Sunday 23 August 2009

Mass Effect and Ideology

Since becoming a X-Box widower I've seen some contemporary games up close. It's all very strange for me as I haven't played any game at length apart from Civ III for about 10 years. And things have moved on from the PlayStation haven't they? I can remember marveling at the scratchy digitised speech and four colours onscreen my beloved ZX Spectrum struggled to creak out of its chip set. And now? The advances are mind-blowing. But anyway, one of the games CBC has enjoyed playing is Bioware's 2007 masterpiece Mass Effect. This science fiction role playing game casts you as a gun-toting space warrior out to save the galaxy.

As a role-playing game
Mass Effect comes with a mythos every bit as complete as Star Trek or a Games Workshop offering. Set in 2183 the Human Systems Alliance is a newcomer to the community of galactic civilisations, known collectively as Citadel Space after the alien megastructure that is the seat of interstellar governance. Being something of an upstart species, there is tension between humanity and the Turians - who fought a very brief war after a bungled first contact. And there's some generalised resentment among humans toward the rest of the Citadel races for keeping us on a leash and not according us full member status on the community's governing council. However, when Saren, a Turian spectre turns rogue the council are forced to raise Shepard (you) to spectre status and go after him. During the course of the pursuit it becomes clear Saren is involved in a plot that could wipe out all organic life in the galaxy. It falls to Shepard to stop him and his allies.
Mass Effect was extremely well-received by the gaming press and it's not difficult to see why. With game mechanics that owe more to table top games than its console-based brethren, a morality system that effects plot outcomes in the game, satisfying combat sequences with very big guns and an immersive story line it is, as one reviewer noted, like playing a novel. It is so good that it can be entertaining to watch as well. The BC household is definitely looking forward to the release of the sequel early next year.

Some reviewers have noted comments on contemporary issues within the game. One of your antagonists is a species called the
Geth - a race of mechanoids who rebelled against their creators, the Quarians. On top of this the game's deadly threat comes from the Reapers, a race of ancient psychotic killing machines bent on galactic-level genocide. Through these dangerous enemies Mass Effect is able to tick the artificial intelligence anxiety box. And there is racism too. Human xenophobes are not keen on alien races and there is a growing chauvinist movement back on Earth. It's up to the player whether one endorses these sentiments in their dealings with other races or challenge the casual racists they encounter.

However the science fiction is pretty derivative. Ships can traverse the galaxy in a blink of an eye thanks to
mass relays (i.e. jump gates), and a major plot point involves the fate of a prehistoric but extinct spacefaring race, the Protheans.

Another (depressing) derivative feature carried over from the likes of
Star Trek and Babylon 5 is the preponderance of humanoid species. This is the most obvious place where ideology starts rearing its ugly head. It signifies a poverty of imagination - after all, while TV science fiction has real physical limits on what aliens can look like that isn't the case in video games. There is zero appreciation of scientific speculation on extra-terrestrial life. The alien races are also manifestations of particular human traits in much the same way the aliens of Star Trek are. The Taurians are conscientious public servants. The Salarians are technological fetishists. All Hanar are devout. The Krogan are impulsive and ultra-violent.

By far the most questionable set of essentialist aliens are the
Asari. A lot of science fiction has a problematic relationship with gender and Mass Effect is no different. The Asari are a race of blue-skinned asexual humanoids, but just so happen to have the hegemonic hour glass-perfect bodies of human women. Their culture is communicative and based on cooperation and consensus, not competition. They have an ability to empathise with others and are exceedingly spiritual beings. I don't know what concerns me more - that a mass media artifact like Mass Effect can get away with portraying women in a one-dimensional fashion or that those who conceived the Asari saw it fit to brand hegemonic femininity alien. It's also worth noting that apart from humans, all the dozens of characters you encounter from the other races (apart from the Rachni queen and your Quarian squad member, Tali'Zorah) are male. And yet it's only the femininity of the Asari that elicits comment.

Then there is the persistence of capitalism.
Mass Effect takes the ideology of capitalism as natural and eternal to absurd extremes. Not only is the Human Systems Alliance a science fiction extension of what we have today replete with rogue corporations (Blade Runner, Alien), crime syndicates and mercenaries, but every alien society is organised around production for profit too. This only serves to feed back into the natural/eternal assumptions basic to all capitalist ideology.

A final couple of points refer to the view of history underpinning the game mythos.
Mass Effect is as far from Civ III as any other action-based role playing video game, but both are premised on struggle, albeit struggle between essentialised and homogenous civilisations. In Civ they were human, here they are different species. But in both cases they neatly map onto the tropes deployed in nationalist and chauvinist thinking. Second this is combined with our old discredited 19th century friend - the Great Man view of history. Commander Shepard is one of these great wo/men and on your shoulders alone rests the fate of the entire galaxy. Everyone else is a no mark buffeted by your historical wake. This is a Randian world where social complexity scarcely gets a look in and the cult of individuality is fetishised.

That said, without all this wouldn't video games be boring?

One last point. The left has no problem reviewing films, TV shows and books to draw out the ideologies curled up inside them, but when was the last time you saw a video game get a critical review in one of our publications? As ever I fear the left have been slow off the mark. Video games are now bigger than the film industry. Famously in its first week
Grand Theft Auto IV grossed over $500 million. Every day millions of people play games with crude ideological excrescences that wouldn't appear so unabashed in film or TV. The odd scathing polemic in say Socialism Today wouldn't have the global games industry quaking in its boots, but it could help us be more alive to ways some of the baser capitalist ideologies continue to be transmitted.


Han M said...

Nice post and interesting points about humanoid aliens and their mirroring certain human traits.

Can't believe you mentioned the Asari and didn't touch on all the flak the game received when it came out for including a "lesbian" sex scene if you played as fem!shep. Claiming the Asari are mono-gendered as a get out of jail free card (whether to the right wing who see the scene as something that will corrupt children, or to the left/lesbians as a way to side step the obvious exploitative nature of such a scene in a video game aimed at 15 year old boys) when they're quite clearly presented as female bothers me.

Simon said...

Interesting point about marxist game reviews.

I used to be a pretty heavy gamer and I have my suspicions that the prevelance of ultra-individualist sentiment so common within that sub-culture may not be a coincidence.

Rob said...

This is very interesting and (as a gamer) I do think the Marxist left ought to say more about video games. One thing though, re 'the Great Man theory of history', it seems rather difficult to imagine an enjoyable game where this wasn't the case. Even strategy games (which one might think would avoid this) ultimately coalesce around the skill of the individual player, who is able to direct events.

Given the specifics of the medium, I think a game that accurately reflected the constraints of necessity would be very tedious. Furthermore, I wonder if (even now) we have the technology that could accurately represent the dialectic of structure and agency.

I'm wondering if there might even be a sense in which video games (with their Great Man theories and all) might sometimes represent some kind of utopian break with the chains of necessity.

Dave Semple said...

Well I'll tell you what. Next time I play a newly released game, I'll be sure to email it to the editor of ST. We'll see whether it makes it into the magazine, to prove the SP is down with der yoof lol.

JS.Ray said...

I was playing some thing on my brother´s XBox with lots of muscly people based on Norse gods. I couldn´t help but think of a bundle of Nazi wank-fantasies...

FlipC said...

May I suggest Fallout 3 would make for an interesting lefty review.

Although it does still suffer from the "Only You Can Save Mankind" syndrome which, as Rob said, may simply be a constraint of the medium, it does also feature many disparate groupings of people and feature a rudimentary moral system. Oh and it's also fun to play :-)

Simon said...

I don't think the special role of the player (which is of course necessary to most games) necessarily equates to a Great Man conception of history.

Take for example the role of Churchill and Stalin during WW2. Had the leaders of GB and the SU been completly incompetant then, material forces be damned, things could have gone rather differently. However, had Churchill and Stalin been entirely incompetant, it is unlikely they would have occupied the positions they did, and somebody more competant would have taken the position.

Presumably allied high command making strategic decisions has a determining effect on the outcome of the war (just as true in a video game as in real life) but this isn't incompatable with the Materialist conception of history (even a strictly deterministic interpretation).

Phil said...

I didn't mention the sex scenes in the hope someone in here would. But it does annoy me, why couldn't GuyShep get it on with Kaidan? Cat says she definitely would have been up for a slice of mano-o-mano. I mean, they do it in Fable II!

Phil said...

Rob, yes, I think games probably would be boring if they were 'politically correct' from a Marxist POV. Well, Tetris, Klax, Bejeweled and Portal aren't boring but they're a bit limiting. But as you say, the fact we find these sorts of games entertaining reveals something about the stunting effects of capitalism.

Phil said...

Don't get me started on Fallout III, Flip - the whole premise of the game violates the laws of social physics! lol

Simon, I feel a discussion of the role of individual personalities in history coming on! I remember reading something in past years (it wasn't Plekhanov's piece in case you were wondering) that said occasionally individuals become the focus of movements within society and are endowed with a certain significance. For example, on a mundane level the individual personality of Michael Jackson was very much a social product.

The same is true of political leaders. Depending on historical circumstance there are moments in history where "great" individuals can impose their personality on ongoing developments. War time is one, revolutionary upheavals are another. Dictatorships are another example.

I don't dispute the role of the individuality in history. But what I do criticise is the fetishisation of individuality as it appears in games like these.

Leftwing Criminologist said...

There was a game review in the socialist about a year ago if i remember correctly, but its the only one i've ever seen

May give it a go myself at some point. Although I am writing a book review for socialism today which will mention a video game very briefly - but that probably doesn't count

Oh why many haven't appeared in the socialist or socialism today - i wonder whether many of the party full timers play computer games that much. I mean, not that they wouldn't publish things because of that - but quite a few of the reviews get written by long standing comrades or full timers usually

John Robinson said...

I did play Mass Effect one, and actually made good progress in it. Even if i did fail to romance Sheppard.

You might also like to check out the new Telltale game Batman, for the Xbox one, it actually contains another 'love encounter', not too gory, but just enough.

Plus the game is kind of like watching a video reel, i don't know if that appeals to you?...>