So – unsurprisingly to regular readers who know how much of a BioWare freak I am – I’ve been replaying the Mass Effect trilogy (with a break in there to play Dragon Age IIfor work), and have finally made it back to the third game and its post-release DLC, none of which I’d previously played. Everyone has been telling me that “Leviathan” and “Omega” are fine, but that “Citadel” is the one to play. Okay. I haven’t actually finished either “Leviathan” or “Citadel” yet (or started “Citadel” at all), but I finished “Omega” yesterday.
It’s led me to several realizations. First, I thought it was pretty damn good. It’s a foray into survival-horror that actually made me a little paranoid (in the dark, creepy groans, ammo everywhere – the guarantee to any experienced gamer that something is about to come after you, and one of my companions having a slight mental breakdown while the other yells at her), and it spends a lot of time reminding the player that while Shepard is running around shooting everything that moves, somewhere in the background there are millions of civilians dying.
All that is good. But Nyreen Kantros was awesome. Nyreen is a turian, an alien species any Mass Effect player is familiar with, as one of the repeat companions from all three games (Garrus Vakarian) is also turian. One of the things that makes Nyreen stand out is her gender – she’s the first female turian to appear in a species that seems by all accounts to be fairly gender-egalitarian. In Mass Effect 2, Garrus even talks about women in the turian military as fundamentally equal to men – but we haven’t seen any until “Omega.” Nyreen is also anything but a damsel in distress and rivals Aria T’Loak (the ostensible mistress of Omega, an asari) in terms of abilities and toughness (also, they were apparently once a “thing”). She’s smart, capable, powerful, and leads a mercenary group known as the Talons, most of whom appear to be male and have no problem calling her “boss.”
In fact, “Omega” is all about powerful women – Aria and Nyreen may be diametric opposites when it comes to motivation (Aria is ambitious and cold, and Nyreen is about as “paragon” as you can get), but both are independent, intelligent, and no-nonsense. And (along with Shepard) they defeat a male enemy by outsmarting and out-gunning him.
But “Omega” made me realize part of what the problem is with gender in games. It isn’t that developers think men are better or stronger or smarter than women. It’s that they don’t think about making women. Nyreen, for instance, was created in part because fans wanted to know what a female turian looked like. I will bet anything that a group of developers sat around a table and went, “Huh. Why didn’t we ever think about that?” It certainly made me think “Why didn’t I ever think about that?” because, especially as a feminist female gamer, I should have wondered what a female turian or a female krogan (one of whom appears for the first time – alive and visible – in Mass Effect 3) looked like. Or a female drell or hanar or elcor or volus or vorcha (still don’t know those, although we have known what a female salarian looks like).
I’m not saying this to criticize BioWare. They have an entire female species (asari), and they’ve done an admirable job of gender-balancing the Normandy crew (even if it does also have what looks like a sex-bot as an AI). The chief medical officer is a woman (Karen Chakwas), one of the two (ex)Cerberus engineers is a woman (Gabby Daniels), the yeoman is a woman (Kelly Chambers or Samantha Trainor), Liara T’Soni, Miranda Lawson, Samara, Ashley Williams, Diana Allers, several random crew members, and – of course – the possibility of Shepard. Both good and evil characters are women and men and… other. But their aliens by and large default male.
The problem isn’t inherent misogyny. The problem is simply that our default in Western society is male. And if our default is male, then our heroes are male, our villains are male (usually), and, of course, our player-characters and “default” aliens are also male. We have to consciously think about inserting women into games and other stories because they quite simply aren’t the default unless you need victims, mothers, or sex-objects. So what needs to change isn’t just games. It’s all of society – we need to start defaulting neutral, and then consciously making the decision what gender we want our characters and our heroes to be.