What does it say about games and gay rights that Commander Shepard can finally be a gay man in Mass Effect 3?

So this game Mass Effect 3 came out today, and if online videogame journals teach me anything, it’s a pretty big deal. Longtime fans of the series and newcomers alike wondered: what’s going to happen to Shepard and his multispecies team of intergalactic ass-kickers? Will the third act tie everything together and improve on its already stellar predecessors, or will it just be more of the same moral binarisms masquerading as choice and “player agency?”

There is one interesting new player choice that was only enabled for the third iteration of the Mass Effect series, though many reviews have not made much of it: the ability for your Shepard to finally be an openly gay man. Writing in Kotaku, Steven Totilo explains that Bioware’s co-founders saw this as simply another factor of player choice they wanted to provide:

“We got feedback from players that they wanted more choice,” Ray Muzyka co-founder of Mass Effect studio BioWare told me during a recent interview. “We respond to that feedback and try to make our games better based on what our players are asking for.”

 Muzyka and his fellow BioWare founder Greg Zeschuk do not come off as activists or overtly progressive individuals. The games from their company, however, have become flashpoints for discussion about sex, gender and sexual orientation. Their Mass Effect and Dragon Age games, flagship titles from mega-publisher EA, are some of the only video game blockbusters that include straight or gay romance. But both men, a pair of physicians-turned-video-game hitmakers, discuss what outsiders may view as an overtly-liberal or progressive agenda as, well, more of a customer-service project or architectural choice.

This is a sentiment Mac Walters echoed when I spoke to him last week, the effort to give every Mass Effect player the fullest sense that their Shepard truly is theirs. But their claims to eschew explicitly social or political goals (Zeshuck told Totilo, “If there’s a political bent to it, it’s very Libertarian”) reflects a larger trend in queer activism today that tries to harness libertarian and neoliberal economic and political values to craft a new defense of things like gay marriage and sexual freedom ensconced in a rhetoric of personal choice: in essence, trying to beat “traditional” conservatives at their own game.

Space is a big place, and Commander Shepard might seem to have more to worry about than who he’s taking back to his cabin. But the entire concept of player agency and personal choice resonates with contemporary gay voices more than Zeshuck and Muzyka admit.

Yannick LeJacq

[via Kotaku]