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By Paul Meekin
What if I told you one of the best video games of the last decade was equal parts conservative and progressive? What if I told you that same game is action packed and consistently poignant?
Well I am.
“Mass Effect 2” is one of the most political games ever made. It’s an action RPG that combines the thrill of shooters like “Gears of War,” “Uncharted,” and “Tomb Raider” with tight writing, deep characters, and a deliberate focus on intercultural (species) relations.
“Mass Effect 2’s” story kicks off as your character, Commander Shepard, is…drafted into service (sort of) by a futuristic combination of a Super-Pac and paramilitary group – Cerebus. Think Blackwater if Blackwater had a pro-humanist political agenda.
Due to Cerebus’ past and reputation, this game’s U.N Equivalent – The Citadel Council, does what most bureaucracies do. Nothing until it’s almost too late. Cerebus is a terrorist organization they say. Shepard is a crazy man they say. The enemy; The Reapers, the Collectors; those harvesting human beings from colonies across the universe, are, essentially, fake news.
It’s a special kind of poignant that humanity is told ‘handle this yourself’ in same way many countries of our modern times handle humanitarian crises – from the Rwandan Genocide to the situation in Syria to mass poverty across the globe.
So, on your own, you begin an investigation where you meet a vast array of characters, most with personal fears, hopes, prejudices, and opinions on their culture and the culture of others – but there’s one through line. Everyone – everyone – is in the business of looking out for ‘theirs’. Their people. Their family. Their species.
This is nationalism defined and explored – and challenged.
Mordin is a genius-level Salarian scientist. His people were confronted by the rapid expansion of the Krogan empire. Krogan are hard to kill and their home-planet’s harsh conditions resulted in them evolving into a very aggressive culture that loves to war and fornicate.
Their population expanded at such a rate that they would take over the galaxy if something wasn’t done – refusing treaties and believing in manifest destiny. So Mordin and the Salarians – acting in the best interest of their people – engineered a fix, a biological, atmospheric weapon that ultimately resulted in only 1-in-1000 Krogan births being successful. It was called the genophage
As a result Krogans suddenly lost all pride in their species, turned to mercenary work, infighting, and simply doing very little to help themselves. Their nationalism resulted in the very destruction of a culture.
The genophage was the only way Salarians could guarantee the safety of their species and way of life. It was a brutal and unforgivable crime – but faced with extinction, an unforgivable action is a small price to pay for survival. Mordin expresses a bit of regret but ultimately stands by his actions.
That is one example in a game full of them. “Mass Effect 2” ultimately functions as a sci-fi allegory for how we interact with cultures. It is hard-nosed and up front about the fact we generalize and stereotype, and that sometimes those stereotypes are true. Compare the promiscuous Asari culture to Brazilian culture. Compare the Quarians to Native Americans or Nomads.
The roots of humanity and humanity’s history are spread out across multiple alien species that allow us to examine them objectively. That’s a pretty conservative thing to do. Openly generalizing about (even fictional) races, promoting a nationalist ideology that states you *must* look out for yourself because no one else will, the concept of a strong military, and the failings ‘globalized’ diplomacy? I think Teddy Roosevelt may need new pants.
It’s shocking these elements aren’t brought up too much because it is the subtext of the game.
But it gets away with it because the game is quite progressive on the interpersonal side of things. Your character can be gay or straight, romance aliens of different species, and there is ultimately a very…nuanced message regarding cultural unity here and how species are very capable of doing just as much harm to themselves as they are to each other.
This is all handled with tact and humanity. You don’t just jump into bed with a blue alien because you hit a button. You get to know these people. Understand their worldview and wants and needs – and respond to them. Responding honestly may not get you laid. Lying may get you laid, but at the cost of your personal integrity – or the mission’s success.
Additionally as you dive in you come to realize there is nuance within the cultures of the aliens, too. A war-minded Korgan can be studious or stupid. An Asari could be a romantic or a hedonist. Stereotypes are true in the macro, but on the personal, it becomes harder.
Most importantly, and regardless of ideology “Mass Effect 2” puts YOU in the middle of this action and continually forces you to make tough choices regarding these characters and species that have massive consequences on a micro and macro level. For example – if you could, would *you* cure the genophage?
The ultimate message of “Mass Effect 2” is that accepting certain fundamental truths about society and culture doesn’t make you bigot – just a realist. On top of that, those ‘conservative’ truths can, in fact, align with ‘progressive’ ideals like free love and compassion.
So, when Donald Trump and conservatives talk an “America First” agenda – keep in mind this is nothing new. “Mass Effect” had it in 2010. People will always – always – look out for ‘their people’ first – be it white, Jewish, Italian, Irish, Black, Krogan, Salarian, Asari, Human, Libertarian or Furry.
We are a tribal species and our biggest tribes are called nations. Nationalism is an ideology, but it’s also an observation. What we do with that observation is the question.
Folks like Richard Spencer are nationalist in that they don’t want anyone unlike them in their community. A place for whites. A place for blacks. A place for Latinos and Latinas, and on and on and on. Black and White. No graying. Peace by keeping potentially volatile ingredients separate – a de facto regressive position.
I would hope Donald Trump’s concept of nationalism is about getting people with common goals and wants together, regardless of race, culture, creed, political party, or tentacles. Ideological nationalism.
I look at it this way. Most libertarians (all?) want cheaper drugs and FDA reform. Bernie Sanders does too. Is he allowed on my political spaceship to Liberty for this one mission?
Even if he wants it for entirely different reasons, I am of the mind the enemy of my enemy is my friend. The enemy is high drug costs. Bernie and Libertarians hate it. Lets team up.
But if after this mutual victory, Bernie turns around and demands insane regulation or a massive increase in taxes, well, set phasers to stun.