Originally published 22/04/2015

Issues surrounding racism and culture are sensitive ones – it is difficult to address these in any medium and avoid persecution from different groups on either side of the issues. I would like to examine how one of the most popular science fiction games of our generation has approached such problems, and how its narrative has challenged players to think about and discuss issues surrounding racism and culture.

To start with, the Mass Effect universe is filled with dozens of different races, each with their own plethora of cultures. Just like the human race, Mass Effect acknowledges the diversity of these fictional races, and that it would be impossible to surmise any one race of the universe into a given stereotype. But that doesn’t stop the other characters, alien or human, from doing this. It is through these reactions between the player and the NPCs of the universe that Mass Effect is so successful in addressing these issues. We encounter racism in humans, aliens and even your own team members.

 

The player is exposed to random acts of racism everywhere they go in the game, be it big or small. Regularly exposing players to these kinds of interactions paints a picture of a vastly diverse galaxy. More successful, however, is how they allow the player to deal with many of these moral issues. The blogger Michael Abbott explained this mechanic eloquently:

“One reason the game succeeds so well as a story, is that the writers of Mass Effect have endowed the game with a point of view about racism that permeates the storyline and avoids the usual pitfalls of moralizing and oversimplification.”

The writers of Mass Effect completely acknowledge the grey nature of these problems, and doesn’t spoon-feed the audience into siding with any one race; it is completely up to the player how they want to address the issues. By doing this, they open these issues to discussion, making them more relatable to our own lives. Additionally, they open the player up, not only to experiencing human stereotypes, but also allowing them to explore the difficulties other races face – even dominate ones like the Asari.

Exposing the player to racism in this manner gives them the opportunity to deal with it in a safe situation, without depending on real life racism or stereotypes. During a passionate talk at the Game Developers Conference, Gameplay Designer Manveer Heir spoke about moving the industry beyond stereotypes:

“Why should we reject stereotypes? Not only is it lazy, but it’s fairly boring… We play so many games that use the same stereotypes. I get fed up with the same old story and characters in every game. I know there are others like me, I talk to them all the time. For me, these stereotypes are contributing to the creative stagnation in our industry. But I also believe we need to reject stereotypes as a social responsibility to mankind.”

The creators of the game have done an amazing thing: they have set up a huge amount of racial generalizations, and then go about trying to disprove them. From non-benevolent Asari Dictators and non-violent, poetry reading Krogan, they dismantle their own stereotypes.

Another factor I find very important, especially when talking about racial issues, is comic relief. Coming from a country where race and racial issues are a part of everyday life, I know how important it is to be able to make light of these issues, particularly when these problems surface among friends of different races. No one puts it in better perspective than the games’ pilot and resident cut-up Jeff Moreau, when explaining this phenomenon to EDI, an artificial intelligence. Mass Effect makes light of these, reminding the player that “yeah we’re all different, and that’s okay.”

Diversity is our strength, a strong message that the series strives to get across. Mass Effect continually emphasizes the importance of diversity. One way it does this is by making the player feel small, ensuring that they know humanity is not the most important race in the galaxy. As described by Kyle Munkittrick:

“…the lowering of human status diffuses any xenophobic urges a player might have… No problem, no matter how much the player may want it to be, will be solved unilaterally by human gumption and know-how.”

There is such an emphasis on the importance of working together, with the entirety of the third game revolving around trying to get all the races to co-operate, and what happens when they do. It is also revealed that the last civilizations failed to destroy the game’s antagonists because of their lack of diversity.

This powerful message comes to a head in the series’ ending, when the player sees the results of not working together, contrasted with the results of a united galaxy. Bioware’s message is illustrated no more beautifully than in EDI’s “I am Alive” ending.

 


Bibliography

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