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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.

Airport Massacre Revisited: How “No Russian” Might Have Influenced a Killer

Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 (2009)

When I first read John Sutter’s CNN article detailing how Anders Behring Breivik used Modern Warfare 2 to train himself to kill 77 people in Norway last year I thought “here we go again.” We could now lump this with countless other reports and studies linking video games to violence.  As a game scholar, I know that the results of previous studies on game violence and its effects on players have been very mixed.  As a former soldier, I know that shooting a weapon in a game in no way prepares you for firing the real thing.   By the time I finished the article and read some of the comments, I had already filed it into the nonsense folder.

But then I realized the article missed something.

This is not about how to fire a weapon.  That involves aiming, breathing, and trigger squeeze.  Neither a mouse nor a controller can teach you to do any of those.  Nor can a game in any way provide the feel of actually killing another person.  But what it can do in a superficial way is simulate a sense of control when killing many people.  In this case, only Modern Warfare 2 could do that. Had the news report mentioned any other game, I would not have given it a second thought. But MW2 is unique among modern shooters for one reason: “No Russian.”

Modern Warfare 2 is one of the games I used in my dissertation.  Specifically I used the now infamous “No Russian” scene where your character is deep undercover and forced to participate in the massacre at a Russian airport and I used it because it caused so much controversy.  I spent a lot of time analyzing that scene and what I found is that if nothing else, those few minutes allow the player to listen to the panic of “people” fleeing for their lives.  In “No Russian” you can gun down dozens of people in a few short minutes.  You can even watch the wounded crawl away.  Some cower in fear in various corners while others lie dead in pools of blood. MW2 is the only game I know of where your character enters a closed environment with scores of people and systematically guns them down as they try to run, help wounded bystanders, and try to hide behind shelves and columns.

So I ask you: if you planned to commit a massacre, what better game and scene to use? Not Grand Theft Auto.  The NPCs in that game can get away as they have open streets to run through.  However the airport is a closed space.  The people can only run so far.  And they never, ever get away. Worse still, another CNN article states that Breivik planned to film the killings on his iPhone.  Had he done that, it would have been from a first person perspective, just like MW2.

Anders Behring Breivik. Photo via DailyCaller.com

Of course I don’t know the motivation behind his thinking, but I can imagine him playing that one scene time and again and listening to the screams of people trying to live. Now most of the people in my study dismissed the terror of the “massacre” as simply graphic fiction, something that had no bearing at all on their feelings about violence or their sense of identity.  However there were some gamers who would not play that scene because it felt real. And this is the catch: if games are not real and the people we “kill” are not real, then why are some of us bothered by what we do in the game world?

Perhaps to Breivik the idea of cornering helpless people in an enclosed space and killing all of them was the ideal preparation for the real thing as he methodically killed 77 people.  I can’t say, but it troubles me to think about him comparing the deaths of game characters to real people.  What I do know is that it is a mistake to dismiss violent games because they are games.  Obviously most gamers can play shooters and function perfectly in the real world. Other realize that games do affect them and stay away from the violent ones.  However there is the third group, small in number, who we should pay attention to when they demonstrate that violent games influence them.

Not that any of this is the fault of Infinity Ward or Activision, the makers of MW2.  Ultimately how we use and react to our media is up to us. There is a reason Infinity Ward gave players the option to skip “No Russian.” However I doubt MW2 was the only reason Anders Behring Breivik committed mass murder. I do think, however, that the airport scene allowed him visualize how his real-life victims might react.

This is certainly not the end of the video game violence debate.  Our medium has the unique distinction of allowing consumers to interact with the virtual environment and because of that many think the influence is greater than the passive media of television and film.  What the research has revealed is that still more research is needed.  Yet this case and this particular game show us that we should pay closer attention to the most graphic examples of violence that while extreme, should not define our medium to those who do not play video games.

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.