Mass Effect 3: The Homophobia Effect

So today, my N7 Collector edition of Mass Effect 3 arrived, the official release was yesterday. One thing about the game that made me happy was the news news that it will feature the option of having male Shepards have a romance with another male (you can pick the gender of your character and female Shepards have always had the option of same sex romances). Happy, until that happiness was replaced with more rage-y emotions when I committed the mistake of reading the comments to the articles and found homophobia abounds. So before I jump in to the last game in the Mass Effect trilogy I’m going to take some time to review the controversy, and I’ll eventually come back to it after I finish Mass Effect 3, since it will surely add to if not complicate or completely change my arguments. (Note: I basing this post off the games alone, I haven’t read any of the books)

Take this comment, (from the above link) which pretty much covers all the bases I’m going to discuss. Note this post is a good illustration because it covers everything however, it is not at all unique.

This is bullshit, bioware. Way to give in to the politically correct crap to make a few people happy who were mad at you in dragon age. Shepard is a ‘defined’ character, whether you agree with me or not. I always play as a male and no matter how i played him in my games, he had a face and a personality that had already been established. This isnt Dragon Age I, Fallout, or Oblivion where the only character you play as is the one you build. For 2 games we were led to believe he was heterosexual and also led to believe, given everything hes accomplished, that Shepard is ‘all that is man’. Now, all of a sudden, Commander Shepard likes to sleep with men between fighting the reapers. It breaks the story and breaks the image i have of him in my head. This royally pisses me off. This is completely unneeded and strictly done to be politically correct. Ridiculous.


A huge bioware fan; however, very disappointed at the moment.

And for the record, i couldnt care less if they got rid of all love interests in the game. I play this game because of the epic story and gameplay. The ‘sex scenes’ and love interests of this game are blown way out of proportion. Its sad that this game is defined by bullshit like this.

I think most here can already see that this argument is filled with bullshit, however detailing how much bullshit it is will tell us a lot about what is wrong with gaming culture. Let us start by discussing the pervious Mass Effect games and Commander Shepard for a bit.

1)     The  (Homophobic) Myth of a “Canonical” Shepard

I find the notion that commanded Shepard can’t be gay because “he” is a “defined” character hard to swallow. The notion of Shepard being a “defined” ,at all let alone as straight, is not only false it is an extremely problematic argument that reinforce homophobic logics. For those who haven’t played the game not only can you pick out your Shepard’s gender, but also their race, appearance (including the face), background, class, and most importantly throughout both games you are constantly picking between paragon “be a paragon of virtue” or renegade “be the ultimate badass” options. These further effect your dialogue options by unlocking either more “charm” or “intimidate” dialogue options. Now look at what I posted so far they notice how the options are polar opposites of each other? Need more convincing? You can decide to either side with a rigorous Justicar that lives by an extremely strict moral code or the murderous alien sex vampire she is chasing. You can save a member of your squad or leave them to die in a fire. You can reactive the Geth (a sentient syntactic race) that saved your life or sell it. In Mass Effect 2 The game makes these choices have literally visible consequence on your character; you start the game with your face scarred if you pick more paragon options the scares will heal, pick more renegade option the scares will get worse. (That same face that the above gamer claims is the same no matter how he plays can between character selection and facial scaring vary extremely. )

While the morality system alone crushes the notion that Shepard is a “defined” character, even the non-morality choices are still are still varied enough to bust the notice of Shepard being a “defined”. Would you describe the female Shepards that wants a relationship with the cool-headed male biotic Jacob, so cool head he was chosen for the stabilizing qualities of his personality? (Although make sure he is not planting a listening device while he’s down there) as being the same as the male Shepard who wants a relationship Jack the violent female biotic covert (so violent your optional ,notice how that word keeps popping up, pre-coital sex-ed lesson includes a friendly remainder that the doctor will be there to set the broken bones afterword.) , who rammed the Hanner race’s favorite moons with one of their space stations? Would you say that a two people with such different taste in partners are defined the same in the real world?

The counter argument to this is that all that the above boils down to commanded Shepard being either “a little bit of dick or a little bit of a nice guy”. While I disagree that the effects of the Paragon/Renegade system are that small, this argument still proves my point. The important point here is not how defining the paragon/renegaded options are to any individuals play through but they are far, far, more defining then being able to choose your characters sexual orientation. As in traits like being a “little bit of a dick” or “little bit of a nice guy” are actually defining while heterosexual or homosexual are non-defining and don’t actually tell us anything about people as human beings. It is only via othering, stereotyping, homophobia, and the out-group homogeneity effect that we come to see homosexual as a defining trait. To illustrate if I just bought a new game and you asked me what is the main character like, which would tell you more about them “heterosexual” or “well he is a little bit of a dick?”. We realize saying heterosexual says nothing heterosexual comes in every shape and form it would be useless for me to answer that question by saying heterosexual, because unlike out-groups we recognizes our own groups as heterogeneous and diverse. Homosexual is equally as un-illuminating, it tells me nothing about you as a human being it tells me the gender of you prefer your partners to be, which when you put aside homophobia tells me about as much as saying I like bolds.  Indeed as I illustrated above with the examples above telling me you like more of a “Jack” vs. more of “Jacob” tells me far more about you then what gender you want that personality type in.

Now notice what I did there and mentioned one option from a female Shepard and one from male Shepard. There is a reason from that…

2)     The (Homophobic and Sexist) Myth of a “Canonical” Shepard

Remember when I said in the first paragraph “female Shepard have had the options of same sex romances” . Yah. How about that Shepard is already (optionally) gay. There is nothing “canonical” about Shepard’s heterosexuality; to say that requires you to ignore the existence of female Shepards.  Which is exactly what this poster does:

For 2 games we were led to believe he was heterosexual and also led to believe, given everything hes accomplished, that Shepard is ‘all that is man’

No we haven’t, we were lead to believe nothing. One of the first choices you make in both games is your character gender and thus have the option of not making Sheppard a “he”, it literally the first thing you do after clicking New Game in Mass Effect 1/Mass Effect 2. My fem Shepard and many other were getting there freak on with the female Asari (alien species) Liara. My Shepard and that of many others have already been having homosexual sex for two games and can’t exactly be “all that is man” because they we were you know women. This line of reasoning thus establishes itself as not only homophobic but sexists. It requires establishing male Shepard as the “canonical” Shepard.

It also both sexist and homophobic to use the phrase “all that is man” to prove that male Shepard can’t be gay. Your saying that only straight people can be heroic with a phrase that implies only straight men can be heroic. That he adds we know he was heterosexual because of what he has accomplished goes right back to what I said in part one about the homophobic logic that say we can define people based on sexual orientation. There is also an irony to it which I will go other at the end of the post.

Now some may argue that male Shepard is the canonical Shepard as the male Shepard is the one mainly used for marketing purposes. To that I say: Seriously?! This is probably the most desperate argument I’ve seen to try and justify the misogyny and homophobia. Marketing lies, and many ways. Marketing is not done by the writers or makers of Mass Effect it done by a separate department. Do you believe only the default appearance is “cannon” due to marketing? Are only the choices we see Shepard take in the marketing materials “cannon”? Are you really uses marketing to overrule, the games themselves? Also we are detriment cannon via percentages now, male Shepard man far and away be used for most marketing materials but fem-shep is featured in some. Is your sense of male entailment so deep you can’t see how ridiculous this logic is? Don’t answer, I sadly already know the answer.

3)     Before someone says the Asari “don’t count”.

Let’s look at it from two angles…


Asari totally count…

Many people counter that Asari are monogender so it doesn’t counts. That might work better if that mono-gender wasn’t clearly written as a female monogender: female (from a mono-gendered species) + female from a (mostly bi-gendered species) = same gender romance for all intents and purposes. They have been portrayal canonically as being all an “all-female race” in the codex; all look female, uses female pronouns and are generally regarded by humans in the game (and outside the game) as female. The love scene between her and female sheared is shot as a lesbian sex scene (no matter how the Asari Vulcan mind meld meets sex system works). Additionally no one takes this argument to its logical conclusion to say that because Asari “don’t count” they don’t count as evidence of male Shepard’s homosexuality….

…and if they don’t you’re a queer (no really you are…optionally)

The reason people are saying it doesn’t count is to support their own homophobia. However, let dig deeper and say ok the Asari don’t count. The other side of the argument is that while most races may see Asari as female they themselves say they have no real concept of “man” or “women”.

So there is a legitimate argument to be made that the Asari /human relationship “don’t count” as lesbian (As in two women) or gay (as in two men) , however what is harder to justify is the implied statement that therefore Shepard’s is therefore straight. Consider this if Asari don’t count as female to make fem-Shepard a lesbian they also wouldn’t count as female to make male-Shepard  heterosexual. So in that case both female Shepard and male Shepard’s are sleeping with someone outside of the male/female gender binary. And what do we call relationships that fall outside the gender binary… queer. Far from proving Shepard’s heterosexuality, it actually furthers the progress of queering him.

Now to be 100% fair I’m basing this off the definition used in Western academic discussions I think this is fair, as it is clear we are discussing Commander Shepard with in a western context. However, there are systems of gender and sexuality which define things different. As in, where there is an explicit or implicit concept of “thirdness” heterosexuality wouldn’t necessarily be defined as a “man” and a “women” as it is in a binary system but more as  “gender” and anything “not-that-gender”. Under such a system Asari romances regardless of who they are with could count as heterosexual. As I said it strains credibility to try and argue this is the context in which people mean that Asari don’t count. However, even if they did most of my other points in this post still stand; that doesn’t stop the treatment of homosexual romance from being any less homophobic.

4)     Do you even understand the meaning of the word OPTIONAL!?

Now let’s take a step back and realize something that if I did my job right should be obvious by now any gay romance in Mass Effect 3 will be optional, there is nothing to suggest you will be forced to take that option. Now take another step back and realize all romances in Mass Effect series are optional. This means several things:


a)     Gay (and bi, and queer, and xenoqueer and other) Shepard’s Already exists

A gay man could easily play through the entirety of one and two not romance anyone and then start a gay romance in Mass Effect 3. I know gay men who’ve done exactly that, a funny example is a gay classmate who was replaying the game for second time as a male Shepard. The first time he let Ashley die; part of what he wanted to do was save her the second time around. Everything was going according to plan until he accidentally picked a dialog option that started her romance path. He then had the “most stereotypical gay male response” and decided “I rather let her die then sleep with her” and left her to die again to make absolutely sure that he couldn’t romance her. So he in effect played as gay Shepard so closeted that he is willing to send squad mates to their death to keep it a secret, by the way don’t worry he assures me he has gentler ways of letting down women in the actual world.

What the optionally nature of Shepard attraction also allows is for many other sexual identities besides heterosexual to already exists. For example, one could play a male Commend Shepard as a pure sapiosexual , or as  a xenophile who only likes alien, which as I explained in the case of Liara could in it of itself constitute  a form of queerness (and hence my neologisms of xenoqueer in the subheading). And all these options exist because ultimately…

b)     Shepard’s sexuality is optional

If you do only the necessary  core missions there is nothing mentioned that says anything about commanders Shepard sexuality unless you buy the homophobic notion that heroism equals heterosexuality. Shepard’s heterosexuality like so many other things is a choice and an optional choice at that. Thus if we ignore context and say Liara counts as heterosexual it still isn’t true that even all options in the game lead us to believe that Shepard is heterosexual. You can choose not to romance anyone. You could play the game as an asexual and has no interest in anyone if you wanted; you could play the games as Shepard being a complete professional focused on the mission never romancing anyone or reveling anything about their sexuality.

“We” were lead to believe nothing. Yet many people feel as if this somehow a massive recon of Shepard’s sexuality. This is an example of heterosexual privilege in action. We assume that Shepard is heterosexual even when no indication of this, when we are given the option of having a heterosexual relationship is not seen as an option but as canonical consummation of the privileged assumption of heterosexuality as “default”. There is an interesting parallel, many who have studied gender and sexuality understand how gay, lesbian and queer and queer identities are social constructed but yet fall in to the trap of not realizing this means heterosexuality is also a social construct. This is a similar situation in interactive forum we can perceive homosexuality as an option but still see heterosexual not as the other option but as a default you go against by pick homosexuality or bisexuality.

c)     The threat of optionality

Optional means you don’t have to do it, you don’t have to make Commander Shepard gay, straight, bi, or anything else. It is entirely your choice. What is breaking the imagine many gamers have of commander Shepard is thus not that they made Commander Shepard gay or bi but that someone else can play there games differently. This is pure homophobia plan and simple, feeling your personal choices in your PC/console are under attack because someone else has the option of making different choices in their PC/console. Replace “PC/console” with “bedroom” and tell me it doesn’t should homophobic? Having the imagine of the options you chose be destroyed because someone else can pick a different options is about a logical as saying the taste of your beef meatball is ruined because the restaurant now offers a chicken meatball.

5)     Let assume that Shepard heterosexuality  is “cannon”…so what?.

As the game is full of options not all options you take in the game are going to be cannon and many are mutually exclusive directly contradicting each other. For the most part Bioware designed the games so as to not contradict what the player experienced.  However, some options are basically non-cannon and never had a chance of being cannon i.e. the Shepard dies ending. It a games with many choices and multiple ending, it is imposable for all the option to be “cannon”.

You go in knowing this whenever you buy a game like this; does this make all the non-canonical content a waste of time? No, it remains fun and interesting to explore those option, I guarantee you many of the same gamers complaining of this have replayed games just to get extra ending that they knew or suspected would not be the canonical ending. The choices they made in Mass Effect 2 could be rendered non-canonical in Mass Effect 3, the writer could have decided the other choice makes for a better story and role with it. And if  you can say that Shepard’s heterosexuality is “cannon” then you could also say Shepard is canonically white (default skin color), male (default) sex canonically a soldier class (default) class. Yet would we anyone says people are messing with cannon by merely having those options or by adding more grades of skin tone or a new class? If Bioware came out and confirmed that yes to then Shepard is canonically a white male solder (or what ever it is they play as). Would the same people screaming about cannon now complain about all those non-conical options then?  No they would say Bioware has given you the options to do something fun that is not canonical, just like the previous games and just like plenty of games before it. Why is this now such a big problem to some people? The answer is this is not about “cannon” this is about privilege and entailment.

Why all this matters?

What the backlash against male-male relationship ultimately represents is a perfect example of privilege and entitlement in action. One of the great things about games is interactivity the ability to choose, yet despite this being one of the strength of games as a medium these so called “big fans” hate it whenever an option out of many goes against their notions of what the game should be.  They feel every option should cater specially to them, to the point that even that they can convinces themselves that their personal play through experiences are cannon no matter how much evidence is presented otherwise. However it is even worse than that, not only should games cater to them exclusivity if a games has an option that caterer to someone  else that option should be destroyed, these people would prefer a games with no same sex options then the exact same game with same sex options. Even though logically they gain nothing by removing that options, they will end up with less not more Mass Effect. However, what they do lose is privilege letting someone else keep the ability to play the way they want means they are no longer the center of everything it means people besides them matter.

At least some of the arguments are especially insidious as they are wrapped in the guise of critical analysis; others like so much of privilege appear to be common sense. However, what frightens me is how many of these examples like much of the above quote are not subtitle in there misogyny, homophobia or entitlement; they are quite blatant and the problem ultimately lies in gamer culture and it is a problem that needs to change. This type of think is part of a large system of oppression of marginalized groups; they are part of a system with very real consequences.

The irony I referred to earlier is that games have the potential to be inclusive in a way other media can’t, yet gamer culture is very problematic and exclusive. I hope I’ve made it clear that Shepard was never meant to be “all that is man” the way the poster above means it ,as in all that is stereotypically male in our society. However, they are meant to be “all that is man” in the sense of mankind; Shepard represent all that is humankind, if all the options in the game still result in such a narrow possibilities for Shepard then Bioware has failed. What makes Commander Shepard such a powerful symbol is that they can be so many different things. Via all the different options in the game and the range of humanity they represent, Shepard (as in the range of Shepard) can more than the static character in other media be all that is humankind. This is not just the power of Mass Effect this is the power of gaming, of interactivity as a story telling medium. It is why every gamer that truly cares about gaming as a media needs to learn bout and check their privilege. It not only makes you a better human, if we let the media take on its full potential if we allow ourselves to experience the full potential of games to illuminate and enriches us instead of simply catering to the narrow viewpoint of the privileged and entitled, it ‘ll make for better games too.

Like I said in the beginning I’ll have far more to say about Mass Effect series, but I’ve rambled on for long enough now and Mass Effect 3 awaits till then….”The Reapers are here” (and unlike the humans, they really don’t care whether or not Commander Shepard is gay).

Note: as I don’t want to be spoiled for Mass Effect 3 I’m not going to be looking at/moderating the comments as well as I should till I finish…please don’t make me regret doing that.

5 thoughts on “Mass Effect 3: The Homophobia Effect

  1. really interesting thoughts on how Mass Effect romances work. It’s amazing how people can get “offended” by things that are totally optional. It must be sad to have so much hate in you that you can ever hear a mention of homosexuality. Also, how is sleeping with same sex human beings weirder than sleeping with aliens? Can’t understand those people…

  2. I fully agree, I have to say that it is actually alarming to observe that there is people that are so ignorant? immature? insecure? That they can’t understand other people not following their views.

    Sometimes it makes me fear the future a bit, I’ve grown to believe that current society has grown with information and has developed some form of critical thinking… but its actually looking bleaker the more time I spend in forums. But hey maybe they’ll grow out of it, Right?

    I don’t particularly care much for Mass effect as a whole, but mainly because the plot was a bit silly in the first game and I never made time to follow through. I do however feel that Bioware has their heart in the right place.

    I wonder what would happen if there were Hanar or Krogan romance options… Would people be fine with it, because in theory its basically the same as asari…. im digressing here haha.

    Good read.

  3. I think you hit the nail on the head, nameless. I haven’t played through Mass Effect, sad to say, but I’ve actually followed its development and critiques of it fairly closely. For me, the silver lining on this cloud is that fans made a bigger deal of the ending’s writing than they did of the optional homosexual relationship.

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