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Gender and Sexuality in Mass Effect

Mass Effect was a fantastic game from Bioware, burdened by its representation of sexuality and gender on the part of supporting characters. Expanding on this Escapist article by Ray Huling,, this post will take a look at where Mass Effect stumbled in its otherwise locktight step.

A special premiered on the SciFi channel a few months before the release of Mass Effect titled “Sci vs Fi: Mass Effect” In it, Drew Karpyshyn, the lead writer for Mass Effect, said the following:

“I think we're entering an age when people are more open-minded... People are saying traditional sexual roles don't necessarily have to be the way to go. And Mass Effect lets you maybe explore things a little differently, because, let's be honest, alien chicks are hot.”

Notice how the last sentence obliterates the preceding. I’m reminded of a press release for the Marvel comic series “Marvel Divas” in which a Marvel rep said the purpose was mostly to have “hot fun.” It’s understandable that Karpyshyn, and the rest of the Bioware team, want to sell their game. A TV special is a great way to do that, and we all remember the old moniker: “sex sells.” But perhaps this was only hyperbole meant to draw in potential buyers? Not entirely.

There are a few major races in Mass Effect. Four, including humans, are represented in your squad. Several of the game’s races didn’t actually have female models or characters, I’m chalking this up not to any sort of maliciousness on Bioware’s part but to time constraints on the team when it came to producing models, animations, and dialogue for each species. As such, they will not be considered in this article.

Before getting to the alien races, let’s briefly consider the two human members of the squad, Ashley and Kaiden. Both are loyal soldiers, and both are heterosexual. This is fairly innocuous. Ashley is a religious individual who would probably repress lesbian urges were they ever to manifest. Kaiden is just…Kaiden, the biotic of the squad. Questions only arise when we compare the two against other members of the squad.

The Asari are a long lived, mono-gendered species that prefer to mate with members of other species to produce offspring. They achieve this by forming a “mental and spiritual”connection with their partner (in other words, mind-sex). Consider the capacities the Asari appear in. First, are the “Consorts,” a group of Asari and human women on the Citadel. A clear answer is never given on exactly what the Consorts do, even when asked. They seem to function as social workers, psychiatrists, and sex workers all at once. But to what end? What is the context of this activity? Secondly, we see Asari working as strippers in a Citadel bar.* Thirdly, we have Liara’s mother, the sinister Matriarch Benezia, an Asari in league with Saren. And finally, Liara, the awkward, bookish, emotionally vulnerable party member available as a sexual partner for Shepards of either gender. Huling writes in his article that, “The easiest romance to develop in Mass Effect is with a blue-skinned, bisexual, hot alien chick who prefers to date outside her race.”** The major appearances of the Asari are then:

- In three cases, as sexually available individuals, possibly even promiscuous.
- In one case, an asexual antagonist.

The Quarians are a humanoid race known for the creation of the Geth, the sentient robotic species that formed the bulk of enemy NPCs in the original Mass Effect. Forced from their homeworld by the Geth, the Quarians roam the galaxy in massive ships, and, lacking a proper immune system, can only venture outside of them in airtight suits. Tali’Zorah nar Rayya, or Tali for short, is a female Quarian who joins the squad after being rescued from assassins by Shepard and the team. Tali is a talented engineer on a pilgrimage to find something of use to bring back to the Quarian fleet. Her consummately cool-under-pressure dialogue is provided by Liz Stroka. I spotted a forum post a few months after Mass Effect’s release that proceeded something along these lines: “There are three female squad members in the game, Ashley, Liara, and Tali. You can have sex with Ashley or Liara but not Tali.” Tali is the “other” female squad member, distinct from the others because she is not sexually available.

You can essentially see where I’m going with this. Women in Mass Effect are either sexual available, or devoid of sexuality. There is no sexuality existing independently from Commander Shepard, in terms of female characters.*** In addition, the two human squad members – which Shepard can form a relationship with - prescribe to normative sexual roles, while the two alien female characters are bisexual in one case and asexual in the other.

This can be interpreted in more than one way. If we take Mass Effect for what it is, a video game intended for the mass market, and a power fantasy – which most games are, not in a masculine sense, but in the sense that we are playing to exert control over a game world – then sexuality existing independently – and outside control of – the player character is something aberrant. However, if this was truly the case, would there not be an option for a homosexual encounter for a male Shepard? Is this because lesbianism has been thoroughly sexualized by mass media, and thus, easier to accept, than homosexuality? I think the overall quality of Mass Effect’s writing illustrates that its writers and designers are striving for both marketability and respectability in their titles, and this kind of representation is ultimately detrimental to their overall vision.

Kazua recently posted an article on using the benefits of using a female Shepard in Mass Effect. He wrote that, “There are no subtle lines that seem more appropriately directed toward males than females,” and pointed out how appropriately direct Jennifer Hale’s vocal performance was. I would offer that a simple factor helped this: the male and female Shepard have the same dialogue. There was no “feminine” dialogue written for Hale’s performance, nor were there any machismo-fueled lines in Meer’s male performance. It is particularly jarring, in one sense, to play the game as a female Shepard while witnessing the typecasting I’ve gone over in this article. I have not played Dragon Age: Origins, and I’m curious to see how Bioware has gone forward, or backpedaled, since Mass Effect.

*Aside: This is actually quite funny when you think about it. Due to the Asari’s advanced lifespan, some of the strippers were probably in their 100s, 200s, and above.
**Why are bisexuals always more receptive to sexual advances than both heterosexual and homosexual persons in media? I’d like to know if there’s any literature on this.
***Urdnot Wrex and the Krogan represent masculinity run rampant. With four testicles and their penchant for destruction – and nothing else – the Krogan might as well be the last 20,000 years of male human history condensed. Wrex himself is difficult to control and fiercely independent – to the point that you might have to kill him. Did Bioware unconsciously write in a diametric opposite to their sexually receptive females in the form of Wrex?
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About Khazar222one of us since 10:10 PM on 10.22.2009

Hello, I'm Khazar.

I'm a senior in college, with a major in English and a minor in Biology. I've been playing games since about age five from all across the spectrum of genres.

I am fascinated by the way games tell their stories, so much of this blog is devoted to looking at the design, writing, and style of video games.

Currently Playing:

Farcry 2
Spartan: Total Warrior
Dawn of War
Yoshi's Island (Game Boy Advance)
Rachet and Clank: Up Your Arsenal
Klonoa 2