Mass Effect has a beautiful central conceit. Despite its doom and gloom, “man versus machine” conflict, its vision of the future belongs to the idyllic, optimistic science fiction of the Star Trek mold. That 1966 show broke new ground by not questioning an African-American woman’s position amongst professional, space-faring intellectuals, essentially saying to a Civil Rights-era America that no, there’s no turning back the clock on this equality thing. Mass Effect one-ups this concept for the twenty-first century. Nowadays, we don’t just have women of color as second-string communications officers, but anyone of any gender, race, or sexuality can become the true-blue hero of his or her own version of Star Trek.* The game is an elbow nudge to the side of every Proposition 8 supporter and Men’s Rights Advocate; in the future, that bullshit is ancient history, and a badass is a badass regardless of skin-deep qualifiers. Plenty of games allow the player roleplay women and minorities, but few create a defined enough protagonist for the result to have impact. Pay no attention to that surly, steroid-gobbling he-man who adorns almost every piece of the game’s promotional art. If you want the true Mass Effect experience (and, with apologies to Mark Meer, a hero who doesn’t sound entirely comatose), a female Commander Shepard is the way to go.
But sadly, this isn’t the year 2183. Here in 2012 (or 2007, when Mass Effect first released), even brave, well-intentioned work is often undone by unchecked hypocrisies and subconscious subscriptions to ugly social norms. Due to either the possible financial gain or just not knowing any better, Bioware hampers its message of equality — if not the central thesis of Mass Effect, certainly its most interesting and unprecedented — with its slavish devotion to the white, middlebrow, male nerd fantasy. Continue reading