David Callahan

David Callahan is an Associate Professor at the University of Aveiro, Portugal. His work, mostly on postcolonial issues, has recently included editing Body & Text: Cultural Transformations in New Media Environments (Springer, 2019), and articles on such things as The Last of the US: The Game as Cultural Geography, Landscape and Deterritorialization in New Zealand Video Games, American Postcolonial Shame and the Work of Timothy Bewes, The Poetry of Li-Young Lee and Timothy Bewes's Event of Postcolonial Shame, and Ethical issues surrounding the use of images from donated cadavers in the anatomical sciences. His next article will be on Owning Global Spaces and the Expanded Frontier in Uncharted 4.

Contact information: callahan at ua.pt

Don't Fear the Reapers, Fear Multiculturalism: Canadian Contexts and Ethnic Elisions in Mass Effect

by David Callahan


BioWare's critically and commercially successful roleplaying video game series Mass Effect has legitimately been read as supporting multicultural respect through its gameplay and narrative content. At the same time, the games' generally sensitive treatment of difference can be seen to be using some of the conventions of the space opera to elide certain aspects of Canadian cultural history and politics which have proven resistant to self-congratulatory discourses concerning the conviviality of the non-coercive nation. The article examines the games' leveraging of these issues by way of their status as Canadian cultural documents, and therefore as participants in conversations about multicultural respect, but also in terms of two issues which exemplify gaps in the games' would-be respectful politics of difference: 1) questions of Indigenous ownership, priority and hierarchy; 2) the common space opera supposition that politicized ethnic identity positioning will have largely disappeared as populations become more mixed.

Keywords: multicuturalism, morality, Canada, race, ethnicity, space opera, Indigenous peoples


Revisiting Mass Effect's Multiculturalism

At first sight, Canadian company BioWare's critically and commercially successful action-adventure video game series, Mass Effect, Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3, is one more text supporting multicultural respect. It is accordingly not surprising that the broad area of dealing with difference has become one of the principal focuses for content analysis dealing with the games. This article will also be dealing with this area, in the attempt to argue further for the games' status as Canadian cultural texts, as well as briefly considering two overlooked aspects of the debate: the issue of Indigenous belonging, and the groundedness or otherwise of human ethnicity as exemplified in scenarios set in the future.

Within video game criticism, BioWare's series of three Mass Effect games is considered a benchmark for a type of video game invested in ethical reflection and attempted psychological depth. Kyle MunKittrick's blog article "Why Mass Effect is the Most Important Science Fiction Universe of Our Generation" serves as a good summary of the passion of many fans' response to the games, as do the several responses to MunKittrick's reflections (2012). Scholarly articles on the games claim such things as "it cannot be denied that Mass Effect matters" (Zekany, 2015, p. 1), or that the game's "level of interactive immersion sets the game apart as a unique experience in today's saturated digital game market" (Kuling, 2014, p. 47). Even so, aspects of the games have been thoughtfully critiqued, such as their gender politics (Lavigne, 2015; Youngblood, 2018), use of time and history (Carvalho, 2015), and their multicultural agenda, albeit from different perspectives to this article (Voorhees, 2012; Patterson, 2015; Fuchs, Phillips & Rabitsch, 2019).

The game is set in distant space next century, when the discovery of so-called mass relays which make intergalactic travel possible brings humanity into contact with numerous other intelligent species. Humanity are the newcomers, looked down on to some extent by other species. All species however face a threat from an ancient apparently artificial intelligence, called the Reapers, which wipes out all advanced species every fifty thousand years. It will later be explained by a representative of the Reapers that this is done in order to prevent more powerful species from oppressing and retarding the development of as yet less-advanced species. Not everyone believes in this threat, so the protagonist / player must build alliances with those members of other species who will help in combating the threat, and then work with their very different priorities and cultural specificities to prevent the annihilation of all of them. This protagonist is a human named Shepard, who we can choose to play as a man or a woman. Over the three games, Shepard will lead the fight against the Reapers and the entities the Reapers use to further their agenda. Despite numerous complications, Shepard manages to make it through to a final showdown with the Reapers, wherein the fate of all galactic species will be decided.

The development of alliances with different species builds across the many many hours of gameplay, and serves to constantly ask questions of the player in the general ethical area of sameness and difference. How the game directs perceptions may be seen early in the first game, the first time that Shepard meets major character Garrus, a Turian, an alien species which is known to disdain humans and reject their growing significance. Garrus, however, wants to aid Shepard in her pursuit of a rogue member of his own species, and this surprises her: Shepard: "You're a Turian. Why do you want to bring him down?" Garrus: "Saren is a traitor to the Council, and a disgrace to my people." No overt direction is being given to the player here, but the question is being asked implicitly: to what extent does loyalty to an ethical principle trump group loyalty, or vice versa? Given that Garrus is a positive character throughout, at this point it seems evident that the game will support an ethics of moral principle over against an ethics of blind group loyalty.

The issues may also be addressed in lengthy branching conversations, involving several characters of differing species and points of view, at the end of which the player will have to take a decision which will structure what happens next. A good example of this occurs in Mass Effect 2 when a team is planning to destroy a facility in order to take out a number of enemy cyborgs, and one of the cyborgs working with Shepard interrupts proceedings: Legion: "We concluded that destruction of this station was the only resolution to the heretic question. There is now a second option. Their virus can be repurposed. If released into the station's network, the heretics will be rewritten to accept our truth." The use of terms such as "heretics" and "our truth" activate contemporary and inflammatory debates arising out of the grating against each other of religious dogmas and cultural priorities. Several members of the attack group, who come from different species, including other humans, intervene to discuss the morality of rewriting another species, even one so cybernetic as the group-minded Geth. In order to play on, the player must opt to perform the rewriting or not. One can decide quickly, not listen to anyone, and come to a decision, it is true. But given that the issues are soon made to seem not so simple by some members of the team, one can listen to the quandary restated in differing ways for many minutes, as the conversation wheel keeps on branching. Eventually, one will have to decide, but during the process gameplay has consisted of listening to ideas concerning the power of one group to decide upon the fate of another, ideas which are reprised over and over in the games.

This particular argument will resurface in game 3 when the chance returns to reprogram the Geth so they become the ally of the galactic alliance. Stated in this form, it seems like a clear choice. However, one of the allied species, the Quarians, were the original creators of the Geth, who became sentient enough to rise up against their creators to the extent that the Quarians' home world was destroyed, condemning the whole species to roam the galaxy in spaceships, deprived of a planet. For the Quarians, to trust the Geth is a nightmare scenario which their history and beliefs cannot consider. The choice at this point is not examined from varying angles. Shepard has two choices, and from either of them large consequences for the game's development will occur. Moreover, the ethics of intervening to alter a whole species’s destiny, or even terminate them, echoes not only what the Reapers do but what settler-invader peoples did, and are still doing, to Indigenous peoples.

There is a growing amount of research focusing on whether video games represent particular ethnic groups respectfully. This continues the evolution of "academic interest in the ways in which video games represent characters," which, according to Felix Schröter and Jan-Noël Thon, "did not stir until the late 1990s" (2014, p. 40). In Souvik Mukherjee's Videogames and Postcolonialism: Empire Plays Back, he expands the debate from a focus on representations of American minorities and disempowered groups to include the depiction of several cultural groupings worldwide, both in the present and in the past of colonial history. His generously open-ended view is that "videogames reflect on the one hand, the fascination for colonial and orientalist stereotypes and on the other the resistance to such 'fixings' and the coming together of multiple hybrid identities" (Mukherjee, 2017, p.71). That is, he feels that honest efforts are being made to deal with representational issues in this area, even if the results are generally not entirely convincing. Sabine Harrer, on the other hand, is not so forgiving in her addressing of the question: "why, despite availability of knowledge on the detrimental effects of colonial images on the previously colonised, game creators and consumers continue to perceive empire as a light-hearted theme appropriate for recreation and entertainment" (Harrer, 2018, p. 2).

Curating the representation of disempowered groups is pursued in media studies in the hope that for minority or disempowered groups, in Adrienne Shaw's words, "[r]epresentation matters because it makes their identity legible" (2017, p.55). While Shaw's article, and her work in general, demonstrates that this belief is not as straightforward as it seems, it is a belief common among most such groups in all arenas of representational politics, not just video games. Yet, while it is common to find observers such as Sam Srauy asserting that "the process that video game developers employ as they create characters of differing races and the resulting narratives is still largely underexamined" (Srauy, 2019, p. 479), TreaAndrea Russworm points out that "words like 'race,' 'diversity,' and 'inclusiveness' have been appearing more often as topics of discussion at industry conventions like the Game Developers Convention" (Russworm, 2017, p. 109). Indeed, concerns about race and ethnicity in video games reverberate far more widely than issues of representation. It is almost twenty-five years since Lisa Nakamura drew attention to the possibilities, and ideological assumptions, surrounding how people perform selves on the internet (Nakamura, 1995). Within gaming culture this remains a challenging area, as reprised by Nakamura recently when she points out that the two suggestions by her students to combat the "pervasive" racism in the culture are the reasonable desire that a more varied workforce be hired, and the more problematic wish for non-white gamers to earn respect by soundly beating white players more often and more visibly (Nakamura, 2017, pp. 245-246). In all of these arguments, concern is addressed not just to how particular groups are represented, but also to whether they are represented at all. Invisibility and absence may be more problematic than a visibility which does not accord with what we would wish (see Fullenwieder, 2017, for an incisive examination of many of the pressures operating upon the representation of a group which will be discussed below, Indigenous Canadians). These are issues which possess much wider contexts than those of video games, and in creative work one of these contexts is that of science fiction.

Science Fiction and Representing Ethnic Difference

Given the fraught politics activated every time a particular group is represented, one strategy for dealing with issues of cultural difference has been employed by science fiction for over a century: recasting difference as the difference of alien, extra-terrestrial species. This generic trope of a type of science fiction inherits elements from a type of colonial fiction in which explorers encounter disturbingly different cultural practices. John Rieder in Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction is in no doubt on this score that "the achievement of a perspective from which one's own culture is only one of a number of possible cultures… is as important a part of the history of science fiction… as developments in the physical sciences" (Rieder, 2008, p. 2). However, unlike colonial fiction, science fiction offers generic possibilities which differentiate it from texts in which identified cultural groupings or real-world locations are explicitly named. Science fiction can apparently think about difference without running the risk of offending any actually existing cultural group, as long as alien species are not marked in some way as evoking specific cultures on Earth. This is, however, easier to avoid in print than audio-visually. In audio-visual forms of science fiction, the voice acting or other characteristics can reference existing cultural or ethnic groups even when the visual appearance of the alien does not. Alien-featured Javik's voice in Mass Effect 3 clearly references such a group, with his Black African (Nigerian) accent. Javik comes from an advanced species and considers other species inferior on account of the technological advances evidenced by his species in the remote past from which he has now been awoken. He is constantly surprised by what the "lesser" species can now do. This reversal of stereotypes is also common to science fiction, and can be perceived as a part of Mass Effect's attempt to mobilize a discourse of respect for groups marginalized by history and existing power relations.

Despite the fact that the alien encounter is not uncommon in science fiction, Elisabeth Anne Leonard, in the Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction (which, symptomatically, has no chapter dedicated to video games), claims bluntly that "science fiction and the criticism of the genre have so far paid very little attention to the treatment of issues relating to race and ethnicity" (2003, p. 253). Adilifu Nama surveys scholarship on film and television in Black Space: Imagining Race in Science Fiction Film and finds that while there is a limited amount of work focused on television series, disproportionately concentrating on Star Trek and its sequels, "the scope and depth of analysis of race in SF cinema have remained severely limited" (2008, p. 3). In Speculative Blackness: The Future of Race in Science Fiction, André Carrington confirms this absence in work on written science fiction when he plaintively begins by saying that he hopes "to encourage SF readers and critics to acknowledge that race matters in speculative fiction" (2016, p. 2). Without undertaking an extensive literature review here, and allowing for the special pleading for their subject evidenced by academic authors, what can be said is that both science fiction studies and video game studies have largely ignored each other's iterations of what would seem to be significant content issues in this area. And both appear to their observers to have not paid enough attention to themes of racial and ethnic representation.

As both a video game and a work of science fiction, Mass Effect could hypothetically be considered by scholars of both areas, although it would be better if more crossover scholarship was carried out. For example, the ethical reflection on issues of difference that is one of Mass Effect's key characteristics could profitably be assessed by science fiction scholars who have knowledge of this theme. In the encounter with alien species, various questions are asked of Shepard which are typical of the Star Trek type of storyline. However, because it is a video game these questions also need to be responded to actively by the player, questions which we might summarize as: to what extent do we compromise with ethical and cultural standards we oppose in order to pursue an ultimate goal we believe in? Or, as in one of the game's major thematic strands, to what extent should one species intervene to genetically control another species which is perceived as a threat? This does not just occur with the above-mentioned example of the Geth, which queries the extent to which a cyber-species is owed ethical consideration in the first place. It also occurs in the plotline dealing with the biological control of one species, the Krogan, by another, the Turians. As a warrior species, the Krogan had proved problematic to other species, to the point where the scientifically-advanced species, the Salarians, developed a biological weapon which would reduce Krogan fertility and eventually lead to the species dying out. Although the Salarians considered the weapon too unethical to deploy, the Turians had no such compunctions. Over the three games this issue repeatedly comes into focus, leading up to a moment in Mass Effect 3 when the player must decide whether to counteract the biological weapon or maintain it in place. In such narrative and gameplay developments the game tries to make players think about the ethical issues involved in making choices for other species, about social control and the acceptable use of power, things which do not map directly onto specific historical or social controversies but which operate as general provocations with respect to the dominance by any group over other groups. These are currently questions with global resonance, but they are also questions which are of acute relevance in Canada, where the games were made.

Mass Effect, Multiculturalism and Canada

In academic analysis of the Mass Effect games, the ethical itinerary in which Shepard has to negotiate the diverse species she encounters is associated with the word "multiculturalism," a concept considered by its supporters as encouraging respectful interaction with difference. By its detractors, however, it is associated with a problematic sedimenting of cultural difference into ring-fenced ethnic groupings, instead of seeing ethnic groups more dynamically "in terms of practical categories, situated actions, cultural idioms, institutional forms, political projects, and contingent events" (Brubaker, 2004, p. 11). While academic analysts attempt to break down what Brubaker calls "groupism" (2004, pp. 7-27) and Seyla Benhabib, disapprovingly, "strong multiculturalism" (2002, p. 16), the vague idea that certain contemporary societies are multicultural, or should or should not be multicultural, has taken hold of demotic perceptions as of official discourses.

One of the main words that Canadians associate with their country is precisely the word "multicultural," Canada being the first country to enshrine multiculturalism as official policy. They believe they are uniquely successful in this area. Canadians are supposedly "the planet's leading experts in the quiet heroism of getting along," according to Canadian opinion poll processor and statistician Michael Adams in Unlikely Utopia, his widely-noted study of Canada's tolerance of difference (2008, p. 108). Former Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson, herself of Hong Kong descent, quotes in Belonging: The Paradox of Citizenship a sentence by Canadian writer Margaret Laurence: "'to feel in your heart's core, the reality of others,'" and adds: "I have always felt that there could never be a more Canadian sentence" (2014, p. 73).

For every glowing report on Canada's culture of inclusion, it is not difficult to get a very different picture, as in, to take just one representative example, Sunera Thobani's Exalted Subjects: Studies in the Making of Race and Nation in Canada (2008). For Thobani, Canada marginalizes most migrants and their cultural groupings so that there is a hierarchy within so-called multiculture, with whiteness the unacknowledged zero marker, the "exalted subjects" of her title. In the words of Himani Bannerjee, or as she points out, one who will always be named in the street as an immigrant even after thirty years and the formalizing of citizenship, what we see in Canada are "the contortions of a white settler society and state aspiring to liberal democracy" (2000, p. 5). As she outlines in The Dark Side of the Nation: Essays on Multiculturalism, Nationalism and Gender, this is an aspiration which is increasingly failing to live up to its self-satisfied discourse. For the daughter of Egyptian migrants to Canada, Shadia Drury, "an unhealthy and exaggerated form of multiculturalism has emerged in Canada" (2012, p. 413), one in which "almost nothing is settled, nothing is taken for granted, nothing is easily and casually shared, and everything is a locus of contention, so that life is an endless power struggle" (2012, p. 421). Whatever the public discourses of self-congratulation in Canada, it is clear that an easy conviviality does not appear to characterize the nation's inter-group relations from the perspectives of many minorities.

Mass Effect participates in this debate as vigorously and as thoughtfully as other works of Canadian literature, social analysis or visual media. However, it is often subsumed in analysis within US culture, or at the least unmoored from its origins in a Canadian company with principally Canadians providing its creative input. In Christopher Patterson's "Role-Playing the Multiculturalist Empire: Loyalty and War in BioWare's Mass Effect Series," the games are criticized for their ideological support for "American multiculturalism" (2015, p. 208 and p. 209). Michael Fuchs, Michael Philips and Stefan Rabitsch focus this further via their claim that "the game reinforces deeply ingrained American cultural narratives, while simultaneously exposing uncomfortable specters that have haunted American culture since the Puritans" (2019, p. 36). Why Canadians should be generating American cultural scripts rather than dealing with similar issues which confront the US is never explained, although it is entirely possible that within certain areas of popular culture American discourses can override local perspectives.

Nevertheless, among the many framings in which Canadians vigorously differentiate themselves from Americans, the Canadian version of multiculturalism is definitely one of them. Broadly, where American social practices insist on assimilation, Canadian official rhetoric and social practices supposedly encourage cultural groupings to retain and feel comfortable with their ethnic markers. This seems similar to what Patterson oddly calls "American multiculturalism," which he describes as:

a conception of social integration that expects racial and ethnic groups to visibly and proudly express their given racial identities in order to be recognized politically and to be accommodated socially by state institutions such as public schools and the armed forces as well as through positive forms of cultural and media-based representation (2015, p. 213).

While this may appear to be the perception of what happens in the United States to some observers, for most immigrants the situation in the United States and Canada seem very different, with Patterson's description actually appearing to apply more to the Canadian case. Acclaimed writer Bharati Mukherjee is one high-profile framer of this contrast, when in the 1980s she abandoned Canada and scandalously, for postcolonial studies at the time, affirmed that it was preferable to be an immigrant in the United States because there she did not have to stay in her assigned Indian cultural box as had been the case in anti-assimilation Canada (Gabriel, 2005). This critique was reinforced in Neil Bisoondath's controversial Selling Illusions: The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada (1994), and has see-sawed ever since to the point where supporters of the supposed ideals of Canadian multiculturalism now claim, in Randall Hansen's catchphrase, that Canada is turning its back on this heritage and now effectively legitimizes a more American "Assimilation by Stealth," or as Hansen's subtitle claims, "Why Canada's Multicultural Policy Is Really a Repackaged Integration Policy" (2014; also see Kymlicka, 2012). To the skeptical observer, it seems as if, stung by assertions that immigrants are more quickly accepted into American society than in Canada, Canada has recalibrated the way it talks about the treatment of immigrants to align it more with what some perceive as American practices. On the ground, however, most Canadians continue to believe that their procedures in this area remain superior and more considerate than those of their neighbour, with whom they do not want to be confused. Clarkson's vision of healthier treatment of immigrants in Canada is highlighted when she points to the Canadian official term "permanent resident" as opposed to the US term "resident alien" (2014, pp. 99-100).

It cannot be irrelevant in this debate that the company which made Mass Effect, BioWare, is primarily based in Canada, and that most of the creative input was provided by Canadians, including the storyline and the scripting [1]. In Canadian Peter Kuling's article on the games, "Outing Ourselves in Outer Space: Canadian Identity Performances in Bioware's Mass Effect Trilogy," he outlines how the first two games do "have little nationalized content in their narratives" (2014, p. 44), but that in the third game "Mass Effect 'comes out' as Canadian… by unapolegetically pushing American identities to the margins" (2014, p. 45). The central foe in the games, the Reapers, attack Vancouver at the beginning of game three as it has become the capital of the United North American States, for instance. Despite the lack of overt references to Canada in the first two games, however, it seems fair to say that not merely where the games were made, but the insistent invitations to players to make choices in the broad areas of listening to others' views, and approving of difference and teamwork, instead of expecting others to integrate into already existing practices and viewpoints, license a consideration of all three games as strongly Canadian cultural texts rather than American ones. Notwithstanding this positive assessment of the games’ aims, there are still issues which Mass Effect, science fiction and multiculturalist discourses have difficulty dealing with.

Location and Belonging

One area of conceptual and representative difficulty in Mass Effect concerns the place and the history of Indigenous peoples. In the Mass Effect universe the centre of decision-making is not a location identified with any specific group or planet but a giant space city, the Citadel, whose constructors are for most of the games conveniently supposed to be extinct. Questions of ownership, priority and hierarchy which are so acute in settler-invader nations are accordingly displaced and diluted in a place shorn of its ethnic links with physical location. You do not have to worry about whether you are taking over another culture’s home if that culture had disappeared before you got there. Neither do human beings appear to be colonists of any other species' planets, removing one enormously problematic but central aspect of Canadian history from the parallels between utopian space multiculturalism and Canadian multiculturalism. When colonists are referred to they tend to be resource colonists, established on empty planets to mine for resources [2]. The numerous side quests to search for these resources, particularly in Mass Effect 2, by Shepard's spaceship the Normandy and its team, are accompanied by brief notes on many planets displayed on screen, and it is noticeable that almost all these planets are empty or were empty before humans arrived. While this appears to parallel colonial attempts to minimize the presence of Indigenous inhabitants of colonized lands, even to the extent of applying the label "Terra Nullius" to Australia, there is a vast difference between calling an inhabited land empty and an actually empty planet. There is no evidence in the games that when a planet is called empty it is not actually empty.

Most assertions about the successes of national agendas of multiculturalism founder on the position of Indigenous peoples, given that the moral, historical and legal positions of Indigenous peoples in a country cannot be presumed to be just the same as those of any other cultural group. This trap within the concept of multiculturalism was perceived in New Zealand by the Maori, whose numerical presence and political power saw them block the institution of multiculturalism and facilitate instead the official concept of biculturalism: Maori on one side and everybody else on the other side. Soma Chatterjee, apparently unaware of the situation in New Zealand, summarizes the result of this process in Canada as "the key challenge facing settler nations, which is to position immigrants and the indigenous populations as outsiders within the nation, while also exploiting their labour" (2015, p. 550, my emphasis).

By setting Mass Effect in space, shame and nervousness about evoking the historical trajectories and contemporary positions of Indigenous peoples in Canada, and about dealing with them within this discourse area, have been avoided. Moreover, by having the central space of power in the game not a planet with any Indigenous people, but a gigantic space station constructed by a presumed disappeared race in the remote past, any issues which might echo the dispossession and domination of Indigenous Canadians are further avoided. And this is additionally deflected by having resource-rich planets so conveniently empty. What seems then like a series of dealings in the games with alien species along the axis of compromise and respect can thus be interpreted as a Canadian, albeit loose, support for multiculturalism on the one hand, but without facing up to the complex problems surrounding the historical and continuing dispossession of those Canadian cultures which are Indigenous on the other hand. Indeed, almost everyone important in Mass Effect seems to live or spend most time on space stations and space ships rather than planets, a way of further diluting the issue of colonization and dispossession of other people's lands in many potential contexts which might mirror or parallel Canadian history. Diluting but not removing it altogether. There is at least one major storyline which constitutes an exception to this pattern: that in which the home planet of a warrior species, the Krogan, is the backdrop for decisions about whether to maintain functioning the genetic program through which the warrior species is unable to adequately reproduce itself. This plot element echoes the interventive actions of colonizing Europeans on Indigenous peoples everywhere, albeit at an extreme level. Nevertheless, the history of colonialism makes it easy to believe that if colonizing powers had had the technology to institute such a program of genetic control they would have availed themselves of it. Although there is a great deal of subtlety to the issues involved with this genetic agenda in the games, there is no storyline in which the planet of the genetically-controlled Krogan is actually occupied or desired by another species. It remains in the hands of the Krogan, but with its future compromised, not to say ultimately doomed. While players may choose to reverse the genetic engineering program, or maintain it, there are certain narrative features which distance this from Canada's history. In the first place, this is not a story of removal of a people in order to occupy their land, as already mentioned. And in the second place, the genetic program was not developed or installed by humans. The human who is the avatar of the player, in a major affordance of the games by which we can choose many aspects of our appearance and even backstory, but we cannot choose not to be human, may at a certain critical point choose to endorse the continuation of the eugenic program or facilitate its termination. In asking the player to make such a decision, the game rehearses the types of decisions made throughout colonial history, not just in Canada but wherever colonial regimes were instituted.

The invisibility of Indigenous peoples has always been a problem in some areas of representation. When efforts are made to depict Indigenous peoples, they are often criticized for being shallow or appropriative of Indigenous cultures. Science fiction set in future interplanetary spaces offers a way to avoid this Scylla and Charybdis situation, and the Mass Effect games are not alone in this respect. Still, it must be counted as an absence in the multicultural politics of the games.

The Utopian Removal of Human Ethnicity

There is another significant area in which current stresses in multicultural discourses and practices may be evaded by setting a narrative in the distant future, and in a space in which territorial belonging is broadened to entire species, and none of them are trying to take over each other's planets. In the Mass Effect universe, the Earth is for humans, while other extra-terrestrial species have their home planets, or, in the case of one important species, the Quarians, exiled on a fleet of spaceships to roam the galaxy. It is frequently claimed or represented in science fiction that humans will in the future have mixed much more than in the present, to the extent that the issue of separate cultural priorities grating against each other has vanished. As Elisabeth Leonard points out, this is a common assumption in written science fiction, even if "[b]y far the majority of sf deals with racial tension by ignoring it" (2003, p. 254). In this type of science fiction approach to human diversity exemplified in Mass Effect we will not have to deal with extreme diversity in the future because we will all be merged into a common humanity. It is noticeable in the very different Horizon Zero Dawn, for instance, that its far distant future does have different peoples often in conflict with each other, but every people is comprised of a mixture of skin colours and features, and they are completely irrelevant in the game.

Whether this is utopian or dystopian is a matter of argument, although most sf observers appear to accept it as utopian. This point of view is exemplified in George A. González's The Politics of Star Trek: Justice, War, and the Future, in which, after referring to Star Trek as nothing less than "the quintessential philosophical text of the American century" (2015, p. 31), the vision of ethnic flattening or homogenizing is linked with its vision of "how human society becomes a classless, prosperous, and thriving one--free of want and gender/ ethnic biases" (2015, p. 32). Adrienne Clarkson once again aligns with this assessment when she notes the large increase in mixed unions in contemporary Canada and reads this "as a very hopeful sign that… in fifty years a majority of people will list their racial background as 'Canadian'" (2014, p. 102). One thing projecting future ethnic flattening of this type in narratives set in the future does is avoid dealing with seemingly intractable problems of ethnic loyalties in the present, as well as explaining quite how it is that these problems have vanished between now and the future apparently simply through inter-ethnic reproduction. We are supposed to infer this in the games; that is, we are not told it directly, but in the first Mass Effect novel, Mass Effect: Revelation, written by lead Mass Effect 2 game writer Canadian Drew Karpyshyn, he makes the point about genetic inheritance clearly, and it is repeated throughout the three Mass Effect novels Karpyshyn has written:

His features, like most citizens in the multicultural society of the late twenty-second century, were a mix of several different racial characteristics. Predominantly African… traces of Central European and Native American ancestry as well… His generic dialect was likely the product of cross-cultural exposure through e-schooling and the info nets combined with a steady barrage of pan-global entertainment vids and music (2007, p.15).

In the games characters do not refer to different racial or ethnic cultural backgrounds: they are all humans. The character we play as may be given a range of features, even if the default is white male, not to mention that features in themselves are not a culture, even if they are routinely used as a shorthand to ascribe cultural and ethnic identities. Moreover, in the games the humans do not look at all like Karpyshyn's comfortably homogenized blend. Humans come in visual variations which may be mapped onto recognizable contemporary ethnic categories. James Vega is clearly Latino, and his use of occasional Spanish words confirms it. Miranda Lawson is coded as a white Australian through her accent even if she has been genetically and technologically constructed. Nevertheless, humans do not evoke the history of their subject formation in ethnic terms. That is, chromatic and other visual markers, spoken accents, along with the different life itineraries that have historically overdetermined the ways in which ethnically-identifiable individuals are treated, are almost entirely ignored in characters' dealings with each other. While we may choose to play either Broshep or Femshep with black skin, it seems we cannot choose for him or her to articulate their backstories any differently to that of the default white Shepards. The intelligibility of humans in the games does not have the ethnic dimension it has in the present, constituting a projection and a hope which narratives set in the future frequently underwrite. Nevertheless, it is noticeable that while the technological and historical events which have facilitated humanity's future interaction with other species and other galaxies are outlined, there is no in-game outlining of the sociological events which have led to the erasure of the ethnic politics and subjectivities which are such central and challenging features of contemporary Canada and the world as a whole.

Given, unfortunately, that there is plenty of friction between groups in the contemporary world, including in Canada, the transfer of themes of difference and friction in science fiction to different alien species and how they get along or do not is a lot less problematic than having to talk about actually existing groups, their actually existing legal, material and ethical problems, or how these problems were resolved between the present and the future. In fact, the principal alien species who make up the world of the games are not so much rehearsed according to ethnic cultural flows displaced onto alien specific species, but rather in terms of stereotypes about human character types loosely mapped onto whole species. That is, there are not the African aliens, the East Asian aliens, the white American aliens, the Nordic aliens or however one might divide the world into geographically-based ethnicities. Instead, there is a brainy, science-nerd species (Salarians), a brawny, deep-voiced warrior species (Krogan), a sensitive species in the shape of women who are able to move things just with their minds (Asari), a low mercantile species (Volus), an ethereal, group-mind species (Hanar) and so on. Nonetheless, to the extent that the species do have different value systems and priorities, they can be seen to do duty for the contending planes of so-called cultural values. This is constantly built into the games, even at the level of background details. For example, at one point in Mass Effect 2 we are moving Shepard up the stairs inside the Citadel and if we are attentive to the announcement in the background over the tannoy, we hear that the Hanar, a species with a pink blobbish body and tentacle-legs, have complained about a movie screening of a film called Blasto the Jellyfish Stings, which they consider disrespectful to them.

Interviewed by David Heineman, Mass Effect's overall project director Casey Hudson explains the range of choices offered in the games' dialogue wheels as offering not conflicting character types but different routes to achieving what he describes as the fact "that you are out to do things for good, one way or another" (2015, p. 202). Heineman asks whether "around the planning table, people will argue for particular philosophical or religious or psychological understandings of morality," to which Hudson replies "[i]t absolutely does happen, and it really depends on the content we're looking at and the story we're trying to tell" (2015, p. 203). Although the topic of multiculturalism was not raised in the interview, players have picked up on the theme repeatedly. In one thoughtful blog post, Roger Travis writes of how "Shepard is a kind of choice-making machine, just as we ourselves are, and because s/he can make no choices that don't end in the galaxy uniting behind him, his/her multiculturalism-our multiculturalism-becomes just as irrevocable as his/her appearance and origin-story" (2012). In other words, not only can we not not engage with the game's multicultural agenda, we cannot avoid endorsing it either, one of Patterson's main criticisms. Deciding not to work with other species at all would make the game literally unplayable.

There is however a major strand of the games in which some humans, but not Shepard, choose not to work with other species, or at least take a cynically instrumental view of the usefulness or otherwise of any non-human species. The organization called Cerberus is a human-supremacy organization which is suspicious of all other species and which wishes not to destroy either the Reapers or either of the principal forms they manipulate to assist them: the Geth and the Collectors. Impressed by the power of the Reapers, Cerberus wishes instead to discover some way of subverting and then using the Reapers' power for the aggrandizement of humans and their place in the galaxy. Cerberus, generally in the form of its spokesperson, the Illusive Man, repeatedly gives hysterical warnings about being under attack, or being threatened and needing to increase humans' power through being in control of the technological means of resisting and dominating other species so that nobody will push humans around. Such a position operates athwart Shepard's principles of cooperation and respect for difference, and the contrast sounds like nothing so much as the contrast between Canada and Canada's identity nemesis: the United States. Not accidentally, the Illusive Man speaks through the recognizable voiceover of American actor Martin Sheen. This core narrative conflict, which structures many of the decisions the player is faced with, would thus seem to be a clear contrast between supposedly Canadian views on power, responsibility and multicultural cooperation, as embodied in Shepard, and the privileging of power commonly identified with the United States. Surely this seems a much more plausible framing of the relationship between Shepard and Cerberus than Patterson's ingenious "[b]y defeating Cerebrus, the player mirrors the multicultural values that allow U.S. military action to be seen as exceptional to the violence of older imperial forms" (2015, p.221)?

Even though generic mass cultural forms are strongly associated with the United States, it cannot be the case that local authors of such forms are always completely erased from their creations, so that it behoves video game analysis to make the effort to parse the extent to which games articulate cultural concerns which are not necessarily one hundred percent American. This is admittedly difficult in the world of video games, given that, for example, a game like Horizon Zero Dawn may have been made by a company in the Netherlands, but most of the creative input came from Americans. Life is Strange is experienced as a piece of authentic Americana in its teenage lifestyles and concerns, and yet its creative input came mostly from French people. The difficulty is nevertheless not enough to cancel the desirability of trying to arbitrate upon the cultural scripting discernable, or not, in video games.


Just like any creative form, a video game may have its unconsciously articulated determinate absences, displacements, evasions and slippages. In the case of one of the thematic areas present in Mass Effect they appear to be proximate to ideological blockages in Canadian leveraging of multiculturalism. The games' widely-noted gameplay involving the encounter with different values, behaviour, histories and priorities and the need for small and large compromises on the part of the human character the player plays as may be seen as supporting the type of multicultural agenda associated with Canadian public discourses. When Gerald Voorhees makes the good point that in "neo-liberal multiculturalism" (2012, p. 259) immigrant groups are valorized only inasmuch as they instrumentally serve economic ends determined by established power, this seems an extreme response to the value of cooperation against a common enemy as exemplified in the Mass Effect games. The generators of discourses of cooperation nevertheless evince a significant blind spot when it comes to practices which diminish the relation of Indigenous peoples to the land which currently powerful stakeholders and their ancestors stole or finagled from the Indigenous peoples’ ancestors. When the priorities of Indigenous peoples conflict with these stakeholders' support for private property, such as the "rights" of companies to "develop" and use land for shareholders' profit, it immediately becomes clear that the rhetoric of multiculturalism is weighted in favour of identity discourses rather than of equity, ethics or rights discourses. That is, constituent ethnicities in Canada are welcome to represent ethnic aspects through such visual means as clothing, festivals, creative arts, food and related areas, but endeavors to oppose the values of power in the areas of social organization, land use and property rights will be rejected and even repressed with state violence. All of these contentious interfaces between the Canadian majority and Indigenous peoples in Canada are absent from the narrative strands and branches developed in Mass Effect 1, 2 and 3, along with the absence of attention to how humans have developed from a state of contending and fractious ethnic politicization to the evacuation of all but the most trivial ethnic markers. The elision of these two thematic areas serves to dilute the games' credentials as constituting a comprehensive multicultural reflection.

That these particular bases have not been covered is scarcely unique to Mass Effect, but common to space opera and science fiction universes in general. At present though it seems that commercial games still encounter difficulties incorporating a high degree of sensitivity to the specific resonances of Indigenous histories and perspectives. As Anishinabe and Métis observer of video games Elizabeth LaPensée comments, only games made by Indigenous communities are serious about such issues: "Game players will get the most powerful and authentic experiences of Indigenous insights when Indigenous people are involved in the games' design and development" (2017). So far, these have been inevitably independent and minority games, such as the Alaska Native game Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna) (2014), or the New Zealand game with a high degree of Maori input, SPARX (2009). One consequence is that the responsibility for brokering thoughtful representations and gameplay options which may be interacted with by greater numbers of people remains largely with the commercial video game making companies whose products sell in the millions. BioWare is one of the most thoughtful companies, and the three initial Mass Effects among the most rewardingly considerate commercial video games ever made, but that does not mean the games represent the last word in video game, or Canadian, processing of values, community and history.


[1] While it is true that American behemoth Electronic Arts purchased BioWare in 2007, the first Mass Effect game was released only one month later, its development and the establishment of its basic lore and affordances having taken place well before the takeover. On Electronic Arts, see Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter, 2009, pp. 35-68.

[2] The same comments cannot be made about BioWare's Mass Effect: Andromeda, released in 2017, in which colonization evocative of the historical European colonial period is central to the narrative and gameplay. It seems that this game will need to be considered as separate from the first three in the series, from several angles, as indeed was BioWare's intention.


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