Yet Another Mass Effect Analysis

Before I start, I should note that I didn’t see the coverage on Fox News, and I’ve never played Mass Effect. I guess that really makes me no better than the people griping about it. But I have read’s transcript of the Fox News segment, the now-infamous blog post, and I’ve seen the offending clip… somewhere. I honestly forget which blog post it was in. But it doesn’t take a lot of research to find it.

This has actually been going on for a while. I can remember a co-worker asking me a few months ago, “Have you heard about that new game Microsoft is coming out with? Apparently it will let you have sex with people, and one of the people you can have sex with is an alien.” Before I figured out she was talking about Mass Effect, I was picturing a clone of The Sims with sex tacked onto it.

I suppose I should start with the obvious hue-and-cry–the typical “how dare they spread these lies!” response of any cultural group that feels slighted by the mainstream media. Gamers, remember that complaining about Fox News’s coverage puts you square in the camp of the right-wingers who say that everything but Fox News is biased toward liberal Democrats. Granted, we may have better footing than they do, but you darn well better be able to explain why if you’re going to make that claim.

Personally, I don’t think this was a case of outright media bias. Fox News doesn’t give a crap whether this game sells or not. For that matter, it has no vested interested in seeing the XBox brand live or die. It’s reporting what’s going to get the biggest rise out of its audience, and if that means alarmist claptrap like this, then so be it.

But again, every blogger and his brother has already complained about it. Frankly, having seen the clip, I’m curious as to why they chose this game to freak out about. There are worse games out there. Hell, there are worse television shows out there.

That’s not to say it’s a nice, family-friendly scene. There should naturally be some people offended by this type of content–but for the nature of the scene, and the fact that the game is already rated Mature, the proper response is to simply not play the game. (That includes not letting your kids play it, too.) It’s clearly meant to be somewhat titillating, but it should be obvious to the casual observer that there’s more context to it than that. And it would take someone who knows nothing about games (your average Fox News viewer, perhaps) to believe that it’s anything more than a pre-scripted cutscene.

My point is, I think there’s a couple of reasons this is making the news.

It’s the taboos, stupid.

Let’s get right down to it–the scene in Mass Effect wouldn’t be as infamous if it didn’t (potentially, based on your choice of character) involve two women, one of them being an alien. God of War had cruder suggestions of sex with a single human woman (and heck, didn’t God of War II have Kratos in bed with two women?), but it didn’t cause the massive news story that this game did.

It is, quite frankly, silly that breaking social taboos is worse than truly crude content. I’m not saying it’s silly to be offended by the breaking of social taboos–that’s your personal choice–but have a sense of priorities, OK?

A blank slate

As I said, I’ve never played Mass Effect. Actually, I only know three things about the game: it’s made by BioWare, it’s set in outer space, and it has a sex scene in it. Guess why I know that last one–because that’s all news stories effing say about the game.

But my point is, most non-gamers see the same thing. While I recognize BioWare for their work on Neverwinter Nights and KotOR, most people who don’t play games won’t. And so they won’t have the same sense of respect that I have for the name–the sense that assures me they aren’t going to make some cheesy sex game.

And without knowing what the plot is offhand (because Mass Effect isn’t part of an existing franchise), no one has to give a synopsis before launching into the smear. With “Hot Coffee,” everyone at least knew that the premise of Grand Theft Auto was about stealing cars and committing crimes and such, not sex minigames. (Actually, I’ve never really played it, so I don’t know much beyond that.) Thus they can launch into the discussion with a description like, “Mass Effect is a game that lets you have sex with an alien!”

The future: it’s eeeeeeeevil

But all that said, I think the main reason this was such an issue is that the people who’ve spread this rumor don’t know much about video games, and they’re quite simply afraid of the future. I don’t mean that they’re Luddites; rather, I mean that they see every new technology as something that will eventually be subverted and lead the human race down a darker path.

And I can’t say that I blame them. Look at the Internet, with all its spam and porn and hate speech and stupid people spreading rumors about certain video games. The Internet is clearly proof that for any technological advancement, someone will find a way to screw it up for the rest of us. It’s human nature. If you’ll forgive the religious reference, it’s like humanity repeats the Fall every time they get their hands on something pure and unspoiled. “Hey, here’s something neat and pristine. How can we selfishly abuse it?”

But that’s not to say technology is overwhelmingly bad. Most people use technology in good, decent, law-abiding ways. And we simply stay away from the people who don’t.

But these people don’t see that mitigating factor. They envision the natural evolution of video games as ending in sex simulators. And in this way, they’re no different than prophecy buffs trying to twist everything news story they read until it fits with Nostradamus or the PMD End Times Checklist or whatever. These people are just waiting for a mainstream game to cross the line, and they’re trying to misrepresent Mass Effect as the game that does it. In some way, I think they’ve twisted the fact that you can customize your character’s gender and appearance into the “simulator” aspect, as if somehow you would choose your character’s appearance just for this scene.

Incidentally, I can’t argue that that sort of game won’t eventually be created; I just think it will always be restricted to the seedy underbelly of gaming. I should also mention that those games will be crappy. Case in point? Look at the games that are sold on the basis of sexual content. Leisure Suit Larry, Playboy: The Mansion, The Guy Game–heard much about these? Well, you did when they came out, but I guarantee you they haven’t ended up on anyone’s list of must-play games. Heck, Dead or Alive Extreme (which is more ogling than outright sexual content) isn’t exactly a top seller, but I’d bet it’s doing better than the games I just listed. Frankly, if people want to engage in that sort of thing, they’re probably going to go to the Internet anyway. Those people aren’t looking for the next innovation in sex-themed video games; they just want their fix.

On the other hand, people are playing things like Final Fantasy and Halo and, yes, Mass Effect, because these are really good games. This shouldn’t surprise us. Trashy romance novels don’t make the bestseller list, and porn never tops the box office list. Video games, as an industry, aren’t going to turn into an orgy of bloodshed and debauchery any more than movies or books have. There will always be the occasional over-the-top game, and I can’t deny that content as a whole is going to slowly get more gritty or crude as time goes on (just like movies and TV have). But we’re never going to get the mainstream game that people are claiming Mass Effect is unless cultural norms change significantly.

Personally, I think that if such a game existed on the market and was developed by a major company (like Microsoft or BioWare), this reaction might be warranted. Censorship, no, but a hue-and-cry reaction, yes. However, I can guarantee you it would not be effective–rather than letting the game rot in the bargain bin, people would buy or rent it to see just what made it so controversial. That means sales. And if controversial content leads to better sales, guess what people will start putting in their games more and more?