I’ve only been playing video games for about a year, because I only recently got the memo that videogames had turned into something I would enjoy. I don’t like being told what to do and I don’t see the value in things like fan fiction, usually, because I don’t get off on playing with other people’s toys. But people I trust kept telling me videogames weren’t like that anymore, so I gave it a shot, and I haven’t looked back since.
The first thing I got really obsessed with was the Mass Effect trilogy, which is basically a story about the diplomatic moves necessary to create a community in the face of Apocalypse. Over three games—hundreds of hours of playtime—you build an army, out of a complex variety of factions, races, interests and centuries of nasty political history.
The big selling point of the game—some would say, dubiously fulfilled—is that every choice you make carries weight. People you mess with in the first game might still resent you two games later. Valued allies you allow to die won’t be around when you need them, and so on. But there’s one choice, early in the game, that has led to more fights around the story than any other.
Minor spoilers to follow—and plenty of opportunities to nitpick, I’m sure—but they’re not really the point.
When you—Commander Shepard—meet Gunnery Chief Ashley Williams, she’s one of the few survivors of the first major offensive by the trilogy’s overarching villains. She comes aboard your ship and immediately (and consistently) drops red flags that make her seem like a big old racist. Humanity being the newest inductee of the galactic union of races, it’s a resentful upstart kind of xenophobia: Not reprehensible, exactly, and to some barely noticeable.
Another human castmember, Major Kaidan Alenko, has his own problems: As one of the first human children tampered with to create innate psychic (“biotic”) ability, he suffers health problems and a somewhat dark attitude. But they’re both good soldiers—like Battlestar Galactica and most hard sci-fi, we’re dealing with the upper elite ranks—and they have differing skillsets. You come to know them as you do the rest of your burgeoning crew, through interactions and battlefield exclamations.
But there comes a moment when you must make a choice, to sacrifice one or the other, in a way that has long-term repercussions for the two-and-a-third games to follow. The one you lose is lost forever, and the one you keep has a fairly complex storyline, either way, in moments to come. Wherein lies the drama, for the fandom community surrounding the game: You’re hard-pressed to find a person without strong negative feelings toward one character, and defensive affection for the other.
Now, videogames are at a point where the “love interest” threads of the story are at a watershed: Recapitulating sexual politics in every other medium, the way forward is slow: First, games gave us female leads, and then the option of designing characters to your specifications, including simple binary gender. Next, romantic options, which follow that same path: Mostly focused on the men’s heterosexual choices at first, then more bisexual options for women, etc.
By the third game, a gay male Shep becomes a possibility. I find it interesting, but not fascinating, and for the same reasons I find the Ashley/Alenko offline drama so riveting: It’s a complex problem with simple roots.
Upon hearing the news that gay options were available in the games, the social primacy of heterosexuality means that a lot of us hear, rather than “option,” something akin to “forced diversity.” In practice, this is hardly the case: Any romantic entanglements with other characters are buried in conversation-trees so deep you’d have to be pressing buttons at random to suddenly and without warning find yourself involved in a tryst of any kind.
But for some of us, even that level of Easter Egg-type availability feels like being forced into something gay, because we’re at a stage in our culture where the roots and perspectives of straight privilege are still being looked at and understood. We have a thousands-year-old tradition of overlooking the mechanics of straight sex—a terrifically complex system of coded phrases, jokes, understandings and mistakes—that simply don’t exist for other people.
When you talk about your boyfriend, or your wedding, or joke about polishing your shotgun on your front porch when your daughter’s boyfriend shows up for her first date, you’re taking part in a grand tradition of understanding that sex happens, and we don’t have to talk about it. But if a gay man brings these things up, we don’t have those buffers in place: Your head goes to sex, because that’s what makes gay people interesting: Essentially, default straights who just happen to accidentally have sex with other ones, somehow.
“How do I explain this to my children?” you say, buggers and blowjobs hanging over your head like the Sugarplum Fairy. But what kids know, and you have forgotten, is that life—day-to-day, romantic, mundane—is a lot larger than that. Children have no stronger interest or opinions about gay sex than they do about straight sex, because they don’t actually care about sex: They care about social behaviors, weddings, romance and fairytales. It’s why we invented those things in the first place.
The story you know is the story you understand, but that’s not true for people who live in other stories.
A feminist conversation, for example, relies on man/woman dynamics that a lot of gay men, for example, doesn’t have a strong stake in. Gay men are men, true, but they don’t have the privilege of seeing the world through the straight binary—which means leaving them out of the feminist conversation altogether, excluded from both sides by virtue of having an opinion that is allied with neither. Nominally “GLBTQ” organizations are regularly raked over the goals for leaving out in practice any or nearly all of those letters. And so on.
Which brings us back to Ashley and Alenko. Spend any time with a Mass Effect player, and they will eventually start complaining about one of them. Ashley’s a racist, Alenko’s a whiner. “How can you say Ashley’s a racist!?” says one player. “Her whole story is about overcoming those challenges and understanding where she comes from!” “How can you possibly dislike Kaidan!? His whole story is about navigating moral rectitude when it lies athwart loyalty!” And so on.
But the trick—and it’s not one I’ve ever seen anybody notice, in all these fights—is that you are not talking about the same people. An Alenko person chose to sacrifice Ashley at her most racist, and thus for all the rest of their gameplay, remembers her that way. As a creep but a good soldier whose sacrifice is acknowledged but not necessarily mourned overmuch. An Ashley person remembers dour Alenko vaguely as a failed medical experiment with personal problems.
And yet we have these conversations as though we played the same game—as though we all know what we are all talking about, and therefore our opinions are either right or wrong. And I don’t mean that in an “all opinions are valid,” splitting-the-diff kind of way, I mean that we’re actually talking about four very different characters, in six very different games, all predicated—like a Butterfly Effect—on this one early choice.
Now, I know why I didn’t care for Ashley: Because even just those dog-whistling statements about aliens were enough for me to know I didn’t want somebody like that in my house. But that also means I never got to see her change, or grow, or let her experiences and pain and memories affect the way I dealt with her, or maybe even with other alien races. It was not a question for me.
That knowledge—that I missed out on her story, which is a microcosm of the whole trilogy’s story; that everything that rises must converge, and could have—still doesn’t change the fact of my visceral reaction to her image or her name. She’ll always be the racist I remember, because that’s the only story I know. And I’m not one to engage in online debates, so I don’t have any behavior for which I must necessarily atone, but I do know that I’m very grateful for seeing the fights happen, because they showed me something I don’t know I would have figured out any other way.
With a background in television and a history of moderating—often very fraught—TV discussions at TWoP, I am no stranger to the idea that for a lot of us “I like it” means the same thing as “It is good,” or that we’re all watching different episodes every time we tune in to the same show, and then trying to hold a conversation about that as though our reference points are the same. But with TV, you at least have somebody else steering: The show is telling you a story, and you’re engaging with it more or less intensely, and with more or less involvement, and with different scenes and characters resonating.
But with games—and in life—you’re the one steering. So the option of holding other people accountable to your own experiences isn’t so much a matter of choice, or even ignorance, as it is a matter of existing in the way you understand “existence” to imply. A lot of times, that means understanding that the default—straight, white, male—is something we’re all going to have to account for; oftentimes it drives a lot of us crazy that we have to do that. Sometimes we get confused about how those things intersect, or who gets the right to speak, or who gets the right to feel more victimized, or more outraged.
But for me, looking at this as an Ashley/Alenko—as a way of seeing baked so far back into the cake that it colors every single part of what we experience—helps. Privilege isn’t something to be ashamed of, it’s something to be aware of—“every tool is a weapon, if you hold it right”—which means that anybody who comes at you for defending boring old Kaidan brings with them the experience of having learned to love Ashley instead.
And how is that something to get angry about? I may never play the game through with Ashley, because I did come to love—over the course of three games, to a PG-13 degree—Major Alenko. But knowing about the other path, hearing the story from somebody who lived it so vastly differently, brings me more comfort than I can say. Even when the yelling gets the loudest. Maybe even moreso, then.
Jacob Clifton is a freelance writer and critic based in Austin, Texas. He currently recaps The Good Wife, Bates Motel, and Defiance for Television Without Pity.com. Check out jacobclifton.com, Twitter and Facebook.