the artistry and psychology of gaming


Women and Mass Effect

Women and Mass Effect

Mass Effect, released by Bioware in 2007, is a third person shooter and RPG of considerable depth, universally praised for a brilliantly diverse and incredibly unique setting and story. However, in many ways, it struggles with its gender portrayals, even while excelling in its portrayal of the human race and I will use this article to discuss both its merits and its failures and provide an analysis that is not intended to criticize, merely to highlight prevalent issues and offer an alternate view point.

Unfortunately, we run into issues rather quickly when looking at the original box art. The first time I played through, I was completely unaware that there was a female Commander Shepard because the only one I ever saw was the male incarnation. He appears in all the promotional material and also as the main character on the box art. This wouldn’t be a problem if the male version of Shepard was the only one available, but given that there was a female Shepard who is as important within the story as the male Shepard should you choose her, it seemed a bit of a shame that she wasn’t publicized to a greater degree. Furthermore, even if you realised that being a woman was an option, her customization when compared to the man was a little disappointing. Male Shepard has a custom face, specifically texture mapped and meshed from a real and fairly attractive man. (A Dutch male model called Mark Vanderloo) The female Shepard had no such treatment and the difference is quite marked; the texture and appearance of her skin seems false and cartoon-like when compared to Male Shepard and she just does not look as real as the male version. For Bioware to not dedicate as much time to the female Shepard as to the male Shepard feels a little discouraging and seems like a lacklustre approach to the female market. It would be harsh to describe it as an out and out sexist gesture as I very much doubt the developers thought process was directed at purposefully excluding and ignoring women, but it does feel like an oversight that undermines part of the potential market for Role Playing Games.

However, despite this largely graphics related omission, the portrayal of the female Commander Shepard is admirable. The difference between the male and female Commander Shepard is cosmetic and aesthetic only. In terms of personality, there is little difference and both incarnations are treated the same way by the NPCs that they come across. Unlike many games where the women don inappropriate and incongruous clothing, female Shepard is attired as would be expected of someone battling their way through the galaxy and it is refreshing to not have to rigorously employ our suspension of disbelief in order to trust that our character – fighting battles in her ‘chainmail bikini’- is fully protected. Also, there is no difference in responses between each gender to conversations or events; the female Commander Shepard is just as able to vehemently condemn, rage or praise as much as the male Shepard; there’s no notion of gender difference here. The female Shepard is in no way portrayed as more emotional or more compassionate than her male counterpart because of course that would be an outdated and ignorant notion to employ. Female Shepard can be as ruthless as the male Shepard or as kind as the male Shepard. There is no discrepancy and in short, the player can act however they want regardless of sex, which I feel is the way it should be. Having played as a male character on my first play through and a female on my second, I am happy that with one of the most major parts of the game. It leaves anyone playing this game feeling like they had the full and complete experience regardless of gender.

It is a slightly different story within the world of Mass Effect though. It seems that in 2183, while the human race has come on in leaps and bounds in terms of racial stereotyping, the galaxy as a whole has not quite achieved the same feat with gender stereotyping. The humans in the Mass Effect world are of every racial background and thankfully experience no prejudice; there are members of ever race working in every conceivable position within the Citadel, including both men and women. However, our biggest hurdle to equality comes in the form of the other species who also inhabit the galaxy and with whom we spend a lot of our time as players. In our first foray into the Citadel early in the game, we meet many different species; the stout, machine-like Volus , the hulking, monotonous Elcor, the gracious, jelly-like Hanar, the reptilian, intelligent Salarians and the imposing, militant Turians. The races are diverse and incredibly interesting but the problem is that they are all male, or at least all sound like males. Of course, it could be argued that they are a completely separate race and so how they sound has no bearing on their gender, as perhaps they come from a species whose females speak with deep voices or one where there is no sexual dimorphism, however, this game is made for us of the real world and in this world, men have deep voices and we can only assume, unless told otherwise, that any character speaking in a deep voice is a male.

The females of each species go unrepresented and don’t appear with their male counterparts at all. The Salarian race is explicitly stated to be 90% male due to social rules dictating that only a tiny fraction of eggs laid by a Salarian female are ever allowed to be fertilised (male Salarians come from unfertilized eggs and females from fertilized ones) The females that are born are kept on their home planet and serve as the cornerstones of all political machinations but we still never come into contact with them, no matter how important they are purported to be. There is nothing wrong with this; it is an invented culture after all and every culture approaches the issues of parenthood, gender and work in their own way but it would have been nice to be able to diversify our experience of each Mass Effect race by interacting with the females of their race also. The notable exceptions to this seemingly male dominated cross section of the galaxy are the Asari and herein lies the problem. In a world so detached from the real one, there still manages to be a rather odd, innate adherence to gender stereotypes and politics.

Biologically they differ in terms of lifespan, skin colour and reproduction but they are very obviously human-like, or more specifically female-like, with womanly waists, hips and breasts. The Asari also go through three distinct life stages: the Maiden, the Matron and the Matriarch. These quite obviously mirror the stereotypical historical and traditional female roles of virgin, mother and grandmother. It feels a little awkwardly contrived that the one female race we see should also be the one race that goes through such hegemonic female life roles. Although, this very much depends on how you perceive it and I am always loathe to jump straight into accusations of discrimination or sexism. You could say for example, that their portrayal as a strong and integral species within the galaxy could instead be seen to empower women and that the three stages of life are just part of their culture (although I do find myself cringing when the ‘matron’ stage of an Asari’s life is described as being characterized by a ‘desire to settle down and raise children’). This could be taken to be the case early in the game, however, the more you play the more it feels that the Asari are a sexualised species and incidentally happen to be the only female aliens we ever come across. The Asari are said to be mono-gendered with the concept of ‘male’ and ‘female’ meaning nothing to them, however, it is quite hard to deny how feminine in appearance and voice they are, so although sexually they may be both, they are fairly obviously gendered female.

The fact that Liara, an obviously female character and an undoubtedly beautiful one, is a potential romantic interest for female Shepard would be a brilliant sign of the changing attitudes towards homosexuals if it wasn’t for the fact that there is no male romance option for male Shepard. This leads us to the conclusion that the female Shepard and Liara romance option is more of a fan-service offering to men than it is a true representation of the diversity and fluidity of love between two people. In fact, where the female commander Shepard had no facial mapping, Liara was facially mapped from an actress named Jillian Murray. Unfortunately, what we can infer from this was that Bioware did not deem it important for the female Commander Shepard to be fully mapped and beautifully rendered, but for a potential love interest (someone that the men playing the game were meant to find attractive) it was very important.

Mass Effect is not a sexist game, as I feel that in general these days, sexism implies a certain amount of wilful ignorance or insult, which I very much doubt the developers had when they were creating this rich game. However, I do believe that it panders a little to a male audience, with the presence of the attractive female Asari’s and a total absence of any other female aliens. It’s not that the game does anything particularly wrong or overtly sexist, it’s more that the complete lack of other female aliens feels disappointing and detracts from the breadth of knowledge the player can gain of these diverse citadel species.  There is nothing wrong with appealing to a certain audience because it makes economic sense but I do believe that we are capable of doing this without employing stereotypes of any kind of any gender. I like the Asaris as a species; they feel very rounded and real and their culture is unique and their biology so different but it feels a little too coincidental that the female aliens we come across in the game are beautiful while the males ones, such as the Turians or the Krogans, are ‘ugly’. I still loved the game and consider it one of my favourites but I suppose, like all well-rounded experiences it isn’t without its flaws. But all the more to learn from and improve upon.


  1. What I love about your article is that you tackle the subject without stooping down to vulgar accusations of sexism and that’s really respectable. We need a middle ground between sexism and crazy feminism and you are that middle ground.

    • Thank you, that’s definitely one of my aims. I don’t seek to cry sexism at all because accusations and rage gets us no where :) So I’m really glad you feel that way.

  2. All’s I can start with is “really?” Bad important flaw on their part IMO. While it is bad to be shallow about their appearance, the effort is noticeable between the genders. Not only does it let down the female gamers who want to play as a female (which I feel safe in assuming it is most females), but I do know there are some guys in a minority who would rather play the female option for either visual pleasure (some are that horny and will admit they want to select the female option just for “more eye candy” ) and the other group would be “expanding experience”/”living a secret dream” (understand from the female perspective or wanting to be a female for their own private/personal reason). We can still cut them a little slack for at least offering the option but not much because the execution could have been more just.

    That is good that they don’t treat the player differently and a very good thing to accomplish. I personally think a good goal when trying to be gender neutral like they were clearly going for would be a goal of 2.5%” change…just enough to acknowledge slight differences but not enough to notice a different behavior (and maybe even that amount is subtle enough that players wouldn’t catch a difference on 2nd playthrough as the other gender…aside from titles like “Mr.” or “Miss” when appropriate, but judging from the rank of the officer that would not even be needed).

    I do agree that it is odd of other aliens to either come off as genderless or male and so seldom. I’m not just saying for Mass Effect but it is an important point. We can understand that sure the males can portray the “hunter role” for other species but are we to say that for all of these alien species as well. I’m not going to say all aliens but it is a noticeable majority. In fact the exceptions to that are much more memorable because it goes against that rule of “never see a female alien” and one I’m thinking of right now is the Amazonians from Amazonia in Futurama. Even if it is obviously going to be majority female (in fact they did not have any men on that planet as a result of “crushed pelvises”…allegedly…), it still makes that impression one does not forget. Unfortunately, from my limited Sci-Fi experience, when they are “mostly like a human” (small differences like a 3rd eye or different skin colour) they are clearly male and female or when they are “not like a human” they usually end up as genderless ^^’

    The Asari did not sound too bad of choices made to me (afterall, as you were mentioning beforehand how all the others had showed no female of the species) until it hit the point of them putting so much effort into the design of Liara. I’ll just sum up with I strongly agree that it does sound offensive and disrespectful to put so much effort into the male Shepherd and Liara but noticeably less on the female Shepherd.

    I do agree it is not sexist and there is some effort made but I do agree it is not enough. It feels like it was all men making the decisions and they had never gone out to ask the woman’s perspective. I think just taking the time and having a female perspective throughout that whole process would have pointed out all of those many oversights of “yes, you are clearly a male-oriented game but with this tweek here or a little more detail on this would make the female players happy as well.”

    • Yeah, I don’t want to put it down to me not being able to make my femShep ‘sexy’ enough or anything, that’s not what it’s about, it’s more of a time and effort thing, I was just surprised that they’d done it for ManShep and not for her; it was just a bit of a shame. But thankfully, they seem to have got the message for ME3 and plan on dedicating more time and effort to FemShep, who has proven so popular with the fans. But yeah, there are a multitude of reasons as to why you’d want to play as femShep but really, it comes down to how you should be able to have the same experience regardless of who you pick, which does happen personality wise but should also happen aesthetically.

      What’s great is that you are Commander Shepard regardless of gender. Which not only makes us feel better about the whole gender disparity but also makes the most economical sense; much less recording of lines!

      Yeah, for me it just limited the experience (I wanted to know more about all these aliens but I never once saw a female) and also undermined the sci-fi/fantasy setting because they seemed to be adhering to real world gender stereotypes of many years ago (the man being the warrior, the woman being the mother or the peace keeper.) You make a good point about them being either genderless or looking male and female, I think it comes down to an Uncanny Valley situation. The more they look like our own species, the more we can empathise with them and have stronger feelings towards them. The further away they look from recognisably human, the less we feel towards them. So to inspire feelings within the player, the aliens, across all mediums, have to look recognisable to us, or share traits that we value or have ourselves. Maybe it just comes down to psychology, not undue care or attention being paid to the women! Who knows :P

      This is what got me a bit, because once you realise that Liara had so much time dedicated to her and FemShep did, it just doesn’t sit right with me. It obviously came down to a beauty thing and an attractiveness thing on the part of the male player. So that was rather undermining.

      Again, like Moleyneux, they need me to advise them! I’m seeing a trend here :D

      • Agreed…when lacking the effort is when I would consider it “unfavorable” and because it is “unfavorable” towards a sex, that is a hint of sexist (not enough we would go “we hate them!”). As for their marketing and promotion emphasizing the male version so much might also be a sign of “we know the female version does not look as good” unfortunately D: I do approve of them hearing that they made a fault and was both brought to their attention is handled in the future versions. We can’t dull around on the past and learning from the past is a good thing about being humans so we don’t repeat the same mistake. Yeah, that is the best thing about “playing a role” is making the role exactly what the player wants

        Yes, that is true. There shouldn’t be much of a difference between genders and they did a good job on that from what your article mentions (except the appearance). Although sometimes there is a difference and it can work in favor (such as a crew member with romantic interests trying to hint/suggest on such feelings) and sometimes that may add to the realism if done well. Although those details that saved the company money on resources are good reasons to help further support treating the genders neutrally and not showing favoritism.

        I do agree that always assuming the earth roles does narrow our views and creativity and would like to see them challenged more. At least you mentioned one race that challenged “they system” a little by having the female as the dominant gender (even if their function/behavior was still very much like human women). I would like to see more challenge to these common stereotypes so that they aren’t as directly immitateable as our’s (such as a reptile species might not be as “maternal” for the female gender as a human mother). The uncanny valley is always a careful worry to work around. One great reference is the Final Fantasy: Spirits Within movie that suffered from such a fate of crossing that before it’s time backfiring against them (because they crossed the threshold of looking too much like humans compared to that time…but look at those graphics now ~_^ ). We do have to have some behavior that is similar but the more similar the more we must make them like human although for the aliens it is true that there is only so far they can go before they cannot be taken as “civilized, intelligent” creatures =P

        They did make many leaps and bounds at bridging the gap but putting those details together does show they still have a few mistakes in their process. Yeah…if they don’t take their chance to hire you as an advisor then they will just miss out on a great, important opportunity and leave the door open for me to hire you as an advisor when I hit that stage ;D

  3. Though I’ve never played Mass Effect (it’s a mix of two genres of which I’m not a big fan), I think it’s treatment of genders (or minority racial or religious grous) in our society. It’s not like anyone’s actively trying to keep these groups down (any more), but they’re often forgotten. Do you know what it’s like to grow up as a non-Christian in a rural area of the United States? At best, you have to listen to people talk overtly about their religion as if you don’t matter. It’s not hurtful or traumatic, and I’m not one of those people who insists we take “Under God” out of the Pledge of Allegiance, but this sort of willful ignorance is something that we should leave behind. I’ve actually had one of my students tell me flat-out that I’m going to Hell because I don’t believe in God. It’s time we all stop talking about equality and open-mindedness and actually start acting upon it.

    Also, Ninrac, I know you’re a very open-minded individual, and I respect you, so I don’t want to make a big deal out of this, but being transgender isn’t just “living a secret dream”; it goes a bit deeper than that. If you’d like to learn more, I’d suggest reading Dress Codes by Noelle Howey. However, if I’ve misinterpreted what you’ve said, then I apologize in advance.

    • Yeah, that’s what a feel it comes down to. It’s not active dismissal but it’s just overlooking.

      It gets to a point where tolerant people because tolerant of others intolerance. So like you say, we need to act upon this idea of equality and open-mindedness without just letting it stagnate for fear of opening a can of worms.

      I don’t think he was referring to transgender, I think he was just talking about men who would casually want to experience playing as a woman, not a person who is sexually a man but feels, in terms of gender, like a woman. Because that is different.

  4. Mass Effect is probably my favorite video game series, but you’ve still managed to point out some things I haven’t noticed (like the face-mapping thing). The “only male aliens” (only maliens?) thing I have noticed, and while it doesn’t quite ruin the game for me, it is unfortunate. There may be some explanations (like with salarians, or krogans), and occasionally exceptions (you see a lot of male and female quarians), but there is no reason (beyond insufficient time and memory budget) why we haven’t seen any female turians.

    Regarding the asari as looking human-like, it is subtly implied that their appearance may change depending on the observer. They look human-like to us, they look turian-like to turians, and they look salarian-like to salarians. Either that, or they just have features that are attractive to most species, which aids their goal of genetic diversity.

    Anyway, I agree wholeheartedly with Ali about your writing in general. Many people don’t realize that there is a difference between a feminist and a misandrist, and you are most certainly the former. You champion equality, rather than bitterness, and that is something to be respected.

    By the way, Ninrac, there are other reasons why a man may choose to play as female Shepard. For me, it’s the fact that Jennifer Hale is a better voice actor than Mark Meer.

    • Maliens indeed, ME is full of them ;) It doesn’t ruin the game for me either at all, but it does feel like an unfortunate oversight. I do remember hearing that there were some time concerns and so the females Turians and salarians were cut, as in there were some around but they didn’t have time to do anything with them so they just cut them. ‘Ugly’ females were the first to go! But no, really, even if it was a time or budget thing, it feels a bit disappointing for women to have them just cut out of the game.

      Yeah, this is one fact that would change things a little, but I became aware of it after this article (I haven’t played ME2, only ME1 so I was basing this off ME1 only) It is a really good point and does slightly get Bioware off the hook. Although at the same time, the whole ‘Liara needs to look beautiful so we’ll face map her but we’ll just leave FemShep’ kind of negated that a little for me at least because it just made it obvious that Liara had to sexually appeal to the player, which is assumed to be male by that token.

      Thank you, I’m really glad you feel that way because it’s really important to me that we seek equality and don’t resort to needless anger or misandry, as you say :) I want to point things out and work to improve them, not complain or get angry and accusatory about them. So thank you, I appreciate it.

      Tru dat. I’ve played as both genders and what the heck, ManShep looks nice but has as much character as a brick wall whereas Jennifer Hale really makes FemShep, she’s just so much better and more emotive; makes FemShep feel more real.

      Thank you so much for your comment, it’s great to hear from you.

  5. This is only semi-related, but I wrote an article a while ago on Gamer Limit about the aliens of Mass Effect. Since you talked about Liara, I just thought I’d bring it up since I talked about the Asari in my article. Great job as usual.

  6. This is only a small detail, but I thought it worth mention (an my apologies if someone has already said it, I only browsed through the many replies)…

    The Quarian species does show both male and female and in ME3 we meet Eve the female Krogan shaman. Granted it’s only two in a great many species, but at least Bioware did incorporate them at all.

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