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Indoctrination, Assimilation, and Elimination: The Reaper Methodology in Mass Effect

The indoctrinated Matriarch Benezia

The indoctrinated Matriarch Benezia

It took three games, but at last now I have a more complete  understanding of how the Reapers go about conquering organic life every 50,000 years.  A warning though: if you have not completed the Mass Effect trilogy, you may want to skip this article for now.  There are spoilers for each game in the franchise.

From Commander Shepard’s first trip to Noveria and her confrontation with Matriarch Benezia, Mass Effect players have learned of indoctrination, the process by which Reapers convince organics that following the machines is the best course of action all the while presenting the appearance of free will. Our indoctrination education continues on Virmire during Shepard and Saren’s first battle.  Our hero realizes that the machines conditioned the former Spectre to think a Reaper takeover is inevitable.  Saren claims that aiding the Reaper Sovereign is the best way to help the species of our galaxy. This theme returns in Mass Effect 3 when Shepard and Anderson realize that the Reapers controlled the Illusive Man.  It is also quite possible that Shepard herself might be indoctrinated toward the end of ME3, though I do not agree with that argument.

The indoctrinated Saren Arterius on Virmire.

Yet this condition is only one possible method of Reaper control.  Obviously this works on the individual level when the machines need key individuals to influence other organics. However indoctrination is a slow process which ultimately burns out the thrall, though not before influencing governments at the highest level and causing all sorts of chaos.

In contrast the second method, assimilation, actually allows entire civilizations to “survive.”  The Reapers, though their agents, capture and then convert thousands of individuals for the specific purpose of creating new reapers.  In order to facilitate this process, the Reapers repurpose one species for the task of capturing and converting.  After the last cycle, the machines turned the Protheans into the Collectors, who were charged with assimilating humankind for the next Reaper. Assimilation normally is the process whereby the dominant social group absorbs a subordinate one to the point where only a few (desirable) traits of the lesser remain.  In the case of Mass Effect, one species is literally collected, processed, absorbed, repurposed and used as material for a new Reaper.  And yet some of that species remains, “alive” if you will inside the new creation.  Had the Collectors succeeded in Mass Effect 2, a successful Reaper invasion would have left humankind alive in the body of the youngest machine.

Human Reaper from Mass Effect 2

Mass Effect investigated indoctrination and Mass Effect 2 covered assimilation. The final act, ME3, told the story of elimination. Up until Shepard’s final confrontation with the Illusive Man Mass Effect 3 chronicles the organics struggle to avoid extinction.  However the final few minutes bring all three aspects of the Reapers methodology into one scene. With the defeat of the Collectors in Mass Effect 2, the Reapers needed to process more humans for the construction of another machine.  Earth of course, provided the greatest source of human beings for assimilation. After Shepard and company make a final assault on the Citadel in order to stave off elimination, she and Anderson find the indoctrinated Illusive Man who believes he can control the Reapers, not realizing he was fully converted into a pawn. From Shepard’s conversation with the Catalyst it is not clear (and the subject of much debate) if she is indeed indoctrinated or not.  Of the three choices presented to her by the Catalyst, two (synthesis and controlling the machines) not only keep the machines intact, but bring about a union of flesh and metal. The hardest choice is for Shepard to destroy the Reapers as she sacrifices herself.

Commander Shepard prevented the assimilation of humans in ME2.

However this choice also presents a possibility that the cycle will finally end.  Shepard had already prevented the assimilation and elimination of her species.  If she chose to also reject indoctrination, she would also remove the first and most insidious aspect of Reaper control.

I have no doubt that my analysis of Reaper methodology is incomplete.  As I work my way through another play through of the entire franchise, my views may change or evolve.

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The Walking Dead Game: A Case Study of a New Hegemony

The Walking Dead Game. 2012 Telltale Games

Let me start by saying I have yet to pick up a copy of The Walking Dead comic, though I hear it is good.  However I have watched the television show since the first episode.  So I was anxious to download the first episode of The Walking Dead game. Perhaps thirty minutes or so after I started I began to notice that this particular game examines social hegemony and identity in different ways than most video games.  I thought that was worth exploring.  So I thought I would briefly write about a new hegemony (perhaps) that I see emerging within this game world.  Warning: spoilers follow.

This is a character-driven game, and as such, it is the player who has agency to help shape the protagonist Lee.  We learn through our choices that he cares for people and is sad when he cannot help them.  In addition we know he has a tragic past.  Finally we realize he will lie not because he is trying to get away with something, but just because he thinks telling the truth will make things worse.

Lee and Clementine from The Walking Dead Game. Image from IGN.

Now one might think because he is black that race might play some factor in how we view him or how the other characters react to him.  Not so.  This is good and bad.

Good because it seems that the outbreak of the virus and the resulting zombie infestation has rewritten the social hierarchy so now the remaining social groups are simplified. You have the living and the dead.  As a result, ethnicity is not so important. Most of the survivors Lee and Clementine encounter assume they are father and daughter.  After a while Lee stops telling them otherwise.  Even when people, including Clementine, discover Lee’s crime, they simply accept it. The struggle for survival has cast aside the previous social hegemony.

However the series Walking Dead did not shy away from race.  Viewers got a strong taste of racial hatred from characters early on in the series.  Perhaps the game will too, which would be refreshing.  Too many times gamers do not get to see how the world changes when the character is a woman or a minority. Hordes of zombies will not change that, so why should the game avoid it?

Perhaps it is the case that you cannot have both.  There  must either be a real-world racial reaction or a new social order based on humans vs. walkers. Of course, and as I wrote earlier, I am still playing through the first chapter.  My opinion may change.  It may not.  It will be interesting to see if my view holds through all the remaining chapters.

The Message of The Normal Noble in Dragon Age Origins

Dragon Age Origins is my new favorite game.

Disclaimer: There are some minor spoilers for Dragon Age Origins in this blog.  You’ve been warned.

Disclaimer 2: I am still working on my first play through of DOA but I want to write down my thoughts as I play through. It may turn out I am wrong on a number of issues and if so I will blog about it at a later date.

I just bought a copy of Bioware’s Dragon Age Origins last week.  After playing for four days I am hooked.  Whereas before I was not sure if I would even like it, now I find myself thinking about it even when I’m not playing.  That’s when you know you’ve found a game that rocks.

I’ve enjoyed it so much it took me two days to realize something was wrong.

Let me go back to the beginning. For those who don’t know Dragon Age, like so many other role-playing games, lets you create your character and select a background before you plunge into the adventure.  I chose to be a human noble female. Now I don’t play RPGs that much but whenever I do, I always create a black woman.  That way, I can bring two under-represented groups at the same time.  However for some reason, I could not create a black woman this time.  All I could do was give her a bit of tan that just didn’t look right.  After trying four or five times I gave up, made her the best I could, and started the game.

Character creation for nobles is limited in Dragon Age Origins

When my character walked into the castle (she was a noble after all) I realized why my choices were so limited: my family was white.  Mentally I kicked myself for being so silly.  Noble.  Castle.  Very European.  Of course they were white.  That makes perfect historical sense.  And so with only a twinge of disappointment, I launched into the grand epic.

After two days of killing darkspawns and demons it finally dawned on me that something wasn’t right.  It turns out my character was not the problem.  The family was.  Well not exactly. Or maybe that’s really two problems.  The first problem was that I could not create the character I wanted to create because historical accuracy (in a fantasy game mind you) dictated otherwise.

The second problem is that I accepted the fact that a noble human family in a fantasy game should be white due to the setting.  Dragon Age is a fantasy, right?  If I can be a part of a world that contains the most honorable heroes, the Gray Wardens, and the most vile villains then why is it so hard to have a noble family of color?  In my days of traveling the land, I have seen NPCs of color, though none of significance yet.  I assume I will eventually run into one who will present me with a side quest or something.  So if that is the case that there are free NPCs of color in the land then why can they not be a part of the noble class?

Bioware went to great lengths to provide different backgrounds for players to select: human, elves, dwarves and so on. Moreover, they have carefully crafted a spectacular game with a rich and diverse mythology.  I am still amazed by what I have seen so far.  So then how hard would it have been for them to add code to change the family to fit the character?  If I wanted to create an Asian male, then the game should automatically create a family to match.

These were the choices I had in Knights of the Old Republic

The more complex and insidious issue here is that it took me a few days to realize something was wrong.  You see when I realized the European setting dictated a European family, I was okay with that.  It seemed very normal to me. Therein lies the problem.  Because it was normal, I did not question it, though I should have.  I probably should have been outraged that being white and noble was hardwired into the game as well as my consciousness.  But I was having such a great time playing the game that all thoughts of accepting (or rejecting) that particular messages soon fell by the wayside.  And yet this is a fantasy game.  In my fantasy games, I want my heroes to be people who look like me.  I did it that way in Knights of the Old Republic and I did it that way in Mass Effect. Bioware has spoiled me. What’s the difference between those two games and Dragon Age?  In Knights and ME the hero came from either a tragic or mysterious background.  We only got to hear about their origins.  In Dragon Age, I got to experience my character’s home and family.  There was a sense of community.  I had access to my parents, servants, and pets.  All very normal, even it all took place in a huge castle.  The hidden message here: in the better or preferred background, you can’t be black or Asian.  Those races are relegated to the abnormal. This other background is only acceptable for that mysterious person, that tragic survivor, the violent war hero, or the fallen dark lord.

What we are really taking about is re-imagining characters in-game and we should all be used to it by now.  Last summer the entire concept of Star Trek changed with the new movie.  Battlestar Galactica re-imagined the whole series including some of the main characters such as Starbuck (from Dirk Benedict to Katee Sackhoff) and Boomer (from Herb Jefferson Jr. to Grace Park).  In Marvel Comics’ Nick Fury went from white (comics) to black (movies). And who can forget Brandy as Cinderella? I would like the option to either embrace or reject those messages of what is normal in my games.

Now you might think that after all this I would stop playing Dragon Age Origins.  Not so.  I’ve had too much fun to stop anytime soon.  And it may turn out that when I choose another origin the result will be better.  I have yet to try being an elf or a dwarf.  But even if I run into the same problem, I believe this tale will be every bit as satisfying as Bioware’s other games. However fantasy above all else should be about escaping from the norm.  Whenever writers and developers only bring those norms into the game, they limit what the player can do to enrich his/her experience by not allowing that player’s notion of identity to be included.

Cultural Hegemony Within the World of Mass Effect, part 2

Last time I wrote about how the organization Cerberus challenges the hegemonic rule of the Citadel Council in the Mass Effect franchise.  This time around we explore some of the finer points of cultural hegemony and how some different readings of ME point to inclusion of hegemony in these two BioWare games.

In ME mythology, the Council was originally made up of the Asari and the Salarians.  The Turians were allowed to join after they unleashed the genophage on the violent Krogan, thereby keeping them in check due to the new genetically controlled birthrate. Humanity joined the council after the Battle of the Citadel (as Sovereign’s attack came to be known).  Both times the race that saved the Citadel from demise  became a member of the ruling council. In the world of Mass Effect, the most relevant challenges to hegemonic rule are a) those great threats that come from the outside and b) an uprising so strong that the regular fleet cannot prevail.

In the case of the Krogan Uprisings, the Citadel nearly destroyed itself. After all, they enabled the quick-breeding Krogan to escape the confides of their predator-filled home planet and as long as they could defeat the Rachni and win the Citadel’s war, the hegemony prevailed. However with the end of the Rachi War, the Krogan population ballooned at an alarming rate.  Hence the genophage and the Turian seat on the Council.

Humanity of course took the lead in fighting the Reaper Sovereign. Again we see the Council recognizing that a race was now powerful and influential enough to pose a threat if left outside the political inner circle. And so humanity became the fourth race represented on the Council.  Any member of the human race might think that, like the Turians, mankind had now reached the pinnacle of galactic government and thus had “arrived.”  Not Cerberus.

Perhaps if humanity had gained its proper position in the power structure after that battle, Cerberus would have ceased its operations.  However the Illusive Man believed that human interests were still not being served.  Why would he think that?  Let me refer back to cultural hegemony theory for a few hints.  Specifically, I will reference the Artz and Murphy book Cultural Hegemony in the United States.

These two writers remind us that the messages, ideas, and ideals of the dominant class are transmitted to and adopted by the marginalized (or oppressed) classes.  If we apply that to Mass Effect, it is reasonable to assume the ideologies of humanity are not transmitted via the extranet (Mass Effect‘s Internet) and to the masses.  We only get snippets of information while playing ME1 and ME2, so we don’t know if Shepard’s interactions with reporters are for the human press or the galactic press.  Likewise, the brief reports the player hears via “galaxy news” in ME2 could be customized for just for Shepard, just like the advertisements on the Citadel are personalized ala Minority Report.

Second, we know that hegemonic concessions must look like real progress for the oppressed classes. Otherwise they have little or no effect.  Genuine interest is an illusion that often times is enough to placate the oppressed enough to quiet cultural, economic, or political unrest.  We know that in the real world that having women on the Supreme Court does not automatically mean fair and equal treatment for both sexes; nor does having Barack Obama as President of the United States ensure that African-Americans now have equal access to economic, cultural, and political power.  So can we say that (in the Mass Effect universe) having David Anderson on the Citadel Council guarantees all of humanity’s concerns will be addressed?

We still know too little of the Illusive Man’s motivations to be sure, but it could very well be that he has recognized the power of hegemonic rule and knows that humankind must still fight in order to gain power. And so he has adopted an “end justifies the means” mentality.  We know from playing the two games that Cerberus has raised some hackles with both the human Systems Alliance and with the Citadel.  We also know that many in the Alliance do not trust Cerberus.  Even Ashley Williams, a self-professed xenophobic, berates Shepard for joining the Illusive Man when the two meet on Horizon in ME2.

But for all that, Cerberus seems more of a nuisance and a headache than a threat to rule of the Council races.  In ideology, the Illusive Man and his organization appear to be conscious of humanity’s actual place in the galaxy. Yet in practice, Cerberus by itself cannot pose any true challenge to that order.  And whether the writer’s of Mass Effect realize it or not, that is right in line with cultural hegemony theory.

Cultural Hegemony Within the World of Mass Effect, part 1

In the universe of Mass Effect, the organization called Cerberus is either a terrorist group or a pro-human organization. In cultural studies, however, it could be considered something else: an instrument designed to combat cultural hegemony.  Now before I get too far, let me take a few moments to explain what I mean by that phrase.  Cultural hegemony is a concept created by Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci.  He developed this concept after the Marxist revolution failed to materialize in Italy.  Gramsci postulated that the oppressed classes did not revolt because they believed it was in their best interests not to do so.  Because of that, these social classes that were in the margins of society, gave the dominant class the power to rule.  “Power by consent” is the catch-phrase here. So these dominant classes, which control media and ideas, also promote the notion that they rule because they are best suited to do so.  Moreover, whenever the marginalized classes decided to take action gain more power, the class in charge will often times provide a concession to appease the oppressed.  Of course that concession can be revoked later.

The extensive mythology of ME states that when humanity discovered the mass effect relays, it entered a galactic civilization centered around the Citadel.  Citadel space is controlled by the Council Races: the Asari, the Turians, and the Salarians.  Each race keeps one representative on the Citadel Council, the ruling body.  The Council controls the Fleet and the Spectres, their agents who operate beyond the confines of law.

In the ME2 preview “The Story so Far” we learn that humanity needed only one generation to rise to prominence within the Citadel.  Thanks to the actions of Commander Shepard and crew in ME1, the council now has a representative, David Anderson. Moreover, Citadel Security Captain Bailey reminds Shepard that the Systems Alliance (humanity) guarded the citadel after the battle with the Reaper Sovereign.  That does not mean, however, that humanity has “made it” in the Mass Effect world. Humans are often looked down upon by other the races, especially the Salarians, and the Turians (Humanity’s opponent in The First Contact War).

We now know that the three primary Citadel races have taken steps to exclude others from positions of power.  Chief among these would be the Volus, the Krogan, and the Quarians. The Volus, small in stature,  belong to the Citadel as associate members, but have never been offered a seat on the Council.  The Citadel races keep the violent Krogan in check with a genetic infection called the genophage that keeps their birth numbers down lest they threaten the whole galaxy.  Finally the nomadic Quarians are the outcasts of galactic society because they unleashed the synthetic Geth on galaxy and lost their home planet in the process.

When compared to these races, humanity fares better. And yet an element of mankind seeks to improve its position by whatever means are needed.  The organization Cerebrus, depending on who you ask, are terrorists, extremists, or pro-human. They freely use genetic manipulation, imprisonment, experimentation, abuse, and assassination to achieve their goals and their activities often times bring condemnation from the Council. In ME1 Shepard fights against them, but in ME2 she works with them as they are the only group working to stop the Reaper threat.

They are also the organization in Mass Effect that works to keep the gains made by humanity in the first game.  With the death of Shepard, humanity’s lofty position begins to slide. Even the ascension of Anderson to the Council begins to lose some luster as he is outnumbered three to one by the other races.  (I base this article on Shepard’s decision to save the Council in ME1.  The other alternative is for Shepard to name Anderson Chairman of a new council.) The Council took extensive steps to cover up the Reaper threat and thus the need for humanity to play a larger role in Citadel politics.  Without Shepard to champion the cause, Citadel space has, for the most part, reverted to business-as-usual.

We could very easily look at Anderson’s position as a hegemonic concession by the Council.  If that is the case and humanity political position is relatively unchanged since the beginning of ME1, then other forces must assert themselves to combat hegemony.

Back in the real world, cultural hegemony became more popular thanks to Artz and Murphy’s book Cultural Hegemony in the United States. In it, the writers note that when marginalized groups come together to form historic blocs, they stand the best change to successfully challenge hegemons. In the case of Mass Effect, one violent organization, even one as powerful and far-reaching as Cerberus, cannot successfully combat the political-industrial Citadel.  It turns out that if we adhere to the concepts of cultural hegemony than Cerebrus would have to be the vanguard that would allow human movement to partner with other races such as the Volus and the Quarians in order to gain political power.  Together, they would have to create such a political threat that the Council would have no choice but to institute changes.

Of course Cerebrus is pro-human to the point where other races are understandably leery. Most of Shepard’s non-human crew in ME2 express hesitation in working with Cerberus.  It is only their loyalty to their commander that allows them to join the fight against the Reaper’s agents, the Collectors. One can understand their position after one play through the game. Mass Effect 2 allows players to see the darker side of Cerberus through Jack’s loyalty mission as well as the failed experiment Overlord.  Given the history, it seems unlikely that other races would seek to partner with Cerberus and its mysterious leader, the Illusive Man.  Right now, no other organization that we know of has taken steps to increase humanity’s footprint in the Citadel.  Perhaps Mass Effect 3 will provide that information.

Part two later this week.