Mass Effect is a very aptly named gaming trilogy: the gamer’s decisions massively effect the outcome of the game and the galaxy. In games such as these, the butterfly effect can be viewed in real time and the consequences of actions always come back to either help or hurt the player. In Mass Effect, just as in our real world, different people groups coalesce and must find ways to exist together. Decisions based only on hearsay and personal prejudice affect the outcome of the game just like these decisions affect us every day here on planet Earth. The Mass Effect series gives us a glimpse into a world of world-altering change, including some of the moral and societal shifts that inevitably will come with a dramatic amount of technological and cultural change. After playing through the entirety of the Mass Effect trilogy you will be exposed to a plethora of problems that you will more than likely not have a satisfactory answer for; you will still have to make game-changing decisions based on your limited knowledge and experience in that galaxy. These games exhibit problems on race and technological and personal ethics that are roiling under the surface in today’s society and even present issues that are far outside of current reality yet hit on a truth that can be experienced today.
One of the first experiences you will have in Mass Effect will more than likely be that someone or something hates you because of your race. The different races of the galaxy all dislike each other in very specific ways, yet still get along well enough to be civilized with each other in a closed room. As a human you automatically offend pretty much every race for existing. Every other race in the galaxy regards humanity as petulant, fool-hardy, selfish, and impatient and you are faced with an uphill climb in every single conversation to show that you aren’t the stereotype that other species in the Mass Effect universe see you as. As a player, this aspect of gameplay made the interactions with others very difficult and I was often concerned with how easy it was to perpetuate the racism both on other races and your own. In most of the dialogue options you are given, maybe 2 out of 3 of those options will be insulting to some degree and often one of those answers is flat-out racist. Mass Effect really prides itself on being an avenue of expression for the player; if you want to be racist and prejudiced, go right on ahead but don’t expect a feel-good ending for your troubles. Nowadays people are protesting and marching because they don’t understand why people can’t just get along and I feel like, as in Mass Effect, the reason all points to the fact that it’s unfortunately easier to not give someone the benefit of the doubt. As I played through the trilogy I actively tried to give everyone/everything the benefit of the doubt as I came across them- and I was shocked at how much I learned and how inherently beautiful some people/races were even though at first glance they are absolutely terrifying. One instance that comes to mind is the plight of the Rachni.
The Rachni were a race of beings that look similar to what would happen if you mix a praying mantis, a shrimp, and a xenomorph together all in one roughly human-sized body. Something that, if you were trapped in a room with one, you would consider lighting the entire room on fire all while screaming “NOPE” at the top of your lungs. For this reason, many people are scared of, and subsequently hate, the Rachni. This hatred all came to a head in years long past in the form of the Rachni wars. Every race of the galaxy waged war against a species that bred at an alarming rate, were extremely resilient, and were willing to destroy anything in the way of their expansion. After years of conflict, the galaxy was losing- the Rachni were quickly outnumbering every other species in the galaxy despite all efforts being made to stop them. This is when the Krogan came into the picture. A primitive race granted sentience by the Salarians, the Krogan were resilient to most planetary environments (far more than any other species) and were ill-tempered and violent. With the Krogan now at their side, the galaxy slowly but surely took the fight to the Rachni and declared them extinct after many more years of brutal war and slaughter. Largely falling into myth and legend, the Rachni stories that are told today are largely ghost stories told to children.
**SPOILERS FOR MASS EFFECT GAMES AHEAD**
While on a quest, Shepard comes across the last of the Rachni Queens badly injured and mere steps away from death. During this encounter you have the option to either kill or release the captive Rachni Queen with only the knowledge of the Rachni Wars and the atrocities waged upon the galaxy by the Rachni. If given a chance, the Rachni are one of the most beautiful races in the galaxy to discover. The entire race is controlled by the Rachni Queen through a hive mind that manifests through song. While unable to be heard by the other races, the Queen talks of each newborn Rachni being a new voice in the collective song of the people and how the songs of every Rachni resonate with her. After I learned more of the Rachni throughout the Mass Effect series I often had to sit back and really appreciate the beauty of this race that was nearly exterminated because of a loss in translation and deep seated prejudice. The experience of that quest really pushed me even further to try to find the beauty in every race and species regardless of the wall of racism and prejudice that blocked my way.
Another really interesting choice that the player is given pertains to the race known as the Geth. The Geth are a race of robotic (sythentic) beings that gained sentience essentially on accident and revolted against their creators. Throughout Mass Effect you are confronted with many different Geth and in Mass Effect 1 they are the primary antagonist; in Mass Effect 2 they are the again seen in an antagonistic light; and finally in Mass Effect 3 they are either your ally or exterminated due to the choices you have made until that point. The series makes it extremely easy to hate the Geth, not because of any physical reason, but mainly due to lack of understanding, largely centering around the argument “we know nothing about them and can’t understand them so lets destroy them all;” this same argument almost saw the complete extermination of the similarly misunderstood Rachni in the earlier games.
Up to the point of first contact with the Geth you are told that they are a race of sentient machines that were created by a race called the Quarians. The Quarians were too late to react, and before they could shut down the newly sentient Geth they were overwhelmed and all but destroyed by a near indomitable foe. The stories of the Geth, much like history itself, were told primarily from one point of view: the Quarians. After talking and bonding with a Geth calling itself Legion, you slowly piece together that the Geth were not at fault and were acting entirely in self-preservation. Not only that, but I think Mass Effect really hits a very important point: fully sentient artificial intelligence will never be discovered on purpose when or if it finally happens. Much in the same way that was shown in Avengers: Age of Ultron, artificial intelligence almost always happens on accident while trying to create the perfect robotic protector/helper/cook/errand-boy/etc. As you come to find out, the Quarians were trying to create a synthetic worker who was independent enough to solve problems and docile enough to be commanded without any kind of resistance. In one heart-wrenching scene, the first Geth is being commanded to shut-down by the Quarians overseeing their new creation. The Geth, not knowing any better, continually asks if it has done something wrong to deserve being shut-down and asks its creators to allow itself to perform diagnostics and repairs to please the creators. It felt like watching a child being discarded from a family it never even knew it had, continually asking for help by parents who couldn’t be bothered by their apparent mistake. In an act of self-preservation, the Geth understandably ran and tried to fight back. It is often fairly easy to see throughout your time with Mass Effect that the other races view the Geth as something little more than a bunch of dangerous rogue robots in space than rather than a completely new species, simply because they are synthetic.
The last main vestige of prejudice and misunderstanding lies in the Krogan race. As a preface, everyone, and I mean everyone, hates the Krogans. They are prideful, warlike, boisterous, and are widely assumed to be a mistake on the part of the Salarians, which brings us to a moral quandary: should the Salarians have even granted the Krogans sentience? Should they have given life to a species, and do they have the right to strip this newfound life away from their creation? The Salarians are not gods (as much as they would like to be), and this is another striking hit at modern man’s attempts at artificial intelligence, whether brought about through accidental happenstance, or through purposeful design.
The Krogans are almost tribal in nature, often fighting each other for scraps of land and in search of expanding the harem-esque structure of their family units by murdering their nearest rival. Many years ago the Krogan race had reached their prime, establishing cities, government, and societies across the planet. Through one cause or another war was declared and the Krogans bombed themselves into the dust, leveling all of their cities and destroying their society in one fell swoop. On top of that, the different races of the galaxy teamed up and introduced a genetic virus into the Krogan population to limit the births to roughly a 1 in 100 survival rate. While this race has no outright beautiful aspect to them, they are shown time and again to be worthy of their own destiny without interference by the other races. All Krogan companions are some of the most hardy and loyal team members you will have in your journey, carving through swaths of enemies with no regard for their own life, all but earning the respect of anyone who serves with them. Yet, due to the past judgments of the primary races in the galaxy, the Krogans were culled almost to the point of extinction.
The biggest point to take away from these problems is that a lack of understanding can cause a variety of problems that most people will easily overlook because it is far easier to accept a general view of something rather than actually form your own opinion. The universe of Mass Effect nearly missed out on something utterly beautiful because of an unwillingness to change or understand with both the Rachni and the Geth. As in our own society today, we should be willing to investigate problems and form opinions on our own rather than accepting the given outlook without question. It is incredibly important to be able to validate and research your own views without having someone else, whether that be organization or individual, forcing you to conform to a certain point of view. Video games offer a way to discuss and showcase issues that communities often have a hard time being open and honest about. Games like Mass Effect have the ability to showcase different “what ifs” that are similar to a movie or a book, but allow for crucial moments of interactivity between the player and the story. These moments go a long way in showing that your actions have consequences, and sometimes those consequences can be significantly more far-reaching than originally intended.