Women in Gaming: The Mass Effect of Backlash
When BioWare released Mass Effect back in 2007, it was widely heralded as the best new franchise of its generation, but what many players didn’t initially realise was that the game allowed the player the choice of selecting a female character. This was far from being a gaming first, but it was a pioneering move: never before had a third person shooter had such a prominent female lead, that differed from the male default in looks alone.
Commander Shepard, whether male or female, had almost exactly the same dialogue, actions, and options. A tough woman officer, she didn’t have to put up with any sexist jibes, slithering compliments, or toned down action. But femShep, as she is affectionately known, appeared in none of the promotional campaigns or box art for the series, leaving some players unaware of her existence.
Imagine then the excitement when BioWare announced that femShep would be appearing alongside her male counterpart on the box art and promotions for Mass Effect 3. Female fans were delighted, hurray for BioWare! But wait. Apparently in favour of the “one step forward, two steps back” approach, BioWare then decided to put femShep’s appearance to a vote. A general vote. For all Mass Effect fans. Including the 82% that play as the male character. Including the vast majority of Mass Effect players that are male. That’s right folks, they put Commander Shepard, hero of the galaxy, in a fucking beauty pageant.
Shepard is a kickass hero, a top soldier in the Alliance, the first human Spectre, and a leader who commands respect from her large and varied team of loyal recruits while having no qualms about disobeying orders should they go against her ethics. All this, along with the fact that nobody comments on her boobs, her butt, or shares any of the numerous tasteless jokes about strong women, makes femShep a rare playable character indeed.
Quite possibly, BioWare realised none of this when they created their game. Other, more role playing based, games have long allowed the player the choice of a male or female avatar, but the game has often differed hugely based on what you pick. Women characters often get more revealing outfits, their aesthetics are sexualised rather than the regular to buff set up of the male equivalent, and interactions with NPC’s (non-playable characters) are tinkered with to remind us that our avatar is just a little lady.
Certainly if we look at the other female characters in Mass Effect we can see that they haven’t done quite so well as the Commander. While the first game escaped this entirely, Mass Effect 2 featured: Miranda, who has been genetically designed to be as attractive as possible, though not as far as we can tell, genetically designed to wear the revealing catsuit she prefers; Morinth and/or her mother Samara, who’s wise counsel (and genderless race!) is somewhat tempered by her distracting bosoms; and Jack, who goes the whole way and just covers her nipples. The women from the first game (Tali, Liara, and even Doctor Chakwas) are in stark contrast in their less sexualised portrayal.
As any player can tell you, those women with more clothes on throughout the games are just as sexy as those with less; however the difference between the games is striking, and perhaps an indication of the way things were developing. With all these hyper-sexualised women around her, did we really believe Shepard would be untouched? Well, yes. There was no reason to think BioWare would touch a character that had been so popular, particularly when there was no indication that the male Commander Shepard was up for review. Which he isn’t.
Nope, maleShep remains the same as he’s always been, without any need for him to flex his pecs and pout for the camera to allow us to choose which beefy hunk of man looks best. Because looks, after all, are only all that matters when it comes to saving the galaxy if you are a woman.
I don’t care much which femShep won the beauty pageant. I have no feelings on the winner being blonde and pale beyond the usual sigh that stereotypical beauty standards have once again prevailed. Commander Shepard can be blonde if she wants to, that part on its own certainly doesn’t matter, but the method of choosing is very suspect indeed. The next round of voting to decide on her hair colour decisively does not appease me. Every other character in the game franchise, including the male Shepard, has been designed and chosen by the game creators. Now, on this one female character, the powers that be have decided the public will decide. A democratic vote – who could argue with that?
Well, I can. And I do. Changing the aesthetics of the character at this stage seems like a desire to move away from having a rough and tough femShep, a Shepard nobody was complaining about, and towards having a more sexualised female character. A realisation that putting a female avatar that wasn’t hyper-sexualised on the box art meant a missed opportunity to get more sales based on sex appeal. And by putting it to a public vote BioWare have essentially absolved themselves of any of the blame – you’re complaining about the sexualised femShep? But you voted for her!
Perhaps our expectations were simply too high: BioWare is often touted as being a more progressive games company, when a lot of it might just be a happy coincidence. True, they did happily slap down those complaining that Dragon Age 2 discriminated against the poor little straight while male gamers due to the inclusivity of the title, but a lot of fans are in agreement that this kerfuffle has pretty much cancelled out their brownie points.
But hey, maybe it’s all just good business sense. Can’t argue with that. But I can complain about not having the default female Commander Shepard up there alongside the default male Commander Shepard. Sure, as always we can edit our femShep, or import our previous one. But we all know that the ones on the box, and the ones in the promos are the avatars most gamers stick with, and the characters that most people recognise. Having your avatar sexed up isn’t something most male gamers will ever have to contend with. Commander Shepard was just too damn realistic for marketing purposes and she had to go. The version that the majority of gamer boys lusted over is now the new face of femShep.
Without femShep on the box art, fans would have known no different. With a promise of equal representation, everyone got very excited. It was a pretty cruel bait and switch, and I’m sure I’m not the only female gamer now feeling a little deflated about the franchise as a whole.
“You can either fight at my side or get crushed under my heel. But you will not stand in my way.”