the journal Game Studies, Jordan Youngblood makes a salient case against the benevolence of Mass Effect’s queer representation. His argument can best be summarized: “While Mass Effect--and BioWare more generally--may represent LGBTQ characters, it cannot truly represent queer life, queer possibilities, so long as these representations remain tethered to and in service of a set of dehumanizing, abstract gameplay systems that prioritize above all else efficiency, military dominance, and loyalty to the larger nation-state.” He argues that the inclusion of queer characters in the series—an inclusion that he is not alone in pointing out was not always enthusiastically or inoffensively stated—is indicative of a biopolitical ethos that demands “populations either [be] brought into normative line with the goal of saving the world or wiped out altogether.”
Undergirding his argument is the plot of the original Mass Effect trilogy: at the end of the 22nd Century, our species, quickly being inducted into galactic society, is afforded a spot among the Spectres—the galactic government’s elite paramilitary and reconnaissance agency. This spot is filled by Commander Shepard, the avatar of the player who has no set race, gender, or background. Throughout the trilogy, Shepard, pursuing a rogue Spectre named Saren, uncovers a plot by synthetic, hyper-sentient beings living beyond the galaxy’s edge (the Reapers) to destroy all organic life in the Milky Way. It is slowly revealed that this is a process that occurs once every 50,000 years, and has been an unavoidable fate for several million years for countless sentient races. The trilogy is therefore set up as a battle between one woman/man and destiny.
Mass Effect features what was (at the time) a unique series of game-play mechanisms that lend it a more cinematic feel. First, the game tracks players’ decisions, ranging from the innocuous to the monumental, and uses them to inform future game-play options and plot twists across the trilogy. For example, the player is given the choice in the third installment of the game to reverse a weaponized genetic mutation (the genophage) spread by the galactic government among a rebellious species (the Krogan). To spare the Krogan from genocide has both pragmatic and symbolic benefits for the player. Saving them means that they are added to the Shepard’s army to confront the Reapers, and it also boosts Shepard’s “paragon” score. The choices that the player makes contribute to two different “morality” scores—paragon and renegade—whose accumulation affords players additional dialogue options, team members, and resources to fight the Reapers.
Similar to this is the Mass Effect 3’s “galactic readiness” score, which quantifies the preparedness of the coalition of organic species created by the player to combat the Reapers. Decisions such as the one to either enable or destroy the genophage contribute to another point system that will ultimately determine whether or not the player can defeat the Reapers in the final act. This contributes to what Youngblood describes as “machine thinking” that is necessary to “win” the game, i.e. cognition mediated by biopolitical ideology that prioritizes one specific end as the justification for any and all means. Perhaps choosing mostly “paragon” choices is the recipe for a high galactic readiness, and therefore the destruction of the ultra-genocidal Reapers, but virtuousness is still pursued only in the service of a blind loyalty to the survival of the human race, occasionally at the expense of others species’ and beings’ well-being.
Youngblood’s point is that while the game reluctantly afford players the opportunity to pursue “queer” dating and sexual relationships, it does not afford the opportunity for queer gameplay. Everything, including a system of choices that presents the illusion of free will, is done in service of a totalizing struggle merely to survive. And the real shame is that, in order to survive, one must not think queerly, follow a formulaic recipe for survival, and never give into the impulse to see what happens if an alternative route is pursued.
Henry Jenkins writes that publics of fans, “unimpressed by institutional authority and expertise, [...] assert their own right to form interpretations, to offer evaluations, and to construct cultural canons” that are “antithetical to dominant aesthetic [logics].” Here I am reminded of the massive fan resistance that occurred in reaction to Mass Effect 3’s disappointing ending. Ultimately, no matter what paragon or renegade or readiness or whatever scores the player attains, the end result is that the destruction of the Reapers coincides with the destruction of the galactic infrastructure, as well as (most likely) Commander Shepard. The ending of Mass Effect was so unexpectedly anticlimactic, boilerplate, and boring that the fan outcry was immense.
This, if anything, proves Youngblood’s contention correct. Choices made within a system with a monolithic purpose, be that system the world of a video-game or the neoliberal world we inhabit now, are not choices at all. Freedom in such a regime is merely expanded bondage, only aestheticized as liberty. And queerness here represents only frustration and the ability to imagine better endings without the means to realize them. But the fact that we are imagining differently gestures towards how even the illusion of freedom might lead to its realization.
In response to the fan disappointment surrounding Mass Effect 3’s terrible ending, some fans postulated an alternative ending. Calling their theory the Indoctrination Theory, these fans proposed that the entire game was an allegory for free will and that the blasé ending of the series was merely a reaffirmation of its central point. The raison d’être for its choice-based game-play system is that your choices matter, even when it feels like your fate is predetermined.
The Indoctrination Theory is predicated on one blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bit of evidence and a whole lot of supposition. Throughout the game, in the dialogue interface, renegade choices appear on the dialogue wheel in red, while paragon options appear in blue. Likewise, if a player makes it to the very end of the game, the master A.I. that controls the Reapers presents the player with the option to either destroy the Reapers (colored red) or try to control them (colored blue).
In the original Mass Effect, Saren, the rogue Spectre agent, attempts to cooperate with the Reapers, but is slowly indoctrinated by them through an ill-explained sci-fi version of mind control to do their bidding. Throughout Mass Effect 3, Commander Shepard is shown to experience the symptoms of indoctrination, including hallucinations, crippling self-doubt, and even loss of motor control. The theory therefore postulates that throughout the third game, Shepard is being slowly indoctrinated, and that any choice but to destroy the Reapers is merely succumbing to indoctrination. It further suggests that the red-coded destroy button represents an inversion of the game’s choice-based gameplay. Players are conditioned to understand the renegade option as both the morally wrong option and the option least likely to lead to a tactical victory, according to the mechanics of the game as experience thus far (i.e. the galactic readiness feature). The Indoctrination Theory hypothesizes that Mass Effect is a story about freedom of consciousness as much as freedom of choice, and that the optimal ending has nothing to do with the Reaper’s defeat, but rather in learning to do the right thing as you see it regardless of how you have been conditioned to understand what doing the right thing means.
Bioware threw cold water on this theory by releasing a slightly less dissatisfying ending to the game, but its existence reveals that even though Youngblood might be right in asserting that Mass Effect is not a queer game, it may still yet be an inceptor of a queer way of engaging with games and media. The illusion of options for resistance presented Mass Effect’s fan community to imagine what resistance would look like, and the opportunity to forcibly inject it into the “canon” interpretation of the game. Years later, as I look back upon this series from the vantage point of someone who has now been openly queer for eleven years and seen even the “queer” community lapse into neoliberal normativity, I wonder if the illusion of existent freedom provides me with the cultural capital to imagine actual freedom. And while I await with Youngblood “a future where BioWare games feature a set of queer characters whose worth is established on terms beyond their eventual use and support of missions of conquest within a biopolitical context,” I am still curious as to how the logic of a game that falls so far short of such an aim produced a theory that made imagining such a future possible for me.
Jenkins, H. (2013). Textual poachers : Television fans and participatory culture. (Updated 20th anniversary ed.). New York: Routledge.
Muñoz, José Esteban. Cruising Utopia the Then and There of Queer Futurity New York: New York University Press, 2009.
Youngblood, Jordan. “When (and What) Queerness Counts: Homonationalism and Militarism in the Mass Effect Series” Game Studies.