Theresa Krampe

Theresa Krampe is a PhD researcher affiliated to the University of Münster and the University of Giessen, Germany. In her research, she has focussed on representational politics in contemporary literature as well as videogames. Her current project examines self-reflexive strategies in videogames.

Contact information:
theresa.krampe at

No Straight Answers: Queering Hegemonic Masculinity in BioWare’s Mass Effect

by Theresa Krampe


The Canadian developer BioWare's much applauded inclusion of same-sex romance options in mass-market games has rightfully been received as a crucial step towards greater inclusivity and recognition of LGBTQ* identifying audiences. However, the terms of inclusion/ exclusion warrant careful critical attention. Who is represented and how? Who has voice and agency and who is marginalised or silenced? These questions are as crucial to videogames as they are to novels or films. This article discusses the ludic and narrative presentation of non-hegemonic masculinities in BioWare's Mass Effect trilogy from a queer game studies perspective (Ruberg & Shaw 2017). Drawing on a framework proposed by Schröter & Thon (2014), characters are analysed as fictional being, game pieces and, in the case of the playable character, representations of the player. Taking into account these multiple dimensions of character presentation and paying close attention to the intersections of sexuality, gender, race and (dis)ability helps unravel the complex and shifting meanings at the heart of the game's sexual politics. At first glance, Mass Effect's military setting and several gameplay aspects reminiscent of the first-person shooter seem to uphold a heteropatriarchal system foregrounding the hegemonic male as normative ideal. However, the prominent position of queer masculinities increasingly disturbs this reading and challenges the dominance of the white, heterosexual, attractive, male videogame protagonist. In this sense, Mass Effect serves as an example of how mass-market videogames can reclaim cultural space for marginalised subject positions.

Keywords: masculinities, queer game studies, intersectionality, queer of colour, videogame character analysis, RPG, Mass Effect



Kaidan: "Shepard, I need a straight answer."

Shepard: "About what?"

– Mass Effect 3

Undoubtedly, videogames are currently among the most dynamic media as the industry explores more and more styles and genres and transgresses the boundaries of what was thought possible only a few years ago. Recent RPGs have been celebrated as "tools for cultural tolerance" (Patterson, 2015, p. 208) and BioWare's much-lauded inclusion of same-sex romance options in mass-market games has rightfully been received as a crucial step towards greater inclusivity and recognition of LGBTQ* audiences. The developer's major franchises Star Wars, Mass Effect and Dragon Age have come to symbolize the emancipation of videogames as cultural products involved in discursive practices and politicized identity construction. However, there is no linear movement towards "a place where we can say that there are relatable and realistic gay characters young gamers can be inspired by" (Flanagan, 2014, n.p.). What is deemed representable still depends on economic considerations and the overall "worldliness" of games: the embeddedness of the writers and designers, the players and fans, reviewers and academic critics in social and political discourse (Said, 1983/1984, p. 4).

If a possibility for subversive intervention in regulatory discourses, such as heteronormativity in videogames, exists, it is necessarily "negotiated within a matrix of power" (Butler, 2013, p. 22). This includes, for instance, the socio-political context of the game's release and the social stigma attached to homosexuality, the established conventions of game (character) design, or economic concerns and anticipated audiences. The terms of inclusion/ exclusion and voice/ silencing in videogames therefore warrant careful critical attention. Who is represented and how? Who controls representation? Who has voice and agency and who is marginalized or silenced? Which bodies are visible, which are pathologized? These questions are as crucial to videogames as they are to novels or films.

Drawing on the science fiction adventure Mass Effect (hereafter ME), this article discusses the ludic and narrative presentation of exemplary characters as politically significant representations of queer masculinities in popular culture. This gives rise to two sets of research questions, the first regarding the aesthetic and representational politics of videogames, and the second concerning possible approaches to their analysis:

  • What does the design and representation of non-hegemonic male characters reveal about the politics of representation in ME? Which norms and ideologies are challenged or subverted, which are upheld and normalized?
  • What can a queer game studies approach to (roleplaying) videogames look like in practice? What is the added value of this approach as compared to alternative ways of studying game characters?

While not all of the above can be addressed in depth, the analysis shows how a queer approach to videogames helps to unravel the complex, intertwined, and ideologically biased network of power underlying the games' presentation of non-hegemonic characters. On the one hand, the prominent position of queer masculinities in ME challenges the dominance of the white, heterosexual, attractive, male protagonist across videogames genres, thus reclaiming cultural space for marginalized and minoritized subject positions. On the other hand, both game mechanics and writing tend to conflate queerness and alterity, thus perpetuating rather than subverting the (white) heteropatriarchal value system frequently associated with the videogame and the gaming community.

The first part of this article is devoted to a brief history of queer games and an outline of the theoretical and methodological premises underlying the subsequent game analysis. Specifically, I draw on a methodological framework for character analysis adapted from Schröter & Thon (2014) which will be supplemented with gender- and queer theory. The analysis of ME commences by contrasting the games' default able-bodied male protagonist with the recurring theme of physical difference and bodily modification. The presence of the physically disabled Jeff "Joker" Moreau, in particular, problematizes the relation between the various bodies populating gamespace, including the body of the player. The theme of physical alterity recurs in the subsequent analysis of non-normative identity constructions at the intersection of race[1] and sexuality. The main results of the analysis of ME, finally, form the basis for a critical evaluation of the merits and shortcomings of queer game studies as a cultural and media studies approach to videogames and game characters.

The analysis of videogame characters requires the consideration of a multitude of factors, dimensions and agents, all of which may be queered in a variety of ways. This may include the study of representations of homosexuality or non-heteronormative gender performances and bodies but also exploration of player identities, which may involve all kinds of queer constellations of gender, sexuality, or ethnicity. Finally, considering the product itself, its creators and audiences, and imagining new ways of designing characters that are unique to videogames may also be a form of queering. Having said that, it is not possible to fulfil all desiderata of queer game studies in a short article. What is possible, though, is to show that even a slight expansion of the boundaries of queer character analysis, taking into account not only the intersectionality of social identities but also the linkages between a character's sexual identity and the game's ludic system, discloses new layers of meaning even in a comparatively well-studied game.

A Very Brief History of Gayming

Mia Consalvo (2003, p. 180) emphasizes the importance of "Playing Queer" as a safe space for identity construction: "[a]s the rules of real life are temporarily lifted, so are social expectations... Thus, 'normative' aspects of identity may be played with..." (see also Tilgner, 2014, pp. 2-3). Non-heterosexual roleplaying options and the inclusion of queer characters offer forms of identification for LGBTQ* identifying players that the RPG genre has for a long time failed to provide. While Adrienne Shaw and Elizaveta Friesem (2016) identify over 500 instances of LGBTQ* content in digital games between 1986 and 2016, queerness is typically ambiguous, accidental, vilified, or used as comic relief. The inclusion of complex queer characters consequential to the storyline of mass-market games is a disconcertingly recent phenomenon.

Arguably the first queer-inclusive AAA-RPGs to catch much critical attention in popular media as well as cultural scholarship were BioWare's 2003 Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and a few years later the Mass Effect trilogy. Though met with an extreme homophobic backlash by members of the gamer community[2], their release seems to have paved the way for what can rightfully be described as a queer gaming revolution (Greer, 2013, p. 4). In the past ten years, both queer game scholarship and queer friendly game releases have virtually exploded. Recent single player RPGs such as Technomancer or Fallout 4 include homosexual romance options, and post-2010 instalments of the massive open world RPG series The Elder Scrolls afford same-sex marriages. What is more, conferences and conventions such as GaymerX as well as blogs and online fora are becoming important platforms for researchers while also offering spaces for gamers of any sexual orientation to discuss their experience. Gaymer, the blend of gay and gamer, has become a popular self-label among LGBTQ* identifying gamers (see Tilgner, 2014, p. 5; spencivetaylor, 2017).

Queer game characters began to receive widespread academic attention with the releases of BioWare's major queer-inclusive franchises. These are frequently studied with regard to their representation of minorities (Greer, 2013; Adams, 2015), sexuality (Østby, 2017) or the game's reception among different audiences (Waern, 2012; Condis 2014). In light of this marked interest in LGBTQ* characters, a truly queer approach to videogames has remained curiously underdeveloped. Narratological approaches to queer characters in videogames tend to focus on dialogue and cut-scenes while paying very little, if any, attention to the underlying game mechanics (e.g. Kuling, 2014; Adams, 2015; Greer, 2013). Furthermore, comparatively little attention is being paid to the intersection of in-game sexuality and other factor such as race, nationality, or formal aspects such as genre. Finally, it is rarely problematized in what ways the mediality and structure of games themselves support or challenge established and often binary modes of thinking. How queer can a medium even be that is "but a matrix of [binary] code, power relations and constraints?" (Chang, 2017, p. 18).

What is required, therefore, is an integrated game studies approach that can analyze games and gameworlds as highly political aesthetic forms and acknowledge their narrative dimension without trying to conceal medium-specific characteristics, potentialities, or limitations[3]. I am suggesting that queer game studies holds the potential to overcome the dichotomous modes of thinking that limit our understanding of not only gender and sexuality, but also videogames themselves.

Towards a Model for Character Analysis

Though the term 'queer game studies' already suggests a fusion of both queer studies and game studies, it is more than the sum of its parts. Ruberg and Shaw (2017) speak of a "paradigm shift", a break with game studies' binary logic and seemingly straightforward definitions and categories in favour of "future intersectional and interdisciplinary dialogues about queer games" (pp. xii-xiii). If queer in social reality is to denote "the desire to live life otherwise, by questioning and living outside of normative boundaries" (p. x), then it is only fitting that for cultural studies, it should become "a site of collective contestation, the point of departure for a set of historical reflections and futural imaginings" (Butler, 1993/2011, p. 173). Queer theory's impetus, then, is the "deconstruction of fixed identities and the dismantling of hierarchies" (Carlin, 2011, p. 56), which renders it an effective mode of interrogation beyond the field of gender and sexuality studies. In other words, 'queering' describes an anti-essentialist, deconstructivist and intersectional mode of criticism that can be deployed for critical analyses beyond the study of sexuality.

This anti-essentialist attitude is what makes Eric Zimmerman's (2004) definition of play as "the free space of movement within a more rigid structure" (p. 159) so interesting for queer approaches to videogames. Privileging change over conservatism, it construes play – very similar to 'queer' in the broader sense – as agency from within and in defiance of a rigid system. Queering can thus help to understand videogames as a medium that somehow refuses to fit into well-established genre categories and transgresses the dimension of narrative storytelling.

This article analyses videogame characters along a three-dimensional framework proposed by Felix Schröter and Jan-Noël Thon (2014). The framework is particularly useful as it facilitates the incorporation of ludological concerns, such as the study of game rules, mechanics and affordances. In their essay "Video Game Characters: Theory and Analysis" (2014), Schröter and Thon propose three "ontological dimensions of video game characters" (p. 50), corresponding to the ways in which characters are perceived by players: as fictional beings, as game pieces and as representations of other players (pp. 41, 50). The authors associate these dimensions with three different modes of representation: pre-determined narration, real-time simulation and communication in a multiplayer setting (p. 48).

The first dimension is shared with character representation in other media such as novels or films. The videogame character is experienced by the player as a fictional being with a physical body as well as an inner life that includes their[4] personal history, motivations or personality. However, unlike characters in novels, videogame characters are also game pieces defined by game-related properties such as their abilities and usefulness in combat (p. 49). In this second dimension, the player experiences them as tools; assets (or in some cases liabilities) for the achievement of game goals. The focus of analysis is thus on game rules and mechanics, possibly also on programming or even hardware (Bagnall, 2017, p. 135), in as far as these impact on character presentation.

As a third dimension, Schröter and Thon develop videogame characters as representations of the player applicable to multiplayer settings. Since the ME trilogy is played in single player mode, I will shift the third dimension's focus to the relation between the player and the game characters as mediated by the playable character (PC). The queering of the divide between player and PC through player identification, which in non-computerized roleplay has been termed the bleed effect (Waern, 2012), is especially interesting to a queer game analysis because it opens up new spaces for the negotiation of identities in and beyond the gameworld.

The distinction between narrative and ludic experience is of course not as clear-cut as it appears in the framework. Well-rounded non-player characters (NPCs) do not vanquish their status as fictional beings the moment they become part of interactive gameplay. For example, most players will be reluctant to shoot an NPC they already empathize with and ME frequently uses the player's emotional attachment to characters to present moral conflict. Another obvious connection between ludic and narrative character presentation lies in the ways an NPC's usefulness in battle influences their characterization along the gendered extremes often casually referred to as "badass" versus "sissy".

Neither is there always a strict temporal divide between narration and gameplay. ME's in-engine cut-scenes offer a hybridized form of storytelling between passive narration and interactive gameplay as they leave the player some, albeit limited, measure of control over the gameworld. Typically, dialogue is interrupted by the appearance of conversation wheels, allowing the player to influence the PC's responses. Scripted events with hidden triggers may also drive the plot while the player has full control over the PC and NPCs may engage in casual and largely player-independent conversations triggered during gameplay. In the end, the distinction between narrative and ludic modes of representation (see also Frasca, 2003; Aarseth, 2012) is an artificial one that might help structure game analyses but must not be understood as a dichotomy of separate and fundamentally different categories.

In spite of these shortcomings, the framework has proven highly applicable to a queer approach to game characters. It offers a comparatively simple way of integrating ludic as well as narrative considerations, at the same time remaining sufficiently pliable to be consulted for expansive and intersectional applications of the queer paradigm. That it can easily be supplemented with literary and cultural theory, as demonstrated in the following analysis of exemplary characters from the ME trilogy, is testament to queer game studies' ability to target very specific questions and identity constellations.

Mass Effect

The ME franchise comprises the original Mass Effect trilogy (2007-2012) and the 2017 spin-off Mass Effect: Andromeda (MEA). Players of the trilogy assume the role of Commander Shepard, a member of a galactic paramilitary organization and Captain of the spaceship "Normandy" on his quest to save the world from a sentient machine race determined to wipe out all organic life in the galaxy. As a semi-customizable PC, Shepard can be either male or female, their physical appearance can be individualized, and the player has a choice of several personal backgrounds.

While some NPCs in ME have exclusively narrative functions, others are also game pieces[5]. The latter typically have unique narrative arcs in the form of optional side quests which explore their personality, motivations and relation to the PC. Ludic combat largely corresponds to established RPG conventions. The player controls the PC and a team of two NPCs, referred to as the squad. Because each squad member has a unique skill set, the development of the fighting team, especially the balancing of strengths and weaknesses through team combination and the strategic distribution of skill points after level-ups, is a major factor determining success or failure. Although the game can be completed without extensively interacting with NPCs, engagement with the characters is encouraged through ludic and narrative rewards. Completing the NPC's personal quests effects significant changes in approval, which may, for instance, unlock new skills or romantic potential. Conversely, failing to engage with the NPCs has negative ludic consequences. Party members may die, choose to abandon the player, or refuse to be recruited in the first place. The most extreme case is perhaps ME2, where the entire squad, including the PC, may be killed in action if the player does not gain the NPCs' loyalty through completing their personal missions. Narrative decisions can thus influence gameplay and vice versa. Players may strive to gain an NPC's loyalty and protect them because they like the character in question or, equally likely, in order not to lose a particularly useful game piece.

Interaction between the player/ PC and NPCs is mediated through dialogue. Even though most character developing conversations are optional, it is safe to assume that most players will roleplay them due to the aforementioned narrative and ludic benefits. All ME games use a dialogue wheel to simulate conversations. The wheel presents the player with paraphrases of the actual answers, which will then be delivered by professional voice actors. Visual cues, such as colour codes, symbols or the position in the dialogue wheel, provide information about the tone of the PC's answer. Typically, answering modes include a diplomatic "paragon", a more aggressive "renegade" and a neutral answer. In some situations, these may be supplemented by other dialogue options such as inquiries or flirting. "Correct" choices of dialogue options may activate romantic subplots which are then further developed over the course of the game and typically culminate in a sexual encounter shortly before the endgame.

In the first two instalments, male Shepard can only express and act upon heterosexual desires[6]. Monogamy is strongly encouraged by the game system; achievements are only awarded for committed relationships to one NPC. Quests frequently involve the rescue of female squad mates or civilians, some of whom will inevitably fall in love with Shepard (e.g. ME1 "Find Liara T'Soni"; ME2 "Illium: Medical Scans"). Placing notable emphasis on sexual and ethnic diversity regarding romance options, ME3 represents a break with the established canon. Of the eight potential partners for a male PC, one is only interested in a casual fling, two are non-human, and two are male – one of them non-white. Nevertheless, same-sex relationships between men are ludically more difficult to unlock and offer several opt-outs to the player. The simulation system translates the heteronormative assumptions engrained in the franchise's history, its game rules and its text into ludic constraints or incentives emphasising normative expectations, which can only be experienced directly while playing.

An example of the trilogy's evolution in terms of queer inclusion is NPC Kaidan Alenko, who fulfils the role of a female PC's default love interest in ME1. If he survives past the first game, Kaidan reappears in ME3, this time as a romance option for PCs of either gender. His combat abilities and narrative complexity, too, are significantly upgraded, making it impossible to discard him as a flat character or stereotype of effeminate masculinity[7]. Provided that the player has made certain choices while interacting with Kaidan earlier in the game, Kaidan will indicate a romantic interest in Shepard regardless of their gender. However, if the PC is female, any reference to Kaidan's potential bisexuality will disappear from the game text. Game designer Anna Anthropy coined the expression "gay button" to describe a game's potential to turn queer content on and off, like a switch (as cited in Østby, 2017, p. 15). For ME, the gay button theory is not entirely waterproof, though, for it only holds for playthroughs disconnected from the transmedia context of Wikis, Let's Plays, reviews, or walkthroughs. Kaidan may be perfectly straight within the time-space of one playthrough but bisexual in another. The player's consciousness that these alternatives exist may alter the gaming experience of all playthroughs and "open up a queering discourse" (Greer, 2013, p. 15). Arguably, it is precisely videogame narrative's continual state of emergence that helps to queer linear temporalities; to "bend the hetero-chrononormative frames" in favour of "complicated asynchronicities" (O'Rourke 2014; pp. 30-31).

Having said that, queerness in ME can by no means be reduced to a 'gay checkbox' on a character sheet. The truly queer – that is subversive/ resistant – potential of Mass Effect lies in its (ludic and narrative) representation of non-hegemonic male characters, which engages multiple and intersecting discourse of non-normative identity construction of which sexuality is but one. In the following, I will therefore examine how alterity is constructed and negotiated in game space through character analyses of three ME characters whose physicality is particularly foregrounded visually and discursively: the PC Shepard, the physically disabled character Joker and the queer of colour NPC Steve Cortez.

Military Culture and the Male Body

At first glance, ME seems to uphold a heteropatriarchal system championing the hegemonic male as normative ideal. The default version of the PC Commander Shepard corresponds strongly to the archetype of the seasoned soldier and war hero. The game's default settings as well as the major part of the promotion material show a white male in his early thirties; tall, broad shouldered and with a military-style buzz cut. He comes equipped with a variety of weapons from pistol to rocket launcher and is dressed in protective uniform. The gameplay reinforces the impression of physical strength and hardiness. During gameplay, Shepard is arguably the most useful game piece as he has more "talents" (abilities and skills) than NPCs and on average receives larger boosts to these talents with each level-up. ME's blend of genres further emphasizes this connection to military masculinity. While the games retain RPG-specific characteristics such as the combat system and the emphasis on roleplaying, the use of military jargon, the prominence of guns and heavy weaponry and game mechanics such as taking cover are reminiscent of the first-person shooter (Patterson, 2015, p. 211). The zoom-in function allowing the player to target enemies even leads to a temporary switch to first-person perspective precisely at the moment of taking a shot.

Defined as "first-person shooters who allude to real military events, contexts, or language" (p. 212), military shooters are closely bound up with and dependent on hegemonic ideals of military-style masculinity. The warrior archetype remains an important symbol of R.W. Connell's hegemonic male, the form of masculinity that is exalted at a given moment in time in a given cultural context. It is a "social norm [h]ardly anyone (except in film) [and videogames, one might feel inclined to add] can actually meet" (Connell, 1995, pp. 70, 77). Therefore, hegemonic masculinity produces alterity of sex, race, colour or ability that is consequently marginalized in society (p. 78). David Morgan (1994) points out how military training links to "strong and hegemonic definitions of masculinity", chiefly "the construction of heterosexuality", to the point of emphasizing and rewarding aggressive heterosexism (p. 167). It is then all the more interesting how the hegemony of straight, able-bodied masculinity is increasingly called into question in ME as characters come out as queer.

Physicality is multidimensional and highly complex in the context of videogames in general and ME in particular. After all, there are a minimum of two bodies engaged in roleplay: that of the PC and that of the player. What are potential effects on the latter if their avatar corresponds to the unattainable ideal of the hegemonic male, or, conversely, when the avatar's body is injured, hybridized, disabled? As the ME series progresses, it challenges the integrity of the male body itself by interconnecting the themes of warfare, disability and body modification. Morgan (1994) identifies physicality as the dominant theme in the construction of military masculinities: "At times of combat, the body is placed at risk, threatened with danger or damage... Physicality may become finality in the remains enclosed in a body bag" (p. 167). The normative body, sculpted by the hardships of combat training, contrasts sharply with the production of mutilated, disfigured bodies which are no longer able to perform in the "theatre of war" (165).

Queering Disability

A salient example of the series' engagement with bodily alterity is the character Jeff "Joker" Moreau, the ship's pilot affected by Vrolik's syndrome, or brittle bone disease. According to Joker, the condition makes the bones in his legs so fragile that they will shatter upon light impact. Walking, even with the help of crutches and leg braces, becomes difficult for him. Robert McRuer (2013) proposes the term "compulsory able-bodiedness" to describe the systematic production of disability through Othering that is equivalent – and in fact accessory – to the production of sexual normalcy and deviation through systems of compulsory heterosexuality (pp. 489 et passim; with reference to Adrienne Rich). Queerness, he argues, is often used as a metaphor for disability and vice versa: "people with disabilities are often understood as somehow queer... while queers are often understood as somehow disabled" (pp. 491-493). Joker's "coming out" as physically disabled in ME1 entails similar dynamics of power/ knowledge as coming out of the closet (para 5), which put him at a disadvantage because he is not in control of the flow of information. Joker addresses his disability if the player chooses the option "I just want to talk" because he assumes Shepard has read his personal file, which documents his disability. In the interrogation that follows, the only agency left to him is to react to Shepard's questions and manage the relationship between the normatively able, or normate, (Rosemarie Garland-Thomson as cited in Ramlow, 2009, p. 135) and the disabled body. Joker's reactions reveal that he is used to justifying his presence on a military vessel:

"I'll tell you the same thing I told the Captain... I'm the best damn helmsman in the Alliance fleet... Those commendations in my file? I earned every single one. Those weren't given to me as charity for my disease." (ME1)

Joker's intonation of the word "charity" is particularly spiteful. He seems anxious to rectify the widespread assumption that a physical handicap equals the inability to perform in the capitalist workplace, thereby revealing a fictional history of marginalization in the gameworld's military context. However, the invocation of his abilities as a pilot also constructs seemingly superhuman abilities in other domains as necessary compensation for his disability (Joyal, 2012, para 7; Ramlow, 2009, p. 142).

For the most part of ME, dialogue remains the only level on which the games engage with disability. In ME1, Joker is only ever seen in his pilot's chair so that his disability, together with the lower half of his body, becomes invisible. Amanda Joyal (2012) criticizes how camera angles and character positions in ME1 cut-scenes contribute to the construction of Joker as the subordinate Other against which Shepard's normative body becomes even more pronounced (para 3), arguing that ME's representational choices deliberately divert attention from bodies that "would potentially make the player uncomfortable", and consequently privileges ability over disability (paras 2, 8, 20). Joker, in his chair, is frequently seen looking up to Shepard while Shepard, and in some instances the player, look down on him (Joyal, 2012, p. 4).

The impression is very different, however, when also taking into account Schröter and Thon's second dimension of character analysis and considering Joker as a game piece. In ME2, there is a brief but vital episode in which Joker becomes the PC and the player must navigate him through the length of a spaceship crawling with hostiles. In comparison to controlling Shepard, the journey through the ship with Joker feels laborious. Most controls, including all combat controls such as "F" for melee attacks or "left mouse" to fire weapons, are disabled. This creates a feeling of vulnerability unfamiliar to a player controlling the hyper-powerful Shepard, especially as Joker/ the player helplessly witness crew members being killed or abducted in the vicinity. Contact with the enemy will immediately lead to a game over, which can be experienced as frustrating.

As briefly mentioned above, roleplaying effects such as bleed can intensify player identification with the PC. Annika Waern (2012) distinguishes between a bleed-in effect, which occurs when the player's personality affects the role, and the bleed-out effect, where the opposite happens: the player comes to care for the PC and other characters and shares their emotions. It is therefore plausible that players assuming the role of Joker can achieve a better understanding of the restrictions imposed by a physical handicap and may even come to empathize with people with physical disabilities.

Having said that, Joker's disability is significantly "dequeered" the moment he takes over as PC. While saving the ship, he walks asymmetrically and with a noticeable limp but requires neither crutches nor leg braces. Furthermore, the shape of his legs and torso does not differ significantly from the shape of the default "fit military hero" body type that is also used for most other human soldiers, including Shepard. As Joyal (2012) argues, "Joker has to become more able-bodied in order to become a heroic figure" (para 20). Joker's subversive potential is therefore ambivalent. While it is possible to read Joker as a challenge to compulsory able-bodiedness in military shooters and science fiction narratives, his presence simultaneously affirms the naturalized association between hegemonic masculinity and heroism. In ME2, Joker ends up saving the day, but loses his Otherness along the way to become more of the same: the hegemonic ideal of which Shepard remains the prime example.

Shepard's own physicality, however, does not remain unchallenged. Having been killed in action in the prologue of ME2, Shepard's body is recovered and rebuilt using obscure futuristic technologies involving implants and artificial parts that modify and extend the human body. Effectively, these turn Shepard into a cyborg-like figure, which, since Donna Haraway's Cyborg Manifesto, has become a staple of queer theory. Cyborg consciousness is allied with queer politics, or rather, queer identity can be understood as cyborg identity and vice versa. After all, Donna Haraway's political feminist image of the cyborg promises, among other things, the utopia of imagining a world without gender (1991/2001, p. 292), without dichotomies or totalizing horizons. A world of polyvocality (pp. 296, 299) in which identity as well as social and bodily reality are reconceptualised as relational, partial and contradictory (p. 295).

This resonates strongly with the series' latest developments in ME: Andromeda, in which the PC Ryder is implanted with the anthropomorphic Artificial Intelligence "SAM", which enhances Ryder's abilities. SAM can even take control of motor functions or kill Ryder by stopping their heart. Through nodes, SAM exists in several places at once and has access to the experience and memories of previous hosts. Its presence effectively hybridizes the PC to become more than human and more than one, transgressing the boundaries between organism and machine, physical and non-physical in the process (Haraway, 1991/2001, pp. 293-4).

Players themselves in a sense become "a self beyond ourselves" in the videogaming context (Bailey, 2001, p. 337). As movements (the player presses a key, the PC moves) are translated between platforms, players are simultaneous embodied in situ and in representation (Hearn, 2011, p. 97). The PC is thus neither solely a fictional character nor a mere interface, but player and character re-emerge as a hybrid figure, somewhere between the person before the screen and the character in the virtual world. At the same time, SAM self-reflexively points to the player's consciousness of multiple versions of the game through reloads or repeated playthroughs of which the PC remains unaware. That one of the series' most explicit meta-referential character-constructions should draw upon the key queer figure of the cyborg once more draws out parallels between 'play' and 'queer', regardless of the question whether ME eventually 'succeeds' as a truly queer, subversive game. In ME, the figure of the cyborg thus becomes emblematic of the larger philosophical problem of queer embodiment. "[A] politics of posthumanism, be it political, gendered, racial, animal or sexual, is always a queer politics", Patricia MacCormack (2009, p. 122) maintains. In its ambivalent negotiations of ability, ME thus at the very least displays an active desire to engage with queer theory's radical (self-)questioning.

However, the egalitarian promise held by queer theory's radical openness and the utopian potential inherent in virtuality does not necessarily translate into correspondingly self-aware representational politics. From an intersectional perspective, the series has rightfully been criticized for its "representational casualties" (Everett qtd. in Malkowski and Russworm, 2017, p.5) including the obliteration of precarious identities, the persistence of "high-tech blackface" (ibid) and its failure to engage lived experience and ways of knowing that are also historically situated and materially conditioned (Johnson 2005, p.127). In order to show how these "representational casualties" are (literally) brought into play in ME, I will thus conclude my analysis with a reading of the black queer NPC Steve Cortez from ME3.

Queering Hegemonic Whiteness

Throughout this article, I have suggested that sexual identity cannot be understood in isolation but always in its imbrications with other identity categories. Criticizing "the ideologies of discreetness" underlying monocausal explanations of disenfranchisement, Roderick Ferguson proposes to reemploy Kimberlé Crenshaw's concept of structural intersectionality to capture the very specific forms of discrimination produced by the overlapping power structures around sexuality and race (Ferguson, 2007, pp. 109-10; Crenshaw, 1989)[8]. Drawing attention to racial and sexual diversity, the personal storyline of ME character Steve Cortez intervenes in queer of colour struggles for political leverage by refuting the presumed homogeneity of the categories comprised by LGBTQ* (Ferguson, 2007, p. 118).

Cortez' sexuality is revealed very early in the game if Shepard inquires after his family: "I lost my parents years ago. I had a husband, back when I was stationed at Ferris Fields. The Collectors took out the whole colony... I'd rather not talk about it." Even if the player does not choose the conversation option "Family", they will eventually learn about Cortez' late husband Robert through an automatically triggered cut-scene. The scene is heart-wrenching: Shepard walks in on Cortez listening to an audio recording of his last phone conversation with Robert, immediately before the latter is killed in action. Cortez then breaks down crying in front of the audio console. The major part of Cortez' personal storyline is dedicated to the mourning process and his eventual acceptance of Robert's death. The PC, regardless of gender, can either offer emotional support or tell Cortez to not let his emotions interfere with the mission, but never question the legitimacy of a male soldier grieving the loss of a husband.

By contrast, Blackness at first glance seems to be a non-issue in ME. Whether the player customizes their PC as black or white, for example, is without narrative or ludic repercussions in the gameworld. To conclude that this forecloses the articulation of very specific identities or even implies the absence of racialized discourses, however, would seem naive. Even in the virtual world, racial discourse originates in and depends on the social interpretation and categorization of physicality; of biological markers such as skin or hair colour, or the shape of eyes and lips as referents (Bailey, 2001, p. 339). To the player, Cortez is quite visibly black, which is far from trivial when considering the invisibility of non-white characters in AAA-games[9]. If they do appear, it is in the pathological forms of sacrificial blackness, typecast athletes, or gangsters (Malkowski and Russworm, 2017, p. 11; Mafe, 2015, p. 90; Ong, 2016, n.p.)[10]. In this sense, ME not only affords queer of colour representation but naturalises it as part of the gameworld. At the same time, however, Cortez' representation as a gay and black character is precarious as it is necessarily imbricated with (colonial) history and the self-congratulatory construction of western progressive hegemonic culture through tokenistic inclusion (eg. Ferguson, 2007, p. 115).  Queers of colour are "subjects whose identities are formed in response to the cultural logics of heteronormativity, white supremacy and misogyny", José Esteban Muñoz summarizes the structures of double or triple marginalization characterizing non-white queer subjectivity (as cited in Dickel, 2011, p. 72).

Indeed, like Joker, Cortez runs the risk of becoming a mere foil for the construction of Shepard's hegemonic identity in several versions of the romance narrative. Once Cortez has come to terms with Robert's death, there is a notable break in his narrative arc The overall tone of dialogue and cut-scenes becomes much lighter as Cortez becomes available as a romance option for a male avatar. The game offers three different ways for the player to close Cortez' personal storyline: romancing him, anxiously pressing the "no-homo"-button and foreclosing such interactions, or, interestingly, outing the PC without necessarily romancing anyone.

The romance narrative starts when Shepard and Cortez meet at a club. Gesturing at a group of male dancers, Cortez half-jokingly reveals that "some of the eye candy in the crowd isn't too shabby". The player must then choose between going along with the flirt ("I'm eye candy, too.") or eliminating any potential doubt of Shepard's heterosexuality ("I'll be watching the ladies"), which the camera underscores by focussing on the female dancers instead. Cortez will then carefully approach the question of Shepard's relationship status: "I hear a few ladies have shown interest, but you haven't bitten yet?" While the ladies' interest additionally emphasizes Shepard's desirability as a heteronormative partner, Shepard's heterosexuality, canonized in the first two games, is called into question since Cortez' inquiry implies that Shepard's lack of commitment could also be due to a lack of interest in women. Consequently, the player is now called upon to either affirm Shepard's heterosexuality or to out him. Although the options "Waiting for the right woman"/ "Waiting for the right man" once more follow a binary logic affording either straight or gay identification, the latter nevertheless transfers considerable agency to the player. Outing Shepard constitutes a major disruption of the game's hitherto heteronormative canon and allows a retroactive reading of the entire trilogy as a closeted man's coming to terms with his sexuality in a military context (Harper, 2017). In both cases, however, the scene allows the player to articulate (or disavow) Shepard's queer identity, rather than giving voice to black/gay subjectivity. Cortez, one of the series' emotionally most complex characters, becomes a vehicle for the white PC's act of self-discovery.

The third option, the full romance subplot between Shepard and Cortez, seems curiously submerged, possibly constrained by audience considerations and anticipated heterosexist backlash. The game system makes it virtually impossible for the player to stumble upon representations of romantic or sexual acts between the two men by accident. For Shepard to start a romantic relationship with Cortez, two more player choices are required, adding up to the striking total of four explicit opt-outs in one scene. The romance only locks in if the player chooses the outright "I want more than friendship", which will lead to a kiss between Shepard and Cortez. All following romance scenes are similarly guarded and the implied sexual encounter largely takes place off-screen – in contrast to some of the game's heterosexual options. Nevertheless, the long shot showing Shepard and Cortez waking up together is arguably the game's queerest moment. The strikingly similar body shapes, curtesy to the standard body model used for most of the game's male human characters, makes skin colour the sole marker of difference. The effect is, once more, ambivalent. Though the theme is domestic rather than erotic, it places the black body at the centre of attention, thus turning it into a visual spectacle. At the same time, Cortez' Otherness here finally realizes its subversive potential. As the non-hegemonic male body becomes irrevocably visible, it resists not only the pressures of heteronormativity but also the naturalized link between LGBTQ* and hegemonic whiteness.


Firmly situated in time, place and circumstance, games are worldly, that is, they are shaped and made possible by the social realities that surround them. They can be instrumental to reproducing the power structures governing our everyday lives, or to resisting them and carving out a space for the representation of marginalised subjectivities and subaltern voices. Their critical analysis, in turn, can help make sense of the complex entanglements constituting our social, cultural and political world and expose its underlying hegemonic formations.

Critical gaming, then, is to simultaneously play a game and to read it as text, all the while maintaining an awareness of the value systems transported by the game and entailed in the act of playing. Ideally, critics play and players play critically. Only then can media literacy in gaming and game studies serve as an antidote to discourses of toxic masculinity and form part of an antiracist political and ideological practice. Loosely based on Said's notion of criticism as distance to the subject, this figure of the player/critic is of course idealised. In reality, their/my perspective is just as worldly – and thus culturally biased – as the text or game (Said, 1983/1984, p. 35). Queer game studies as critical practice therefore not only interrogates cultural products but must continuously challenge and revise its own premises and methodologies.

To conclude, let me revisit my initial research questions concerning 1) the imbrications of queer character representation with hegemonic discourses and 2) the development of a methodological approach to their analysis. The inclusion and character depth of ME's queer male characters as well as the affordance of queer play in the form of same-sex romances marks a significant development of RPG gaming towards greater representational diversity. The game's inclusion of the queer of colour character Cortez as well as the disabled character Joker offers a much-needed example of the representation of bodies that are typically marginalised in videogames as well as other media. Opposite the overwhelming majority of straight, white male protagonists, it is significant if an AAA-studio such as BioWare, which reaches huge audiences and pours huge sums of money into game development, designs LGBTQ* characters to take up lead roles in their games. Once the product is released to the public, gaming and videogame representation take on an explicitly political role as not merely reflexive but constitutive of social reality. Gaming, fan culture, media coverage and criticism all become part of discourses on queerness and gaming, and potential sites of resistance, changing the game industry's matrix of power in ways that open up new possibilities for queer design choices in the future.

Yet, to equate visibility with 'progressive' representation is to neglect the multiplicity of meanings arising from the game and the complex entanglements of videogames with political and cultural discourses. After all, the aim of this article is not to deliver a clear-cut value judgment but to better understand videogames as ideological cultural sites of negotiation.

The contrasting analysis of the PC Shepard and the NPC Joker has shown how hegemonic masculinity is constructed and deconstructed vis-á-vis the Other and how the integrity of the normate male body as well as the player's own physicality are challenged by the themes of disability, violence, grotesque modification and virtuality. As an example of an explicitly intersectional analysis, I have discussed how the narrative, cinematic and mechanic realization of the Steve Cortez romance arc reflects a tension between progressive queer of colour representation and the reaffirmation of established power structures. The intersectional and anti-essentialist approach has turned out particularly useful when it comes to investigating the complex ways in which discourses interact to reinforce or undermine hegemonic power relations.

Finally, this analysis of Mass Effect is testament to the applicability of queer game studies to a wide range of complex and overlapping theoretical considerations. What queer game studies cannot do is to explain games by revealing or fixing their hidden meaning. What it can do, and what it excels in, is to interrogate and contest the hegemonic formations underlying the game, and to accommodate the ambivalent and transitory meanings arising from the game's complex narrative, ludic and interactive dimensions. Queering, in that sense, is criticism, is intervention, is play. Queer game studies, perhaps more than any literary or game theory to date, is suitable not only for an analysis of queer game characters but as a cultural studies approach to the study of videogames in general.



[1] This article does not share the view that "race" is a natural category or should be employed as such.

[2] Here are a number of particularly awkward examples from Metacritic: "I'm not a [sic!] homophob but including gay relationships in a game is unnecessary" (Anomaly88, March 2012); "Gay rights – [sic!] Don't care stop trying to shove a Twinkie down my throat" (Andromeda05, March 2012). ME has also received severe criticism from gaymers, e.g. this user comment on Metacritic: "As a homosexual male, it is painful watching bioware act like they are champions of the gay community. Their insulting representations of gay individuals are merely an attempt to politicize their business, so they can look progressive while deflecting real criticism as homophobic" (AHomosexualMale, March 2012). All of the above have been removed from Metacritic between July and December 2017.

[3] Other critical cultural studies approaches include e.g. Cassell and Jenkins' now seminal From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games (2000), Mia Consalvo's 2003 case study of The Sims in "Hot Dates and Fairy-Tale Romances", Adrienne Shaw's 2014 ethnographic approach in Gaming at the Edge, Mary Flanagan's Critical Play (2009), as well as the work of Lisa Nakamura, Anna Everett, and Soraya Murray.

[4] This article uses singular "they" as a gender-neutral pronoun.

[5] Technically, these companions are playable characters during combat. However, the player's control over the companion characters is narratively framed as a reaction to the PC's commands so that it is still appropriate to speak of NPCs rather than multiple PCs.

[6] With the exception of a possible romance with a member of the mono-gendered Asari race who, however, is designed, voiced and written as an attractive blue woman.

[7] In ME3, the abilities "Reave" and "Barrier" make him suitable as a tank; a character class that absorbs a portion of the damage directed at other game pieces. The gameplay thus characterizes him as the "sturdy oak" rather than the "sissy" stereotype (Brannon qtd. in Kimmel, 1994, p. 125).

[8] A similar disillusionment with queer theory's failure to accommodate the lived realities of gays and lesbians of colour inspired various theoretical interventions such as "quare studies" (Johnson 2005) or "queer of colour critique" (Dickel, 2011, p. 49; Tompkins, 2015, p. 173).

[9] Similarly and perhaps as a result of this, analyses of Black or Asian queer subjectivity are remarkably absent in the relevant literature. Notable exceptions include e.g. Jennifer Malkowski and Treaandrea M. Russworm's edited volume Gaming Representation (2017).

[10] For example in the Grand Theft Auto series. On the other hand, GTA also features the African-American homosexual male character Anthony "Gay Tony" Prince as a prominent character in the fourth instalment.



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