My brother recently picked up a copy of the Mass Effect trilogy for PS3. As he tentatively booted up his PlayStation, and the opening credits began I grew increasingly excited. I had just beaten Mass Effect 3, and ended almost a decade long foray into this fantastic universe. I knew what kind of nerd he was, and how much fucking fun his experience will be.
As he went through the opening barrage of questions that the game asks you in order to create your own unique Shepard, I remarked casually “So you making Shepard black?”
“Of course”, he replied instantaneously. “I got to.”
For our lighter readers, this conept of “got to” stems from minority nerds having very few instances of positive images we can associate with. Mass Effect is the exception to the rule. You can make your Shepard skin color anything under God’s green earth, change his gender, and even his sexual orientation. It’s pretty amazing the level of customization you have in such an early game.
For everything positive in Mass Effect, it was still problematic. The Asari, a race of hyper sexualized females predictably Angelo Saxon in their depiction. All of the love interests with the exception of Tali (who when she removed her mask was still pretty white looking) are white, or kind of Italian. Vega was a colossal masculine Latino whose only Spanish was “Loco”, like he slept through Spanish 1 in high school and that was the only word he remembers. Jacob, the black magic user, was okay, but even he suffered. He came across wooden and not very powerful, and thus not very popular. For all the amazing customization we are still left with very few strong minority secondary characters to latch on to.
If you follow the “cannon” Mass Effect story line, Shepard is a white straight male. He’s voiced as a white straight male, and played as such. If you make him gay, these relationships seemed forced and uncomfortable because he is still very straight in the way he pursues his gay companions. If you give him a brown shade of skin, his voice is a stark antithesis to the character we are controlling. Even “Fem Shep”, the female version of the main character, ends up being a dude with boobs. Lost is the sensitivity because her lines and choices follow the exact same track as her male counterpart. So despite the wonderful customization we have over our experience, it is in the end a glass ceiling to true immersion.
Minorities in this country have struggled for positive representations. Our struggles have not been in vain. It’s gotten us to the point where actively we watch like hawks, and descended on our various digital soapboxes to rage against injustices. As an effect, those creating the media are extra carful as not to offend us. But still something is lacking to make our experience truly feel special.
Why can’t we have our default characters reflect a more wider and diverse landscape? Shouldn’t our cannon stories begin to include a broader representation of the cultures that play video games? Positive doesn’t mean that our characters need to always speak well, or make good moral choices. Positive means we're regular people in extraordinary circumstances.
Glen in Walking Dead is an amazingly positive character for Asian Americans because he is simply a guy. He doesn’t do Karate, isn’t the funny one, etc. He is simply a dude, who has a normal (albeit surrounded by zombies) relationship, and is an active member of the group. He is Korea, and it’s extremely important to his character, but like all minority Americans his culture informs who he is, it’s not the only defining aspect of his personality. Its that choice that needs to happen with everything in nerd culture. It’s no longer enough to just have that one black secondary character who’s only define personality trait is the fact that he’s black.
I went back to watch my brother play Mass Effect. He had beaten Mass Effect 1 and was working through the sequel. I asked him what he thought.
“Shepard is kind of a douche,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, with his voice and my character he just kind of comes off as a douche.”
“Yeah. He’s really white.”
“Word, I can see that.”
“It’s a great game though.”
That it is.