Adan Jerreat-Poole

Adan Jerreat-Poole is a PhD candidate at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, working at the intersection of disability studies and digital media. Their doctoral work explores Mad/crip digital identity performance and disabled feminist community-building, activism, and collective care online.

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Sick, Slow, Cyborg: Crip Futurity in Mass Effect

by Adan Jerreat-Poole


This paper uses “cripping strategies” (Sandhal p. 149) to read game texts for disability representation, uncovering productive moments of tension and discomfort that disrupt the smooth story of hyper-able bodies performing extraordinary feats in the military science fiction (SF) trilogy Mass Effect (ME). In Disability Media Studies, Elizabeth Ellcessor and Bill Kirkpatrick call this practice “negotiation”: “how readers selectively attend to and interpret texts to form their own meanings from them” (p. 12). Following their example, I adopt “a disability perspective” which “is about decentering the physically and cognitively ‘normal’ character, the ‘normal’ viewer” (p. 140). Performing crip negotiation in my analysis of ME1-3, I explore the sick, slow, and cyborg moments that offer alternative futures for crip bodies, and interrogate the complex relationships between disability, culture, and technology. ME1-3 can be read as embodying what Alison Kafer terms “crip futurity” (2013, p. 21). Kafer explains that disabled bodies are cut out of all imagined futures or left behind as the neoliberal able-bodied pace of society rushes forward. Kafer insists that “I, we, need to imagine crip futures because disabled people are continually being written out of the future, rendered as the sign of the future no one wants” (p.46). Turning to SF as a site to do this critical imagining, I look for futures in which technology has not eradicated disability but exists in a constellation of complex relationships with crip embodiments. In these futures disabled bodies exist alongside spaceships, Artificial Intelligence (AI), and particle beam weapons. Finally, I consider the intersections of gender, race, and disability, and how these identity positions impact access to futuristic technology and treatment as imagined in ME1-3.

Keywords: disability, chronic illness, crip futurity, military science fiction, first-person shooters, Mass Effect, representation, access


Crip Negotiations

Sick, crip, disabled, Mad, mentally ill, chronically ill, person with a disability, neurodiverse. The words we use to name our bodies map out a constellation of pride and pain, a galaxy of loneliness and connection. Crip as a reclaiming of cripple: Crip Pride, crip theory; in this paper, crip futurity. Eli Clare reminds us that “The ugly words -- faggot, queer, nigger, retard, cripple, freak -- come highly charged with emotional and social history. Which of us can use these words to name our pride?” (p. 109). Cripple. Crip. I start with the discomfort of naming, with the shifting valences of labels, and the complexity of bodies--digital and physical. My body, a pulsar of chronic pain, depression, and anxiety, hands clenched around the controller. My cane beside me. Cripple. Crip. My avatar on the screen, a super-soldier with strength and speed I will never possess. But I’m not looking for an escapist fantasy of cure, or the settler colonial power fantasy that first-person shooters (FPS) and military science fiction (SF) games offer. I’m looking for sick bodies. For avatars that are more like me.

This paper uses “cripping strategies” (Sandhal p. 149) to read game texts for disability representation, uncovering productive moments of tension and discomfort that disrupt the smooth story of hyper-able bodies performing extraordinary feats in the military SF trilogy Mass Effect (ME). In Disability Media Studies, Elizabeth Ellcessor and Bill Kirkpatrick call this practice “negotiation”: “how readers selectively attend to and interpret texts to form their own meanings from them” (p. 12). Following their example, I adopt “a disability perspective” which “is about decentering the physically and cognitively ‘normal’ character, the ‘normal’ viewer” (p. 140). Performing crip negotiation in my analysis of ME1-3, I explore the sick, slow, and cyborg moments that offer alternative futures for crip bodies, and interrogate the complex relationships between disability, culture, and technology. ME1-3 can be read as embodying what Alison Kafer terms “crip futurity” (2013, p. 21). Kafer explains that disabled bodies are cut out of all imagined futures or left behind as the neoliberal able-bodied pace of society rushes forward. Kafer insists that “I, we, need to imagine crip futures because disabled people are continually being written out of the future, rendered as the sign of the future no one wants” (p.46). Turning to SF as a site to do this critical imagining, I look for futures in which technology has not eradicated disability but exists in a constellation of complex relationships with crip embodiments. In these futures disabled bodies exist alongside spaceships, Artificial Intelligence (AI), and particle beam weapons. Finally, I consider the intersections of gender, race, and disability, and how these identity positions impact access to futuristic technology and treatment as imagined in ME1-3.

Crip futurity. The possibility of a future where what’s broken isn’t our bodyminds but the society that labels us defective; a culture that harmed us with violence and neglect and then called us wrong, bad, disordered, damaged (Clare 2017; Puar 2017). I study Western society. Settler culture. Neoliberal, patriarchal, white supremacist, cisheteronormative, able-bodied culture. My research focalizes on settler culture in Canada (with its continued allegiance to the ongoing practices of land dispossession and genocide, white supremacy, capitalism, and the gender binary), moving to North America more broadly. However, these discourses are not constrained by national borders, held in check by oceans or mountain ranges. Colonizers crossed oceans. The media artefacts I discuss--pop culture SF television shows, films, and video games--circulate internationally. I do not claim expertise on all nations, cultures, and experiences, but I do want to highlight the relationship between Canadian settler culture and many other parts of the world, and to stake a claim on the international significance of fighting for crip futurity. It is not just Canada but a global capitalist and settler system that positions disabled bodies as waste and writes our future as either cured or killed.

Investigating Genre: Supercrips & Sharpshooters

ME1-3 is a role-playing video game (RPG) trilogy created by Canadian developer BioWare, and falls under the genres of space opera, military SF, and FPS. As Commander Shepherd, the player fights to save the galaxy, and along the way builds friendships and romantic relationships with a series of companion characters of various genders and species. ME is a hero fantasy, a war game, and a relationship-building game filled with dialogue trees, cut scenes, and plenty of shiny weapons and upgrades. An adjustable difficulty scale makes the games more accessible for players interested primarily in narrative or role-play, although players looking to work on their tactics and sharpshooting can crank up the difficulty and buy themselves a sniper rifle. Much attention has been paid to ME in video game scholarship on queerness, sexuality, and gender (Adams and Rambukkana 2018; Glassie 2015; Lauteria and Wysocki 2015; Ware 2015; Youngblood 2018). However, less attention has been paid to disability, with the key exceptions of Theresa Krampe's work on queering disability in ME (2018) and Amanda Joyal's critique of the supercrip in ME (2012). Krampe's insights into the tension between disability representation and the franchise’s allegiance to hegemonic masculinity complicate a crip reading of the text.

Settler military SF and space opera extend contemporary cultural ideologies into the future. These genres fetishize hyperathletic, hypermasculine able-bodies, and both “fix” and pathologize disabled bodies, rerouting societal discrimination against and fear of disability through the anxiety of and desire for technological augmentation. Science fiction futures--whether utopian or dystopian, or, frequently, both--offer techno-medical advances as the solution to the “problem” of disability. These genres boast “supercrip stories”: stories of “disabled people ‘overcoming’ our disabilities” (Clare 2015, p. 2). Tracing the evolution of the term “supercrip,” Sami Schalk notes that “supercrip seems to have some relationship to Superman, the comic book, television, and film character who performs incredible feats of strength and ability such as flying, super speed, and X-ray vision” (2016, p. 74). Schalk situates overcoming narratives within discourses of popular culture, digital media, SF, hypermasculinity, heroism, and exceptionalism (supercrips don’t merely become able-bodied, but move beyond the capacities of the normate body).

We see this trope reproduced across popular SF: legless and armless Darth Vader was represented as a monstrous and monstrously overpowered cyborg in Star Wars in the 1970s, a trope reprised in the character of physically disabled and chronically ill Saw Gerrara in the 2016 film Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Wheelchair-using Jake Sully experiences the pleasures of a normate body in James Cameron’s Avatar. Tony Stark’s heart injury prefaces his transformation into Iron Man with his high-tech supersuit, only later to be cured as Iron Man 3 sees his implant removed (Samuels 2017). Limbs are often replaced by high-powered prosthetics that sometimes double as weapons--for example, Chris Ewart (2019) critiques the militarization of prosthetics and the hypersexualization of the feminine disabled/cyborg body in Planet Terror. While some of these narratives explicitly villainize disability augmentation for having gone “too far” to stay alive, others celebrate technology’s ability to “fix” disabled bodies, thereby allowing us to integrate more fully into a still-inaccessible future society. Pop culture SF reproduces hegemonic fantasies of the augmented body, offering “representational spaces of cyborgian overcompensation” in which “excessive displays of body supplementation are trafficked globally as signs of the completion (even transcendence) of the limitations of disabled bodies” (Snyder and Mitchell p. 36). These supercrips, whether heroes or villains, offer augmented bodies as better bodies, while their narratives fetishize the disabled body/cyborg as exceptional bodies (stronger and faster than the normate body), and exceptional because they started out as embodying “defectiveness and deficiency” (Clare 2017, 24).

Projecting what Eli Clare identifies as the “ideology of cure” (2017, p. xvi) into the future, these texts stake a claim on the eradication of crip bodies and promote neoliberal self-management and overcoming in place of more nuanced dialogues about access. Clare reminds us that “as a widespread ideology centered on eradication, cure always operates in relationship to violence” (2017, 28). For example, Tanya Titchkosky explores the pressures that women face to abort fetuses with disabilities (2005), while G. Thomas Couser discusses euthanasia, reminding us that “the subtext, the subliminal message, of medicine today is all too likely to be ‘cure, correct, or eliminate’” (2004, p. 214). These scholars seek to illuminate the latent violences that circulate through discourses of health and wellness that emphasize able-bodiedness and reject the disabled body as unwanted, a burden, and/or better off dead (Kafer, 2013; Wendell, 1996). The absence of interdependent and disabled bodies in space reaffirms much of SF’s allegiance to settler capitalism’s ableism and violence.

Under neoliberalism, however, disabled bodies are not the only bodies in need of improvement. Sharon Snyder and David Mitchell discuss the ways in which, in late-stage capitalism, all bodies have become framed as deficient (p. 12). Snyder and Mitchell describe the “new era of disabled athleticism--an era of buffed, muscular, yet technologically supplemented bodies--promises all of the transcendent capacity a hyperreal, medicalized culture could offer” (p.56), and reference prosthetic-using Olympians Oscar Pistorius and Aimee Mullins as supercrips. The fetishization of technological embodiment--and the anxieties these embodiments invoke--in the field of professional athleticism (which already fetishizes the super abled-bodied) is extended into the traditionally hypermasculinist athleticism of action-adventure games, including FPS and military SF games. In these imagined futures, however, not only crips are super-powered, but all bodies can benefit from technology. Both abled and disabled bodies are “improved” through voluntary or involuntary technological augmentation (everyone gets an exoskeleton!) and biomedical serums/medications. Think Neuromancer’s hackers who jack into cyberspace through a port in their head (a trope picked up by The Matrix series, among others), X-Men’s Wolverine’s claws (and Neuromancer’s Molly’s razor claws), Divergent’s mind-control serum, and the biomedical origins of supernatural animals in Rampage and Planet of the Apes. Again, technology can be wielded for good or evil, but in both cases, it improves upon the natural capacities of the body.

The obsession with hyper-abled bodies and technology doesn’t stay on screen. Consider, for example, the inaccessibility of video gaming for persons with visual impairments or physical disabilities. The hand-eye coordination required for shooting (to get the Sniper Expert Achievement in ME, for example) or other tricky maneuvers is fetishized through a “git gud” mentality of toxic gamer masculinity. Elizabeth Ellcessor reminds us that “digital media cultures take for granted an able-bodied user position, potentially restricting access for users with a variety of disabilities” (p. 2), and goes on to explain the ways in which digital media can themselves be disabling--from eyestrain to carpal tunnel syndrome (p. 3). Reading for crip moments in ME does not erase the lack of accessibility in game design, gaming systems, and gaming communities more broadly.

If we want to change the future, first we have to imagine it. We have to believe there are other ways of being and living in the world, other ways of connecting to each other, technology, and our own beautifully limited bodies. A crip negotiation of ME1-3 imagines a future where disability still exists, and disabled bodies still make trouble for an unjust society. This reading uncovers the ways in which technology and augmentation can simultaneously be disabling and offer alternative modes of generating connection, affect, and community. In this paper I use ME to explore three different strategies for generating alternative crip futures: 1) by representing willful bodies and speeds, 2) by cripping the cyborg, and 3) by celebrating interdependence and contagion, and deconstructing “the human.”

Willful Bodies & Speeds

The most visible representation of disability in ME can be found in the character of Joker (the nickname for Jeff Moreau), your pilot across all three games. Joker’s presence situates us in a future that remains ableist and invested in hegemonic settler masculinity; however, Joker’s body, movement, and language can be read as willful, offering moments of resistance to these dominant ideologies. In Willful Subjects, Sara Ahmed writes that “a body can become a willful thing, when it gets in the way of an action being completed” (43). She identities willfulness as a political and affective mode of resistance that encompasses “disobedience” (134), being read as “disagreeable” (p. 154), and strikes, demonstrations, and refusals of all kinds. While Ahmed explores the feminist killjoy as a figure of willfulness, Joker embodies the crip killjoy who identifies and kills the joys of ableism through his refusal to hide or cure his disability.

We meet Joker in ME1 and are immediately introduced to his disability. Joker has a fictional futuristic disease called “Vrolik syndrome” which borrows from contemporary brittle bone disease. Joker tells us he has very brittle bones, was born with multiple leg fractures, and has difficulty walking. He takes medication to manage his illness. As a disabled person, Joker is not stereotyped or tokenized. His disability, while present, is not centre-stage. He has a distinct personality--he is playful, sarcastic, and witty--and engages with other crew members in casual banter. In ME3, his narrative arc features a romance with the ship’s AI. He is not treated with pity or disgust, or viewed as a charity case, a burden, a freak show exhibit, or asexual (a trope that continues to marginalize both disabled bodies and asexual bodies). His disability, while not foregrounded in the game, has a continued, consistent presence. The ship’s doctor occasionally makes comments about Joker remembering to take his medication, and when he is shown walking, he moves slowly and with a visible limp.

In ME2, Joker’s disability impacts gameplay: near the end of the game, the ship is under attack, and the player assumes control of Joker and has to navigate through the ship in order to unlock the AI unit. While playing as Commander Shepard, we walk briskly and can sprint for short distances. When playing as Joker, we continue to move slowly, with a limp, and cannot run. In a universe with faster-than-light (FTL) travel and super-soldiers flying, driving, and running all over the galaxy, Joker’s slowness stands out. It isn’t framed as a drawback or failure--and of course we complete the mission--but it does force the player to slow down and move at Joker’s speed. In fact, at one point during this mission, we are penalized for moving too fast, and walk right into a monster. Instead, at the stairs we have to pause as the monstrous shadow passes (and perhaps rest and prepare for the arduous task of going up stairs, something I am personally familiar with) before proceeding.

In a world with implants, augmentations, and advanced technologies of all kind, Joker’s shifting relationship to assistive devices highlights his crip body and its slowness. Joker tells us that he sometimes uses a leg brace and crutches (ME1), but we see him moving without these aids. While assistive devices are useful, often necessary, and wonderful tools, and should be represented in SF, not all disabled bodies choose to use technology if they don’t have to, or don’t use them all the time, while others simply can’t afford them (capitalism is disabling in many ways). Many bodies that do use assistive devices continue to move at a slower pace or have less energy than abled bodies. Krampe (2018), picking up Joyal's (2012) critique of Joker as a supercrip, argues that in this scene Joker becomes more able-bodied because he can move without a mobility aid. While I would love to see more and more visibly disabled bodies represented on-screen, I’m unwilling to dismiss Joker as not disabled or less disabled because of his choice not to use a mobility aid. Ahmed reminds us that not everyone wants a hearing aid or a prosthetic and are often pressured to do so to fit in and appear more “normal” (2014, p.183). Similarly, Mitchell and Snyder critique the exportation of “prosthetic and surgical normalization as a renewed basis for global claims to American exceptionality” (2015, p.51), citing through Tobin Siebers the American charity Smile Train that fixes cleft palates in the Global South. Because of the neoliberal pressure to mold the body into a normative shape and speed, I appreciate the visible limp and slowness that Joker embodies, where technology may have sped him up or made his walk appear more even. Disabled people have the right to use or not use assistive devices and technology, and we need to see a range of disabled embodiments represented in our media and projected into the future. In an FTL universe, Joker’s refusal to be fixed or sped up registers as a resistance to the hypermasculinist super-able-bodiedness celebrated by the genre.

Importantly, Joker does not overcome his illness. There is no side quest that features a science-is-magic cure. He never puts on an exoskeleton and transforms into a cyborg super-soldier. As he says in his introduction, “I don’t need legs to fly.” He flies the ship. He doesn’t come with us on missions that require strenuous physical movement and high levels of mobility. He is typically shown sitting rather than standing or walking, although he does go dancing at one point in ME3. I initially wanted to point this out as an incongruity, since in ME1 he says “just don’t ask me to actually get up and dance, unless you like the sound of snapping shin bones,” but I decided against that critique, since chronically ill bodies fluctuate in terms of ability and energy level, and if he can sometimes go dancing I don’t want to hold him back by accusing him of not “looking” disabled enough--especially since there is continuity regarding his disability across the trilogy. He navigates the world through his shifting experience of disability and the in/accessibility of the particular environment.

Joker’s unapologetically slow and often less mobile body is not the only mode through which he performs his role as crip killjoy. Joker talks about his disability in a way that both reveals the ableism of this future society and uses sarcasm to register complaint. Joker volunteers information about his illness without being asked, and does so in a confrontational manner while using an aggressive tone. Through this dialogue it is implied that Joker has been surveilled, criticized, and questioned because of his illness, and is constantly required to do the labour of proving his right to exist:

I can see where this going. You did a background check on me, didn’t you? Well, I’ll tell you the same thing I told the captain. You want me as your pilot. I’m not good, I’m not even great, I am the best damn helmsman in the Alliance fleet! Top of my class in flight school? I earned that. All those commendations in my file? I earned those. Those weren’t given to me as a charity for my disease (ME1)

From this exchange it becomes obvious that society has not become more accepting of disabled bodies. This negative view of disability counteracts some of the excellent crip bodies in play, and, coming from an authority figure, demonstrates a shocking lack of care or respect for the disabled person’s privacy. In this moment, the player becomes complicit in reproducing systemic ableism and in violating both Joker’s privacy and contemporary legislation (at least in Canada in 2020) regarding what an employer is or is not legally allowed to ask an employee. However, Joker’s use of sarcasm in this conversation is used to assert agency and to critique ableism and the cultural narratives of crip exceptionalism and overcoming. When speaking of the management of his illness through medication, Joker adds sarcastically that “Science has turned me into a ‘productive member of society.’” While he gives information to Shepard, answering every question, he does so on his terms, and uses his tone of voice to mock and ridicule through mimicry the biomedical capitalist system that wants to fix him.

This form of vocalized resistance is present throughout the interview/interrogation:

Commander Shepard: “I need to know more about this ‘vrolik syndrome’ if I’m putting my ship in your hands.”
Joker (sarcastic/exasperated tone): “Yeah, of course you do.”

And, later in the conversation:

CS: “You’re not going to break a bone trying to fly this ship, are you?”
J: “I don’t fly with my feet, Commander, so I’ll be fine as long as I’m in this chair,” (voice lowers conspiratorially) “I gotta be real careful when I get up to take a piss though.”

Joker’s use of tone here resonates with Erica McWilliam’s argument that irony is a playful feminist counter-discourse (2000, p.174). Through this electric and tense exchange, fraught with power and refusal, ME makes ableism visible, even as it reproduces the policing of disabled bodies and the ableist attitudes the character tries to combat. Joker embodies agency through tone of voice: he is forced to disclose but does so in a way that registers as protest.

Cripping the Cyborg

Augmented, cyborg, and transhuman bodies are ubiquitous in SF and inspire excitement and panic over technological developments off-screen. While Donna Haraway (1985) employs the figure of disability (and our often intimate relationships with technology) as an exemplary cyborg in her now-famous essay “A Cyborg Manifesto,” this construction has been thoroughly critiqued as failing to attend to the production of disability among marginalized populations, and the complex relationships between disability, culture, technology, class, race, gender, and sexuality (Hamraie and Fritsch 2019; Kafer 2013). Turning away from essentialist and reductive arguments about disability and augmentation, Kafer calls for practices of “cripping the cyborg” which “means recognizing that our bodies are not separate from our political practices; neither assistive technologies nor our uses them are ahistorical or apolitical” (120). In this analysis, I crip the cyborg by interrogating the ways in which technology can be disabling and by reorienting the cyborg toward the crip embodiments of pain and fatigue.

Kaidan Alenko is a companion in ME1 and ME3 and appears very briefly in ME2. He is a white man with a hyper-muscular body and in many ways fits the archetype of the military super-soldier; at one point he is even described as an “exceptional soldier” (ME3, Udina). However, he is also a biotic with “controversial L2 implants, which are known to cause severe neurological damage to the user.” [1] As a result, Kaidan experiences migraines. Migraines can be extremely debilitating, leading me to read Kaidan as a disabled character whose disability is a side effect of biotechnology. Furthermore, in ME3, Kaidan is injured early on in the game, and spends a significant part of the game recovering in the hospital. The player is encouraged to visit him frequently as he rests and heals, and eventually he rejoins your team. Offering a different representation of disability than Joker, Kaidan complicates the cyborg supercrip archetype, and embodies the slow process of healing and recovery that is rarely present in action games.

Unlike Joker, Kaidan is a fighting member of your team who accompanies you on missions. Most of the time, Kaidan passes as able-bodied and has able-bodied privilege. As an intermittently disabled character, Kaidan is able at times to take part in the hyperathleticism of the game world and genre, while other times he likely has to sit out, to heal, and to rest (although this is implied rather than performed in the trilogy). Unlike Molly’s cool razor claws, Kaidan’s implant has consequences, and his representation therefore includes the wonderful messiness of bodies, the limitations of physical bodies, and bodies in pain in an imagined future. Kaidan’s technological-induced pain, the side effects from his implant, also problematizes the often uncritical relationship between bodies and technology in SF bionic encounters. Resonating with real-world surgery, treatment side-effects, and other messy biomedical encounters, Kaidan embodies a crip potentiality that enfolds pain into progress and incorporates rest with action.

The game trilogy unfortunately never centres his migraines and they do not impact gameplay. The game also wraps Kaidan in the minimizing and dismissive rhetoric of “it could be worse”: “Kaidan’s lucky, he just gets migraines” (ME1, Dr. Chakwas). However, many players have explored Kaidan’s migraines more extensively in fan fiction, while several discussion boards criticize the absence of an in-depth engagement with this disability in-game. I was able to get in touch with one writer who consented to having me discuss his work in this paper. “Migraines” (2014) tells the story of a character lovingly taking care of Kaidan during a debilitating migraine. In this piece, the author identifies the possibility of crip representation in ME and uses fan fiction as a cripping strategy to negotiate the hegemonic text. This piece also functions as a critical and creative intervention in the hypermasculine war game, turning from action and violence to rest and caregiving. These examples suggest that I might not be the only person who wants to reclaim Kaidan as a disabled character--and is a good reminder that there are many players who live with chronic pain, illness, and disability.

Kaidan reminds us of the inhumanness of biotics who embody a merging of organic and inorganic materials: “Human biotics are--we’re different. Freaks even” (ME3). While biotics are common among other humanoid aliens (the asari), they are rare in humans and often require an implant to channel and improve upon the skill. Employing the word “freak,” Kaidan engages the history of freak shows and the spectacle of what Rosemarie Garland-Thomson calls “extraordinary bodies,” which included:

wild men of Borneo to fat ladies, living skeletons, Fiji princes, albinos, bearded women, Siamese twins, tattooed Circassians, armless and legless wonders, Chinese giants, cannibals, midget triplets, hermaphrodites, spotted boys, and much more. (1996, p. 5)

In this passage we can see a relationship forming between disability, gender nonconformity, race, and fatness, one that continues into the present day. Garland-Thomson argues that that the extraordinary body has been transformed over time from the “prodigious monster” to “the pathological terata” (1996, p. 3), although I would argue that the discourse of monstrosity continues to exist alongside the medicalization of the “freak” body. Evoking wonder, terror, spectacle, and difference, the word “freak” is a touchstone of othered bodies. Returning to the cyborg, several digital media scholars identify the relationship between “freak” and “cyborg,” a dialogue which resituates the monstrous in the techno-medical body (Latimer 2011; Munster 2006) and resonates with Kaidan’s own cyborg-ness. In ME, Kaidan explicitly aligns his body with these other spectacular “freaks,” thus implicitly claiming an identity that brushes up against crip embodiment.

After Kaidan is severely injured in the beginning of ME3, he is hospitalized. This is written into the narrative of the game and is distinct from the “revive” or “medi-gel” button that automatically heals wounded or unconscious companions in battle. Like Joker, this emphasis on rest and waiting to heal enacts a cripped time, an emphasis on slowness. While the player can ignore Kaidan’s requests for hospital visits, we are rewarded with experience points for visiting him, as well as dialogue and relationship development. These scenes require the player to similarly slow down briefly and pause. And just as patients with previous health concerns may be kept longer for observation or take longer to recover from surgery, Kaidan’s healing process is slowed by his implant. His injury “rattled” his biotics, so he has to turn them off for a period of time, taking a break from his role as hypermasculine space hero. He explains to Shepard that he is undergoing a series of intensive treatments that includes medication and acupuncture, and that he is experiencing headaches (ME3, “Citadel: Kaidan Alenko”). Unlike the super-cyborg/ super-crip of popular imagination, Kaidan’s injuries are not automatically healed or glossed over. His recovery process is his primary narrative in ME3 and requires him to miss many of the action-adventure quests that, with his six-pack, bulging biceps, and superpowers, he was clearly designed for.

Interdependence, Contagion, and Deconstructing “The Human”

Settler capitalist discourses of disability posit technology as a cure for the worthy citizen, even as that augmented body becomes a site of both wonder and terror, and affixed to anxieties about a loss of human-ness alongside utopian fantasies of the immortal body. Mel Y. Chen writes that “healthful or bodily recuperation looks to sophisticated prosthetic instruments, synthetic drugs, and nanotechnologies, yet such potent modifications potentially come with a mourning of the loss of purity and a concomitant expulsion of bodies marked as unworthy of such ‘repair’” (2012, p.7). In this passage, Chen identifies both the hierarchy of treatment that exists under capitalism, and points to the way in which treatment is attached to anxieties about what constitutes “the human.” In ME, quarian culture challenges settler concepts about humanity and independence, instead embodying crip communities enabled by interdependence and contagion, and breaking down the boundaries between machine, person, and other lifeforms.

Tali is a companion across the ME trilogy. She is a non-human alien, a quarian, although she is coded as a woman of colour (which I will discuss later on). As a humanoid species, the quarians are largely aligned with the concept of “the human,” or at least with contemporary cultural conceptions of individual personhood. In the game world, the quarians created a race of AI robots that became sentient and overthrew them. Driven from their home planet centuries ago, the quarians now live in a travelling fleet. Due to the lack of microbes in their homeworld, quarian have compromised immune systems that have been weakened by living in sterile environments. To survive, the quarians live in enviro-suits at almost all times. The species relies on technology for survival, and they are frequently ill. As a chronically ill character within a chronically ill, immuno-compromised society, Tali experiences illness as a form of intimacy that complicates our contemporary fear of contagion and the ideology of cure. For the quarians, illness is entangled with affect, embodiment, and community in ways that underscore and celebrate both the interdependence of disability and the possibility for illness to enable radical forms of connection.

The continual cycle of illness and wellness in the quarian species produces an interdependent community, one where illness and disability are ever-present. Tali: “We have to think of other people. Always” (ME2). Unlike the pressures of hyperproductivity that are experienced under global capitalism, quarians are prepared for the disruption of labour through these movements between illness and wellness that all bodies experience. Since prevention is not entirely possible--and, in the case of acts of intimacy, not encouraged--recovery, care, and healing are central to the quarians’ way of life. Rather than viewing chronically ill bodies as unproductive, wasteful, or burdens on society, the quarians view the state of being sick as an inevitable part of everyday life, and sick bodies are not marginalized, shamed, or penalized. The healthy/unhealthy or well/sick binary becomes disrupted as all bodies move fluidly through these states.

We can read quarian culture as a rejection of the ideology of cure and a reclaiming of a radically crip relationship to technological embodiment. The quarians rely on technology to live, and yet technology does not “cure” illness: the enviro-suits function as an extension of the body, perhaps a prosthetic skin, a “home” for the body, and as a liminal space between bodies and between states of illness and health. Quarians move between these states as they move in and out of their suits. Furthermore, the act of putting on an enviro-suit for the first time is written into their coming-of-age narrative. Entering into a personal relationship with technology is a significant moment in a quarian’s life, second only to the Pilgrimage that marks their passage into full adulthood. An adult takes their place in the community through establishing an intimate relationship with technology and illness. Technology becomes function and symbol, reality and metaphor.

The quarians assume a form of crip embodiment in which the inorganic (technology) has a symbiotic relationship with the organic (the body). The relationship between the body, disability, and technology troubles the animate/inanimate and organic/inorganic binaries. Chen “interrogates how the fragile division between animate and inanimate--that is, beyond human and animal--is relentlessly produced and policed and maps important political consequences of that distinction” (2012, p.2). Following the word “animacy” and framing their argument through personal experience with chronic illness Chen argues that “animacy has the capacity to rewrite conditions of intimacy, engendering different communalisms and revising biopolitical spheres” (p.3). I argue that the quarians’ relationship with technology and bacteria animates a relational dialogue between different bodies that transforms our understanding of the human and nonhuman and produces forms of crip intimacy.

At different points in the trilogy, quarians will discuss their personal experience with illness through the themes of community and affect. According to the Wiki page, “the most intimate thing quarians can do is link their suit environments. However, doing so guarantees a quarian will get sick, although they will usually adapt over time.” The page also explains that “linking suit environments is seen as the ultimate gesture of trust and affection.” In ME2, Tali criticizes her father for not taking sick-leave time--implying that sick leave is readily available to all quarians--or letting her “see his face without a helmet.” It is heavily implied that his refusal to get sick or take sick leave is indicative of a lack of intimacy between father and daughter and reflects poorly on his parenting. If Shepard is romancing Tali, it’s made clear that being sexually intimate will likely cause her to become sick. Admiral Shala'Raan, whom Tali calls “Auntie,” tells Commander Shepard that she was present at Tali’s birth:

Her mother and I had synced up our suits so we could be in the same open-air room. I was sick for a week, but it was worth it. I was the one who took Tali from her mother and put her in the bubble. She cried so hard (ME2, “Treason”)

Because the quarians live in enviro-suits, the act of taking the suit off--and therefore opening oneself up to illness--assumes a form of sacredness and is the ultimate act of vulnerability. In this anecdote, Raan deliberately accepts illness in order to have a physical, tactile relationship with Tali and her mother. We also see here that the act of birthing an infant into technology, of welcoming a child into a relationship with technology and illness (of placing her in the bubble, a safe and sterile environment) is also an act of love, and involves touch, vulnerability, and feeling.

The relationship between illness, bodies, and technology as represented by the quarians is reminiscent of Robert McRuer’s provocative question: “what might it mean to welcome the disability to come, to desire it? What might it mean to shape worlds capable of welcoming the disability to come?” (2006, p.207). The quarians welcome illness as proof of having made the body vulnerable to another body, which also involves making oneself vulnerable to bacteria and viruses in the environment. When Auntie Raan speaks of Tali’s birth, the birth story is intertwined with a narrative of illness, and both are spoken of in a reverent and loving manner. The quarians offer up a compelling mode of cripping community, where intimacy is associated with illness, and emotional vulnerability is tied to physical and biological vulnerability.

What would it mean to accept the vulnerability of the physical/biochemical body, and to recognize that emotional vulnerability is always, in some way, a form of physical vulnerability? To read illness or contagion as objects and processes that are part of the connection between bodies, feelings, and families? Off-screen, I think about the ways that illnesses circulate through family and friend groups, how the sharing of saliva, touch, towels, cups, and communal spaces can contaminate the body and this contamination is a form of communication. We can map the physical connections we have to other bodies through the movement of bacteria and to the shared experience of illness (as we move through our own states of healthy/sick and caregiver/cared-for).

This cripping of relationships and community also leads to a deconstruction of “the human” and conceptions of personhood, not only through the quarian’s dependence on technology to sustain life, but also a re-imagining of the relationship between our bodies and microorganisms like bacteria. The quarians remind us that the body was never singular, static, “pure,” independent, or isolated. The body is always composed of other bodies (bacterial, microbial, viral), always touching other bodies (human and nonhuman, animate and inanimate), always transforming through relationships with these bodies. Rather than turning to cure and quarantine, the quarians understand illness as intimacy, and bacteria and viruses circulate as a form of community-building. Far from re-enacting the hypermasculinist emotionless power fantasy of Iron Man, tech-suits are explicitly sites of affect and embodiment. Illuminating the real-world connections between organic, inorganic, bacterial, and human, and performing crip interdependencies, the quarians embody one possible form crip futurity in which bodies cycle continuously through states of illness and health, and technology has not cured but rather communicated and communed with disability.

War, Debility, and the ‘Habits of Whiteness’

We can’t talk about disability without talking about power, and without talking about the ways in which real world imperialism and colonialism were justified through narratives of defect and subhuman-ness, propped up by “scientific” and medical racism (Berghs, 2014; Clare, 2017; Noble, 2018; Wynter, 2003). Recall the history of the freak show which offered exotic bodies and cultures alongside disabled bodies (Garland-Thomson 1996). Black and Indigenous people of colour (BIPOC) have a long history of being read as always already disabled by the white supremacist state (Maynard 2017). Furthermore, systems of oppression and violence generate or exacerbate disability. Nirmala Erevelles argues that the Global North disables bodies of colour in the Global South through war, poverty, and colonialism (2011). In The Right to Maim, Jasbir Puar discusses the high rates of disability in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), calling this brutal form of population control the “biopolitics of debilitation” (2017, p. xxiii).

As a war trilogy, ME does not interrogate the ways in which war can be debilitating. Indeed, as Krampe notes, “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” (2018). Bodies blown apart in one scene are put back together in the next (but only because Shepard is a war hero and super-soldier--not all bodies are considered as valuable in the ME universe). Vulnerable bodies are pushed offscreen. Harm is invisiblized. The two disabled human characters in ME are white cis-men who have ongoing relationships with hegemonic masculinity and violence. They are soldiers who participate in war, and at times participate in glorifying war. Indeed, their proximity to the ideal of the white masculine hero largely provides the safety from which to offer their critiques of able-bodied culture.

In contrast to our white space bros, Tali is coded as a woman of colour (a photograph of her face reveals a tweaked stock image of British-Afghan model Hammasa Kohistani), and quarian culture radically repositions disability and technology as valued and shared embodiments. However, it is important to interrogate this framing of a woman of colour as alien (humanoid--but not quite human; a person, but othered). Western science fiction and fantasy (SFF) carries a legacy of dehumanizing people of colour. Helen Young explores this phenomenon in Race and Popular Fantasy Literature, following the influence of J. R. R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard on contemporary speculative literature, tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons, and video games including Bioware’s Dragon Age (a fantasy equivalent to ME), pointing to the ways in which racial essentialism and stereotyping from the 1800s combined with the “habits of Whiteness” (2016, p.10) in the genre have perpetuated racist representations of bodies of colour. For example, the “bad” race (orcs) in Lord of the Rings is coded as black, while all the “good” races (humans, elves, hobbits) are white. Furthermore, humans in SFF are typically white, while non-human races are often coded as bodies of colour.

In ME the quarian culture superficially borrows from a mish-mash of Western stereotypes of “othered” races to create a patchwork “exotic” body of colour. For example, the quarians wear headscarves that are reminiscent of hijabs, and go on pilgrimages, invoking stereotypes of Islamic religious practices. In an interview in 2011, Tali’s voice actor Liz Sroka described Tali’s voice as an "unidentifiable pseudo-Eastern European, quarian G-- accent,” using a slur for the Romani people. There are very few humans of colour in ME, and the human (mono)culture appears to be Western/settler North American. In the absence of actual Muslims or brown bodies in space, an alien body representing exoticified people of colour is disturbing and harmful, particularly when encountered alongside the off-screen realities of racism, Islamophobia, anti-refugee sentiment, the toxic discourse of “illegal aliens,” and the history and present threat of war. I was 13 when the United States invaded Iraq. 17 years later, and we’re on the cusp of another war--and I’m acutely aware of which bodies will become collateral damage: Iraqi and Iranian civilians. So maybe it’s time we stopped turning brown bodies into aliens--even friendly or fuckable aliens--and started seeing them as human.

BioWare’s ME trilogy offers avenues for rethinking the relationships between bodies, technologies, community, and disability. While the military SF game remains allied to hegemonic masculinity, whiteness, violence, war, and supercrip exceptionalism, moments of friction in the text--a sharp tone of voice, or a fond recollection of the intimacy of shared illness--disrupt this narrative and gesture towards alternative pathways. Negotiating the text as a disabled player, I hold onto these flickering moments of crip possibility, reminding myself that the future is still being written--and that we’re not dead yet.



[1] “Biotics” are Mass Effect’s version of science-as-magic. The Wiki describes them in this way: “Biotics is the ability of some lifeforms to create mass effect fields using element zero nodules embedded in body tissues. These powers are accessed and augmented by using bio-amps. Biotic individuals can knock enemies over from a distance, lift them into the air, generate gravitational vortices to tear obstacles or enemies apart, or create protective barriers.”



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