Monday, December 17, 2012

How Many Times Must I Say “I Love You”? A Critical Analysis of Mass Effect 3 and Downloadable Content

How Many Times Must I Say “I Love You”? A Critical Analysis of Mass Effect 3 and Downloadable Content
By: Michael Frias
University of New Brunswick
Introduction to Critical Studies ED 6904
Presented to: Dr. Linda Eyre

How Many Times Must I Say “I Love You”? A Critical Analysis of Mass Effect 3 and Downloadable Content
            For as long as I can remember, a significant aspect of my personal identity includes being a student. Despite how much or little time an individual spends in school the majority of people today have attended classes, learned and had homework assigned. A common struggle shared by almost every student is juggling schoolwork with recreational activities. Hofer et al. (2010) present a cautious attitude towards the motivational interference that can result in lack of academic achievement due to indulging in recreational activities. Leisure can include a diverse range of actions people choose to participate in. Whether an individual builds models or sketches, the key factor is to participate in an action that is enjoyable. Leversen et al (2012) argue that participation in leisurely activities provides opportunities for positive development in adolescents as well as improved mental health.
Some people have more free time than others.  It can be argued that everybody benefits from having time to forget the stresses of their daily lives and participate in activities to help relax. On the other hand, some people are believed to devote too much of their time to recreational activities and ignore their responsibilities. A great deal of activity in today’s society takes place in the digital realm. Ellen Rose (2000) discusses the information technology discourse of “techno-utopianism” in which human dreams are believed to be realized on the virtual realm.  In some regards, this has come true. We can type papers on computers, perform bank transactions online and research information on the internet. Participating in leisurely activities constitutes a large portion of the technological discourse of techno-utopianism as well. Digital media is a significant aspect of today’s culture. In order to participate in society, it is increasingly common for an individual to have a digital identity of some kind. A digital leisurely activity that is of particular interest to me involves playing video games.
Video games and digital media expose an individual to a new world of possibilities only limited by the imagination of those who create the games. Finding the time to play a video game has always been a challenge for me. I have always lived a life with a schedule directing my energy in other directions. The application of academics to digital media and video games allows me the opportunity to develop a greater appreciation for their value in society. Mitchell & Savill-Smith (2004) explored the significance computer games can play towards enhancing educational experiences.  The use of games can enhance various virtues like information recollection, engagement of users and potentially improve social and cognitive skills (Mitchell & Savill-Smith, 2004). The styles of video games have evolved into ranging from a simple puzzle to allowing the player to construct and rule over and entire world.
My interests have been drawn to a trilogy of games known as “Mass Effect” created by the video game developer Bioware. I will explore the impact of downloadable content (DLC) within the game through the application of critical theory. The third instalment of Mass Effect was released March 6, 2012. This game was the first in the series when player was able to create a male protagonist with the option of developing a romantic and even sexual relationship with another male character. In the previous two games the option was always limited to creating a lesbian. My critical focus will be on one simple phrase: “I love you”. When Mass Effect 3 was first released the player was given the option to pursue a romantic relationship (like in the previous games). In the original version there is a romance scene in which the female Shepard tells her male romance partner “I love you”. However if Shepard is male, this little piece of dialogue is missing. On June 26, 2012 Bioware released DLC which can be downloaded for free known as the “Extended Cut”. This includes additional storyline, gameplay adding to the original Mass Effect 3 game as well as alternative endings to explore. The Extended Cut also included a riveting scene at the end in which the male version of Shepard finally says “I love you” to his male romantic partner.
These three little words have a significant impact on video game culture as well as society in general. Mitchell & Savill-Smith (2004) argue that video games can have an impact on the educational and social development of students. I argue that allowing the gay male Shepard the opportunity to admit his love openly for his partner demonstrates a potential for positive development as well as greater acceptance for LGBT’s. The decision to withhold this phrase from the original release of the game and insert it in the DLC also addresses the level of power and influence the game developer has over the player. If there is ever an aspect of a game the players are unsatisfied with, the developer simply can add content at a later time to appease the fans and therefore increase customer satisfaction. Greater attention needs to be given to this aspect of video games in order to understand the nature of video game culture.
Mass Effect:
Mass Effect is an interactive role-playing game based in a science fiction theme. It is set in a futuristic universe where humans have evolved into achieving great technological advancements. As a result the human race interacts with an extremely diverse universe made up of many different species. There are multiple missions assigned to the main character and his/her crew which involve interacting with these species, learning about other societies and possibly even influencing their development. The game involves a great deal of conversation with other characters, missions that contain shooting, violence and exploration of the universe (to collect resources to improve weapons, armour, etc.). The primary mission involves a group a mechanical beings known as the “Reapers” who have attacked and now threaten the universe. Every 50,000 years the Reapers return to inexplicably purge the galaxy of technologically advanced beings. The goal of Commander Shepard and his/her crew of the space vessel “Normandy” is to save the galaxy from this threat at any expense.
There is a great deal of violence and profanity in the content of this game which also means that players are warned before purchasing that it is rated “M” for mature. Bioware originally created the games to be available on the XBox 360 system but they can now be purchased on the Playstation 3 as well. The fan-base of this game has significantly grown as well as its contribution to the video game culture. There are several novels, comics published and merchandise available all relating to the Mass Effect universe.
 An intriguing aspect of these games is how the events in their storyline occur in chronological order. I admire the attention to detail programmed into the story of these games by the developing company. One of the options is for the main character to develop relationships with the non-playable characters. At some points in the game choices the player makes can even determine whether or not a particular character will live or die. This influences whether or not the same character will be “alive” in the next game of the trilogy as well as the circumstances around future missions.
From the very beginning of the first game, the player is given the ability to customize the main character known as “Commander Shepard”. The player is given the opportunity to choose Shepard’s details including first name, gender, physical appearance and personal upbringing. As the game progresses other decisions can be made as well like gaining the loyalty of selected crew members, upgrading aspects of the ship and improving weapons and armour. The storyline in Mass Effect is made up of a complex path with multiple options to follow as well as different difficulty levels to play. Mass Effect is a game that is very open for a variety of players with different preferences to play and explore. One of the most intriguing features of this game is how there is ultimately no right or wrong way to play. It is all about the decisions the player chooses for Commander Shepard. If however, there is a decision made that was not desired, the player must either restart at the previously saved point, or wait and start the entire game over again.
Video games like Mass Effect present a great deal of personal and academic interest for me due to the impact they can have on the lives of players. Video games and other aspects of this “geek” culture are very often confronted by a negative social stigma. There is a great deal of academic research devoted to the negative influences video games can have on players like aggression and addiction. I disagree with these opinions. Video games can inspire creativity and have educational applications. Giving the option of a gay male character in Mass Effect allows the video game developer to reach out to a wider demographic and give LGBT’s an opportunity to resist negative discourses against gay people and geeks.
Critical Theory and Mass Effect:
            According to Joe Kincheloe (2008) “knowing and learning are not simple intellectual and scholarly activities but also practical and sensuous activities infused by the impassioned spirit” (p. 11). Kincheloe was an influential figure in the area of critical pedagogy who sought to bring to surface the hidden politics of what is labelled as being neutral. Critical pedagogy identifies the human potential to enact social change, reshape his/her life, become a better scholar and realize cognitive potential (Kincheloe, 2008). 
As much as we like to think we have advanced in knowledge and evolved as a society, discourses preventing acceptance persist. Homosexuality is an issue with a great deal of controversy behind it. Lois Tyson (2006) defines homophobia as “institutionalized discrimination...against gay people because...we would be hard pressed to argue that such discrimination is based on anything other than collective, if sometimes unconscious, homophobia promoted by traditional American cultures” (p.320). In May 2012, North Carolina Pastor Charles Worley delivered a sermon in which he stated:
 I figured a way out, a way to get rid of all the lesbians and a great big large fence...put all the lesbians in there, fly over and drop some food. Do the same thing with the queers and the homosexuals. And have that fence electrified so they can’t get out. And you know what? In a few years they will die out. You know why? They can’t reproduce. If a man ever has a young'un, praise God he will be the first. (Eng, 2012).
Eng goes on to discuss the reaction of how various anti-hate groups protested this opinion. Attitudes like those of pastor Worley are the result of living in a heterocentrist society in which the dominant discourse excludes the consideration of homosexuals in positive aspects of everyday language. Tyson (2006) discusses how such myths directed at homosexuals contribute to negative stereotypes and other problems like internalized homophobia. A part of the homophobic discourse is that it is based on universal rules and religious doctrine. False beliefs like all homosexuals are insatiable sexual predators who seek to corrupt and convert others continue to fuel the oppression of the gay community.
In her book Critical Theory Today, Lois Tyson provides insights into a variety of topics including gay and lesbian criticisms. In most of her chapters, she applies theory in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby. The interpretation of language is a powerful tool utilized by Tyson in her application of theory to the famous novel. Tyson (2006) is a firm enforcer in the power that information and language can have to enact social change and enlighten societies. She discusses the significance of the double standard in terms of how classical writers have been acknowledged as protesting oppression towards groups like race and gender yet the issue of sexual orientation has been preferably ignored. This form of oppression continues today in the school system. When children are taught, there are no books or resources which present homosexuals in a positive manner. Issues of sexuality are very strongly neglected in schools. To be heterosexual is to be “normal”. Graff & Stufft (2011) argue that “while students and our society in general claim diversity, as a society we do not practice tolerance especially when it comes to sexual orientation” (p. 15).
I agree with Tyson’s approach in which the language and discourses used must be explored and challenged. It is admirable to see the existence of anti-hate groups who protest individuals like Pastor Worley. However I argue that the progress sought by such groups is limited. Gay rights movements have made great strides in the fight for tolerance. In order to promote acceptance, I argue homosexuality must be included in the discourse of “normal”. According to Graff & Stufft (2011) the closed-mindedness of education systems and the refusal to integrate LGBTQ issues into curricula reinforce heteronormativity. Such attitudes continue to fuel the stigma against LGBTQ’s and hinders the very goal of education. Mass Effect 3 provides a positive approach towards promoting acceptance of homosexuals. Video games are another aspect of media with influence that parallels sources like movies and television (Van Rooij, 2009, Mitchell & Savill-Smith, 2004). The material placed in video games can have a great deal of influence over the people who play. The manner in which the public reacts to this game and the material in it demonstrates how much progress has truly been made towards acceptance.
Gail McNicol Jardine (2005) argues power and knowledge never occur separately. Heterocentrism renders lesbian and gay experiences invisible within society (Graff & Stufft, 2011). As a result, when a video game like Mass Effect 3 presents the option of two men pursing a romantic and sexual relationship, controversial reactions are no surprise. Blogging is a common activity many people engage in on the internet. It gives individuals the opportunity to hold conversations with others around the world. I was not alone in experiencing discomfort in the fact that Shepard lacked the ability to say “I love you” to his male partner. On the Bioware Social Network, a few players brought up the issue wondering if it was due to a glitch from not continuing the character from the first instalment of Mass Effect to the third. The conversation ends with the players determining that there is no error. The game was intentionally designed to have the female character admit her love but not the male.
Video games have advanced a great deal in terms of the story and content placed within them. When one considers the fact that the industry is only thirty years old, the fact that a game like Mass Effect 3 could include such openly sexual material for both gay and non-gay options demonstrates the level of maturity the industry has achieved (Boxer, 2012). Boxer (2012) reports how after a few days of availability for viewing on YouTube, the male same sex-relationship’s 400 likes were overwhelmed with over 2000 dislikes along with homophobic comments. This demonstrates the impact a heteronormative education system has on the manner in which people perceive homosexuality. An interesting factor regarding sexuality in Mass Effect involves a comparison between the gay male relationships with the female options. The ability to make a lesbian Shepard has been present since the first instalment of Mass Effect. It was not until the release of Mass Effect 3 that the player was given the option to pursue a gay relationship with the male protagonist. The majority of blog posts tend to lean towards straight males being acceptable of lesbian interaction. As far as many bloggers were concerned, this was sufficient to promote tolerance for homosexuals. The emergence of a gay male Shepard spawned extremely negative posts including:
This article boils down to morals. If you have morals(biblically based), then being gay in a game is ridiculous and stupid. If you don't have morals(atheist; an atheist can't have morals if he doesn't have a guide to follow, right?), then having a gay character is totally acceptable and it means that we're "growing" up. If you follow morals of culture(societal norms), then media like this site will subtly trick you into thinking that having gay characters in a game somehow means we are "growing" up and that it's a good thing. People want to fit in with the crowd(usually with media, fitting the political left views) so it makes sense that this article would be biased into persuading that having gay characters means we are "growing" up, meaning we are becoming more mature and less childish.
It literally boils down to where you get your values from; the bible(or any other religion), yourself, or society as to what it means for having a gay character in a game and what it means. I personally get my views from the Bible (which has fulfilled hundreds of prophecies I might add)
(Boxer, 2012).
            Many responses disagree with posts like this. I argue that such attitudes are the result of heteronormative discourse discussed by Tyson (2006). Because of the lack of inclusion of heterosexuals within curriculum, there is great resistance met when the option to create a gay character in a leisurely activity is offered. It can be understandable to see why Bioware chose not to include the option for the male to say “I love you” until a later time when the company learned it was what many players desired.  Adding these three words can present a threat to societal perceptions of masculinity.
            Epstein et al. (2003) attribute resistance to homosexual themes in society being due to the manner in which people are educated. According to Dr. Linda Eyre there is “danger of alienating heterosexual students from queer perspectives through mismanaged attempts to incorporate queer theory into the curriculum” (Epstein et al., 2003, p. 108). A common discourse in society is the myth of childhood innocence. The experiences of children in school have a strong impact on the personality of each individual. Graff & Stufft (2001) state “for many students, high schools are the center of life and culture, and they may be the most homophobic institutions in American Society” (p. 7). Childhood innocence is used as an excuse to prevent them from learning about issues like sexuality. Such methods are not only harmful to the children, but also justify enforcing powerlessness on them (Epstein et al., 2003).  
It may be argued that exposing young people to a video game like Mass Effect can be harmful due to the mature themed content. This can even be one of the reasons why Bioware originally neglected to include “I love you” for the gay male Shepard. Mass Effect 3 is a game with a great deal of shooting and physical violence occurring in it as well as mature language. Przybylski & Ryan (2009) present data that violence in video games does not have significant negative effects on individuals. If the negative impact of violence in video games is not supported, the same can be said for content like exposure to sexuality. Rather than searching for negative outcomes from video games, greater attention should be devoted towards potentially positive influences. For example, the inclusion of different sexual orientations through video games promotes improvement in education as well as social justice.

            Farr (2012) argues the storyline behind Mass Effect can be interpreted as a “coming out” experience for Commander Shepard. The events male Shepard experiences in the games can be viewed as him waiting and responding to his environment. “If someone who is gay is surrounded by people who are straight, he won't have sex with them” (Farr, 2012). Shepard and his potential male partners do not behave in flamboyant manners, or express other physical stereotypes that are commonly associated with homosexuals. There is no expression of insatiable sexual appetites, or the desire to cross-dress and seek out others to convert. Shepard and his partner are simply behaving in a manner very similar to what would be labelled as a typical heterosexual male in contemporary society (outside of their romantic attraction for each other). As a result, a straight man may perceive their behaviour as a threat to what it means to be a man. If these two characters are behaving “straight” and still pursuing a relationship, then how can we know what is the “right” way to act? Farr’s (2012) article presents a threat to the dominant heteronormative attitude of how a man should behave in order to be considered “masculine”. As a result, threatened individuals will produce statements like:
Well now, I do have a problem with gay people. Aka they are sick in the head and whatever excuse medics came up in USA when they realized they can't cure them did not just made them normal... Look, curing schizophrenia is not easy either. If possible at all (Jimquisition, 2012).
There was also some support from people who identify as straight. Statements in support discussed how the storyline in Mass Effect is based on choices. Epstein et al. (2003) argue “sexualities are not only institutionally produced in partial ways but are gendered, racial, and classed” (p. 15). The inclusion of material like homosexuality in a video game demonstrates resistance to discourses and language used to oppress gay people. A response to negative comments goes on to say:
Knowing gay people, talking to gay people gave me my opinion of them, and that opinion is that they're no different to straight people in any way other than who they're attracted to. The fact is that Mass Effect is a role-playing game, one with a particularly heavy emphasis on player choice. Having a gay relationship option is just another choice within that (Boxer, 2012).
It is intriguing to notice that the majority of negative responses to a gay male Shepard neglect acknowledgement that the game gives the player the choice on whom to pursue a relationship with. Mass Effect 3 is based on customization of Commander Shepard who sets out on a space adventure to save the universe. It is interesting to see the existence of a game in which the choice is open to play and behave homosexual, heterosexual or pursue no relationship at all. The end goal of the game is to stop the Reapers from purging the galaxy.
One of the most compelling aspects of Mass Effect 3 is the storyline. As Commander Shepard progresses through the game and forms relationships with other characters, the player can sense a connection to the Shepard character as well as others in the game. Mass Effect has an engaging science fiction story with attention to the details (character backgrounds, interests, hobbies, etc). The storyline behind Mass Effect has helped to generate a large fan base that branches off into other successful forms of entertainment (toys, clothing, novels, etc.). It is because of the popularity of the game I question the logic behind neglecting to allow male Shepard to express his love for his partner.
Restricting the phrase “I love you” to the heterosexual storyline demonstrates the level of control Bioware has over the Mass Effect trilogy. It suggests that for the most part, the majority of decisions made regarding the Mass Effect games were to appeal heterosexual males. There was little consideration given towards having a homosexual male until 5 years after the release of the first game. Even when the theme was added, the game developer chose to ignore attention to detail by limiting the expression of love to heterosexual relationships. Such choices can directly and indirectly hinder the development of rights for LGBT’s. It demonstrates even when queer individuals are included in the world, they are still not accepted. Similar treatment of homosexual workers are present in the education system in which “queer staff and students must negotiate their places within these institutions as universities have done little in either the hidden or taught curriculum to render heterosexuality less than compulsory” (Epstein et al., 2003, p. 118).
 The story in Mass Effect 3 demonstrates a great deal of open-mindedness from Bioware as well as willingness to deal with the repercussions of adding a gay male option. The aversion to add “I love you” until release of the extended edition of the game demonstrates what Foucault would address as the relationship between knowledge and power. According to Foucault “we are thoroughly formed by the system of knowledge and power that we are born into and raised within...even our perceptions of what is around us is influenced by this” (Jardine, 2005, p. 2).
            Adding “I love you” through the DLC that was released on June 26, 2012 appears to be such a small task performed by Bioware. The act of adding the phrase into the game is an example of what Foucault would describe as a technique of power. Through sources like the Bioware Social Network, the company was able to learn that fans of the game noticed the absence of the phrase in Mass Effect 3. An important marketing technique is to give the customer what he/she wants. By adding the phrase “I love you” through the DLC, Bioware was able to respond to the fans’ desires. This is an interesting aspect of video games that has not always been present. According to Jardine (2005), “the most basic theme in Foucault’s analyses is that knowledge and power function in our society to turn all individual human beings into objects that exist, act, or are knowable only in relations the rulers laid down by this power and knowledge” (p. 49). Players of games like Mass Effect are objectified by the video game developer into achieving the most important goal of a game, to produce profit. Offering downloadable content to customers is an impressive way of achieving such a goal. In the past, whenever a game was released and there was a feature fans did not care for, they could voice their opinions but it would be too late. The game was already programmed and released. Now, if the developer learns of something missing in a game, they simply need to create content that can be downloaded and adds on to the story of the game. “I love you” in Mass Effect 3 is a prime example of the players being the objects providing feedback freely to the video game developer. Whether or not the content would be paid for is the decision of the game developer.

            It is unfortunate that the phrase “I love you” was not included in the game from the very beginning. Adding the phrase in at a later time through DLC is an excellent demonstration of the relationship which exists between the player and the video game developer. The content placed in video games can be argued to either exert a positive or negative influence over the gamers. Van Rooij et al. (2009) argue the social responsibility of problems like video game overuse lies with the publisher of the game. Typically when a game is announced to have mature content that is not appropriate for any demographic, the government tends to step in with rating systems and internet monitors. The majority of responsibility is placed on the player as well as the parents of children who play.
            There is a great deal of attention devoted to the potentially negative outcomes that can come from playing video games (addiction, aggression, etc). I disagree that video games exert the degree of negative influence that this opinion takes. Claiming that video games provide such a large degree of harm to the players contributes to the social stigma against the identity of “gamer”. The content within video games does have influence over players. What that influence involves depends on the game itself. For example, “Resident Evil” is another popular series of video games that has spawned a large fan base. The fifth instalment of the game stirred controversy after a teaser trailer was released in 2007. This trailer for the game depicted “nothing but black zombies attacking -- and being shot over and over and over again by -- a white protagonist. It was highly charged imagery that led to allegations of racial insensitivity” (Pigna, 2010). If a short teaser trailer from one popular series of games can promote so much concern over racist portrayals, I argue another popular series like Mass Effect can promote social justice for an oppressed group.
 Playing a well made game that meets an individual’s personal interests is fun. The positive feelings from having fun can place an individual in a state where he/she does not wish to think about the outside world and is undergoing the “willing suspension of disbelief” as described by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Jacobsen, 1982). When in such a state, the content within the game can have a great influence over the player. The implementation of the option to have a gay relationship in Mass Effect 3 promotes positive influence on accepting the homosexual identity. This game and Bioware have undergone a great deal of criticisms from the decision. It does however demonstrate the serious consideration the video games industry is given. Even though it is an industry primarily based on leisure time, it is a significant aspect of many peoples’ lives. Adding the option to play a homosexual protagonist provides great strides in the inclusion of homosexuality as being part of a “normal” identity.
I applaud Bioware for the content placed in Mass Effect 3. As the influence of the heteronormative discourse persists, creating the option for a gay protagonist provides relief for gay people who simply wish to be themselves. Neglecting to add the phrase “I love you” into the gay male’s storyline however was unfortunate. The manner in which it was added at a later time demonstrates the relation of power Bioware has. Power “produces most, if not all of our ideas about what we should do and order to locate, supervise and control individuals” (Jardine, 2005, p 51). It is important that the player is aware of this relationship in order to be able to think critically about what can be learned from the games he/she becomes so engulfed in. Video game developers can have a great deal of power when they create a successful game. Because so much work is put into the formation of a game, it is important that it makes as much profit as possible for the company. Creating the desire for more play time through downloadable content gives the developer more influence over the player by going back and correcting errors (like adding the phrase “I love you” for gay Shepard). It also enables the company more opportunities to increase profits. Leisure time is just another aspect in life in which it is important to think critical about. We can learn a great deal in our downtime. We need to remember to be aware of what we are learning when having fun.

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