[This piece contains spoilers for Mass Effect: Andromeda. For folks unfamiliar with the Mass Effect Universe, at the bottom of the essay, I’ve included descriptions of the species mentioned in the main body and alternate image text.]
The importance of the analysis of video games and other forms of electronic media may be eclipsed by the constant bombardment of trials thrown at us by the current US administration—but now more than ever we should become aware of the ways we are capable of hurting each other, even when we are well-intentioned.
Whether diversity and inclusion are topics that have come into your life recently or something you’ve grappled with your entire existence, hopefully there is room for you to look deeper into the difference between diversity and token representation.
Tokenism as a form of inclusion needs to stop being so standard. Giving opportunities to historically excluded and marginalized groups does not automatically give way to equity.
Tokenism is a tool of dehumanization. When used through a predominantly white lens, tokenism reinforces the idea that anyone who isn’t white cannot be a fully developed and complex being of depth and importance.
Tokenism has been in use long before the current regime took control, and can apply across any or all levels of marginalization.
The perpetuated use of tokenism, even in media with good intentions, normalizes these harmful precedents.
Exposure to tokenism without awareness or analysis coalesces these messages into internalized reductionist prejudice and bias—often leading to a monolithic understanding of folks who belong to marginalized identity groups.
Recognizing the biases that create tokenized characters and monolithic treatment is a step towards removing these dehumanizing and shallow tools from narratives. Video games illustrate a lack of diversity in development when the final product reflects so many internalized biases. Whatever struggles we face, there must be efforts to treat people well and with respect, as well as efforts to learn the ways to do so. With video games being a common coping tool for many, the pursuit of inclusive and conscientious gaming experiences should be a priority for developers who want to provide an escape from the constant flood of negativity throughout the world.
Tokenism in video games is a common practice. Many games have been including characters from countries around the world for decades now. This practice has led to various degrees of success, but this has often been seen as a move towards better (or solely wider) representation and inclusive storytelling. Despite widening the range of representation seen in games, characters are often reduced to walking flags that must embody the ideals and image of their place of origin. This type of visible representation is a step towards equity, but can create a blurred line between diverse representation and tokenism.
Science fiction has always been rife with conflicts and token species that act as proxies for real world issues, and falls flat when presenting an understanding of marginalized struggles. Human heroes are often lauded as intergalactic heroes of moral standard, while any non-humans we encounter are destined to explore the meaning of their identities as space minorities. These characters are forever treated as other and peripheral to the human experience.
Bioware’s recent release, Mass Effect: Andromeda falls into this category, where we see trope-laden non-humans separately and desperately exploring their own identities within their own communities, while humanity deals with the tougher issues, spewing the ideals of multi-species unity and perseverance. Andromeda hits many pitfalls in its treatment of its non-humans to the point that it seems almost unaware of the missteps taken in its own previous trilogy. Andromeda fails to treat much of its non-human population as actual people.
The themes and characters seen in the franchise’s original trilogy created a universe that presented players with levels of entanglement with interstellar affairs that wasn’t commonly seen in gaming previous to the series. The Mass Effect franchise also took a special place in my heart as something that helped me through a painful depressive episode, and brought me into a fan community that has largely changed my life. And yet, closer looks at the Mass Effect franchise (and Bioware’s other works) have left me feeling betrayed when it comes to representation, inclusion, and overall treatment of its perceptibly marginalized groups.
The Never Ending Fight
Andromeda’s tagline, “Fight for a New Home,” represents for me a struggle that has been ever present in my life. I am a child of an immigrant father who wanted the family to have a new start and new opportunities that none of his children would have otherwise back in the Philippines.
For me, “Fight for a New Home” reflects the struggle that I have felt (and I am sure so many countless children of immigrants feel and will feel) in finding a place in a country so wrought with cruelty and disenfranchisement as the US. The fight for a new home should be a fight for a place of equity, inclusion, and justice—not a fight for the advancement of those already in the seat of power. It’s a constant struggle to see myself, find my own identity, and to feel like I’m in a place where I belong.
In Mass Effect: Andromeda, the player can fight for a new home, experiencing a struggle to thrive akin to many real-world analogs felt by marginalized folks. But the player is allowed to have these experiences from a position of leadership and power that is nigh unquestionable and rarely held accountable. Power fantasies may be cathartic tools when playing from an oppressed lens, but I have little desire to act as an awkward leader who obliviously makes insensitive remarks at every turn.
Players are tasked with surveying planets for habitable environments for the Andromeda Initiative—a multi-species attempt to bring 100,000 Milky Way inhabitants to the Andromeda galaxy due to impending doom in their home galaxy. As the human Pathfinder Ryder, you are given a one-of-a-kind ship, a one-of-a-kind artificial intelligence that boosts your physiological capabilities, and a one-of-a-kind authority over major decisions that impact the species who made the trip to the new galaxy, as well as those already present. If Ryder wasn’t privileged before, your position as the Pathfinder surely empowers you.
One of the most convenient plot points in the entire game was the discovery of ancient technology that happens to do the exact thing you need: increase the habitability of worlds. You and your team discover a series of structures called monoliths that guide you to a vault deep within each of the available planets—and these vaults terraform planets so that they become livable for the Initiative. You and your crew essentially stumble upon the means of establishing your new home in Andromeda’s Heleus Cluster.
Beneath the Surface
20 minutes into the game, there’s a very clear tone set. The discovery and exploration pieces of the Pathfinder’s role are overshadowed by lots of shooting.
In a game with so many monoliths littered about, it was no surprise that there were many missed opportunities to deconstruct myths of monolithic minorities. Much of the tone and dialogue points only to the fact that diversity exists, yet the majority of groups still fall into their stereotypes. There were opportunities to explore the ethics of exploration, environmental impacts of settlements, and the immigrant identity–but I felt that the creators tried to veer so far from what could be controversial that it lost sight of telling a story with an impactful central conflict. And players were left with a convenient, almost feel-good story of right versus wrong, with minimal meaningful development.
The team working on Andromeda appears to have made a conscious effort to improve the representation and variation seen in at least human appearances throughout the game. The steps taken to improve the character creator for the game’s human protagonist are noticeable, but the limitations are still confounding. A customizable protagonist who might look a little bit like you and the ability to see other humans who look like you are two important steps, but they are only improvements on the surface.
Much of the writing speaks as if from a perspective of the self being considered the default, and the other seen as mostly monolithic. Whether or not that self is actually white, cishet, male, able bodied, neurotypical, or otherwise privileged is unknown to me, the consumer, but closer examination of the tone and consistency of the writing seems very telling that the team behind the product put forth a story that is mostly capable of generating shallow levels of empathy with marginalized struggles. Shallow empathy is a start, but can further the notions that there are singular, absolute, or even “correct” ways of experiencing life as a member of a marginalized group.
The consistency in tone tells the story of a protagonist who is plucked from the 22nd century, where a post-racial and post-national humanity has established itself amongst a Galactic Council of Milky Way species, put into cryogenic sleep for 600 years, and flown millions of light years away into another galaxy—where Ryder still presents as a walking White Dad Joke. Mass Effect: Andromeda appears as a game coming from a place of (self) righteous virtue, but maintains so many status quo biases in its presentation.
An Attempt was Made
The call for a more inclusive story appears to have become a checklist of objectives. The writing team may have tried to insert an advanced curriculum into an introductory course: the players will have exposure to a topic, but very little ground to navigate, relate, or apply whatever knowledge they may have gleaned from said exposure. You aren’t given the tools or the lessons necessary to foster the means of dismantling what you’re shown. Instead, you are complicit and actively participating in the problem behavior, with little ability to resist other than choosing a lesser offense.
Andromeda’s newest (friendly) species known as the Angara read as though they were made to shoe-horn in as many exploitative tropes as possible into a new species. The Angara happen to be in conflict with a force called the Kett (who are also after the terraforming technology you need). These conflicts are resolved through the protagonist’s external intervention and lots and lots of shooting.
The Kett are obsessed with their own greatness and appear to base their actions on the premise that they are entitled to anything and everything that might bolster their greatness. Their racially motivated supremacy and violence hit very close parallels with the white supremacy that plagues our global climate. But beyond their villainy and constant condescension towards all other species, we are left with little understanding of who the Kett are. It’s almost as if the writers created them as a means of providing an unquestionable evil to lessen the impact and scale of your own actions.
We later discover that there is dissension in the kett ranks. Your crew’s science officer, Suvi Anwar, calls upon the term ‘monolithic’ as a singular way of understanding them.
First Contact Protocol
Upon making accidental first contact with the Angara, Ryder can joke about current-era airport security and remarks about removing their shoes. Ignoring the anachronistic nature of this line, for many marginalized groups, passing through TSA security checkpoints is nothing to joke about. This gives the impression that this comes from a place of privilege– never having to experience disrespectful, inhumane, or otherwise discriminatory treatment at an airport checkpoint.
Soon after, a member of the Angaran anti-Kett resistance named Jaal Ama Darav joins Ryder’s crew as an Angara emissary. When the opportunity arises to have a private conversation with him about how he is adjusting to the living situation aboard the ship, the player is presented with the following dialogue options:
Lessons about your internalized biases against people who belong to another culture or race cannot be taught with such awkward, shallow, or forced teachable moments. Seconds before this dialogue is available, your other crew members take turns at othering Jaal. And yet, Ryder can respond to Jaal’s discomfort by claiming that no one on the crew thinks of their peers as “alien.”
Moments like the above early in the game’s story set the tone for the entire Andromeda experience. There are numerous telling instances that establish the self as default narrative, while perpetuating a monolithic understanding of any external groups. Often times the most significant member of another species will tackle issues made to represent the entrenched and understood hallmarks of their species and culture. Characters who receive this treatment never get the chance at fully developing as an individual, and exist mostly to present some shallow semblance of an inclusive cast.
Filled with Empty Space
So much of Andromeda is filled with dialogue that fills the moments of traversing space, roving planetary surfaces, or perusing around the ship. But these moments are reminiscent of frustrating and challenging moments among friends and acquaintances who have tokenized me, doubted my lived experience, or altogether disrespected me. There are so few effective teachable moments, that the consistent tone of monolithic understanding surpasses any lasting impact. With so many of these moments being optional through the game, missing them means that nothing of value was lost.
One of the only satisfying moments for me was when Jaal asks Ryder how their eyeballs work when Ryder asks for details about Angaran biology. But in the game’s epilogue, Ryder is back to saying things like this:
The lack of effective teaching moments reinforce that it’s okay to continue racially tokenizing your crew and close friends, as there few steps taken to show how to actively oppose this type of treatment. If you want to teach the player something, be consistent with your messaging and stick to it. There are no substantial takeaways from Ryder clumsily handling human-Angara relations, that awkward scene where a nude Jaal and shirtless Liam try to bond over trading swear words, or any of Ryder’s attempts of aligning their actions with moral purity.
At the end of the day, Mass Effect: Andromeda is an enjoyable game for me. To look at a video game and expect it to become a revolutionary teaching tool about all forms of marginalization is unreasonable. It was ambitious, and accomplishes some of its goals, but ultimately set out to do too much. Given the themes present and visible attempts to improve along the lines of diversity, equity, and inclusion, I believe that Mass Effect as a franchise can become so much more.
The second part of this essay will address more specific examples of the ways that Andromeda treats its non-humans as monolithic, as well as ways that creators can work towards improvement. Until then, please be well and remember that people are always people, regardless of how your preconceived notions might paint your understanding.
Mass Effect Species Quick Guide:
[Asari] Blue skinned bipedal humanoids who are skilled at using telekinetic-like skills known as biotics. The tops of their heads taper backwards into tendrils in the place of hair. They may live up to 1000 years, and as such, are known for a tendency to prefer diplomacy and long term solutions.
[Krogan] Scaly, shelled, and physically imposing bipedal reptilians who are known for being both aggressive and adaptable. Krogan have redundant internal organs that allow them to survive situations and injuries that would kill most other species. Like the Asari, the Krogan are also capable of living for 1000 years or more. One of the key features of their physiology is a massive shield-like plate that protects the top portion of their heads.
[Humans] We’re pretty terrible to each other and everyone else. Sometimes we’re okay.
[Salarian] Salarians are a wiry-framed bipedal amphibious species with a pair of large oblique eyes and two horn-like protrusions atop their heads. Due to increased metabolic activity, they live roughly 40 years. They are known most for their intellect and scientific prowess.
[Turian] Turians are a bipedal species who adapted to the solar radiation of their home planet by developing a thick protective exoskeleton along most portions of their body. Their appearance and body structures have been described as birdlike, despite the absence of wings or beaks. They’re known for having a militaristic culture, and are considered the galactic peacekeepers of the Milky Way.
[Angara] Angara are the only known sapient species native to the Heleus Cluster where the Initiative arrived in Andromeda. They are bipedal mammals with broad shoulders and fin-like folds of flesh that extend from the sides of their heads down to their chests.
[Kett] The kett are bipedal humanoids covered in bony white armor over most of their bodies. They seek control of the same ancient technology that the player uses to terraform new planets. They build their armies through a process called exaltation where the kett take genetic information from other life and incorporate them with their own genes, transforming other lifeforms into kett forces.