Mass Effect 2: When the World Doesn’t See Your Gender

Slowly catching up to the MMO world, Mass Effect 2 allows players to customize their avatar – Shepard – with a variety of looks and either gender. Here’s a YouTube video paying tribute to FemShepard:

Lesley of writes about what it’s like to play Mass Effect 2 with an avatar that’s a lesbian woman of color.

When Brown Lady Shepard is rude, or curt, or dismissive, the reactions she receives from others are not to her gender or her race, but to her words. Why? Because the character was written with the expectation that most people will play it as a white dude, a character for whom reactions based on gender or race are inconceivable. He’s “normal”, y’see. In real life, and in most media representation, we are culturally conditioned to respond differently to a big ol’ white dude with no manners than we do a woman of color doing the exact same thing. The white dude is just a jerk, but there’s often a built-in extra rage factor against the woman of color, for daring to be “uppity”, for failing to know her place. This distinction is often unconscious and unrecognized, but it’s there. In Mass Effect, no matter what my Shepard says or does, not only is the dialogue the same as it would be for the cultural “default”, but the reaction from the other non-player characters is the same. (The only exception to this is the handful of times that Lady Shepard is called a “bitch” — I suppose Dude Shepard may get called a bitch too, but I doubt it. I find it fascinating that they would record specific name-calling dialogue in this way.) Brown Lady Shepard waves her intimidation up in a dude’s face and he backs the fuck down, just like he would if she were a hyper-privileged white guy. My Lady Shepard faces no additional pressure to prove herself because of her background; if she is dismissed, it’s on the basis of her assertions, and not because she’s a queer woman of color from a poor socioeconomic background — even though that’s exactly what she is.

There’s a joy here that I find very appealing. This is the joy of liberation. I would take nothing away from this, but I have one thing to add: the “big ol’” part of “big ol’ white dude” matters.

I’m a white dude who is decidedly not “big ol’”. I still enjoy male privilege, but people feel a lot more free to let me know they don’t like what I’m doing than they would someone a foot taller than me. Of which there are quite a few in the world. I would like to, you know, feel that I exist.

Tall guys make more money and have more sex. You can manipulate how aggressive people are in the ultimatum game just by altering the size of their avatar in a virtual reality. You can put numbers on it.

Actually, it’s even more subtle. Nick Yee and Jeremy Bailensen manipulated a virtual reality so that subjects thought themselves to be taller than their counterpart, even though their counterpart in the ulitmatum game percieved them as the same height as themselves. Under these conditions, the subjectively taller person would make more agressive splits, and reject unfair splits more frequently as well – just because they perceived themselves to be taller.

Yee and Bailensen make no report on the effects that having fabulous red hair might have, however.

Biology isn’t destiny. Napoleon and Jet Li come to mind. As a martial artist, I have physically dominated men who were much larger than myself. It was in training, but still, some of these men had a serious mental block about whether I could do this, even as I was doing it. This experience is not that dissimilar to the experience of some women martial artists I know.

Anyway, I don’t play many console games these days. But I’m really getting tempted by Mass Effect 2.