Shepard ain’t white: Playing with race and gender in Mass Effect

By | June 21, 2011


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A screencap from the video game Mass Effect, showing a brown-skinned woman with short dark hair, my version of Commander Shepard.

I'm Commander Shepard, and this is my favorite blog on the internets.

Back when I used to play the MMOs, the game characters I created always tended to look the same — pale-skinned, vibrant-haired, brightly-hued eyes. I am not sure why; I assume it was aspirational. However, when EverQuest 2 rolled around, I went a different way and impulsively created a heavy-set female-identifying character who was also dark-skinned with a gleaming mane of silver hair. She stood out in a crowd like a brightly-spangled circus pony in a sea of cattle. It occurred to me then that although my ability to change games culture as a monolithic juggernaut was limited, I could at least help reshape the visual landscape to be less uniformly white and conventionally “pretty”.

Some games even outside the MMO sphere have since taken the extreme character customization route. The Mass Effect series is one such example. Players can specify their own Commander Shepard’s gender and physical appearance with some precision, and even, to a degree, her politics and identity. My Commander Shepard is impatient, impulsive, committed to social justice, a survivor, and a queer woman of color. The character I impose on the game avatar is multiracial, which is likely to be the norm by the year 2183 when Mass Effect takes place, although that’s not why I did it. I did it because I don’t see queer women of color as protagonists very often, not in video games, but not anywhere else in media either.

Fans of Lady Shepard often talk about how jarring it is to see Mass Effect promotional materials showing the default male character instead. And it is! The lady version of the character is so memorable and feels such a natural part of the story (thanks in no small part to Jennifer Hale’s fantastic voice acting) that watching a trailer only to see some dudeish lunkhead come barrelling onscreen is bewildering. Who is that guy? Where’s Shepard? Shepard’s not male! Some 80% of players choose the male version of the character, so of course he’s going to get the marketing spotlight (although this will be changing soon).

On the other hand, how many big-budget games depict a woman of color as the protagonist? I tried to research this and beyond the obvious (Mirror’s Edge, the Portals) the results were too depressingly slim even to report. No matter Shepard’s skin tone, the Mass Effect series does a lot with race and racism/xenophobia within its narrative, some of it under the radar, some of it overt. The first game features a team member named Ashley, a human who is at best suspicious of aliens and at worst openly bigoted. I know lots of folks have love for Ashley, and to be fair, she represents a more realistic human response to a galaxy in which we are forced to work with often-condescending aliens for the good of all. But I don’t play games for realism. I could not get rid of Ashley and her offensive comments quickly enough. (I am so juvenile, in fact, that I refer to her as “Ass-ley”. If I’d kept her alive, I imagine her character would have eventually arced in favor of alien acceptance, but I was not down with listening to her alien-bash that long.)

There are also lots of other examples in Mass Effect of human-alien tension and prejudice, interactions that criticize racism and human nature with a thin veneer of sci-fi narrative over top. These examples are vivid and apt in light of current discourse around immigration policies and the offensive laws being debated and passed in the American Southwest; as much as Mass Effect is about civilization-destroying monsters of unimaginable power, it is also about us, as humans, and how our inclinations toward distrust and bias affect our ability to make sound decisions, and to see circumstances as clearly as we might. Though the Mass Effect series features an individual savior — Commander Shepard — it is also about serving a greater purpose, and about sacrificing the individual for the good of the many. It is complex on all these points, and that is a whole other post of analysis.

This post, however, is about my Shepard.

I have spent the past several weeks replaying the first two games of the Mass Effect series with a new character, the version described in the opening paragraphs above, and the experience has been far more educational than I expected, leading me to do a lot of personal analysis of my expectations of characters and my own internalized prejudices and privileges. These games were not written specifically with a woman, much less a woman of color, as the protagonist. At best they were written to be gender- and race-neutral, or at minimum they were written as the cultural default (i.e., white and male). Either way, the story lacks the encoded racism directed at characters of color in even the best of media representations.

When Brown Lady Shepard is rude, or curt, or dismissive, the reactions she receives from others are not to her gender or her race, but to her words. Why? Because the character was written with the expectation that most people will play it as a white dude, a character for whom reactions based on gender or race are inconceivable. He’s “normal”, y’see. In real life, and in most media representation, we are culturally conditioned to respond differently to a big ol’ white dude with no manners than we do a woman of color doing the exact same thing. The white dude is just a jerk, but there’s often a built-in extra rage factor against the woman of color, for daring to be “uppity”, for failing to know her place. This distinction is often unconscious and unrecognized, but it’s there. In Mass Effect, no matter what my Shepard says or does, not only is the dialogue the same as it would be for the cultural “default”, but the reaction from the other non-player characters is the same. (The only exception to this is the handful of times that Lady Shepard is called a “bitch” — I suppose Dude Shepard may get called a bitch too, but I doubt it. I find it fascinating that they would record specific name-calling dialogue in this way.) Brown Lady Shepard waves her intimidation up in a dude’s face and he backs the fuck down, just like he would if she were a hyper-privileged white guy. My Lady Shepard faces no additional pressure to prove herself because of her background; if she is dismissed, it’s on the basis of her assertions, and not because she’s a queer woman of color from a poor socioeconomic background — even though that’s exactly what she is.

I am not surprised real-life dudes don’t play as Lady Shepard.* Her character accomplishes something truly revolutionary, though whether it was intentional or not I cannot say. The most radical thing about Lady Shepard is that she does not exist for the enjoyment of heterosexual men. There have been plenty of female game characters who are fun to play and relate to for members of all genders — Lara Croft has her appeal, certainly; and you all know how I feel about Bayonetta. But these are females who are relatable and likeable to many women-identified people in spite of also adhering to those outrageous physical characteristics that appeal so strongly to your typical dude gamer; some women-identifying gamers ignore them, and some like them, but the truth is that they are there for dudes to ogle. Lady Shepard does not have a giant rack; she doesn’t shriek or prance. Lady Shepard carries herself like a soldier, reproducing Dude Shepard’s businesslike movements and stride, step for step — which is understandable, because the actual animations used for both are exactly the same.

Because Shepard spends most of her time running around and laying waste to her enemies while wearing armor, the use of one set of animations for both male and female characters really only becomes apparent in two circumstances. The first is when Shepard dances. Yes, Shepard can dance at some of the clubs, for a few seconds, and for the most part she does a decidedly unfeminine (but adorable) Dude Shuffle, punctuated with the occasional fist pump. The second is when Lady Shepard is dressed in “casual” clothing, specifically a sleek black dress used in “Kasumi – Stolen Memory”, a DLC mission. Lady Shepard strides around a cocktail party with purpose and comes across, unsurprisingly, like a butch in a dress: she seems uncomfortable and out of place. I found her wide-legged lurching hilarious, charming, and quite appropriate, as Shepard the character would not have much reason to wear a dress, nor would I expect her to relish doing so even in the interest of her mission. Butch dress-wearin’ Shepard really bothered a lot of players, many of whom are lobbying for more ladylike Shepard animations in Mass Effect 3. But if there is a problem with Shepard marching around in her dress, I’d argue this discrepancy does not call for a less-butch Shepard; it calls for no fucking dress. Put her in a hot futuristic tuxedo, or something. The lady does not need to wear a dress in order to be an effective leader. I’m just saying.

Further, Lady Shepard’s sexuality is treated as a normal but ultimately secondary trait. She has the ability to flirt with and even engage in romantic relationships with members of her crew, but she doesn’t have to do so. She is neither oversexed nor frigid. When Lady Shepard gets fall-down drunk at Dark Star on the Citadel, and comes to on her hands and knees on the men’s room floor, a turian taking a leak in the urinal nearby, there is no judgement, no cautionary-tale morality to the scene. There is no sexual component at all, no harassment, no threat of assault. Shepard just gets up off the floor and goes back about her business (or back to the bar, if I’m playing, because I find the whole getting-Shepard-drunk sequence hilarious — I told you I was juvenile). How many dramatic representations do we regularly see involving a woman and drunkenness that don’t also suggest something about her sexual availability?

No one ever blames Shepard’s moods on PMS and no one ever asks if she’s on the rag, no matter how much of an asshole she is. No one ever suggests that Shepard is unhappy or excessively driven because she has not known the miracle of child-rearing and therefore her life is oh-so-empty. In a firefight, no one tries to protect Shepard from the violence, and afterward, when Shepard picks up a crate full of spoils, no one asks if she needs help with that. Thugs do not spare her feelings, nor do they fail to take her threats seriously. When other aliens accuse her of being overemotional, it’s framed as a human failing, not a female one, and when they call her crazy, it’s because she is actually doing some mad shit, and not because she’s just some silly unbalanced female.

In almost any other storytelling medium, my Shepard’s ladyness and brownness would be critical plot points. Her superiors would belittle her and dismiss her because of these characteristics, and Shepard’s ultimate success would be a tale of strength through adversity and overcoming oppressive odds, not because she has managed to save the galaxy from certain doom, but because she dared to do so as a woman of color. We like to fetishize racism and sexism in our popular stories; they make convenient conflicts and obstacles for a compelling narrative without having to get too imaginative. Of course the brown lady is going to be downtrodden, and with effort and persistence and strength of character, she will rise up against her oppressors! While this is an important story to tell, it’s also extraordinary to see a story told in which Shepard’s place is the same no matter her gender or race; in which no one ever suggests Shepard got where she is only because of affirmative action; in which no one ever smacks her on the ass and calls her “baby”; in other words, a story in which we are not constantly reminded that Shepard shouldn’t be able to do what she has done. We don’t need Lady Shepard to verbally eviscerate a racist or punch an ass-grabber in the face to know she’s tough. We know she’s tough by her non-explicitly-gendered actions — the same way we know Dude Shepard is tough.

Throughout the second game in the series, Shepard is referred to as “the human” who saved the galaxy from the first wave of a continuing threat in the first game. Not the man or the woman, but “the human.” Even though functionally this means less additional voicework to accommodate a male or female character, it’s apt in a world that breaks beings down by alien race first, and all the rest of our small species distinctions fall in line. What does our quaint reliance on binary gender, and our social connotations associated with same, matter to a salarian or a turian?** They don’t share our narrow context. As Kelly Chambers, Shepard’s personal assistant, muses at one point, our character should be what is most important in how we relate to one another, not our race or gender. Intentionally or no, Mass Effect makes a convincing case for a culture in which this could one day be true.

* Edited to add: I based this on BioWare’s oft-mentioned 80% statistic — I am aware that lots of dudes do play as Lady Shepard! I know many of you! My language here was super-generalizing based on numbers, and I probably ought to have been more specific, so my apologies to any dudes who were all BUT WAIT I LOVE LADY SHEPARD!

** Excepting one particular turian. Eee.


64 Comments

Shadow Boxer on June 21, 2011 at 12:27 pm.

Fantastic post. The Spouse plays Mass Effect and I watch the game like a movie. To see a woman, any woman, as the main character (without her being a Lara Croft or Alice type) would be amazing. This might get me to play Mass Effect…I prefer Ratchet and Clank, myself.

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SamanthaG on June 21, 2011 at 12:45 pm.

Have you seen this?
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w0McQvKVrzk

It made my daughter, the Serious Gamer, squee with delight. The comment from Shepard at the very end is awesome.

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Lesley on June 21, 2011 at 12:52 pm.

That is OUTSTANDING. Thanks for posting it!

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Susan on June 21, 2011 at 2:13 pm.

I love the end of that video so. Much.

That said, one of the things that I loved about playing a female Shepard over and over and over again was the fact that her sexuality isn’t ignored; she does have to deal with jackasses who think they can talk down to her or dismiss her because she’s a woman (Harkin in Me1 and the Batarian recruiter on Omega in ME2 spring to mind; there’s also the Turian in Samara’s loyalty mission.) She’s given the opportunity to deal with it in a way that doesn’t paint her as a “bitch” or diminish her character at all. (If you haven’t played Dragon Age: Origins, you might want to give it a try; that game addresses gender, racial, and class stereotypes in a way I found very satisfying. Plus, it’s awesome.)

I also found playing as FemShep to be an empowering experience. Although she can be kind of doormattish in some situations if you’re playing full Paragon, she’s never self effacing. She’s never weak. She doesn’t apologize for being who she is and doing what she has to do. When I played Dragon Age 2, I walked away from my Lady Hawke feeling frustrated because I realized I had made many choices in the game based on what is considered “appropriate” behavior for a woman- soft, peacemaking, appeasing decisions. While that led me to consider my behavior in real life, it wasn’t exactly satisfying! I walk away from a ME session feeling like a badass.

Casey Hudson has stated that they are doing more gender specific mo-cap for ME3, so hopefully they don’t have my Femshep sashaying around the armory or crossing her legs when she sits.

As far as Ash goes, I let her live the one time I played as Broshep- which also happened to be a renegade playthrough. Her attitudes change in response to her conversations with Shep, and since my Shep was a complete ass, she actually became more xenophobic. By the end of the game their interactions and relationship literally turned my stomach.

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Lesley on June 21, 2011 at 2:31 pm.

Yeah, the only one that stuck in my mind was the Harkin conversation in ME1.

The Turian in the VIP room at Afterlife? I was SO MAD that I couldn’t pistol-whip him, or SOMETHING. My Shep would not have just meekly walked away from that.

I have watched my husband play as FemHawke in DA2 and I don’t think I’ll be going there. Even he thought her girlyness was way overdone. I do want to play Origins eventually though.

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Shelby on June 21, 2011 at 4:03 pm.

Would Chell from Portal be a big-budget game woman of color protagonist? I’ve always liked her as one of the best woman protagonists, and I’m interested to know your thoughts.

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Lesley on June 21, 2011 at 4:39 pm.

I definitely count her as such! And probably the one played by the most people, which makes her pretty seminal.

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Shelby on June 24, 2011 at 6:59 pm.

Wonderful, and that Chell isn’t White tumblr is pretty interesting, too. I found this link floating aimlessly around the internet, and apparently Bioware’s David Silverman tweeted “@ChrisCrowdly there will be a #FemShep trailer. We actually had a meeting on her yesterday. We are working on the look now.”
So yay!

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ptp on June 21, 2011 at 5:17 pm.

I played as a black male Shepard who looked more like Don Cheadle than an action hero, and I made a lot of the same observations, absent the obvious gender aspect. I found it really rewarding and immersive to play as a fairly regular-looking guy instead of some stock photo meathead or, god forbid, the default Shepard. Aside from Jim Raynor I don’t think there’s a more boring milquetoast protagonist around right now, as far as video game heroes go.

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Gem on June 21, 2011 at 9:44 pm.

I really love your style of blogging. And yes, I agree, I can’t wait for the change. I was never too bothered by the fact they kept using the Male Shephard, but I played Dragon Age, and in the release of the second game, they focused on a Male main character again. That’s sort of what started to itch at the back of my head. It’s not too much a bother, but I felt they weren’t really advertising the custom character, or giving the message that the female versions just weren’t important enough. :<

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A'Llyn on June 21, 2011 at 11:18 pm.

I also kind of loved the way Shepard seems totally out of place in a dress. But not self-conscious or insecure about it, just “hey, I’m walkin’ here. And I guess I have a dress on for some reason.”

I’m kind of apprehensive to hear that they’re going for gender specific movements in 3. That seems like it could turn out poorly.

I suddenly wish I were playing this game right now. I never did try it on Insanity level…obviously I should go back!

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Kate on June 21, 2011 at 11:57 pm.

I loved this post. Loved it to pieces. I too always appreciated that the standing/walking animations for bro!Shep and fem!Shep were the same. I fell into a deep pit of rage when, during the course of playing Dragon Age 2, I noticed that the developers gave fem!Hawke this ridiculous, mincing, “girl”y walk that the bro!Hawke didn’t have. It seemed so unfair, because my Hawke was the fiercest, baddest lady on the block. She’d just as soon tackle you and look at you.
By the way – I run a tumblr called Chell Isn’t White. Would you be interested in posting this post there, or do you have a tumblr I could reblog it from?

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Lesley on June 22, 2011 at 10:20 am.

I LOVE that you have a Tumblr called Chell Isn’t White! I am following it now! How did I not know this existed before now?

I occasionally Tumbl here. There’s a reblog linking to this post there. I am terrible about remembering to promote my own posts on Tumblr, so I usually only reblog other folks’ links to my stuff.

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Susan on June 22, 2011 at 12:03 am.

My Shep beat the heck out of the Turian in the VIP room in afterlife… maybe it was the renegade option? What bothered me was this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rXMPxKWjfvo

Say if you hypothetically were able to get into your save file and hypothetically alter it so that the Conrad Verner dialogue wasn’t glitched, than this is what you would get if you finished Conrad’s mission with the paragon path.

THAT infuriated me. My femshep would have knocked that asari on her ass. Instead, the renegade option has Shep saying, “I give one free pass.” Since when?!

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Lesley on June 22, 2011 at 9:48 am.

Damn! Maybe it was a quicktime event I missed? Now I seriously want to go back and destroy that turian.

And yeah, I am now grateful for the Conrad Verner glitch. Yikes.

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Sandra 'srand' Powers on June 22, 2011 at 6:29 am.

This is an absolutely wonderful article. Thank you so much for posting this.

One thing that caught my attention was your note that some people are calling for more ladylike animations in Mass Effect 3. I play massively multiplayer online RPGs – almost all MMORPGs – somewhat compulsively. (It’s part of my job.) But I refused to play Dark Age of Camelot back in the day.

Why? Because the development team went to a great deal of trouble to change the sitting animation to be more ladylike for female characters – they sit sidesaddle, as it were, instead of cross-legged – and then they made a big deal out of it as being female-player friendly.

There may have been good reasons for the different animation – although as a game dev I’m not thinking of any. And I’m sure that some players of any gender (and playing either male or female characters) liked the difference. I’m sure some didn’t. But using it as a selling point because it was ‘female-player friendly’? Ugh. Just … ugh.

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Lesley on June 22, 2011 at 9:43 am.

Hahaha, I actually remember those animations from when I briefly dabbled in DAoC. I was all WHAT THE SHIT IS THIS? I wish games would let you choose your animations when you create the character, like you choose your race or class. I know that’s pretty much impossible for lots of reasons, but it doesn’t stop me wishing.

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Andy on June 22, 2011 at 6:48 am.

Do you think Rochelle from Left 4 Dead 2 counts? Ok she’s not the protagonist, as by necessity there are three others too, but she’s definitely not a minor character. Moreover, she seems to be designed as an actual real woman, rather than a male fantasy object.

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Lesley on June 22, 2011 at 9:40 am.

Someone brought this up in another game-related post I did! I haven’t actually played Left 4 Dead 2, so I can’t say. That’s good to hear, though.

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Nicklas on June 22, 2011 at 7:55 am.

“I am not surprised real-life dudes don’t play as Lady Shepard.” Wow, that’s how it is in general out there? Everyone I’ve met regardless of real-life gender plays female Shepard. Jennifer Hale’s voice-acting out-shines the male actor by light-years.

And I really agree about the awkwardness in the Katsumi mission. It was a great addition to how Shepard isn’t that good at non-military functions.

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Lesley on June 22, 2011 at 9:38 am.

Yeah, last September Bioware released some user statistics for ME2, which showed that 80% of players played as male. (link)

Honestly? I don’t know any of those people either. I like to think that more people have played as FemShep since then, as she’s gotten so much love in the interim.

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Veronica on June 22, 2011 at 8:03 am.

I love this! It’s so going in my favorites.

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Sarah on June 22, 2011 at 9:13 am.

So what you’re saying is the game doesn’t see race… ? Normally people object to that. But as shown it is better than fetishizing and obsessing over it.

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AtlAggie on June 22, 2011 at 10:28 am.

Great post! You articulated nicely many of the reasons I love my lady Shepards. You might be interested in reading some thoughts on the subject of how sex & gender is portrayed in the Mass Effect series written by Patrick Weeks, one of the writers on Mass Effect 2 & 3. He wrote two posts on the subject on his livejournal–here is his initial post:

http://pats-quinade.livejournal.com/229049.html

He also wrote a follow up summarizing people’s reactions to his first post. Interesting stuff for any ME fans interested in how Lady Shep is portrayed in the series…

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Alex on June 22, 2011 at 4:52 pm.

So let me get this straight, you look forward to a universe where any distinctiveness is bred out of us and we lack the cultural diversity from which raceism/sexism/homophobia arise?

Our species may be said to have the ‘vices of it’s virtues’. We have an amazing assortment of races, creeds, colors, orientations etc… And so long as these distinctions exist people will react to them, often negatively. Only in a video game, where the pragmatics of development and production force the builders to create a mostly neutral experience, will you ever see those kinds of responses to someone’s actions. In the real world when we see someone doing something bad we blame it on a personal defect with them, or their group in general.

Jones & Harris (1965) in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology published a now very famous article called “The Attribution of Attitudes.”

Their findings can be summarized thusly; When we see negative behavior in someone else, we attribute it to an internal characteristic of that person. E.G. something is wrong with them personally. When we ourselves screw something up we tend to blame outside influences. This is known as the Fundamental Attribution Error and is generally regarded as being one major possible sources for prejudice.

So, to reiterate, the only way you’re ever going to have a universe as devoid of prejudice as the Mass Effect Universe is…in a game like Mass Effect.

Additionally, you mentioned the lack of queer black female protagonists. A couple of points here:

1: Like everone else Bioware tailors their games to the demographic most likely to play it. For video games in general, and violent games in particular, that demographic is the 18-40 year old men. 18-40 year old men would have a hard time imagining themselves as the protagonist if the protagonist were a gay black woman. So in order to make the most money Bioware set the default to, guess what, something that generally resembles the target audience. This was not a decision based in prejudice, it was based in a profit motive informed by marketing data. When gay black women are the main purchasers of violent video games then the protagonists will start to be gay black women, with stories written to reflect that life experience.

2: You just can’t please everyone. However much you might (or indeed, do) enjoy a hot tempered, skull cracking, black, lesbian main character my guess is that at least some lesbians would raise a shitstorm about being stereotyped as ‘masculine’.

And just as an aside, while Liara is obviously female in appearance the game makes it quite clear that Asari are unisex and so calling it a ‘lesbian’ relationship is, perhaps, a bit of a stretch. Romancing Kelly in the second game is a more clear-cut example. Also, insofar as I am aware, there are zero possible male-male relationships in the game…take from that what you will.

My take home message is this: Your vision of a future in which nobody chalks your actions up to a stereotypical view of your particular group is a fallacy because it requires that we all become bland, identical clones of one another. And I’d rather have a world with diversity AND prejudice than a world with neither.

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Lesley on June 23, 2011 at 6:58 am.

Hi Alex! I think you and I are coming at this from radically different perspectives. On my blog, I tend to assume a certain baseline understanding of my readers with regard to certain keywords, so if I have failed to communicate my thinking adequately, that’s probably a result of my own laziness. (Example: you assume I would refer to a relationship with Liara as a lesbian one, which I would never do — this is a whole other post, in fact, and you use “gay” and “queer” interchangeably, which again, I would not do because there are pretty profound distinctions between the terms. You also assume that by “woman of color” I meant black, and while black women are women of color, the term does not ONLY refer to black women. Specifically my Shep is multiracial, which I specified in the original post.)

Also, I disagree that prejudice is inevitable — I think it is possible to have both diversity and a prevalent cultural appreciation for that diversity. It’s cool if you still disagree, but I wanted to clarify that point.

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Alex on June 24, 2011 at 11:26 am.

I think a terminological misunderstanding has very little to do with it. Obviously the exact same logic applies to any race (black just so happened to be the one you were using). And as for the lesbian relationship…that’s the only possible female-female relationship in the first game (if you can call it that) so how were you defining your Shepard as homosexual prior to ME2? Did your ME1 character not have a romantic interest or what? If you were talking exclusively about her hooking up with Kelly in ME2 then that’s a little different.

If I misused the various terms for sexual orientation then let me apologize but that makes very little difference in terms of the vast bulk of what I had to say.

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Lesley on June 24, 2011 at 11:47 am.

To repeat myself: I have never identified my Shepard as Black, but as multiracial.

Secondly: “queer” does not always mean “lesbian” (or gay or homosexual). Imagine the two terms as a Venn diagram. Queerness is a complex category that encompasses a breadth of sexualities far beyond the binary ideas of “gay” and “straight”. Also, queerness (or gayness, for that matter) are identities and not behaviors. Simply having same-gender sex does not immediately make someone gay, any more than having hetero sex will turn a gay person straight.

Again, this is a terminology thing which I did not explain very thoroughly, so your confusion is totally understandable, and I’m the only one to blame for that.

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MPT on June 22, 2011 at 10:11 pm.

I don’t disagree with you entirely, but I’d like to contrast the chorus of agreement in the comments here. I’ll list my points out to make them a bit easier to parse through.

1. The way you view the gender neutrality in ME is necessarily influenced by your own personal narrative and perspective. Thus, your expectations for how a woman should act, how a woman should look, and how a woman should be treated are yours and yours only. They will be shared by others, evidenced in the comments sections here, but not everyone, surely. What you deem gender neutral may not be so at all. Consider your statement here:

“We know she’s tough by her non-explicitly-gendered actions — the same way we know Dude Shepard is tough.”

Why do we know “Dude Shepard” is tough? Why does “Dude Shepard” have to be tough? If “Dude Shepard” is tough because he must be tough in order to be a hero-protagonist in a sci-fi shooter, then the role really isn’t very gender neutral – it’s still leaning toward the male side. The absence of the storyline focusing on a triumphant defeat of sexism doesn’t really mean you’ve won a battle for gender neutrality, especially when you’re forced to play a female character who still must aspire to display inherently masculine traits.

2. Sort of following from #1, writers don’t always create storylines involving a defeat of sexist or racist oppressors because it’s “convenient.” These stories are just real. At least in America, where we worship this illusory concept of the “American Dream,” stories about people who rise up victoriously against nay-sayers and oppressors are what we want to see and it’s what we want to do in real life. Ironically, what you missed in these such stories is that the challenges of racism and sexism are often metaphorical vessels for writers, and in fact, it would not be inappropriate to reframe these challenges into a racism-free or sexism-free context you, yourself, suggest.

What I’m trying to say is that we each build our character at least partly by overcoming challenges regardless of the source. I don’t think stories should lean up too strongly on phenomena such as sexism in creating conflict, but these are essential characteristics of our “binary”-gender world (I quote you here – human gender isn’t strictly binary). Maybe we’re in agreement here. It just seems you’d take the extreme stance, where the best stories are those where humankind’s commonly oppressive biases are completely left out as a mechanism of conflict. I disagree.

3. I’m not sure you totally grasp one of the core characteristics of your universe in which character triumphs over all. You believe that, since alien races are the predominant classification in the galaxy rather than human-specific qualities, beings (not people) are judged by their character instead of their gender, socioeconomic status, and race. Unfortunately, one of the principle threats to humans as a species has been the dehumanization of an opposing or differing group of people. The “Othering” process, as has been studied extensively by the social sciences, could be held responsible for some or all of the worst genocides in our history and perhaps may even be the reason why we’re living in the most violent point in all of human history.

It’s possible you didn’t mean what you said literally, that what you ultimately wanted was a world where character alone “is most important in how we relate to one another,” regardless of what paradigm erases the endless cycle of categorical judgment. In that case, I cannot disagree with you, although you’d have to define “character” (yeah, I don’t know what that means) and how to build it up… another can of worms.

In conclusion, if all you’re saying is that it’s refreshing to see a game in which not 100% of its components are strongly influenced by the “man-ness” of its creators, then that’s your opinion, and I agree it’s a good sign for the industry.

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Lesley on June 23, 2011 at 7:04 am.

We are in agreement, for the most part! And I know about nonbinary gender, haha — I guess I could have gone into that more here, but most of that got cut with the queer theory discussion, which will ultimately go in another post.

And yeah, I’m not by any means saying the “best” stories ignore the realities of oppression. I’m saying it’s refreshing to see ONE that does, which can probably only get away with it because it takes place in the distant future.

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Ronijn on June 22, 2011 at 11:06 pm.

YES. I was actually kind of pleasantly surprised that my bald, butch FemShep behaved like a butch in game. I felt pretty connected to her especially when she behaved like a butch with the awkward dancing and wearing that dress (that is TOTALLY ME and appreciated it so much). Thought at the same time, that’s when it hit me that all the animations were ‘male’ and femshep was just a skin. I liked it and probably would have been annoyed with more ‘feminine’ animations considering how I envisioned her… though I can’t help but think that some people probably envisioned her in a more feminine way. I liked the one suggestion above about choosing your animation set to go with behaviour… that would be interesting.

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Shasta on June 22, 2011 at 11:10 pm.

I have a feeling that this could very well be an interesting, thought-provoking post, and that I might have agreed with a lot of what you have to say. Unfortunately I’ll never know, because I stopped reading when I got to the word “Assley.”

Certainly no-one begrudges you your opinion of any particular character. Including it in this post, however, served no purpose whatsoever except to alienate the (as you put it) “lot of folks” who don’t flip their shit at the notion that a character might be slightly distrustful of powerful alien governments. So in the future you might consider that tossing petty, cringe-inducingly puerile character bashing in with the rest of your post might hinder your message more than it helps.

Just saying.

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Lesley on June 23, 2011 at 7:14 am.

I think we’ll have to agree to disagree here, as my experiences with Ashley, on multiple playthroughs, has not been that she was simply distrustful but that she was openly xenophobic and racist (in a relatively standard example, she comments, “I can’t tell the animals from the aliens,” which recalls a very long cultural history of racist rhetoric that erases the humanity of nonwhite people.) I imagine if you’re playing straight Paragon, her comments may be milder, but I could no more stand her offensive bullshit in-game than I would stand it in real life. Unfortunately, I can’t ask a game character to check her privilege, and so in frustration took to name-calling.

Ashley’s racism serves a narrative purpose, for sure, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it, or even to listen to it. My offhand comment about calling her “Assley” was meant to be humorous — I’m sort of astonished it would truly upset anyone, but I apologize if I unwittingly did so.

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Alex on June 24, 2011 at 11:17 am.

Regarding Ashley, yes she was a xenophobic racist but she was also one of the only characters in the game that had a colorful personality, whereas everyone else (except wrex) was so neutral it almost hurt. I kept Ashley and let Kaiden die becuase Ashley was at least an interesting character, whereas Kaiden was horribly acted and hopelessly uninteresting.

The character of Ashley Williams added a dose of believability to the game. Here was someone with actual opinions (albeit racist ones), while everyone else was decidedly bland.

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Linear on June 24, 2011 at 2:07 pm.

The loss of the writer for Ashley (and Thane and Legion and EDI) is by far the saddest thing to have happened to the Mass Effect series in this girl’s opinion, and I can only hope for the best for her (and them) in ME3. Ashley was complex, a dedicated spacemarine who was saddled with a reputation because of one unpopular decision her grandfather had made. I didn’t care for her initial views — even when a few of my Shep’s agreed with her — but I understood why she felt the way she felt, much as I understood Saren’s dislike of humans. Contact with alien races had been made just two — two! — years prior to her birth, she came from a family who had made a career of fighting for human interests in a galaxy where humans are seen as the cocky upstarts — and rightfully so — by other council races, and she outright states that she hadn’t served with many aliens prior to the Normandy. (And in this, I can only think of friends and acquaintances I’ve made here who’ll swear up and down that they hate X [Japanese, Africans, Russians, migrant workers from Sichuan] despite never having spent more than five minutes — if that — talking to one.) Frankly, I’m surprised that we don’t hear *more* anti-alien sentiment from Alliance crew (to my recollection it’s just her and Pressley) — but then again, we barely even hear it from *Cerberus* crew in ME2. And Ashley does express her disagreement outright with the human extremists Terra Firma. (Does she do the same with Cerberus? I forget.)

More than anything, I appreciated that the game gave the player the option to have Shep influence Ashley’s opinions on the council and alien races throughout the game, and Kaidan’s as well.

I suppose that I simply like my characters flawed.

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Lesley on June 24, 2011 at 2:37 pm.

Thank you so much for sharing this perspective. I appreciate it, believe it or not!

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Lesley on June 24, 2011 at 2:38 pm.

Also, I wanted to clarify — I was not a fan of Kaiden either. Dude was SO boring.

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Southpaw on June 23, 2011 at 3:39 am.

I don’t think anyone wants FemShep to be more ladylike in ME3, I think it’s more about not wanting the weird glitches that came along with the shared rig, like trying to drink through your eye. And clipping issues. Okay, and the underskirt view too. There were perfectly good animations in ME1, mostly people just want that back.

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Lesley on June 23, 2011 at 7:16 am.

Sadly, looking at the Bioware forums, quite a few people want her to be more ladylike. I just hope the developers don’t go too far in the opposite direction as a result.

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Whatews on June 23, 2011 at 9:04 am.

This is probably the longest article on the most insignifigant issue ever. Good job.

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Lesley on June 23, 2011 at 9:14 am.

Hello, and welcome to the internet, where the excessive use of hyperbole is THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IN THE WORLD! Do enjoy your stay.

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hramnt on June 23, 2011 at 2:55 pm.

I don’t play video games at all and am completely unfamiliar with the game you are talking about. Normally I’d skim through this and just be like ‘yup, post on gender in video games,’ but this was a total pleasure to read. Your writing is very clear, descriptive, and nuanced. Nice!

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Lesley on June 23, 2011 at 3:19 pm.

This is wonderful to hear, as that was my goal — to make it interesting even for folks who will never play the game! Thanks.

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Sarah on June 23, 2011 at 3:00 pm.

“I am not surprised real-life dudes don’t play as Lady Shepard.”

They do! My husband and many of his friends played Shepard as female.

Also, it’s fun to see you writing about this because my husband is a designer for Bioware, though Mass Effect is not one of the titles he works/worked on. Speaking of which, always keep in mind that the designers don’t get to have ANY influence over the marketing. Seriously, I’ve heard my husband and his coworkers bitch about this all the time. The advertising people get carte blanche on this stuff and not only do they often misrepresent the game, but a lot of time they get things flat out wrong. The people who put their heart into creating the content of these games get just as frustrated as the players because it’s out of their hands.

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Lesley on June 23, 2011 at 3:11 pm.

Yes! This is super true and worth mentioning. I know folks working in tv/film who run into the same issue with regard to marketing — they get pretty much no say whatsoever.

Also, my husband prefers FemShep too. I just get overwhelmed by that 80%-play-as-dudes statistic from Bioware.

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Sam on June 26, 2011 at 8:22 am.

The thing about the 80% figure is that, as far as I remember, “Male” is the default option in the character creator (at least, in the sense that it’s the one that starts selected). Given that there’s quite a lot of evidence that most users of software in general tend not to bother changing any of the defaults, it could just be that 80% of players of Mass Effect (2)… just don’t care and are hammering ‘select’ to get to ‘the game’ as fast as possible. This would also be slightly depressing, but not so much as 80% of the playerbase deliberately choosing the male stereotype.
(Some evidence in favour of this interpretation comes from related statistics from Bioware about character class choices – in general, the closest selections to ‘default’ were also the most popular.)
Unfortunately, I can’t think of a game which allows gender or sex choice which also defaults to ‘female’, so evidence for this will remain mostly hypothetical. Maybe Bioware should try an experiment with Mass Effect 3 and have the gender selector oriented Female [default] : Male ?

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Barbara on June 23, 2011 at 7:43 pm.

I love Mass Effect! I loved that video that was posted, it was fabulous! I may just have to go back and play both games again on completely new characters just to see what I can come up with that I normally wouldn’t for a character. ^_^

I also think Shepard would be much better in a tux. I mean come on there are women out there who are absolutely not comfortable in dresses! And who said women have to be ‘girly’ or ‘feminine’ to be female? It’s how people are socialized yes but that does not make it a requirement.

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Linear on June 24, 2011 at 6:23 am.

And who said women have to be ‘girly’ or ‘feminine’ to be female?

And who says that women have to be any way in order to be female?

I agree that there should have been a choice between a tux or dress for female Shepard. I disagree with the implication that all female Shepards are butch badasses who do not have their ‘girly’ moments — we don’t know that at all. I didn’t find female Shepard in a dress to be uncomfortable at all: She walked, spoke, and acted with the same authority that she always did. I have no problem thinking that the ubermarine Shepard could be a multi-faceted (wo)man, an effective leader and brilliant marine, able to keep the personal and professional separate, comfortable in uniform and civvies both, and generally being awesome as all get out. My female Shepard is not your female Shepard, and if she wants to wear a dress, so be it; should yours wish to wear a tux, that’s fine too — I just wish that Bioware had given her that option.

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Lesley on June 24, 2011 at 7:12 am.

Yes! I didn’t mean to universalize my choice there, I just want to preserve a non-traditionally-feminine Shep as an option — but not a requirement.

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Overmind on June 24, 2011 at 1:02 pm.

Erm, you do realize that what you praise Mass Effect games for is present in the majority of rpg games? This series is in no way exceptional in that regard. In virtually all rpgs that allow the player to choose their character’s (or characters’) appearance non-player character’s do not react to the player’s character’s appearance, gender or skin colour. Mass Effect franchise is neither the first nor the last to have it. Your claim that this game is revolutionary in that respect is simply absurd.

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Lesley on June 24, 2011 at 1:44 pm.

To clairfy: it is not revolutionary insofar as being unique among video games. There are other games that provide similar opportunities, although in my experience Mass Effect does so especially well (we’ve already complained about FemHawke’s prancing gait in comments, as opposed to FemShep’s determined stride, so the choice to not give FemShep particularly “feminine” movement makes ME different, for example).

Is IS revolutionary insofar as providing the opportunity to explore a narrative that dramatically departs from the standard narrative treatment of characters who are not white and male. I analyze all sorts of media, of which video games are but one form, so this conversation takes place within a broader context.

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eric sternberg on June 24, 2011 at 1:50 pm.

nobody actually read your story about being a space dyke

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Lesley on June 24, 2011 at 1:57 pm.

Best comment ever.

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Aurore on June 24, 2011 at 5:26 pm.

I really like your post and your writing style. I’ve been around your blog reading some of your articles and this has to be the first one I’ve seen such controversy. Most of the people who disagreed with you seem angry. I think you handle their grievances very beautifully and with a great sense of humor.

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Dawfydd on June 26, 2011 at 6:55 am.

I just wanted to say thank you for such a brilliantly written article. So clad that I checked out todays Sunday Papers article on Rock Paper Shotgun :)

With regards to Shepard, it’s been the last few months that I was able to complete an ME1 playthrough with FemShep and have gotten a ways through ME2. Mainly this is becasue I want to have as many options as possible for when ME3 hits next year, and it’s been fun trying to play her as more of a rogue-ish hardass compared to my default paragon approach to MaleShep (side note- Rather than Blandy McBland, I’ve managed to get my Shepard to look like Ron Pearlman. Makes him far more interesting…)

Your points about colour and gender though are fascinating. I hadn’t really given it much thought, but for the most part if a game offers the choice I try to create a character who resembles my own cultural background (white, male, hirstute). Although my first DA2 run was as FemHawke, opting for wise-ass options where possible (and the Merril relationship is just sweet to watch unfold), and you’ve made me give some serious thought to thinking outside the norm when it comes to creating a character in the future…..

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Dawfydd on June 26, 2011 at 6:58 am.

Also, whilst Ash is xenophobic, I agree that part of the joy of ME1 is challenging her views and encouraging her to be more tolerant. And you have to admit, her family history provides an understandable reason for why she thinks the way she does…..

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Rob S on June 27, 2011 at 10:14 am.

You get the same thing with people in wheelchairs in pop culture. You see a guy in a wheelchair in some drama, and you can say with almost absolute certainty that it’s going to come into the story somehow. No one’s ever disabled in popular fiction ‘just because’.

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Lesley on June 27, 2011 at 12:14 pm.

Yup! This is just as troubling, as it reinforces the idea that disabled people ARE THEIR DISABILITY and nothing else about them matters.

I read a comment thread on Reddit about this post, where a bunch of dudes were all “she can’t expect a game developer to write different reactions for every possible combination of race and gender!!!!” and I was really bummed, but not surprised. MY whole POINT is that this game does NOT treat characters differently because of their race and gender, and that this is a refreshing change of pace, and really fascinating! But I guess a lot of folks can’t even fathom why not making someone’s appearance (or their disability, for that matter) an issue in EVERY CONVERSATION would be a pleasant change.

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macready on July 24, 2011 at 7:04 am.

I detest femshep, mainly for this kind of self-congratulatory “grrl power”, “Im so f*cking awesome and anyone who chooses to play as defealt guy/a custom white guy isnt” mentality that surrounds the character.

I think fundamentally, no matter how pretentious certain people are, how much they think theyve got a handle on the worlds ills and how a certain set of people a “hyper priviledged” and should somehow reanalyse how they live their lives and go about their business at your behest – its a game. Its a game designed to entertain. Games designed to entertain started out and continue to be the province of men, developed and play by. The fact that they have, like a massive proportion of RPGs, allowed certain arrogant, self obsessed women or lesbian sex obsessed jackasses to play as a female isnt really all that special.

I think when people actually get off their fucking soap boxes, theyll see its designed to simply be played. Thats why its so neutral. Not to give a bunch of vain players with victim complexes cause for celebration. Just to put across a core expereince to as many players as possible.

And ultimately, thats what I wish was done more around femshep. That they would follow the example of their “cliche, generic bonehead white male shep” playing counterparts and just shut their entitled faces and play the damn game.

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Michał Gancarski on August 22, 2011 at 3:57 am.

lolwut

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Halloween Jack on October 13, 2011 at 5:08 pm.

Wow–one woman out of the hundreds of thousands who have played the game takes a little bit of time to talk about race and gender issues, and that majorly harshes your mellow, huh? Bummer.

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Michał Gancarski on August 22, 2011 at 4:02 am.

Lesley, thanks for this article. I play FemShep because I tend to play female character whenever a game allows me to. The reasons are multiple but after two games I just cannot stand the thought of Shepard being a guy. It just does not make sense.

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Halloween Jack on October 13, 2011 at 5:05 pm.

Another dude-who-plays-FemShep here, and one that was pretty bothered by the lack of female romance options for FemShep in ME2. Especially Jack, who is not only jaw-droppingly butch but explicitly identifies as bi. The hell, Bioware.

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