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'Mass Effect: Andromeda': a failed social justice project?

guest column

I remember back when I played God of War II on the Playstation 2, back before I earned that coveted platinum trophy in God of War III on the Playstation 3 that revealed a teaser website for the next title. I remember licking my chops at finally having another journey to embark on as Kratos, the series' main character, considering how fervidly I played the first installment after an employee at my local GameStop tossed me a demo disc. Greek mythology captivated me in school, so naturally it was easy to pick up a stylized version that allowed me to walk around with Medusa’s severed head, petrifying enemies in their place. Ah, I remember back then.

I also remember getting into a heated debate with a close friend of mine at the time. I thought it came out of nowhere, but it was actually triggered by the sequence in GoW II where Kratos recalled accidentally killing his family. The scene flashed by so fast I was certain I didn’t get a good glimpse, but sure as ever I asserted openly that “Kratos was Black”. As a gamer of color, I did all I could to back that claim up, considering the sparse number of heroes or heroines I could identify with at time, and even now, come to think of it. As “mounting evidence” suggested otherwise regarding the blade-wielding demigod, I threw in the towel. And that realization, for me, spawned years of grappling with the harsh reality that diverse main characters in games were going to remain few and far between.

Fast forward to 2017 and we get a five year, $40 million project in Mass Effect: Andromeda that features characters of differing sexes and orientations, but that was almost immediately met with harsh criticisms. From its eerily captured animations, to the dry and sometimes cliché narrative, Andromeda received the kind of feedback you would expect from a highly anticipated title that failed to show up. But then the feedback turned to nefarious comments, which then evolved into a derisive social critique of the title and the developers behind it. After being sucked into the vitriol that is the comments section of anything, really, I found many gamers targeting the moral fiber of Bioware, the developers behind the game, as the culprit for Andromeda’s issues. One of the comments that struck me most in particular, provided by a user who earned hundreds of likes for it, went as follows:

"This is what happens to one of the most anticipated games of all time when you put millions of dollars behind a project run by a company which: hires people for diversity quotas instead of the ability to do their job; fosters a safe space making it hard if not impossible to criticize anyone’s work; makes a cosplayer, who has a video on her Linkedin admitting openly she hates men, the lead animator and; hires people who care more about shoehorning political and social agenda than the game."

The user goes on to meticulously list the ways that social justice motives warped Andromeda into the “mess” it was. After playing video games the last two decades and throughout the advent of online gaming, it’s safe for me to say that many of these “anti-anything-remotely-inclusive” gamers pervade a community already rife with sexism, misogyny, and homophobia. While this is not at all a defense of Andromeda, something should be said regarding the attacks Bioware has received form scathing comments like the one above. The constructive criticism best suited for an instance like this is to comment on the engine, coding, and even story writing choices the team decided to make, not to compile a slapdash argument that speaks to your personal prejudices. Anyone with an Xbox Live (or PSN) headset and five minutes to spare can tell you the dozen or so examples of racially and sexually charged arguments that stem from seemingly trivial events. How then is it at all appropriate to target Bioware’s approach to diversity and equality and not the game itself, and then say that this is why they’ll crash and burn? How can falsely casting labels like “anti-white” onto a video game development team establish a sound argument of any kind?

The game has its flaws, which are all certainly up for scrutiny, but for numerous gamers to make it an issue of social and racial divisiveness speaks to how uninviting video game communities have grown in recent years.

Jamal Michel is a featured guest columnist. He is a Duke graduate and high school English teacher in Durham.

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