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"Mass Effect" and Why Representation Matters

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Lee has an embarrassingly deep love of all things "Mass Effect." Her favorite is the original first game.

Fanart of Peebee and Sara.

Fanart of Peebee and Sara.

Epiphany: representation matters. A whole lot. And for context: I'm a lesbian. So this article will be focusing on lesbians and the f/f romances in video games, though I acknowledge that gay males are kind of in the same boat (they actually have it worse, all things considered. Lesbians can at least chew on the leftovers of straight male pandering in games: i.e. Peebee straddling female Ryder on Eos).

First disclaimer: I don't deliberately look to the media for "guidance." But if it happens on accident, that's great. In this case, Mass Effect indirectly wound up helping me confront and accept who I am.

Second disclaimer: This article isn't a SJW spiel or a nine page lecture ranting at "evil" straight males or whatever. This is just something that I've come to fully realize and appreciate after a recent playthrough of Mass Effect: Andromeda.

I've come to realize how important it is for me to see myself in an RPG (and media in general) and to be able to self-insert and fully immerse myself in the fantasy in the same way that straight male gamers do and have been allowed to since . . . Well, since forever.

But it didn't hit me how important it was until I forced myself to play a straight character in Mass Effect: Andromeda (I romanced Jaal as Sara, and now that I think of it, she was actually bisexual. Ha) after years of being a big fat lesbo Commander Shepard in Mass Effect.

"Mass Effect" Helped Me Come Out

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My screentshots of default female Shepard kissing Liara in "Mass Effect 2."

My screentshots of default female Shepard kissing Liara in "Mass Effect 2."

When the original first Mass Effect was released, the year was 2007, and I was very young (early twenties) and being discharged from the military for being gay. At the time, I was in denial and in the closet, and being discharged from the military was very upsetting, so I didn't buy Mass Effect on its release due to its military theme.

I was also under the impression that you could only play as a male, given that female Shepard (annoyingly known as "Femshep") was pretty much ignored in the promotional material. Had they featured her in videos or clips or something, I probably would have bought the game.

My Shepard jokes about kids with Liara.

My Shepard jokes about kids with Liara.

When I did buy the game, I avoided romancing Liara and romanced Kaidan instead (because he was the only other option for female Shepard). I've mentioned on other articles that I didn't immediately warm to Liara because she was too childlike, but that was only part of it.

The other part was the fact that I myself was in the closet, in denial, and didn't know how a relationship with a woman would look or feel. At the time that Mass Effect was released, there wasn't a lot of lesbian representation in the media. There was no message out there telling me that being with a woman could be beautiful, wonderful, and completely okay. In fact, I came from a homophobic Christian family who told me the exact opposite from the time I was a small child crushing on other girls.

So my very first Shepard suffered through a romance with Kaidan while secretly longing for Liara (I still had her flirt with Liara), and by Mass Effect 3, my Shepard left Kaidan for Liara and finally embraced who she was.

And when I romanced Liara, I was glad, because I got to see what it was like to be in love with a woman. It was a good relationship, loving and healthy, not pornified for male gamers. And it wasn't one of the abusive, toxic depictions of lesbians that we often see in the media.

It made me realize that being a lesbian was . . . okay. And from that point on, I romanced Liara across the entire trilogy and I didn't regret it.

Liara says goodbye to Shepard.

Liara says goodbye to Shepard.

Of course, coming out in a video game is no where the same level as coming out in the real world. Mass Effect helped me accept and understand who I was, but I didn't come out in real life for a few years after that.

Straight gamers spend their entire lives hearing that who and what they are is normal and even right. Gay gamers hear exactly the opposite. We don't see ourselves reflected positively in the media. Most of the time, we don't see ourselves at all, unless it's to trash us or dismiss us.

I'm not saying that every video game needs a quota and that gay people should be represented everywhere. I'm saying that I'm grateful to BioWare for representing me.

My Epiphany

My Ryder walks with Jaal during his romance.

My Ryder walks with Jaal during his romance.

As I said above, I came to this conclusion after doing a recent playthrough of Mass Effect: Andromeda.

In Andromeda, I started off romancing Peebee but wound up romancing Jaal for a couple playthroughs because I felt he had the better romance (plot relevant, romantic, emotional). I also romanced Reyes because his content is equally as entertaining (fun, mysterious, adventurous). (Sigh. Straight female gamers got some good content this time.)

But after a while of doing this, it began to grate at me that I was romancing men. By ignoring f/f content in the game just because it wasn't as good, I was also detaching myself from my character. I couldn't properly immerse myself into the fantasy simply because . . . I'm not attracted to men.

Jaal and Liam swap armor.

Jaal and Liam swap armor.

I remember the first time I saw the scene where Jaal is naked and Liam is shirtless. It took me a while to realize that the scene was supposed to be fan service for straight female gamers, largely because I'm simply not attracted to men, so it didn't occur to me to see that scene in a sexual light. I thought it was just supposed to be a funny scene. Or maybe I'm just dense.

Later, I saw some hilarious online conversations where straight female gamers talked about how Liam is built like a teenage boy and Jaal looks like bacon . . . So I suppose it was badly done fan service. Ha.

Still, I was glad for straight women that at least BioWare was trying to (tastefully) give them some eye candy. Straight female gamers are another largely ignored demographic.

My Ryder in one of Jaal's sweet romance scenes.

My Ryder in one of Jaal's sweet romance scenes.

So while I found Jaal's romance sweet and Reyes' romance entertaining in some kind of spy movie way, I was still robbing myself of the full experience by playing a straight character I couldn't fully connect to.

This occurred to me when I decided to go back to an earlier save and romance Peebee instead.

Peebee pounces my Sara.

Peebee pounces my Sara.

While I enjoyed how cute Jaal and Ryder were, it didn't stir the same feelings in me as seeing Peebee and Sara kissing or hugging or going off on fun adventures together. With Peebee and Sara, I felt like I was a part of what was happening: Peebee was tackling me, not my character. While with Jaal and Sara, I was a detached viewer in the audience.

For anyone who is from a marginalized group, you are likely reading this and screaming "Duh!" at the screen. But believe me, I was aware of this on a subconscious level. It's just that, forcing myself to romance a male character for the first time in years finally made me realize not just that representation is important but how strongly important it is.

If representation weren't important, male gamers wouldn't panic over the notion of marginalized groups being catered to in "their" games.

The Target Demographic

Peebee addresses the crew after asking Ryder for a commitment.

Peebee addresses the crew after asking Ryder for a commitment.

The other day I was on Reddit, and this straight male gamer wrote this huge, long post analyzing Andromeda's characters (and it was no where near as good as my articles . . . ha), and he kept saying over and over that straight males were the ones who played games the most, so they were the target demographic, almost like he was dismissing marginalized players.

It started to annoy me because I didn't understand why he felt the need to keep saying it. Was he rubbing it in our face? Ridiculing us? Reassuring himself? What?

You know why straight men are the target demographic for video games? Because straight men make video games, and they have the social, economical privilege that would allow someone to even get a job as a game developer to begin with. They don't have to worry about the obstacles that come with being black (racism), a woman (sexism), or gay (homophobia) like me, a black lesbian.

So given the fact that they have their job to begin with because we live in an unfair world, it's really annoying to listen to straight male gamers dismissing marginalized groups as "the 2%" as if we didn't matter (actually women, at least, are half the population and there are more black people on the planet than white people, but whatever) and constantly harping on about how video games really cater to them.

Peebee grins at my Sara.

Peebee grins at my Sara.

It just seems hurtful for them to keep shouting that knowing the reason why video games cater to them in the first place. Maybe if brown people and gay people and women had the same privileges and opportunities, we could make our own video games, and we wouldn't need breadcrumbs from game developers like BioWare. As it is, though, we have to live with whatever the developers decide to do.

Which again makes me grateful that BioWare would even bother including me: they really don't have to. They could just make a game with a straight white male protagonist and still make a killing (look at The Witcher), but they choose to include more people.

Of course, this is partly because of David Gaider, the former lead writer of Dragon Age and a writer for other BioWare games (I think he also did Neverwinter Nights and Baldur's Gate). While I dislike Gaider (ha), it's true that gay content and inclusion can be credited largely toward him. A gay man was on the writing team, so we got more gay content, and then it became a trend, and now . . . here we are. So it pretty much makes my point.

Peebee pounces my Ryder.

Peebee pounces my Ryder.

But now that I've had my epiphany, I think I finally understand why straight male gamers get so upset by the very notion of women (or "minorities" in general) playing video games. They don't want to admit it or acknowledge it ("Most gamers played male Shepard!!! BioWare has the statistics!!!") because they are terrified they will stop being catered to.

It sucks to be marginalized, to play a roleplaying game where you can create your own character and insert yourself in a fantasy, and yet you're forced to play someone who is nothing like you. They don't want to know what it's like to be marginalized, to be left out, to be dismissed and ignored. They don't want to be forced to play a gay character or sleep with a man. They don't want to be forced to look at a gay sex scene or a sex scene that would gross them out.

But it's perfectly okay if gay people, women, and brown people are forced to. That's where the callousness, the selfishness, and the lack of empathy comes in: we're just the 2%, we aren't people and we don't matter, but they do.

But hey. It's a widely known fact that the gaming community is toxic.

Peebee is Not Liara

My Sara and Jaal.

My Sara and Jaal.

I've written a couple articles here explaining why I decided to romance Jaal over Peebee, even though I really wanted to do a f/f romance. I even criticized (not bashed) Peebee as a character in an article about her flaws.

One of the reasons I chose Jaal over Peebs was a matter of taste. I like mushy, cheesy romance, and that's exactly what Jaal's romance is. It was heartwarming and sweet, like Liara's. It was also plot relevant, you meet his family, he has a lot of funny banter with Ryder . . .

Then I realized the real reason I chose Jaal over Peebee was that I was trying to recreate Liara's romance. You also meet Liara's parents, Shepard and Liara have cute dialogue, and their romance is plot relevant.

Once I stopped trying to compare Peebee to Liara and just let Peebee be her own flawed, annoying "person," so to speak, it was a lot easier to romance her.

Peebee vs Liara.

Peebee vs Liara.

I think all of the Andromeda characters are unfairly compared to the characters from the original trilogy. These characters are supposed to be brand new characters in their own right. And so, while they do have some similarities, they are not exactly the same.

Liara and Peebee are both young asari archeologists, and that's basically where the similarities end. In other words . . . I think I needed to take off my nostalgia goggles and stop comparing apples to oranges.

A lot of us fans of the original games need to.

Peebee uses POC to ask for a commitment.

Peebee uses POC to ask for a commitment.

So that's why representation matters, folks. Gay people, no matter that there aren't a lot of us, are still paying customers and deserve to have our power fantasies, too, dammit. No, every game doesn't need a "diversity quota," but it would be nice if we were included more and included well.

10 points to BioWare, at least, for making Jaal bisexual after screwing over gay male players with their lazy, half-assed gay male romance options. Ha.

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