O Commander, my Commander…

The following is a guest post from Kate Cox:

Kate Cox had ideas about games, thought, “someone should write about this,” then realized in 2010, “I’m someone.”  She’s a straight white cis woman who’s been an avid gamer since 1986 and who currently lives around Washington, DC.  She writes about games, gaming, and gamer culture at your-critic.com.

After a brief lull, BioWare’s Mass Effect 3 marketing efforts are back in the buzz this past week.  I’ve been quiet on the topic so far, because I knew my knee-jerk reactions wouldn’t help the dialogue along in any way, and I needed to think long and hard to sort out my feelings on it all.

So in the meantime, I’ve been doing some reading.  Stories about the Facebook vote and its outcome are all over the web, and a few have resonated with me.  I feel that each article I read raises at least one valid point, but that each also manages to miss another point.  In total, I think the sum of stories I’ve seen around the web finally gives me a launch pad from which to write.

The default male Commander Shepard, a fit white man with a shaved head and full Mass Effect armor.

Default DudeShep, via BioWare's website

Until now — and still, for the time being — this guy here has been the face of Commander Shepard.  Despite the wide variety of faces a player can see, despite the fact that a player can immerse him- or herself in the Mass Effect universe for 50 or 100 hours without ever once hearing Mark Meer, this character has been the face of Shepard as far as all marketing is concerned.  He graces the covers of both game and soundtrack.  He is in trailers and commercials.  He, in all his white, male, muscular glory, has been Mass Effect to everyone who hasn’t played it, as well as to a number of folks who have.

However, we’ve known for a month or two now that in response to overwhelming fan demand, BioWare / EA have consented to add a little something to the marketing for Mass Effect 3.  The other half of Commander Shepard is getting her own trailer, and her face will be on one side of the collector’s edition of the game.  Fantastic!  Equal representation, right?  But this created a question over at BioWare: whose face?  What does a default female Shepard look like?

Despite the fact that BioWare had no trouble coming up with a default white male space marine on their own, they felt the need to toss this question to the masses.  Their marketing / social media team placed six potential Commanders Shepard into a photo gallery on Facebook, so that Facebook fans who “like” the game could vote on their preference.  In an interview, David Silverman said that this tactic was their response to the “fan devotion” that had created the FemShep movement in the first place.  The fans created the pressure for BioWare to alter their marketing, and so the fans, it seems, must bear the burden of what inevitably follows.

The “beauty pageant” aspect of the Facebook vote has been praisedcondemnedblinked innocently at, and sorted through. In a piece of news that virtually everyone and their grandmother saw coming, the conventionally attractive white, blue-eyed blonde seems to be the winner of the contest.

The winning female Commander Shepard image - Thin, pale white blonde woman with blue eyes in full Mass Effect dark armor.

Get used to this lady; seems she's about to be Commander Shepard.

None of the available options felt entirely right to me.  At first I thought it was because none of them were “my” Shepard, but over time I realized that actually, it has much more to do with their facial features and hairstyles overall.  All of the Commanders on display looked unfamiliar to anyone whose primary experience is with the Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 character creation system, just as released photos of Ashley Williams from the third game look unfamiliar to anyone who encountered her in the first or second.

So I was willing to overlook a certain level of detachment with this Commander Shepard.  I certainly don’t have anything personal against this particular image; she’s fine.  She’s a video-game character, taking on the role of action hero.  Even of the six available and unfamiliar options, though, she’s not the one I would have picked.  Despite my Shepard looking like an aspirational, gamer-ego self-insertion version of me (ultra-pale, with red hair), of the available voting options and for marketing purposes, I preferred Shepard number four (who in fact holds second place in the voting):

Female Commander Shepard with black skin, dark straight hair swooping across one eye, thin, wearing dark armor.

And no, not because of the red streak in her hair!

Regardless of which face Shepard wears, I appreciate that she stands in the exact same pose, with identical weapons and (anatomy permitting) armor to her male counterpart.  One of the most remarkable things about this franchise to date has been the complete equality of both versions of Commander Shepard.  The game, required to accommodate both characters, has been unable to go off the rails into hugely gendered territory in either direction.  When it comes to writing and to character animation, the existence of each Commander Shepard keeps the other in line.  The Commander can’t have any specific issues related to gender or race, because of the choice in the player’s hands.  Lesley Kinzel summed it up incredibly well, while writing about her Shepard:

These games were not written specifically with a woman, much less a woman of color, as the protagonist. At best they were written to be gender- and race-neutral, or at minimum they were written as the cultural default (i.e., white and male). Either way, the story lacks the encoded racism directed at characters of color in even the best of media representations.

When Brown Lady Shepard is rude, or curt, or dismissive, the reactions she receives from others are not to her gender or her race, but to her words. Why? Because the character was written with the expectation that most people will play it as a white dude, a character for whom reactions based on gender or race are inconceivable. He’s “normal”, y’see. In real life, and in most media representation, we are culturally conditioned to respond differently to a big ol’ white dude with no manners than we do a woman of color doing the exact same thing.

I have a completely unprovable feeling, deep down, that someone at BioWare knew before posting a single picture which of the six Shepards would win the contest, or at least knew that the redhead and the blonde were the two most likely candidates.  What I can’t help but think, when I read Silverman’s interview, is that “throw it to the fans” was BioWare’s chance to avoid the responsibility for that choice.

As pleased as I still am that there’s going to be any female representation in the marketing of Mass Effect 3, this feels like BioWare’s way to have their cake and eat it, too.  The character being chosen is exactly one that the team who came up with the default male Shepard could have picked entirely on their own, but this way they get to absolve themselves of doing so.  It’s what “the fans” wanted, after all, and if many of those fans represent the absolute worst of the misogyny inherent in gamer culture, well, it doesn’t actually matter.

Astonishingly, Jerry “Tycho” Holkins, of Penny Arcade, was right, when discussing this.  (The gents at PA have a less-than-stellar track record of dealing with gender issues.)

Penny Arcade Comic

The comic makes a perfectly good point - it's just the wrong point entirely for the discussion.

Tycho wrote:

It’s one of these online shitstorms in certain quarters now, people don’t like how it shook out, or who might have shaken it out. That’s the trouble with democracy, huh? The wrong people are always voting.
And it’s true: none of us can really look at fans of a game voting and honestly claim that some should have a say, and others shouldn’t.  If you’re going to let the player base have a say, then all players should have an equal chance to raise their voices.

The question is: should the player base really be having a say at all?  Writer Dennis Scimeca has wisely

Gamers who play as FemShep are intensely attached to the character. She has inspired numerous fan videos on YouTube both inventive and hilarious. Websites have been created to celebrate her. She has even taken a symbolic role in the social justice community.

This devotion is what made an open vote on her official depiction so puzzling to me. That devotion comes from only 18% of Mass Effect players. Allowing votes from the other 82% who have no vested interest in a depiction of a female Commander Shepard feels like disrespecting the dedicated fans who made this marketing campaign happen, by drowning their voices in the noise of the mob.

I’ve realized: that’s the crux of my discomfort.  At first I thought it was personal — I felt like something special to me was being invaded by an unruly horde, and I felt that it was on me to grow up and get over it, because I have no personal claim on any of it.

To a certain degree that is, admittedly, true, although I never needed or wanted to see specificallymy Shepard on the box.  But the thing is: it doesn’t really matter which Commander Shepard is chosen.  The actual problem runs far deeper than this leading lady.  The problem is that once again, as seems to happen so often in our society, a female body and a female appearance have become a matter of public debate and public determination.  Shepard may be a digital construction, rather than a real woman, but she has still just become the subject of a popularity contest — and, yes, a beauty pageant — for a majority male audience.

The issue is not that Commander Shepard is a blonde; the issue is that she is and remains FemShep. That’s what the Penny Arcade strip missed.  She is still the other.  When Shepard is a woman, she is not a default anything and BioWare won’t position her as such.  Can you imagine if she had always been on the box, and if DudeShep were the one a fan campaign had finally brought to prominence?  Where is the world in which we the fans vote which one of six beefy men to put on the reverse cover?

The frustration I personally feel is not one of betrayal or of disgust; BioWare is, ultimately, a software company.  Their job is to turn a profit and to sell as many units of their games as possible, and I certainly don’t begrudge their actions.  My frustration, rather, is of lost potential.  Lesley was right: Mass Effect was a chance for something different.  For so many players, FemShep has beensomething different.  And this marketing change was a rare opportunity for something new, for something special.

Instead, we have this supermodel.  She doesn’t invalidate the Commander.  She does, though, return many of her players, who had hoped just this once for something other than the stereotypical Hollywood wet dream, to the margins.

Alas, we players of the badass lady are in the minority, and minority voices are easily overridden.  Perhaps there should never have been a vote to start with, but as there was, I can’t cry about its outcome.  Of course ultimately, it’s all so much chaff in the wind.  Neither the trailer nor the collector’s edition box art affect the game one tiny bit.  They never would, never could, and never did.

But BioWare was so, so close.  The FemShep campaign took us all three steps forward, and the FemShep Facebook vote took us two steps back.  We’re still a step ahead of where we were, to be sure, but it could have been better still.  I hope to see a “next time” where it can be.

[Originally posted at Your Critic Is In Another Castle]


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74 Responses to O Commander, my Commander…

  1. Retro Legion says:

    It’s a little embarrassing to admit now, but when Mass Effect first came out, I wasn’t even AWARE that you could play as a woman. I thought you were stuck being the White Male Bald Space Marine. It’s kind of a moot point, because I (still!) don’t have a computer that can run it, but if I did, I would have picked up the game a lot sooner knowing there was a FemShep too choose.

    • K. Cox says:

      You aren’t the only one! I’ve heard the same from a handful of others over the last two years.

      (Me, I wasn’t into Mass Effect at all but my spouse really wanted me to try it, and wheedled me into it in the first place by pointing out the female option, heh. I ended up a bigger fan of the franchise than he is. ;) )

    • Deviija says:

      I am one of those people. I did not know you could play as female when ME1 came out, or that you could be anything other than the default white dude protagonist pictured on the box. About six to eight months later, after the game came out, did I find out from friends that you could be a woman (with its own content – ie romances) and could even customize your Shepard – of both sexes – to be various bonestructures and skintones other than white. And that’s when I bought it.

  2. Ben says:

    Honestly, I seriously wonder if the claim that only 18% of gamers play as female Shepherd is actually true or just Marketing/PR BS. Fandom seems to overwhelmingly prefer Femshep.

    • U.N. Owen says:

      It could be true, but it’s kind of hard to tell with the limited stats we were given. I’d like to see information like “X% of players didn’t customise their Shepard (and ended up with a male soldier by default). Of custom Shepards, Y% were female, Z% were Renegades, etc”

    • Sannom says:

      Bioware has aknowledged ‘vocal’ support for FemShep, not ‘number’ support. Since playing with FemShep seems to be a real ‘choice’, I would guess that the proportion of FemShep fans among the people who played with her is a lot higher than the proportion of MaleShep fans among the people who played with him (remember : default, and PR face). So I can believe that among the people Bioware actually hears, FemShep and MaleShep fans are in the same number range, or perhaps that FemShep fans are more heard because nobody feels the need to ‘defend’ MaleShep (default, apparent Bioware ‘support’, etc.)

    • Nigel says:

      So what if only 18% of players choose FemShep? I don’t see any reason for this stat to be hard to believe or to see it as a problem. I honestly don’t think the number would be substantially different if Bioware had marketed FemShep from the beginning. Besides are FemShep players the kind of gamers that only think their choice is valid if the majority of players make it? I know most gamers aren’t playing Shepard as a black man or black woman (they’re missing out) and I certainly don’t care if they do or not as long I can play the game the way I want to play it.

  3. melponeme_k says:

    Neither of the female character models are even the same age as the male version. They look like teenagers while the male version looks to be early to mid-30s.

    And of course, they both have cover girl makeup. Heaven forbid either of them sport a scar like the male version.

    Yes, this is a missed opportunity to have a female heroine who isn’t pinup to pander to the male half of the audience.

    • Gwen says:

      Exactly. I don’t know why they didn’t just update the original default Femshep. She was rugged, she has a scar, she didn’t wear makeup…she was perfect. She just needed a little fine-tuning because her character model wasn’t as detailed as Maleshep’s.

    • M. Cox says:

      In ME1 the Femshep has the same scar options as Maleshep (my wife K. Cox sported a scar with her ME1 Femshep). You can’t customize the scars in ME2, but again, both Femshep and Maleshep have the same scarring.

      • Kate Cox says:

        I think the point was that marketing DudeShep gets to be all scar-tastic but marketing FemShep has to be pristine and lovely. He is definitely more grizzled than she, in those photos. (And that’s an ME3 promo photo of Shepard.)

        That said, again — the marketing images have had little to do with the in-game possibilities so far and probably will continue to do so in ME3. Especially for the many of us who will be importing our characters.

      • BMKane says:

        Let’s be fair. The scar options had the same numbers, like “Scar 1″ and “Scar 2,” but they didn’t look even remotely similar.

        Male scar options were huge, ugly scars that looked like they had been caused by, you know, actual combat. Female scar options were tiny, almost invisible scratches that you needed a microscope to locate. Maybe she has a cat that got a good scratch in on her when she tried to bathe it?

        It’s the same thing as the marketing image of the female character looking pristine. FemShep doesn’t exist to be heroic, she exists to be a pinup, so anything that even remotely tarnishes her beauty is of course unacceptable. Even the tiny little female scratches in ME were probably agonising for Bioware to put on there. MaleShep, on the other hand, exists to be a badass hero, so he doesn’t need to look handsome, he needs to look tough and competent, which is helped by the big male scars.

        It’s not just the scars, either, of course, it’s literally every aspect of FemShep’s design. She has literally no visible muscle, for instance. If they were real people, FemShep would weigh like 80 pounds, while MaleShep would be in the 250-280 range. Obviously, FemShep doesn’t need muscle, why would she? Bioware doesn’t intend for her to be heroic, and never did or will. They’re Bioware.

        (Not to bodysnark, of course. FemShep’s build would look great on a tough but aging Admiral, someone who hasn’t been in combat in a long time but keeps in shape as much as possible for a 60- or 70-year-old officer. For a soldier on the front lines, though, it’s hilarious.)

        • Korva says:

          Agreed 100%.

          This really doesn’t feel like a nod to the people who want to see an “iconic” female protagonist, but a publicity stunt decided by which “hot babe” a bunch of random guys want to fuck the most.

  4. ProdiGal says:

    Given the fact that there is already a default FemShep option in both games (Jane Shepard), this contest was mostly pointless.

    I dunno… maybe BioWare thought they were doing something good by letting players pick a new default FemShep. But if they wanted to include the players so badly, maybe they should have asked for players to submit their own FemSheps, and chosen a few finalists to be voted, rather than just pulling them out of thin air. At least then it would have felt like those of us who actually cared weren’t being completely drowned out by those for whom this was an entirely flippant choice.

    • Sannom says:

      Maybe they want the ‘default’ FemShep to have something ‘special’ about her? The default MaleShep is based upon a real-world model for example.

      • ProdiGal says:

        Maybe. But I guess that raises the question of who (or what) did they base Jane Shepard on in the first place? For all I know, they could have used their own character creation tool and pressed the “randomize” button until they got someone they liked.

        I guess in the end, it matters very little. BioWare can afford a few screw-ups on feminist issues, because… well… who else in the industry even remotely bothers trying?

        • BMKane says:

          I wonder, though. Does Bioware bother to try? This isn’t a rhetorical question, I’ve honestly been trying to figure out whether, when it comes to sexism, I hold Bioware to higher standards than other developers because I like their games so much, or whether some other feminists (like, say, Borderhouse contributors ;)) treat them with kid gloves because they’re hoping Bioware will become a role model if they don’t offend it too much.

          Believe me, I’d love to be convinced Bioware can be a respectable role model. I’m just not sure it’s true.

          I mean, the reason we like Shepard is because she behaves exactly the same regardless of her sex, right? (Except for ME1’s hip-waggle animation.) Did Bioware do this intentionally, as a feminist statement? Or is it just that with this much content it becomes prohibitively expensive to differentiate the sexes? If the former, then yeah, Bioware’s on the right track. If the latter, what horrors might we have gotten if Bioware had decided to spend the time and money making fShep unique from mShep?

          Basically, it always costs developers more to be sexist than feminist, because it means they need to create more content, but most developers want to be sexist so they spend the money. So, either Bioware is just as sexist but sometimes is more fiscally responsible (or lazy), or they’re more feminist and the cost savings are just a bonus. From the outside, can we tell which is true?

          • Alex says:

            The way I look at it is, BioWare is a company made up of a lot of people. To me, it is kind of pointless to try and figure out whether “BioWare”, as a company, is feminist; in a way it can’t be. But it seems like there are more people who work at BioWare who care about inclusivity than at other game developers. We have seen that there are people there who understand privilege and want to do what they can to make their games more inclusive, and there are people there who don’t give a crap. But making any kind of statement about the company as a whole (other than, I guess, their games are in general and in certain ways more inclusive than those of other companies) seems very hard to do, if not impossible.

            • BMKane says:

              That’s fair to say, and I certainly wouldn’t judge an individual Bioware employee based on what their company does. I’m sure there are a few people in Bioware who are indeed feminists.

              But I think we can treat Bioware as either sexist or feminist, because how else can we discuss sexism in the game industry? A game is made by 100 to 200 people, and we can’t analyze each individual. We can look at what comes out of a company, though, and say that it’s ultimately shaped by a handful of people (like producers and designers), working together, who have creative control over the project.

              If the majority of those with real creative control are feminists, then they would try not to allow sexist content to make it into the final product, and thus the company is feminist overall (though it may still make mistakes).

              What I’m asking is, do most of the people deciding the path their games care about inclusivity? Or do those few people who care about sexism have no real creative control, and when Bioware does something right (like fShep’s dialogue) it’s usually an accident that comes from the fact that adding sexism into a game is more expensive, so they can only afford to add so much?

              It seems important which of those is true, because it changes what the best approach is to dealing with Bioware.

              If the latter is true–as I suspect it is–then saying that Bioware can be forgiven for this beauty pageant mess because “at least they’re trying” isn’t gonna cut it. They’ll see yet again that there’s no consequence to sexism so they’re free to do as much of it as they can, financially, afford to. We have to give them a much harder time than we are.

              If the former is true, they just made a mistake this time, but are otherwise at least headed in the right direction, so treating them with kid gloves is reasonable, since we don’t want to alienate them.

              (As to whether their games are indeed more inclusive than the average for the game industry, I can’t speak to that because, like I said earlier, I can’t tell if I’m holding Bioware to unreasonably high standards, or if other people are holding them unreasonably low standards. Certainly, Bioware doesn’t come close to Valve, for instance, but they are in some ways better than Team Ninja or Epic.)

            • Nigel says:

              I disagree that Bioware doesn’t come close to Valve because they make different kinds of games. It is much easier to read “inclusiveness” in Valve games because their characters are basically ciphers and there are fewer opportunities for questionable situations. I have yet to play a romance in a Valve game and those present a minefield of social issues to navigate.

            • BMKane says:

              Nigel, you’re quite right of course, that it’s an unfair comparison. Like you said, Valve has far fewer chances to screw up. When it comes to comparing their games, you have me. But when comparing how they respond to social justice-related criticism, I do feel like Valve is more public about their interest in avoiding screwups.

              I mean, in Portal 2, they dedicated a whole, long commentary node to how one of their users e-mailed them to complain about their insistent use of male pronouns to describe players. The dev doing the commentary apologised, described their efforts to fix it (which they did quite comprehensively), and even made (what sounded like) a self-deprecating crack at grammar snobs that put convenient word choices above social responsibility. And that apology appeared in a shipped product! Not squirreled away in a forum post somewhere.

              I don’t think Bioware would do that. Do you believe Bioware will ever acknowledge the problems with their beauty pageant? Or will they forever defensively insist that it was proper democracy in action?

              It’s still not a fair comparison, because we’re just looking at their PR departments. And Valve has always been an uncommonly open studio. But it seems like a company’s expressed intention to do things right should count for a lot, and their reluctance to express such should be considered quite untrustworthy.

            • Nigel says:

              I see where you’re coming from BMKane. In terms of communicating with its fans you are correct, Valve is miles ahead of Bioware. There was David Gaider’s excellent reply to an upset gamer about being hit on by Anders in Dragon Age 2, so they are aware of these things and willing to comment on them, but I don’t expect to see that level of candor in more visible marketing materials from Bioware especially with them under the EA umbrella.

              Marketing doesn’t seem to be Bioware’s strong suit. I have never liked the idea of a default Shepard whether male or female. I was disappointed with the marketing of ME2 as well, fearing the game would become some kind of “EXTREME!” version based on all the loud rock music in the commercials, but I was very happy with the game itself. Hopefully this beauty pageant is another example of unfortunate marketing and not an indication of the quality of the game itself.

            • Thomas says:

              About the Valve comparison-

              While Portal is a paragon of conscientious game design, and Half-Life sports some wonderfully written and portrayed women as well, the other game the company is known for is Team Fortress 2, a game where a bunch of dudes run around shooting another bunch of dudes. The only female in TF2, I believe, is the voice in your head telling you how many seconds until the round begins.

              Bioware gets their hands dirty with emotions more often than Valve- I mean, that companion cube was nice and all, but it doesn’t really compare with the rich relationship that James Shepard and Tali built. They set themselves to a task that, while maybe not more difficult than Valve’s, is waaaay more awful if you get it even slightly wrong.

              And I don’t think she looks 80lbs. That woman would kick my ass.

          • ProdiGal says:

            It’s definitely a fair question to ask.

            I mean, I think BioWare at the very least realizes they’ve captured the attention of women and socially-conscious gamers, and they definitely do throw us a bone every once in a while (men being able to have relationships with other men in DA2, for example). Whether we’re getting that bone because they are genuinely interested in making a certain quality of game, or simply because they want to bilk us out of our money, is hard to say.

            • K. Cox says:

              I’m inclined to feel that really, it doesn’t matter. It’d be *nice* if a large company wanted to please me personally, but if they’re doing the right thing, and if they keep doing the right thing, then I don’t care about their internal motivation. And they’re in the business of making money, really, not of being particularly thoughtful. That some folks who work there have realized that the company can do both at once is a step in the right direction.

  5. Laurentius says:

    Now what I have in mind doesn’t invalidate your article in the slightest just looking at this from different perspective. If Bioware approach would be to right the wrongs of treating FemShep before you are 100% right, but if we look at it as a another marketing platform preparing third installments of the series I think it hits home pretty good, even controversy and angry fans fits nicely here, more people get to know the franchise and so on. This new face of FemShep also will be on the box cover of special edition of ME3 and I think it will be quite successful in milking FemShep fans of their money. So why I agree that Bioware tried to eat the cake and have the cake and that’s impossible, they do indeed succeeded in taking chunky bite of that cake while keeping rest safely in the fridge.

  6. Momiji says:

    I think this article really managed to put words to what I felt as I saw femSheps blonde get all the votes. I was originally insanely happy with the vote and loved all the different versions, but after a while, my feelings soured. I couldn’t really put my finger on why until I read this article. I think you’re right; most people who voted for blonde femShep probably don’t even play as her in the game. Not all of them, of course. I know many gaming female friends love playing as really pretty characters, and they love blonde femShep’s look.

    There’s no reason in my mind to doubt Bioware’s good intentions; They see themselves as a game company that values the input they get from their fans. Therefore, letting the fans give input that directly impacts the cover art feels like the natural response from them after realising how passionately we love femShep. But I really wish they had thought this whole thing over a bit before acting. Well-meant intentions aren’t always the way to the best outcome, as most of us probably would have told them had they asked one of us femShep fans, for example.

    Anyways, this controversy has been good in a way; it’s brought the issue of female gamers to the surface where it’s made people who normally aren’t aware of the issue think about it. Perhaps this will turn out to be an important part of bringing equality into gaming when we look back at it, years from now. After all, it’s as important for game-makers to realize their “wrongs” as their “rights”. I certainly hope so at least.

    Also, I hope that if Bioware ever let us vote on the look of characters again, I hope they at least let us vote on both the female and the male character. It’d be interesting to see the results of such a vote.

  7. Overmind says:

    To all those praising Mass Effect series for having a revolutinary new feature, ie. allowing the player to choose gender and race of their character – you know that this has already been done in hundreds of rpgs right? That this has been a staple in the genre for about 10 years or so?

    • Nigel says:

      No one is praising Mass Effect for having a revolutionary “new” feature. People are praising Mass Effect for implementing that feature very well. Implementation can be revolutionary in itself, especially in a big budget space marine game where such a feature is unexpected.

      • Overmind says:

        No one? A couple of quotes from this very page:

        Kate Cox – “One of the most remarkable things about this franchise to date has been the complete equality of both versions of Commander Shepard.”
        and “by pointing out the female option, heh. I ended up a bigger fan of the franchise than he is.”

        Retro Legion – “I would have picked up the game a lot sooner knowing there was a FemShep too choose.”

        Devijja – “I find out from friends that you could be a woman (with its own content – ie romances) and could even customize your Shepard – of both sexes – to be various bonestructures and skintones other than white. And that’s when I bought it.”

        I also remember similar comments in previous articles.

        “People are praising Mass Effect for implementing that feature very well.”

        I must have missed it. All I see is “I can play as a woman or a POC! WOW!” and no commentary about the implementation. If there is commentary, the focus is also on things that can be found in many other games. I’ve played ME1 and watched/read a Let’s Play of the sequel, and I haven’t noticed any differences in that regard to other rpgs.

        “Implementation can be revolutionary in itself, especially in a big budget space marine game where such a feature is unexpected.”

        Well, I may be nitpicking here, but this is not a game about a space marine. If you meant space opera games, then there is also a number of games that have similar customisation.

        • Sannom says:

          Shepard is a badass character, and Jennifer Hale does apparently a much better work than Mark Veer. Better voice, for a character that is described everywhere as a summit of ‘awesome’, and I think I can understand why FemShep is considered a character in her own right. Compare to other fully-voiced protagonists of RPG (The Witcher, Alpha Protocol) where the player has to play a man. As for Hawke, he/she didn’t hold with the fans as much as Shepard.

        • BMKane says:

          With respect, I think you’re misinterpreting what those people were saying.

          When I first heard about Mass Effect, I was excited because it looked like an interesting space opera from Bioware (who, at the time, I had tons of respect for; I was still merely a proto-feminist back then). Then, I found out that the protagonist was yet another utterly generic straight white dude space marine with a generic growly voice and generic “edgy badassness.”

          Later, AFTER Mass Effect was released, someone informed me that, actually, the protagonist ISN’T fixed as a bland white dude, and there’s actually some character customisation, and that Jennifer Hale’s voice acting was totally awesome. So, I begrudgingly tried the game and ended up enjoying it despite its many problems.

          It’s not that I found character customisation some kind of new and exciting idea. It’s that I thought it didn’t have ANY character customisation, and that the protagonist was yet another generic growly-voiced white guy. At this point in my life as a gamer, if that’s a game’s protagonist, I just instantly assume the developers are idiots and the game itself is worthless, lazy and bland. Because, usually, that’s the case. It’s fairly basic pattern analysis.

          Basically, the game’s marketing and PR put forward a completely inaccurate image of the game, one that turned me off it completely. When I found out that image was inaccurate, I gave it a chance.

          Obviously, I can’t speak for the people you quoted, but that’s what I read into their posts: the fact that the game’s protagonist was identical to the protagonist of a hundred other games signalled that the developers were lazy and therefore the game would be uninteresting.

          (Oh, and, Shepard is explicitly stated to be a Marine. And she serves on spaceships. To me, that reads “Space Marine” ;))

          • Overmind says:


            I admit, I didn’t think about that. You are right, ME franchise definitely stands out in that small group (so small that I can’t think of any apart from those already mentioned) of rpgs with voiced protagonists. I didn’t really notice it because I don’t really care for voice over. It doesn’t improve the gaming experience in any way for me and, what’s worse, it is hard not to notice that games with voice over have generally shorter and less complex dialogues with short utterances.


            Well, I usually completely ignore hype and marketing and the website that I usually read for opinions about games is very critical of most modern productions and usually posts marketing materials either to mock or to bash them and their authors. That’s why I had completely missed/ignored all the marketing materials with male Shepard. When Mass Effect came out, what really counted for me was that it was supposed to be an rpg and rpgs from my experience usually allow for character customisation. That’s why there was no surprise for me in that area. Besides, I usually check via Google whether an rpg has character customisation before giving it a go.

            Nevertheless, your explanation seems really good, but only regarding the last three quotes I’ve given. What Kate wrote in the article (“One of the most remarkable things about this franchise to date has been the complete equality of both versions of Commander Shepard”) still baffles me, however. There is quite a few similar opinions in other articles and comments, not only on this site.

            “Oh, and, Shepard is explicitly stated to be a Marine. And she serves on spaceships. To me, that reads “Space Marine”

            According to ME wiki Shepard is a soldier and an executive officer on Normandy, (s)he doesn’t specialise in planetary assaults or boarding operations as a space marine would (in parallel to real marines specializing in amphibious and naval operations in the past and in modern day).

            • BMKane says:

              (I don’t want to put words in Kate Cox’s mouth here, so I’ll just say that this is how I interpreted what she was saying.)

              What Cox wrote isn’t about the existence of character customisation in the game, as you seem to be suggesting. To really understand what she’s saying, I recommend this excellent blog post by Lesley Kinzel:

              But in brief, it’s about how female Shepard is NOT written and portrayed as an Other, or a stereotype, as most female characters in games are, because Bioware writes Shepard as the societal and cultural default–heterosexual, cisgendered white male–and then just uses the exact same dialogue and animations for both sexes. This differs from other female characters (like Liara and Ashley) who are written to be female and therefore end up forced into the well-worn grooves of “female character” that the industry uses. But I’m nowhere near as brilliant at explaining it as Kinzel is in that blog post, and I’m skipping important bits, so you should check it out.

              Cox’s statement shouldn’t be baffling. The idea of the female PC being completely identical to the male PC in a game IS virtually unheard of. Even in games which have gender selection for the PC, either the female option means loads of stat penalties, like in Arcanum and Bethesda games, or it means you end up with exaggeratedly gendered animations (Dragon Age II) or completely different dialogue and story options. Or, all of the above. In Mount & Blade, choosing to play a female character is even explicitly described in-game as “hard mode.”

              Less of that happens to Shepard in ME than the majority of female PCs, and pretty much 100% of female NPCs.

              (Oh, and Shepard refers to herself, Kaidan, and Ashley as marines on Virmire, in one of the conversation paths. And given we know very little of her pre-Spectre career, there’s no reason to think of this as inaccurate.)

            • Nigel says:

              “According to ME wiki Shepard is a soldier and an executive officer on Normandy, (s)he doesn’t specialise in planetary assaults or boarding operations as a space marine would (in parallel to real marines specializing in amphibious and naval operations in the past and in modern day).”

              Umm, have you played Mass Effect? Planetary assaults and boarding operations are Shepard’s house specialties!

            • Lima Zulu says:

              In order to be Commander and XO of a naval ship, Shepard would have to be Navy.

            • Overmind says:


              I’ve already criticised that blog post, both here and in the comments section to that post.

              Sorry, but you are completely wrong here – there are loads of games in which female PC are identical to male PC like in ME games. Just to name the games I’ve completed: Fallout 1,2 & 3, Fallout Tactics and Fallout New Vegas, Baldur’s Gate 2 (and Throne of Bhaal), Jade Empire, Kotor 1 & 2, Dragon Age, Vampire: Bloodlines – the Masquerade, Spellforce 1 & 2. All those games I’ve completed as a female PC and some also as a male character, and the differences were cosmetic – very rare slight changes in dialogues or wrong pronouns. Add to that games that I’ve played for some time but didn’t finish, and didn’t notice and differences between the treatment of female and males PCs: Icewind Dale 1 & 2, Neverwinter Nights 1, 2 and Mask of the Betrayer, Baldur’s Gate 1, Ultima IV and Ultima V – Lazarus. That’s just from the top of my head.

              In none of this games are there are any completely different dialogue or story options. There are mainly rare minor differences – in Fallout 2 you could sleep with a certain character only if you were a man or in Fallout 1 as a woman you could have a chat with a female Brotherhood of Steel paladin about why even female members of the organization are called brothers, which dialogue was absent from the game if playing as a fale character.

              Female characters in Arcanum and The Elder Scrolls games indeed have stat penalties, but you omitted to say that they also have bonuses to other stats. In Arcanum a female character has -1 to strength, but +1 to constitution. In The Elder Scrolls games both female AND male characters get penalties to some stats and bonuses to others. Female PCs are made to be slightly different in those games, but still equal to male PCS. I don’t know much about Mount & Blade, but isn’t that games supposed to reflect medieval times in a relatively realistic way? Women did indeed have it harder in those times.

              As for absurd gendered animations – I didn’t play Dragon Age 2 so I cannot comment about this game, but I haven’t noticed anything similar in the games I’ve played.

              Your statement that games with identical portrayal of male and female PCs are unheard of is simply false.

              (So she is both an XO and a marine at the same time? Kind of silly, but then lack of sense and general stupidity are quite common in recent Bioware games).


              By space marines I understand forces that have specialized tactics, equipment, training or organisation for such operations, like in Warhammer 40,000 universe, where the term originated as far as I know. Let’s say that Shepard is a sort of amateur space marine ; )

              @Lima Zulu

              Navy isn’t the same as marines.

            • Nigel says:


              Your argument boils down to, “What’s so great about Elvis? Carl Perkins got there first.” Nevertheless, Elvis Presley is the one who got the bulk of the fame and the legacy. It’s the same with Commander Shepard. Yes, there are other games that let you play as a woman or as non-white, but they don’t resonate the way Mass Effect does. For some reason you don’t want to acknowledge this.

              This is not about simply being able to choose a palette swap or a ponytail on some bland potato of a character. To have an idea why Commander Shepard in general and FemShep in particular is so unique, she must be compared not with the Lone Wanderer, Vault Dweller or Exile and their ilk, but with the likes of Max Payne, Marcus Fenix, Solid Snake, Sam Fisher, Nathan Drake, Nico Bellic and John Marston with whom she has more in common.

              Many RPGs offer options to play as different races or genders to varying degrees, but few have the technical fidelity of a AAA big budget character such as the ones listed above. Other than Mass Effect, I can’t think of any. This fidelity and attention to the player character increase opportunities for player attachment. Those games feature a highly detailed player character with full voice acting and the protagonist of such games are overwhelmingly white males. Occasionally that character is a white female who is portrayed in a highly sexualized manner in order to appeal to straight male gamers. The opportunity for gamers to play a character of this level of craft, agency and badassness that is not a straight white male is extremely rare. Usually attempts at such a character are ultimately compromised or simply unsuccessful on the rare occasion developers had the intention to create one.

              The detail in Shepard’s character model, the (mostly) happy accident of using the same animations for both sexes and the player’s choice of well written, spoken dialog by Shepard should not be overlooked. No other game, not even the Dragon Ages, allows gamers to play a black man or a hispanic woman who doesn’t exist to reinforce narrow stereotypes of race and sex, can exhibit the same amount of attitude as a Sam Fisher and is about as high-fidelity as a Marcus Fenix. This seems to be due to the character of Commander Shepard being conceived first as a badass white dude (for a long time it wasn’t clear that Mass Effect would have customization) who Bioware then developed customization for. Of the games you listed, none allow players to inhabit a customized character of the caliber of Commander Shepard and feel as if the game were designed specifically for them.

            • Laurentius says:

              Or maybe Shepard resonates that well because (male or female) because s(he) is so North American like Uncle Sam mixed with Lucy Maud Montgomery. At least other mentioned games allowed players to squeeze something of their own into PC, in ME it’s impossible, not a tiniest hole to breathe something else then americanocentric air to its finest.

            • Nigel says:


              Shepard’s neutral North American accent is a very important part of that attachment, but certainly not the only part. I’ve always appreciated when games allow player’s to choose a voice (Brink is a stellar example of this) but I’ve yet to see that option in a game with as much dialog as Mass Effect.

            • BMKane says:

              Notably, Overmind, the majority of the games you cited there are all ones in which the player character is completely without any kind of personality whatsoever. You can’t really put the Vault Dweller next to Commander Shepard and say, “Yep, those are equivalent.” The Vault Dweller takes actions, and you can read into those actions what you like, but is not itself a character, but instead a vessel for the player to inhabit. I should have been more clear about the distinction between a character and whatever we’d call that.

              And some of those games you don’t seem to remember well. Female characters have numerous disadvantages in Arcanum that aren’t JUST down to stat penalties, but how people treat you. And they DO treat you very differently. And in the Elder Scrolls, the point is that female and male characters ARE NOT EQUAL. If female characters are weak but attractive (- strength, + personality), they’re NOT equal to male characters, by definition.

              But lets take a look at some specific examples from one of the games you cited, Dragon Age. Among many other things:
              – The Female PC shames her male companions by saying they should be tougher than she is, because they’re men and she’s a woman. (“I’m the bravest person here, and I’m a girl!”)
              – The City Elf openings, female PC is kidnapped and suffers an attempted rape. Male PC gets to heroically rescue a load of kidnapped women.
              – Female Human Noble (if a warrior) is repeatedly told by family members and that Howe jerkface how strange and bizarre it is for a woman to want to be a warrior. More to the point, the mother insists that being a warrior is silly and unimportant and that the PC should simply get married and have children.
              – Having to deal with Sten’s unabashed sexism.
              – Ridiculous female light armours.

              And most of those games do indeed have highly gendered animations. Jade Empire, KOTOR, and Vampire all have ridiculous ass-shaking for female run animations, for instance.

            • Sannom says:

              @BMKane : you sure about the ‘it’s weird to have a woman want to be a warrior” in Dragon Age? From what I remember of that Origin, the mother of the PC herself was a ‘battle maid’ when still in her prime, and having women on the battlefield is pretty common in Ferelden. The only one I remember being surprised by this was Fergus’ wife, since she came from a country (Antiva I think. Also, that Italian accent is horrible) where having women on the front is unthinkable.

            • BMKane says:

              I’m sure. I played the Female Human Noble opening a number of times. Howe describes the PC’s decision to be a warrior as a “strange choice for a woman,” the PC’s father is the least offensive, merely describing it as “cute” (which I very much doubt he says about the Male Human Noble), and the mother is pretty explicit about how all this warrioring is a waste of time.

              The mother does indeed describe herself as a “battle maiden,” and she specifically says something along the lines of “it wasn’t my skill in battle that convinced your father to marry me, it was my femininity,” as part of her attempts to convince the PC to drop the warrioring and get married.

              (I don’t remember the exact words, obviously, so I’m paraphrasing a bit.)

              Basically, it’s made pretty clear–not just in the Female Human Noble opening, but at multiple points through the game–that female warriors are a strange oddity. And why not? In the Dragon Age universe, male warriors merely get killed, maybe tortured a bit at the worst. Female warriors’ fate is to be tortured, raped, gang-raped until they go insane, and then slowly and horrifically mutated into broodmothers, one of the worst examples of Body Horror I’ve ever seen in a game.

              It’s also the eventual fate of the female PC, it’s worth noting, since that’s what happens to ALL female Grey Wardens. This is why, as is noted several times by many different people, there are VERY few female Grey Wardens.

            • BMKane says:

              (Err, I should say, it’s the fate of any female Grey Warden who doesn’t manage to kill herself before the Darkspawn capture her.)

            • Overmind says:


              Comparing ME to Elvis? Seriously? Those games are mediocre at best and Shepard character is nothing out of the ordinary, while Elvis was anything but.

              What exactly is so special about Shepard that differentiates hir so much from customizable characters from other rpgs? What makes Shepard a character of higher calibre than them? I don’t see anything in those games that would support such opinions. Are voice acting, better graphics and some fancy ‘cinematic’ camera angles all that is necessary to turn an essentially blank-slate character into an exceptionally rich and detailed one? And make no mistake, Shepard is essentially a blank slate character, just like protagonists from rpgs I’ve mentioned and countless other games, when you start playing. Only some scarce background information and hir profession are set for us. Compare it to the Courier, Lone Wanderer, the Vault Dweller, etc. The situation is the same – we’ve got some basic information about those characters and the rest we choose ourselves.

              Secondly, at exactly which points during the game has Shepard shown more craft, agency or badassery than customizable characters in other games? Characters I’ve created and played in other rpgs had the same qualities, and were usually even better in that areas. I still remember some funny, badass or meaningful dialogues from Fallout 1 and 2, games I last played about 10 years ago. From ME I recall nothing. Furthermore, saying that Shepard has any significant agency is simply false – compared to other rpgs the choices the PC in ME games can make are very limited and offer little variety of outcomes.

              About the quality of ME dialogues – they are at best average and at times even nonsensical.

              “No other game, not even the Dragon Ages, allows gamers to play a black man or a hispanic woman who doesn’t exist to reinforce narrow stereotypes of race and sex, can exhibit the same amount of attitude as a Sam Fisher and is about as high-fidelity as a Marcus Fenix. ”

              With respect, but this is simply wrong. You can do all this in a number of games, some of which I’ve already mentioned above (Fallout 3, Fallout: New Vegas, Morrowind, Oblivion, KotOR 1 & 2, the list could go on and on). Unless for some reason you think that protagonists created by players in rpgs cannot have a strong character, attitude or fidelity, just like predefined protagonists. But why would anyone think that? The only real difference between the two categories is that in the former the players fill out the blank spaces themselves.

              “This fidelity and attention to the player character increase opportunities for player attachment.”

              In what ways exactly is more attention paid to the PC in Mass Effect franchise, as compared to rpgs I’ve mentioned? Customisation in ME 1 & 2 is severely limited and so are dialogue options, choices and consequences as well opportunities to express one’s views and attitude. So what exactly is it? Just don’t tell me it’s better graphics, voiceover or bigger budget. That’s not what really counts.


              That’s why I think that protagonists in games I’ve mentioned are better than Shepard or Geralt in The Witcher. While playing the former you have more freedom to choose their attitude, character and in some cases even beliefs.

            • BMKane says:

              You’re finally getting to the point, Overmind.

              When the player has 100% control over what the character says and does, then it’s not a character is it? It’s a player mouthpiece. Player mouthpieces have the benefit that you can do whatever you want with them.

              A person can’t really point to D&D 3.5e or 4e and say it’s filled to the brim with loads of excellent, non-stereotyped female characters simply because they play the game with a load of feminists. It’s not like Wizard created their characters for them.

              The player DOESN’T have 100% control over what Shepard says and does, because Shepard is characterised outside of player choices. Shepard is an actual character, one the developers created. And as such we can judge her in relation to other, actual characters, like the ones Nigel listed.

            • Overmind says:

              PS I wanted to clarify one thing. In no game, even in an rpg with lots of choices and a complex characterization screen, is there really 100% control of a protagonist. I know that this is rather obvious, but I wanted to get this out of the way.

            • K. Cox says:

              @BMKane – Yes, that’s it exactly. :)

              As for the entire overarching discussion over whether we’ve seen this before: sure. As well? Nope. There’s a big difference between a fully-voiced, fully-animated, third-person character (who gets to wear full, body-covering armor even while female) and the generally first-person ciphers as seen in Fallout 3 / New Vegas (which are games I quite like).

          • Lima Zulu says:


            Which is exactly my point. Commanders only exist in the Navy. XO is a naval term. Shepard is Navy.

        • Overmind says:

          @ K. Cox

          “fully-animated, third-person character (who gets to wear full, body-covering armor even while female)?”

          All this is already in KotOR 1&2, Fallout 3 and in New Vegas. Well, maybe there are fewer animations in Fallout games.Oh, and in Fallout 3 and New Vegas you can also play in third person perspective. Many other games I’ve mentioned have also these elements, but instead of third person perspective they have isometric view or an adjustable camera, both of which also allow us to observe a player character. Full body armour for femal

          So the only difference is voice acting, but is it really so important in itself?

          • Laurentius says:

            Personally I think Shepard as a character isn’t even on par with other games with customizable PC, it’s also blank slate but with some predefined shell but this shell isn’t really positively defining but in negative sense clearly stating what Shepard is NOT. Forced cultural and ethnic background is far from being inclusive and given customizable options makes it even more jarring

          • Overmind says:

            “Full body armour for femal” – The full sentence was supposed to look like that:

            “Full body armour for female characters, similar to that of male protagonists is also present in every game I’ve listed except for Bloodlines and Jade Empire.

          • Nigel says:

            “So the only difference is voice acting, but is it really so important in itself?”

            This is a silly question. 1) Radio. 2) Talkies. LucasArts even re-released the year old Fate of Atlantis back in the day just to include voice acting.

            Furthermore your assertion is incorrect, voice acting is not the only difference that sets the ME series apart from other games. The KOTORs do not let players customize character appearance other than choosing different preset heads. That is a far cry from the deep level of facial and armor customization available in Mass Effect, which allows for much greater player expressiveness. The Fallout games do not approach ME’s facial or armor customization quality and Bethesda itself acknowledges the 3rd person animation in the Fallout games is distractingly bad. I have played those games and enjoyed them immensely. There are several things they do better than Mass Effect. What they don’t do better than Mass Effect is realize a customizable player character. To continually pretend that this is not the case as you do is disingenuous. Your opinion that Mass Effect does not have these differences doesn’t make it so.

  8. Lima Zulu says:


    8o Your head

  9. Overmind says:

    “This is a silly question. 1) Radio. 2) Talkies. LucasArts even re-released the year old Fate of Atlantis back in the day just to include voice acting.”

    My question was about whether voice acting really adds anything significant to the character. In my opinion it usually doesn’t, as I already explained a few posts back. It certainly didn’t work for me in ME 1.

    “The KOTORs do not let players customize character appearance other than choosing different preset heads.”

    TES games, Fallout 3 and New Vegas do. And anyway having a few more options doesn’t seem to be a real revolution or a unique feature. About armour customisation – what exactly do you mean? You can choose your armour just like in other rpgs. There is no significant difference in the number of available outfits. Moreover, TES games offer a lot better armour customisation – you can choose each part of your armour separately.

    “3rd person animation in the Fallout games is distractingly bad”

    Oh, so it boils down now to how good a game looks. How shallow.

    My argument isn’t really about the exact number of possibilities in which you can shape your character’s face or about the quality of animations. It is about objecting to the thesis that ME games are the only games that allow us to play female and POC characters on equal terms to white male characters.

    • Chaltab says:

      Seriously, Overmind, give it a rest. You’ve completely derailed the conversation by going off on a tangent unrelated to the original point. The only reason you’re even here is because you have a damn axe to grind: your opinion that Mass Effect is an inferior game series than the RPGs you like. You’ve even admitted that you’re arguing based on a personal bias–against voice acting in favor of more complex dialogue trees, against character in favor of blank-slate ciphers for the player. This is just a disingenuous effort to shit on a game you don’t like rather than discussing the issue this blog was made to address, which is the way these games relate to feminism.

      Mass Effect, and FemShep in particular, clearly resonate with a large selection of the female gaming audience (the male audience too, for that matter). Your own personal preferences don’t mean jack to them.

    • Nigel says:

      “About armour customisation – what exactly do you mean?”

      In Mass Effect 2 armor can be customized by the piece as well and there are several colors and paint schemes to choose from. Each custom item is fully rendered and visible on the character in game and in cutscenes. In the Fallout and KOTOR games you can only choose a suit and a hat/helmet and there are no color options. In TES games there are several invisible items that don’t appear on the character depending on what else is equipped. This leads to a kind of “whack-a-mole” as the player tries to find out what equipment will and won’t appear on the character.

      ““3rd person animation in the Fallout games is distractingly bad”

      Oh, so it boils down now to how good a game looks. How shallow.”

      Oh, so how good a game looks is either the only thing that is important or it isn’t important at all? How binary.

      “My argument isn’t really about the exact number of possibilities in which you can shape your character’s face or about the quality of animations. It is about objecting to the thesis that ME games are the only games that allow us to play female and POC characters on equal terms to white male characters.”

      You see, this is where you miss the point. It’s about the whole being more than the sum of its parts. Let’s try and put the two ideas together. On one hand, you have games like Fallout 3 which let players define their character’s sex and race on equal terms, but the character is a mute cipher. As an empty vessel, the experience had by a player exists mostly in the mind. For instance you can’t really show a friend how the extreme loneliness experienced by the Vault Dweller has caused her to question the value of trying to rebuild a long dead civilization. On the other hand, you have scripted characters in action games designed to express a power fantasy that are almost exclusively white males. How cool was it when Max Payne jumped backwards down the stairs on a snowy New York night pumping that loser Paulie full of 12 gauge buckshot? You can show a friend the exploits of these characters because they were designed to look cool running around shooting guns, laying down smack and other “Look at me! I’m a LEADER!” activities.

      Mass Effect is not the first to have tried, but it is the first to have succeeded in putting these two gameplay types together, giving players the ability not only to imagine but to see *their* Commander Shepard be the star of a sci-fi action game. If you are a woman or non-white this *is* a novel experience. The phenomenon of FemShep is a testament to this.

      • Laurentius says:

        But what about not being American or coming from non-english cultural circle ? Personally i have the feeling that Shepard resonates so well because ME is so exclusivly americanocentric and backwards in space opera theme. I’m suprised with ammount of praise being heaped on Shepard, this dull remiander to majaority of Earth population that they have no right to have “the star of a sci-fi action game”.

        • BMKane says:

          I should’ve replied to this when I saw you say it first, but it was deep in another thread.

          I don’t think Shepard resonates BECAUSE of ME’s Americanitis, because Shepard is hardly the worst example of that. I do agree with you about how annoyingly American the game industry often seems.

          I’m curious though if you could give some examples of what you’re talking about. From my perspective, I didn’t find ME’s Americanitis especially overt compared to a lot of other games. What was I missing?

          • Laurentius says:

            Almost everything considering action takes place in 22nd century: Shepard as PC, human crew: Jacob Taylor, Miranda Lawson, Ashley Williams, captain Anderson etc. ( I guess only Kasumi Goto can pretty much be identified as non having American origins), the ship – Normandy (/facepalm), the ratio of human NPC with non English names is very low especially among Alliance officials and military. What is worse, this is pretty much contradicting “lore” we get from in game info about earth and Human Alliance.

            • Nigel says:

              Miranda Lawson does not have a North American accent. Nor do Dr. Chakwas, Zaeed Massani, Kenneth Donnelly and Ambassador Udina. I’d hardly consider names like Kaiden Alenko, Admiral Kahoku and Nirali Bhatia to be of American origin either. Being a Canadian game, ME naturally has an “American” sensibility but it is hardly a universe exclusively populated by Californians or something.

            • BMKane says:

              Ehhhh… I’m not sure about that. Certainly, I can see that the English voice acting sounds awfully American and Canadian. That’s partly due to it being easier to get local voice talent than import people from other countries.

              The characters themselves aren’t from America, though, for the most part. Ashley Williams is Brazilian and Alenko is Singaporean, while Anderson’s and Chakwas’ origins are never stated. Those are all the main characters from ME1. None of ME2’s human characters have stated origins, either, though Lawson has (as Nigel said) an Australian accent, so presumably that’s where she was raised.

              I agree that Williams is a bit whiter than the average for a Brazilian, and when it comes to nameless NPCs there’s a bit too much whiteness overall. (There’s also far too much maleness; Bioware has a particularly miserable track record with nameless NPCs.)

              But if we’re going by the characters’ stated histories, there are few to no Americans. If we’re going by their names, there are plenty of “non-English” names (which Nigel pointed out). And if we’re going by their voice acting, well, I’m willing to give them a little leeway there since good voice actors (especially for videogames) are hard to come by.

              When it comes to their appearance, I’ll agree Bioware needs to work on making its characters look distinctive from one another–all characters in a Bioware game look essentially identical except for the occasional female character who has even bigger tits than the already thunderously endowed Bioware average. They need to start having some diversity in their models, and getting the textures right for non-white characters.

              I mean, if Kaiden Alenko is from Singapore, and looks vaguely Singaporean (considering humanity’s increasing ethnic homogeny at that point), but speaks with an American accent, does that really make him American? They could’ve put more work into the accent and giving him more obviously Singaporean features. But I wouldn’t say he’s American.

            • Laurentius says:

              @Nigel, BMKane
              Really, I’ve been there before it’s not the flavor, there is really great disproportion in English names in ME universe, how do you think right now on our Earth is people with such names, huge minority, while in ME universe , there are majority, but of course not all. And please arguing if accent is Australian, American or Canadian is rather pointless. Ashley Williams being Brazilian is rather amusing ( though I didn’t find confirmation for this in ME wiki, it states she only was in military training camp there, nothing about her family origins); couldn’t even Bioware come up with less ridiculous name for someone from Brazil? TBH all this is pretty much insulting because it clearly states that in 22nd century, everyone will have to apply to English speaking culture or disappear, people even will have to give up their traditional names: Ashley Williams, Emily (!) Wong. Or what about ship name “Normandy“eh? Or that only notable woman with Arabic name – Khalisah al-Jilani is being presented the way she is and game give options to “American” Shepard slap her twice? I can’t believe that someone at Bioware thought it is good idea instead such scene being something extremely problematic and troubling.
              Ok, but you know what, keep on being dismissive about it or call it “American” sensibility, it so obvious that video games have to present it otherwise what’s the point? Or Americans might get uncomfortable with not being a center of the world even if futuristic space opera. Because maybe, just maybe checking your privilege on this would be really bad idea.

            • Nigel says:

              Laurentius just what are you trying to say? You’ve moved the goalposts so many times I really can’t tell. I also don’t see what’s dismissive about a Canadian game having an “American” sensibility. What other sensibility is it supposed to have? Arguing that Mass Effect is too American is like arguing that Dr. Who is too British.

            • BMKane says:

              I guess what I’m disagreeing with is that it’s explicitly American.

              Like I said, I agree that there are way too many white people in the ME games, and a lot of the people who are supposed to be non-white end up looking it either because Bioware screwed up, or because of the problems with their textures and lighting. But whiteness certainly isn’t American. And the names you cite as American could be from plenty of places in North America, Europe, or Australia. (And since a lot of the world was forcibly colonised by Europe, European names pop up not infrequently elsewhere.)

              If you’d said that Mass Effect was a whitewashed universe, I’d certainly agree. But America-centric I can’t agree with since nobody explicitly from the U.S. appears, and as far as I can remember the U.S. doesn’t ever come up in conversation.

              I’m not sure I really see the names thing, though. I mean, yeah, Bioware wasn’t as creative as they should’ve been with the names. But it kind of feels like you’re cherry-picking here. The reporter, who is portrayed negatively, is Arabic because she has an Arabic name. But for some reason Alenko, Kahoku, and Bhatia, who are portrayed positively, are Americans despite their clearly non-American names.

              And Nigel, I really do think it’s legitimate to criticise a game for having little diversity. I mean, Mass Effect takes place in space after, supposedly, all national borders and cultural divisions became irrelevant. It’s legit to say it should have a wider diversity–including more variety in the names. Not just for inclusiveness, but just so it makes some damn sense. I just think Laurentius might be off-base saying it’s an “America is the centre of the world” game.

            • Laurentius says:

              Game that speaks so often about humanity and takes place in future and presents it in so narrow scope, majority of its population, culture, heritage being forcefully brushed off. Sad and insulting. And yes it’s so North Americano centric that’s it’s just plain stupid too. I could go on and on with examples ( apart of those already presented): Normandy, military, political system etc. but let’s end this discussion here. Each to their own opinion and privilege..

            • Nigel says:


              My point is that a game produced by a North American company can only have a North American perspective and this in of itself is not a bad thing. In the same way a British game will have a British perspective and a Japanese game will have a Japanese perspective. We can discuss diversity and representation but that doesn’t seem to be Laurentius’ complaint.

              This is why I said Laurentius is moving the goalposts. First it was about Shepard’s Americanness. The only thing that makes Shepard identifiably American is the voice acting which is only apparent in the English language version of the game. Oh wait, it’s not about accents, it’s about everyone on the ship being American with English names (even the ship OMG!). When that is demonstrated to be false, it is finally about an American perspective, which seems to be the real complaint.

              Given the number of NPCs in Mass Effect who are clearly intended to not be of American origin to say nothing of alien npcs (which have their own set of strengths and weaknesses), I feel the “Everyone in the future is from America” kind of argument that Laurentius is making doesn’t hold much water in this case.

            • Chaltab says:

              Uhhh… Normandy is in France.

            • Nigel says:


              Sorry I should have been more specific. I was referring to EDI, the ship AI.

          • Laurentius says:

            Well everything I said holds as much water as possible, I came up with more and more examples not because you proved me wrong on earlier ones but because you were just being dismissive from privileged position, so I had hoped that maybe different but non-less obvious give you chance to reflect on this, but obviously no. Thus no point in discussion it further as nothing sensible will come out of this.

      • Overmind says:


        “You’ve even admitted that you’re arguing based on a personal bias–against voice acting in favor of more complex dialogue trees, against character in favor of blank-slate ciphers for the player”

        My comparison of dialogues with voice acting to silent dialogues was meant to show that voice over doesn’t really much add depth or character to the protagonist, as many people here imply. Moreover, as already stated, Shepard is no less a blank-slate character than other rpg protagonists.

        “his is just a disingenuous effort to shit on a game you don’t like rather than discussing the issue this blog was made to address”

        All my comments here were about the representation of female and non-white characters in various rpgs. If that’s not “the issue this blog was made to address”, then I don’t know what is.

        As to the rest of your comment – in principle I ignore ad hominem arguments. It is the use of such arguments and focusing on the interlocutor’s intentions instead of on his or her arguments that is a real derailing tactic.


        I admit it, that is a lot of customisation options, but only regarding Shepard’s appearance. On the other hand the customisation of Shepard’s abilities as well as strengths and weaknesses is severely limited. I think that the ability to choose a character’s inner qualities is much more important than what he or she is wearing or how long her or his nose is.

        I haven’t encountered the bug you speak of in either Morrowind or Oblivion.
        A quick google search also didn’t yield any results about it so I guess it doesn’t seem to be common.

        “Oh, so how good a game looks is either the only thing that is important or it isn’t important at all? How binary.”

        I haven’t said anything to that effect. How good a game looks is simply not a decisive factor in how well it portrays female and non-white characters.

        “As an empty vessel, the experience had by a player exists mostly in the mind.”

        Shepard is also an empty vessel and a cipher, just as customizable characters in other rpgs. The only real difference is voice acting.

        “Mass Effect is not the first to have tried, but it is the first to have succeeded in putting these two gameplay types together, giving players the ability not only to imagine but to see *their* Commander Shepard be the star of a sci-fi action game.”

        So what you’re saying is that you cannot see (and show to your friends) your character when (s)he deals with The Master in Fallout or defeats Frank Horrigan in Fallout 2 using using his or her wiles (persuasion or science and lockpick skills) or combat proficiency and the help of companions? Or when the Exile overpowers or talks down Darth Sion and then proceeds to defeat Darth Traya? These are only examples, there’s plenty of cool things that you can watch your characters do in rpgs I’ve listed. Granted, Mass Effect has more action, but it still is, or at least has elements of, an rpg and that’s why I compare it to other games of this genre.

        “The phenomenon of FemShep is a testament to this.”

        The phenomenon of FemShep may be a testament to a lot of different things. I wouldn’t underestimate the power of hype and marketing.

        • Alex says:

          Have you paid attention to the entire FemShep story, at all? Voice acting may not make a big difference to you, but it does to many, many people. Most stories about how great FemShep is credit Jennifer Hale’s performance, and a big chunk of the “movement” is about getting recognition for her work.

  10. John says:

    I call total BS on the 18%. I don’t think they’re including the people who playthrough as different genders. I exclusively play as FemShep (cause I like Jennifer Hale’s voice). One friend plays through his “good girl” and then “bad dude.” Could they be covering this up? They’ve dodged issues on equality before.

    • Nigel says:

      You may be right. According to this article on Destructoid: http://www.destructoid.com/mass-effect-2-player-choice-statistics-are-surprising-188362.phtml, 82% of players chose male Shepard and 18% chose female Shepard. I enjoy playing both sexes. Counting players like me means that the number of BroShep players plus the number of FemShep players should be greater than the total number of Mass Effect players because we should be represented in both groups. If they calculated from that sum then the percentage of FemShep players would indeed be lower than it should be, but by how much?

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