It seems all anyone can talk about right now is Mass Effect: Andromeda. And rightly so because that game is awesome. I’ve spent the better part of the last three weeks just trying to find time to play it. But what I find most interesting is how much discussion around this game is focused on the romance options.
I saw a very interesting question on Twitter in reference to Mass Effect: Andromeda, but really it was more about Bioware games in general. This person asked the question “Do you prefer romance content in a BioWare game to be specific representation (e.g. gay) or available to any char?” This is a profound question. In one sentence it brings up various issues like sexuality, consumer rights, creative control, and social responsibility. Now I don’t actually believe there is a correct answer to this question. By nature this is a subjective question, starting out with the words “do you prefer”. I don’t even really have an interest in answering this question with this post, but rather to bring up some talking points that I think are important when discussing questions like this one.
The first thing that I think needs to be said is that everything is not for you. By you I don’t mean any specific group in particular. You can be Black, White, homosexual, heterosexual, transgender, Muslim, Christian, or any other such identifier that creates political and/or social divisions between people today. I can say with 100% certainty that there is at least one piece of entertainment that you are not the target audience for. Target audience is important and it’s important as consumers to recognize the role it plays in our lives. Video games, movies, television shows, novels, and basically any other form of mass entertainment today costs a lot of money to create and distribute. And regardless of what you want to think, companies and investors get involved in these projects to make money.
Whether right or wrong, most businesses today target a specific audience when creating a product, even when not entertainment, because it’s considered to be the most effective way to predict and garner an acceptable amount of sales. You can’t please everyone is a statement that’s never been truer than it is today and the fact is that companies not only know that but they take that advice very seriously. Developers target a specific population when creating a video game. Every decision they make is considered through the lens of how it will sit with that target audience. That’s not to say that people that don’t fall within that target audience can’t experience and even enjoy those games. It’s merely to state that the developers can’t and aren’t trying to please everyone. Nor should they, because statistically speaking trying to please everyone leads to lackluster games and lower total sales.
The point of the target audience issue is not to say that you don’t have a right to your own opinion if you don’t fall into the target audience. It’s simply to provide a context for how smart businesses conduct business. The fact is that the opinions of people who don’t fall into the target audience just don’t matter as much if at all as those who do. And the only way to change that is to show numerically that your group’s opinion has an actual effect on the developer’s business that outweighs or at least matches that of the target audience. I think the sexism in games discussion is a great example of this. Many people, both men and women, often complain about sexism in games. Whether it’s the objectification argument or the weak female characters argument, or whatever other issue, it’s very apparent that games today and for basically the entire history of video games with humanoid characters in them have swayed more towards the supposed interests of men than women. Is this fair? Absolutely not. Is this based on profit focused business decisions? Absolutely. We can see that while not as quickly as many people would like, this trend is changing. Today there are more games geared towards a female audience. Today there are more games that star a female protagonist. Some people may see these as good things. Some people may see these as bad things. And some people don’t care either way. But what’s important is that these changes have nothing to do with gender politics, fairness, or ethics. They have to do with profits. The percentage of female gamers and men who don’t mind playing female centered games, that actually spend money on games, is growing. That qualifier about spending money is really important. In fact it’s the most important part of the sentence.
Take someone like my girlfriend for example. She has played a number of games, but has not paid for a single one of them, other than as gifts for me. That means that for all intents and purposes, her opinion about the state of women in video games is next to worthless to the industry because even if games were in no way sexist or biased against women there is no data to show that such changes would increase the amount of dollars someone like my girlfriend would spend on video games. It’s only in recent times that people who want less sexist games and actually will have a noticeable effect on the market are organizing and voicing an opinion. That’s the only reason these changes are starting to take place.
Many people continually argue that games treat homosexuals unfairly. That may be true, but it has nothing to do with fairness. It has to do with the fact that the intended target audience for most games where sexuality plays a factor is heterosexual. But I guarantee you that if tomorrow someone could promise beyond a reasonable doubt that they had an idea for a game starring a gay male that would garner 100% of the world’s homosexual population to purchase a copy that EA, Ubisoft, Bethesda, and every other AAA developer would be lining up to bid on it. Even just a guarantee of 100% of the currently gaming homosexual population would be enough to get that game made. This isn’t an issue of ethics or equality. It’s an issue of business and regardless of how you feel about that, it doesn’t change the fact that it’s the way things work. The best way women can change sexism in games is to avidly purchase games that aren’t sexist and encourage other women to do it as well and then to post about their purchase and why they made that purchase on both social media and official game forums. That change is not going to occur as a result of obnoxious documentaries, feminist blogs, and Twitter battles. It will occur when the market shows itself to be more profitable when not being sexist with evidence directly linking the profits to not being sexist. I’m of course using “sexist” as a stand in word for “making female gamers happy”. I’ve yet to see anyone present an idea for a plot based game that would evenly satisfy players of both genders, be written realistically and well, while also making the gender of the character actually matter to the plot and player. But I digress.
So when looking at Mass Effect: Andromeda or any other game, remember that just because you don’t like something doesn’t necessarily matter because you may not even be the target audience. I’m speaking as a Black male and I know games are rarely made for me. I wish developers would come out and say their target audience for a specific game outright, but that would never happen because people take things too personally. Making such an admission would cannibalize their sales just because of how petty people are. I wish we lived in a world where people could be told they aren’t part of the target audience, buy the game anyway, and attempt to objectively critique it from the point of view of the target audience, but if anything our society is only getting farther away from such a high level of reviewing and purchasing maturity.
The second thing that needs to be said about Mass Effect: Andromeda¸ and Mass Effect as a franchise, is that it’s not a dating simulator. Many games today have romance or at least sex in them, but very few AAA games are made with romance/sex as the focus of the game. If you like romance/sex in games then you should just be thankful that Mass Effect has it at all, because it doesn’t need to. The games are not about finding love or physical love. They’re about being a human tasked with saving humanity. Romance options aren’t a mandatory part of the game and they have little bearing on the actual story other than how they affect your personal decisions. You can play through the entire franchise without pursuing a single romance and it will not affect your main plot experience in any noticeable way. And if you’re taking you role as Spectre or Pathfinder seriously, like the games intended, then you aren’t letting romance options cloud your judgement. I played Mass Effect one as the default white male, heterosexual Commander Shepard. Though I had more of an interest and general liking for Ashley Williams compared to Kaiden, I chose to sacrifice her. It was a hard choice. But I did it because I believed that Kaiden, because he was a biotic not because he was a man, was more useful to my mission than Williams was. That’s the point of the games. Making hard decisions that a true leader would make in those situations for the good of the mission and by extension humanity. If you’re not making your decisions based on what you believe the best leader would do then either you’re playing the game incorrectly or you’re playing the wrong game. While yes I do believe that everyone has a right to play a game the way they want to and should be able to enjoy that game, I still believe that when a developer makes a game they have an intended use and that playing completely outside of that use and judging the game outside of that use is wrong.
I’ve written about my sister and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time before. She loved riding Epona, but did literally nothing else in the game. When she asked me to make a file just for her it was one of the proudest moments of my youth. But once the game started and she realized she couldn’t ride the horse from the beginning she immediately put the controller down and lost all interest. My dreams of being the proud brother of a gamer girl were crushed. Would it be right for my sister to say Ocarina is a bad game because she couldn’t fulfill her goal of riding the horse indefinitely? Of course not. The fault is hers for going to a serious adventure game looking for Barbie Horse Adventures: Wild Horse Rescue (2003). The same rules apply to Mass Effect: Andromeda. If you went into that game hoping for the best dating simulator that let you fulfill whatever your alien romance fantasies are and couldn’t, that doesn’t give you the right to call Mass Effect: Andromeda a bad game. Because it’s not sold as an alien romance simulator. That’s not to say that Mass Effect: Andromeda is a perfect game outside of romance/sex options because it’s most certainly not. More than 50 hours in, let me tell you it has a ton of issues. But the fact that I can’t have the imaginary love life I was hoping for doesn’t give me or anyone else the right to trash the game because that’s an inappropriate focus of judgement for this particular game/franchise.
The intention of the developers is my next and last qualifying point. I believe in creative control and artistic license. I’ve written about this issue many times before. As a writer, with collegiate training in fiction writing, I take creative control/freedom very seriously. There’s nothing I hate more than when people who don’t write say something should have been written differently for subjective reasons. There are technical reasons that fictional writing can be considered bad. These can be debated, but I’m all for people critiquing technically bad writing. But when it comes to the subjective interpretation of characters, I get really angry when people argue that something was done badly just because it’s not the way they perceive or experience a type of person in their own life.
Good writers write what they know. Sadly, today many writers in many forms of entertainment are being forced to write things they don’t know. I’ve written several pages of blog posts about the representation of minorities in video games and how it’s for the most part been done pretty badly in AAA games. But I don’t blame the writers. I blame the studios. Because I know that the entire system is built on prejudice. I have no problem with the fact that some White guy in Montreal can’t seem to write a Black character that’s not offensive and built on stereotypes. It’s very possible that the writer has little to no personal experience with Black people outside of film and television. Being from LA and having spent five years of my life in Philadelpha, I can also say that it’s very possible that this same White writer actually does know a number of Black people who are literally walking stereotypes. I have no problem admitting that I personally love fried chicken, am an excellent dancer, and have an extremely nappy and all natural afro. If a White guy only knew me in a specific setting, such as a bar, there’s an excellent chance that if he tried to write a character based on me that it would be considered very stereotypical. And that’s not his fault. A White guy from and currently living in Montreal is not the correct person to be writing a Black character of either gender from Detroit. What needs to happen is the studios need to hire Black writers to write their Black characters well. And the same goes for Latinos, Asians, women, homosexuals, and so on. I do not believe that game writers today set out to write offensive or stereotypical characters. I believe studios are too cheap to hire additional writers and too prejudiced to hire the correct ones when they try to create more diverse characters in their games.
Qualifications aside, I still don’t agree with the idea of telling a writer that the way they wrote a character or interaction is wrong in a work of fiction. I’ve already said good writers write from personal experiences. That moment that you might think is completely ridiculous may very well have happened to that writer in their personal life. And you telling them that their life is unrealistic is not only untrue, but it’s unfair to make such a claim. It’s also beside the point though because writers have a right to tell the story they want to tell. That’s what fiction writers are hired and paid to do. They aren’t telling your story. Again, if you aren’t the target audience, they might not even be telling a story for you. They’re telling the story they wanted to tell. And if you don’t like the way that story is told then by all means go to college, study writing, write your own stories, figure out how to get distribution, and tell the stories you want to tell. It’s really difficult and it’s really insulting when people talk down to the craft of writing and those who are paid to do it professionally.
Now that we’ve covered some of the more important qualifiers of this discussion, let’s get down to the actual business at hand: sex in Mass Effect: Andromeda and by extension all of Mass Effect.
I’m a heterosexual male and I’m not happy with the way sex/romance works in Mass Effect: Andromeda. I still stand by my previous points that it’s very possible that my opinion as a Black male is irrelevant to the studio and that the game isn’t about sex in the first place, but I also believe that as an American born citizen the First Amendment gives me the right to voice my opinion on the subject. If you too are an American citizen or are also a citizen that comes from a country that grants people the right to voice their opinions freely then you are free to read, consider, ignore, refute, agree with, or attack my opinions on this subject and I hope you do so in the comments section. I will not be Twitter battling about this post, just so you know. Meet me here, where the article is published, and I’d be happy to thoroughly discuss the points argued here and any other ones you’d like to bring up in detail. Please know in advance that any attempt to get me to debate this post on Twitter will end with me telling you to “leave a comment on the blog” with a screenshot of this paragraph.
First thing I’m unhappy with about sex in Andromeda is that it’s still too human-centric. Regardless of your character’s gender and/or sexuality, you can get with humans and Asari and be granted some form of actual sex scene, but the same is not true for any other race in the game. The one Turian option just gets to roll around for a second fully clothed and in armor. First off, why can’t Turians ever get out of that armor? No this is not an admission of some weird personal interest in Turians. It’s a statement about how I hate the narcissism that humans continue to show even when creating fictional scenarios. But what’s even worse is how unfair this four race romance limit is. Krogans need love too. In four games you still can’t romance a Krogan. And in this one there’s actually a decent abundance of female ones. The Angara are the new race on the block and they’re right up there with Asari on the hotness scale. But there’s only one female that can be romanced in the entire galaxy and she’s in the most inconvenient place, can’t be fully romanced till the end of the game, and even if you do pull it off you don’t actually get a sex scene. There’s only one male option as well, but at least he lives on the ship. Specieism! All sentient races that can fight alongside you should also be able to be romanced. And every sentient race in the galaxy should be up for grabs at an equal level of let’s call it “exposure”. That doesn’t even address races like Batarians, Volus, and Vorcha if you’re into that sort of thing, which you have every right to be in a video game.
My second issue is why is it so damn hard to play the field in these games? My record for any one playthrough of any Bioware game from any franchise is two romances. That is not realistic. If you’re a space traveler wandering literally an entire galaxy, you should be able to get it done more often than that. What would Captain Kirk say? You should be able to have a different partner in every life supporting solar system if you want to. I really like that they finally made it so that you can get with people outside of your ship mates. But there’s so few options available. And everyone seems to be aware of your romance business. Am I to believe that all females across the galaxy talk this closely? That’s the real stereotype in this game. Not all women are gossips and not all of them demand monogamy. Looking at you Cora. I’m speaking as a person who did a heterosexual male playthrough, but I’m sure there are people who played as other types of characters with other interest who felt similar levels of irritation with this vastly underwhelming space nookie limit.
My third issue is why is there that one casual sex character in Bioware games? They like to pick one female character to be the “whore” character rather than just creating a plethora of characters, some of which might be into the idea of a one night stand. In Dragon Age II it’s Isabela. In Andromeda it’s Peebee. And along with that, why don’t you get a proper sex scene when you go the casual route with Peebee? Don’t short change my experience for not committing. That’s not even how it works in real life much of the time.
While I’m not personally affected by it because of the way I choose to play romance in games, I definitely don’t agree with the fact that the options for homosexual playthroughs are even more limited than the straight ones. But to be fair I would argue that the human narcissism problem needs to be brought up here again. For me I make it a point not to romance humans unless it’s after having already romanced all the aliens I can. If I know I can trade the human for an alien later then I’ll go for it. No this isn’t a gender thing. It’s a species thing. My favorite part about Mass Effect is being able to meet and interact with different and sometimes new races. I think that’s the real point of the games. It’s about being a human and realizing that in the grand scheme of things you’re just not that important unless you’re part of something bigger such as the Nexus or the Citadel. I think choosing to only fraternize with other humans takes away from the experience of flying to new planets and meeting new races. So for me, whether gay or straight, I find human romance options extremely boring. But it’s important to realize that sexuality in the gay or straight discourse is a strictly human system. And one of the things I really like about Mass Effect is that it goes out of its way to drive that point home.
Are Asari lesbians? No not really. How can a race of all females technically be queer? So technically if you’re a female character and you romance an Asari it’s not really being a lesbian. But if that is the case then you would have to argue that being a male character and romancing an Asari isn’t really being straight either. But then at that point could you not technically apply that to all alien races and say that any romance with any non-human when your character is a human is not technically gay or straight? The dictionary definition of both hetero- and homo-sexual only applies to humans having sex with humans or more specifically a member of a species only having sex with another member of the same species. We don’t apply the term homosexual to men who have sex with male sheep. We just call it bestiality and move on. Now if sheep were fully sentient and able to express themselves to us maybe we wouldn’t just call it bestiality but for now those social issues don’t really exist. So then at that point romancing Jaal, Peebee, Avela, Vetra, and Keri aren’t technically gay or straight options. Meaning that there is only one option for heterosexual male characters: Cora, two options for homosexual male characters: Gil and Reyes, two options for heterosexual female characters: Liam and Reyes, one option for homosexual female characters: Suvi, and actually three options for either male or female bisexual characters.
From a purely scientific standpoint, the game is actually not biased for or against hetero- or homo-sexual males like everyone claims. Instead it is biased against people who choose to play under very human-centric rules of sexuality. The problem more comes down to the fact that people, being limited to human ways of thinking and feeling about things, are projecting human gender types and social norms onto alien characters and equating those options as falling within the gay or straight discourse. I would argue that goes against what Bioware wanted/wants to do with romance in these games altogether. All that being said, Turians, Krogans, Salarians, and Angarans all have males and females so if you do choose to apply human sexuality to these non-human romance options then yes the game is biased towards heterosexual males and homosexual females with five options a piece. But I would argue the real bias here is in the presentation.
Bioware has been quoted as describing the romance sequences in Andromeda as “softcore space porn”. That’s only half true because it only happens in the case of romancing humans and Asari and only in heterosexual or lesbian scenarios. The rest of the races and sexualities are given the bad television treatment. A lead up, screen goes black, a fade in after the fact, and a lead out. Disappointing. If I might steal a quote from the great Chris Rock, “Don’t take my clothes off and not f@$k me.” Not giving everyone all the sex options they want is one thing. But not giving everyone the same quality of sexual experience depending on their sexual interests is just plain offensive. It’s just blatantly showing favoritism.
I do realize that this is a much more in depth game than something like Fable so you can’t just romance everyone in the game because it would either lower the quality of the experience or cost too much money to produce. But I feel like in general there could be a lot more romance options for any type of sexuality you choose to play as and a much more level presentation of those romance options.
This was a fun post. My girlfriend thinks I’m weird for having written it. I’m curious to know your thoughts on the subject of sex in Mass Effect and video games in general. Leave me a comment. Feel free to include screenshots. 😉