Sexual Violence and Science Fiction
Sexual Violence Toward a Digitised Body: Fan and Developer Gaze in the Mass Effect Trilogy
The Mass Effect series has been dogged by loud reactions (including trolling) and has courted debate over the depiction, sexualisation, and role of women in futurism narratives. Mass Effect killed off women (sometimes brutally) as a “refrigerator mechanic,” a term created by Gail Simone to describe the unnecessary deaths of women characters who were killed off as a way to further the rage and stories of male characters. This discourse was reignited with the remaster of Mass Effect. In the original iteration of the series, the second game featured a character, Miranda Lawson, who was genetically engineered to be a perfect woman. In every scene of Miranda Lawson, the game’s viewpoint lingers on Miranda’s bottom, including during highly emotional scenes where Miranda talks about her kidnapped sister. For the remaster, these images were removed so that Miranda’s face and expressions became the focus of her scenes—to the ire of a loud segment of gaming men. The misogyny toward digitised bodies provides a unique opportunity to interrogate any harm/influence that permeates offline spaces. This paper will address questions of the relationship between the gamer and digitised bodies (and the subsequent impact on the concept of homogeneous masculinity), and the distorted nature of the male gamic gaze.
One consequence of the online criticism of BioWare removing the “butt shots” was silencing support for the company’s editorial decision, in favour of promoting voices of rage and entitlement to digitised bodies. Women have always played and continue to play games, but they are a marginalised community in particular “when they do not fall in line with dominant gamer interpretations of video games” (Phillips 30). This power dynamic supported the ubiquity of complaints across platforms—Facebook, Reddit, and Twitter as the most prominent—to condemn BioWare’s decision to remove the shots of Miranda’s bottom. The commonality of the reactions creates a homogenous male gamer, one that is portrayed as white, cisgender, and most definitely straight: the embodiment of traditional masculinity. The concept of shared masculinity or collaborative masculinity, where gaming men can express their individuality, cannot exist under this dominant-marginalised paradigm. Women are silenced, but so too are men who do not adhere to the loud clamours for the digitised female body to be the property of these men.
The reactions ranged from those users who insisted that this was a reason they would not purchase the remaster: “RIP my interest in the remaster this was that final straw I will just stick to the old PS3 copies I have” (Corey II); fans advising “if you want to see her butt that bad then just get her on your squad and turn the camera” (Hudler); to claims modders restoring the content is a victory: “About time. In my last playthrough of MELE I had flat out rejected to help Miranda with her sister because she wasn’t showing the goods” (Konnertz). Withdrawing support for Miranda in the game can result in her death, as gamers down tools and refuse optimal endings to vent their ire at a loss of access to a digitised body, highlighting the control players seek not only over their own avatar but the digital women around them.
A common strand among the comments was that Miranda, due to her design as a character stated to be genetically perfect, was a “fanservice character”:
To be honest Miranda is a fanservice character from the get go so why remove an aspect that she is supposed fulfill? Well good thing there are mods that can fix this back to what it’s supposed to be. (Hytönen)
Fuck’s sake, I hate this assault against fanserivce. Miranda’s ass is a work of art, oh, and many female players enjoy it as well. This is why I posted the other day about only enjoying anime anymore because it’s for the most part free of this nonsense. Not that I was going to support Bioware anymore after Andromeda but the OT has a special place in my heart and I was hoping it wouldn’t be fucked with. Guess I presume too much. [u/glissandont]
Linking Miranda’s depiction of beauty and the specific shots of her bottom to a service provided for gamers suggests a transaction-based relationship between developer and player, and the player to digitised bodies—for the player to buy a game, they must in turn be serviced through certain depictions of women, as though there is an unspoken contract between gamer and creator. Anything else is to be “fucked with” by a powerful corporation, as gamers position themselves as marginalised in their relationships to wealthy studios and publishers.
Behind the loud online comments is a sense of entitlement and a feeling that something has been taken from them—access to a digitised body that gamers saw as theirs, built on a decades-long history of how women had always been depicted, and on a history where women had long been unable to voice much criticism, if any at all. Role-playing games can reinforce these norms: the player, at the centre of all things, can choose to reward non-playable characters for adhering to their ideals or punish them for challenging their own world view (as in the case of the player who would deliberately allow Miranda’s death).
Amanda Phillips defines “gamic gaze” as a “visual field that gives voyeuristic access to the virtual world, which is then complicated by a recursive set of multisensory input and output that serves to invoke a sense of copresence (and commiseration) with the avatar” (135). The non-playable characters serve as titillation for the avatar-gamer; while the “male gaze” is much discussed, the gamic gaze is being specifically interrogated for the ways in which digitised bodies serve different segments of fan communities (by encouraging and appealing to different idealised-body fantasies).
Digitised bodies have to be crafted according to the dominant player base; to have a leading character who is a woman, she has to cater to a specific audience to circumvent opposition from a potentially hostile consumer base. The original shots of Miranda, then, become part of a marketing strategy, and one which has evolved since 2010.
Adrienne Shaw examines how the Tomb Raider character Lara Croft caters to a gamic gaze. Lara Croft is a character similar to Miranda as a leading sexualised figure and, therefore, of use to this paper; she, too, is strong and combative, breaking the prior expected role for women, which was simply to be a damsel in distress. But Lara Croft is a notoriously controversial character for how she is depicted and what her legacy is for women. Croft is presented as a “kick-ass woman,” but her race, sexuality, and able-bodied status cater to dominant norms; furthermore, she is hyper-sexualised as a way to placate gamers: Lara Croft could be a leading woman but only if she fits a narrow idea of attractiveness to the men who would be playing her and talking about her (Shaw 19). This same method is applied to Miranda, as even an “empowered” digitised body (such as a leading woman) must be moulded according to narrow norms. While Miranda fits the profile of “kick-ass” through her work as a terrorist and intelligent by bringing a person back from the dead, feminists such as Maren Wilson raise questions about Miranda’s feminist legacy due to the way her character is directed and framed throughout the series. The fact that the legacies of women characters are questioned more than the legacies of male characters shows the weight of expectation on women (and their digitised depicted bodies) against a backdrop of industry sexism as women are given only the barest representation (pun unintended). Yet, there are important questions to be asked and answers to be found. Miranda is given admirable attributes. She is cool and composed, and without her, the galaxy would lose the war to the reapers. In so many ways, Miranda had the opportunity to set a new tone for women characters in games. However, her physical design is not empowering to her. As the main playable character Commander Shepard pointed out, Miranda talked about herself and her looks as though “she was a tool to be used.” And that’s exactly what BioWare did in the original iteration of the games.
Miranda became a digitised icon crafted entirely for the idea of the male gaze. But the male gaze extends to the depiction of men as well. For instance, Kratos from God of War or even James Vega from Mass Effect 3 are incredibly strong, bulky ideals of hyper-masculinity. Kratos in particular becomes a leading avatar. But the ways in which the male gaze is expressed differ according to gender. Kratos becomes a figure of glorification, but women designed for the male gaze become the outlet for violent misogynistic fantasies for both fulfilling and breaking expectations of “perfection.” As a perfect human, so much of Miranda’s character is focused upon eliciting a specific reaction from a certain demographic of gamers: one of lust. This could be seen as inevitable when the International Game Developers Association found that the “typical” game developer was white, straight, able-bodied/non-disabled averaging at 35 years old (Woodcock 87). A human’s perfection and, most significantly, a woman’s perfection is left to be defined almost exclusively by men.
Has there been an evolution in the digitisation of women’s bodies? BioWare has tried to course-correct earlier decisions. Shortly after the remaster of the original trilogy was announced, Project Director Mac Walters stated that those shots of Miranda would be removed for the Mass Effect: Legendary Edition, acknowledging that “I do think a lot of things have evolved since” (Metro, 2021). And yet, despite Walters’s comments that things have evolved, as has been shown, gamers took to social media to decry the changes and to assert that BioWare was supporting censorship and giving into what is pejoratively called “woke culture.” There were allegations that BioWare was being anti-sex, even though the games will still have just as many sex scenes and include characters who are sex workers (whose services can be utilised by Shepard) and strippers. The gamers that BioWare originally tried to appeal to by producing those shots of Miranda have certainly not changed. It may be fair for women and other marginalised gamers to ask, has anything really changed at all, particularly post-gamergate?
Women have always played games, but games are more accessible and popular, and therefore it is easier for almost anyone to become a gamer. Social media has exploded—and so too have the options for marginalised or disenfranchised gamers to call out bad content and to push for a change in how they see representations of their communities. Gaming development may still be dominated by men, but there is more opportunity to push back against the decisions of white allocisgender straight men and how they depict women, which is largely dictated by their fantasies than the realities of women or marginalised people. Indeed, this is an issue that has persisted since the conception of Lara Croft in the 1990s. Referring to the work of Stephen Kline, Nick Dyer—Witheford, and Greig de Peuter, Adrienne Shaw asserts that Lara Croft’s design “represents a revised approach to game design that more prominently incorporates women into the game world but in a way that intensifies appeal to the male market.”
It would be remiss to assert that there had been no progress on the designs of women characters, and there is more to digital women than lingering shots of their bottoms. Miranda does at least have protective clothing (more than many women in games are given), and while cosplayers have reduced Miranda’s outfit to latex-thin quality, her outfit in both the comics and video games has the thickness of high-quality leather to demonstrate that she is someone used to having shots fired at her. Still, she is made to wear precariously high boots that would be detrimental to working on the battlefield. The process for designing Miranda was undertaken to ensure that she appealed to the sexuality of (certain kinds of) gamers. This is confirmed in The Art of the Mass Effect Universe, a book that details the ideas behind the different designs that appeared in the original trilogy: “Concepts of Miranda’s body and clothing tried to balance sex appeal with a uniform befitting a Cerberus officer” (64).
While Miranda’s concept and her digital body are tied to the men who created her, the implication of the character is that to be perfect, she prizes conforming to ideals of beauty that adhere to dominant/supremacist norms. Those norms are determined by the normative and supremacist structures in place, those that empower the idea of a homogenous male gamer and silence those calling for more diverse women. As Victoria Flanagan asserts: “The role that the female body plays in the production of feminine identity is significant in the context of patriarchal discourses of femininity that seek to prescribe only certain body shapes, physical features and behaviours as desirable” (101).
This, of course, extends to which genitals women are assigned in stories, their body shape, their skin colour (or, more aptly, their whiteness), and even whether their hair is visible or hidden. Flanagan’s words can be applied to game studies, as women are created and designed, their feminine identity crafted to cater to a gaming base and to aid marketing of a product. It is a burden all women in fiction carry: the axiomatic belief of what makes a woman. These video game images of women are then replicated throughout other media, such as magazines presenting a singular narrative of women across mediums (Fisher 5). They are not their own characters but defined by their audiences’ and creators’ perceptions of what a woman should be. Miranda encapsulates this history that they all carry, and she is the example of the pinnacle of these forces. The legacy of Lara Croft is still felt in the games industry.
Through examining gender in role-playing games, ReBecca Compton finds that the very concept of the male gaze did not only cater to monolithic men, but the hypersexualisation of digitised women gave women players a (false) representation of the “ideal” body in a way that could not be challenged, as the designs themselves reinforce normative and normalised ideas about how women should look and even carry themselves.
Even when studios, with their wealth and resources, work to correct their own errors, independent modders now have the power to enforce previous narratives. One modder, for instance, created content to restore the infamous “butt shots.” Anyone can now produce a digitised body; it is not just those with the most resources creating images of bodies that will dominate and carve out norms, as fans can flock to independently made content that can feed into these narrow beauty and gendered ideas. The mod demonstrates a continually shifting relationship as gamers seek to change the canon material back to the original, but importantly, back to an artefact that was a capsule for perceptions and politics of 2010, an era pre #MeToo. Since then, there has been a shift in the openness of discussion around misogyny, even if games developers and industry leaders have taken little action to stamp down on the issue itself. However, there has been a cultural swing, since #MeToo and particularly since the gamergate controversy. Gamergate started out with an ex-boyfriend of writer Zoe Quinn making unfounded allegations about her career, which sparked gamers to troll her and other prominent women in gaming—a movement that has quieted but has never been fully defeated—and led to cisgender men claiming marginalisation for their gender.
“It’s funny to me how the fact that men like ass is to them a shocking and harrowing realization that shakes them to the very core. Probably so used to their sniveling, servile, emaciated soy golems who get off to licking the dirt off their shoes that they forget that men exist as more than walking wallets and emotional tampons.” [u/CzechoslavakianJesus]
Men, by this worldview, are disempowered if women are not subjugated: the genders are in competition, and to empower masculinity is to supplant femininity. Yet games, even single-player action-adventure games, can and do often queer its players. Helen Kennedy uses the example of Lara Croft to show how players are “queered” by gaming: white heterosexual men are the focus of the game’s marketing (and Croft is crafted to a heterosexual male gaze) and yet those very same players occupy her space and her body and assume her as an avatar, essentially a transgender experience. The transhumanist experience of video-game play incorporates gender-play, disrupting and distorting the idea of fixed genders, and of the static idea of the male-gaze. Through delivering on the base desires of the loudest and most homogenous gamers, they are themselves queered and transformed.
The context of the original launch of Mass Effect fuelled the idea of a moving ground beneath the feet of cisgender men; the original launch of the first game was met with criticism and outrage during a FOX News segment, where it was falsely proclaimed that children would be exposed to extreme sexual content. The nudity in Mass Effect is limited and only related to a final cutscene with the playable character’s romantic interest, but the backdrop of outrage lingers in the minds of gamers who falsely compare the moral indignation about sex scenes in video games, with inappropriate voyeurism during emotionally fraught scenes.
Perhaps Mass Effect did not help itself with its own inherent lack of consideration for its women characters. It is clear that the iteration of FemShep—the playable female version of Commander Shepard—was coded after and based upon the figure of the male Shepard. As Phillips states, this helps to “reveal a core belief in women as the second, ornamental sex” (151). Miranda is heavily tied to the idea of an ornamental sex: a character whose backstory is that she was genetically designed to be perfect and the reaction to her was one of entitlement and control to a digitised body. The culture of loud misogyny gravitates around digitised bodies, as gamers seek to ensure that women are created and designed for them, and it leaves women who game further still on the margins, and communities of men stuck on an isolated land that is collapsing beneath their feet.
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Steph Farnsworth is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Sunderland, researching mutants in science fiction and specifically in the video game series Mass Effect. Steph Farnsworth has previously been published in Fantasy/Animation, and has presented several times at conferences, including the paper “Mutants of Fire Emblem Three Houses: An Exploration of Bio-exploitation, and How Humans Become Gods.” She is notable as the co-founder and Director of Events and Projects for the multidisciplinary academic network MultiPlay.