Mass Effect II and Racial Essentialism

Jonathan McCalmont @ 03-03-2010

Blasphemous Geometries by Jonathan McCalmont

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Genre is, to one extent or another, all about re-using old ideas. Ideas shared. Ideas reclaimed. Ideas reinvented. Ideas lost. Ideas rediscovered. Encounter enough works of genre over a long enough time period and you will see ideas rise and fall like the tides. You will also see patterns emerging in the way that certain ideas are used. For example, it is no accident that the rain slicked streets of 1930s noir fiction would pop up in the works of Raymond Chandler before re-appearing in the films of the 1960s French Nouvelle Vague, and appearing again in the novels and stories of Cyberpunk in the 1980s. The long shadows and bad weather of noir were an expressionistic manifestation of a sense of unease, a feeling that society was somehow broken. That same intuition has stayed with us over time, summoning noir’s set dressing again and again as new generations of authors deploy the same ideas and techniques to express ideas of their own time and place.

Genres are collections of these kinds of ideas. Ideas that form a shared vocabulary that gets used and re-used to tell new stories. But sometimes a good genre idea or trope will become detached from its metaphorical roots and take on a substance and a physicality of its own. The idea will develop freely as generations of authors engage with it but, because the idea has been separated from its original metaphorical purpose, the idea will forever remain wedded to the time and place in which it was forged. Like mitochondrial DNA, or a forgotten time capsule. A window into a different time and a different place.

Given that most video games are works of genre, it is unsurprising to note that video games have time capsules of their own containing ideas that have long since ceased to be useful. This is a column about one such idea: racial essentialism.

Essentialism is the philosophical doctrine that all things of a particular kind share the same essence. An essence that determines their individual characteristics. This might well seem self-evident and, to a certain extent, it is. After all, if a group of things do not share certain characteristics, in what way can they be said to be a part of the same group? Essentialism only becomes philosophically problematic once you start to apply it to groups of people or humanity as a whole. Indeed, underpinning Humanism is the belief that there is such a thing as human nature and that this nature is unchanging. What is problematic about this viewpoint is that it seems to suggest that humanity cannot change and that the different groups that make-up humanity all have fixed characteristics. Indeed, push this belief far enough and Essentialism can be used to justify all kinds of horrible beliefs, including the idea that because one is of a particular racial group, one must necessarily possess certain fixed characteristics.

Contemporary computer role-playing games such as World of Warcraft (2004), Mass Effect (2007) and Dragon Age : Origins (2009) share a commitment to racial essentialism. In all of these games, being a member of a particular species entails certain physical and psychological facts. For example, if you are an Elf in Dragon Age : Origins then you will be small and quick with a chip on your shoulder; meanwhile, if you are a Tauren in World of Warcraft you will be physically powerful but ultimately peace-loving and attached to nature. Of course, as the player of these games, you can create the character you want and there is nothing stopping you from building a bruising, slow-witted Elf with a hatred of magic. But while you have the freedom to express yourself through character creation, the game worlds and plot-lines will invariably reflect the expectation that certain races behave in certain ways. Indeed, some of the most powerful experiences one can have in contemporary RPGs revolve around the issue of race. Consider for example Evan Narcisse’s excellent The Atlantic column about the death of the Krogan Wrex in Mass Effect.

Mass Effect 2 (2010) returns to the issue of the Krogan with the character Grunt. Created in a lab out of bits of DNA from famous Krogan heroes, Grunt struggles to come to terms with his identity both as an individual and as a Krogen. The Krogan, we are lead to believe, are a violent and bellicose race of huge saurian thugs whose expansionist and militaristic tendencies looked poised to cause a huge war right up until someone fixed the problem using a Genophage, a disease that effectively sterilises part of the Krogan race, thereby making it impossible for them to achieve the kind of population density that might make them want to travel to other worlds in search of lebensraum or maintain a large enough army to attempt an invasion of any of their neighbours.

What is fascinating about Mass Effect 2’s handling of Krogan psychology is that at no point does it question the idea that the Krogan are an inherently violent species who will, sooner or later, try to take over the rest of the Galaxy. For example, the game allows you to win the loyalty of the cloned Grunt only by helping him to achieve the acceptance of a clan on his home world. This is an individual who has reached adulthood with only the most tenuous of links to his race’s culture, and yet he can only achieve true happiness by jumping through that culture’s requisite hoops. Krogan culture is, evidently, a manifestation of their genes. It is as though being born a child of Ashkenazi Jews meant that you were incapable of being happy unless you started observing Pesach.

Another member of your crew, a Salarian scientist named Mordin Solus, turns out to be partly responsible for the creation of the Genophage. However, despite his being responsible for the deaths of millions of innocent Krogan, one does not have the option to dump Solus out the nearest airlock or fly to the science fictional equivalent of the Hague in order to have him indicted for war crimes. Instead, the game sets about muddying the moral waters by suggesting that even if the Krogan hadn’t been infected with the virus, they most likely would have nuked themselves back to the stone age anyway… and besides, the guy who is trying to cure the Genophage is experimenting on live Krogan, so who are we to judge Solus anyway, hmmmm?

Mass Effect 2’s acceptance of the idea that being a member of a particular race dictates your personality forces the player into an almost comical crisis of liberalism. One can either be a Hawkish bad guy and see the treatment of the Krogan as a useful means to an unavoidable end, or one can be the hand-wringing good guy and accept that the Krogan are a community with their own values, and that we really should not judge their violent natures. What makes this worse is the fact that Mass Effect 2 has a moral choice system built into it, meaning that only the only character with genuine moral agency is the one controlled by the player. This concentration of power gives the game a rather unpleasantly colonial feel as it sets up Humanity as a US-style galactic policeman, bringing truth and justice to squabbling lesser peoples. The fact that the game is constantly referring to the protagonist Shepherd as a hero does not help this sensation in the least bit. I kept wanting to swap my character’s battle armour for diplomatic whites and a feathered pith helmet.

The inspiration for the game’s depiction of essentialism flows from two different sources.

The First is The Lord of The Rings (1949). Tolkien’s book was clearly inspired by the times in which he was writing – times in which it was not only acceptable to think of people of particular races and nationalities as possessing fixed characteristics, but in which the nations of the World picked sides and went to war with each other. Against this backdrop, Tolkien popularised a technique through which genre can deal with racial and national tensions: namely by projecting them directly onto characters from different species. After all, if there is such a thing as human nature, and if different kinds of humans seem incapable of getting on, what might it be like if entirely different species were forced to co-exist? The degree of in-species homogeneity and inter-species distrust displayed at the Council of Elrond remains hugely influential over seventy years later.

Of course, it is easy to blame Tolkien for these kinds of habits – in fact, it is easy to blame Tolkien for most things, including knife crime, teenaged pregnancy and the fact that every Democratic US president since the Second World War has campaigned as a dove before turning into Stompy McWarboots the second he gets into office. But the history of game design has also shaped the ways in which games deal with race. Indeed, another seminal text in the depiction of race in RPGs is Dungeons and Dragons. While the original edition of D&D only offered Dwarves and Elves as classes similar to Fighter or Mage, Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (1977) allowed you to choose both a class and a race (and the term used actually was ‘race’ as opposed to ‘species’). However, in order to make these choices meaningful in game terms, the designers had to flesh out what it meant to be an Elf or a Dwarf. So in addition to racial modifiers, you also got psychological guidelines for how to play your character and limitations upon which jobs your character could have. The rule books of many dead tree RPGs read like works of Victorian anthropology, full of stony-faced assurances that individuals from one race are more intelligent or muscular than individuals from another.

It has seemingly never occurred to game designers to question traditional genre techniques for depicting race.

The Second source of essentialist thought in RPGs is modern identity politics. If we consider the history of identity politics, we will see the way in which certain intellectual strategies have been re-used by different causes. For example, in the mid-1970s, the Gay Rights Movement began to adopt the increasingly successful language of the Civil Rights Movement. This involved fighting for Gay rights not on the grounds that there is nothing wrong with same-sex relationships, but rather on the grounds that being Gay is something that one is born into. Because one does not choose to be Gay, it is unfair to condemn homosexuality – and so, condemning homosexuality is not a question of speaking out against ‘immoral behaviour’. Instead, it is an attempt to persecute a minority. Since then, this strategy of instrumental essentialism has swept across the political landscape. Now, when Richard Dawkins criticises the beliefs of Christians, he is painted (by Christians, naturally) as an intolerant bigot persecuting a minority group. The spread of this kind of politics has made many liberals uneasy about confronting other cultures, even when those cultures transgress liberal ethical values; this queasiness is what underpins Mass Effect 2’s liberal crisis. Grunt sees himself as a warrior who can only achieve happiness by conforming to the standards of his racial culture – and the game refuses to contradict him.

The problem with this kind of species essentialism is that it rests upon highly questionable philosophical bases. Indeed, while racial essentialism is obvious nonsense, the more robust and respectable idea that human nature is fixed is far from being universally accepted. While Jean-Paul Sartre argues, in Existentialism is a Humanism (1946) that existence precedes essence, Stephen Pinker, in The Blank Slate (2003) uses Evolutionary Psychology to attack the concept of the Tabula Rasa, the idea that individuals are born without cognitive content that might shape their natures. Of course, as is usually the case with these intellectual dichotomies, the truth about human nature is partly a question of nature and partly a question of nurture. This is because the concept of ‘human nature’ is an ancient and unclear one. For example does this nature exist at the level of behaviour or at the level of neural processing? Is it application or operating system? Does the existence of a human nature validate particular political and moral systems or is it a more abstract question of how we think and experience the world? Because the basic terms of the debate are unclear and emotive, the question of human nature (and therefore that of non-human fictional sentient species) remains open – but would it not be nice to see a game that actually allowed for the true complexity and uncertainty of the world rather than retreating into the long-abandoned certainties of the past?

One interesting solution to the problem is offered by the winner of the 2009 Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival. Jacques Audiard’s Un Prophete (2009) is an epic prison-set crime drama about a young Arab who has to learn the ropes of the prison system, a system in which your race is seen as dictating not only your personality, but also your loyalties. However, despite being an Arab, the central character seems to come from nowhere. He has no family. He has no friends. He has no knowledge of Islam. He does not even know how to write. He is a complete individual. His slow rise is presented not as an example of a member of a minority achieving power by aping the tactics of the politically dominant race (as with the depiction of Frank Lucas in Ridley Scott’s American Gangster or Stringer Bell in The Wire), but rather an image of a man free from racial preconceptions making the most of a world carved up by arbitrary and meaningless racial tribalism. Un Prophete is, in some ways, an attempt to create a mythology for people without roots; just as The Godfather (1972) helped to define the racial and cultural parameters of what it meant to be an American of Italian origin, Un Prophete is the creation myth of people who are not defined by their race or by their culture, but only by their individual actions.

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Jonathan McCalmontJonathan McCalmont is a recovering academic with a background in philosophy and political science. He lives in London, UK where he teaches and writes about books and films for a number of different venues. Like Howard Beale in Network, he is as mad as hell and he’s not going to take this any more.

Jonathan recently launched Fruitless Recursion – “an online journal devoted to discussing works of criticism and non-fiction relating to the SF, Fantasy and Horror genres.” If you liked the column above, you’ll love it.

[ The fractal in the Blasphemous Geometries header image is a public domain image lifted from Zyzstar. ]

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12 Responses to “Mass Effect II and Racial Essentialism”

  1. Christian says:

    Krogans are not humans. Why do we have to look for human characteristics everywhere? We don’t even know for sure whether the Krogans have violence encoded into their genes. But even if it is so, why would that be a problem?
    And throwing Mordin Solus out of an airlock or bringing him to an equivalent of ‘The Hague’? Please! The Player is working for an organisation called Cerberus, which seeks to bring about human dominance in the galaxy and does things like brutal experiments on civilians to further their goal. The Player knows this – yet he works for them because they are the only ones who care about the hundreds of thousands of humans vanishing all over the Galaxy. To stop the foe responsible for those abductions, the player recruits hardened criminals, vigilantes, mercenaries, etc. from all over the galaxy. And this player should bring Mordin Solus to justice? Can you say hyprocrite?

  2. Ben says:

    Racial essentialism is bogus because there is little biological variation between human ‘races’, and most of that is to do with trivial characteristics like the ability to metabolise alcohol or digest milk. Certainly, belonging to a particular ‘race’ (which is a cultural category as much as a biological one) doesn’t mean that you are predestined to be particularly belligerent/intelligent/wise etc.

    “Species essentialism”, on the other hand, seems to me a meaningless charge. It is almost tautologically true to expect different species, with different evolutionary histories and ecological niches, to have evolved minds that differ from human minds.

    Your argument is fundamentally muddled because you use the terms “racial essentialism” and “species essentialism” interchangeably. You switch from talking about racial groups to different species, and start making completly unjustified accusations of species essentialism.

    The games you cite share a (justifiable) commitment to *species* essentialism. Is it species essentialism to expect that a chimpanzee couldn’t become a mathematician? Presumably you believe that the *The Wire* is “committed to racial essentialism” because the dog characters on the show are portrayed as subjugated chattels of the human characters, and there are no dolphins on the police force.

    You seem to be tacitly assuming that all “sentient” minds would be similar to human minds, which is like assuming that octopus minds are much like parrot minds or chimp minds because they are all come under the category of “tool-using”.

    Your treatment of the “nature vs. nurture” debate is necessarily brief, but I think to boil it down to Jean-Paul Sartre vs Steven Pinker is a meaningless caricature. Let’s take for granted the accuracy of your thumbnail sketch summary: “the truth about human nature is partly a question of nature and partly a question of nurture”. The ‘nature’ part of human nature could be very different to the ‘nature’ of a non-human species. Consider the mind of a sentient, asexual ambush predator with no evolutionary need for compassion – empathy would be an alien concept to every member of the species, not just a few sociopathic outliers as is the case with humans.

    That’s why your analogy between Krogans and Jews is ill-founded. The desire for aggressive conquest might be as intrinsic to Krogans as the desire for sexual release or compassion for children is with humans (which is to say that a small minority of individuals don’t share those drives, but they are assumed throughout the majority of cultures). Saying “it is as though being born a child of Ashkenazi Jews meant that you were incapable of being happy unless you started observing Pesach” is the wrong analogy, because again you are conflating *race* with *species*. Better to say: “it is as though being born a human meant you liked to eat sweet or fatty foods and have orgasms.”

    There is undoubtedly a lot of variation in human minds – the ways of being human are “infinite but bounded” – but sentient species might have cognitive capabilities that are far beyond any human, or have cognitive lacks that would be taken as gross impairment in humans. If anything, the games you cite – and the novels they derive from (I’m not sure why you’ve restricted the discussion to just recent videogames and Tolkien) – present different species as little more than subsets of the human experience. There is nothing in Mass Effect as alien as, say, the scramblers from Peter Watts’ *Blindsight*.

    If there is a critique to be written, it’s that these games portray the capabilities and concerns and experience of these species as a subset of what is human, rather than an entirely different set with little or no overlap.

  3. Jane says:

    Pretty much everything that Ben says. Nice work, bro.

  4. Paolo Chikiamco says:

    Thanks for an interesting analysis and a look into the history of essentialism. There are certain points you raised that disagree with, although for now I’ll limit myself to pointing out instances where Mass Effect 2 does present individuals whose personalities and characteristics are not determined by their species.

    Since the focus of the article was the Krogan, I’ll do the same. While on the Krogan homeworld many of the Krogan do show themselves to be militaristic aggressors, Bioware did make an effort to show that Krogans were not homogenous. This is mostly done through conversations that you can overhear, rather than through Krogans you can talk to. One conversation involves a Krogan gushing about an extranet documentary about the Presidium, and it is clear he has an admiration for the greater galactic society (and maybe the artistry of the Krogan statue erected in the Presidium). Another conversation has a Krogan talking about his son (whether or not this is just wishful thinking is left unclear), and while the Father-son bonding moments are stereotypically violent, not so stereotypical is his wish that he and his son could live together as a family, as opposed to the current segregation required to protect the rare Krogan children.

    The Krogan who stands out the most as an example of an atypical Krogan is the “Poet Krogan” we meet on the Citadel. Here we have a Krogan who is reciting poetry (albeit horrible poetry, but we’ve all been there) in order to woo an Asari. Speaking to the Asari reveals that the Poet Krogan is really a nice guy, someone who is devoted to her and who works, if I recall correctly, in a non-violent industry.

    Of course, none of these Krogan are recruitable party members–for that, you have Grunt. And while yes, Grunt is the “ideal Krogan” that’s because, well, he was taught to be the “ideal Krogan.” While I found his behavior disturbing at times, his personality is completely understandable given his history–he was indoctrinated with images and lessons which Okeer hand-picked to ensure a mindset that was “pure Krogan”–and I’m glad that there was no way for me to really change that personality in the short amount of time that would realistically have elapsed between his recruitment and the suicide mission.

    On a more macro level, while much of Mass Effect 2 was about deepening the universe and highlighting many inter-species preconceptions, it would be a mistake to think that Bioware made no attempt at showing that, while certain personality attributes were common to a species, there were individuals who broke the mold. You have hardbitten Asari (the detective and Illium Bartender) to offset the diplomatic/alluring Asari, warrior Quarians (Kal’Reeger) to offset the stereotype of the Quarian Engineer–and the game consistently shows how unfair it is for the Quarians to be subjected to the species essentialism that you mention. And then, of course, we finally begin to see the Geth as more than just a homogenous entity (well, at least for a while).

    Of course not all species get to show off the diversity of their members (the Batarians and Volus in particular come off as homogeneous) but my point is that there was a real effort to show diversity within species in Mass Effect 2. Of course, that doesn’t mean I don’t want a Hanar Spectre for ME3 ^_^

  5. moony says:

    Mordin didn’t create the genophage; the genophage has been in place for nearly two thousand years. Mordin simply ‘bolstered’ its effects when the krogan began to adapt to it. And the explanation was not that the krogan would have nuked themselves without the genophage, but that other races would have nuked *them*. At the time, the salarians saw the genophage as a better alternative to complete and total krogan genocide. This is the reason Mordin souped up the genophage, and he is genuinely conflicted over it.

  6. Jonathan M says:

    Hi Ben :-)

    Well… yes. You make a lot of valid criticisms and raise a lot of interesting points. I shall try to address some of them and clarify my point of view while I am doing so.

    My critique of this tendency has two stages.

    Firstly, I have doubts whether there actually is such a thing as a fixed human nature. If there’s no such thing as a fixed human nature then I have doubts whether there would be such a thing as a fixed Krogan nature. I simply find it interesting that the Mass Effect games (and pretty much every RPG going) simply assume that you can make huge inferences about a character based upon their species.

    Even if you do buy into the idea that all sentient species would have quite fixed natures (which I think genre pretty much does as a whole) then that nature can operate on a number of different levels of abstraction. It need not be personality.

    Indeed, species essentialism is not a problem when it’s stating that all Krogan process sound in the same way. What IS species essentialism is the idea that because you’re a Krogan you’ll want to grow up to be a warrior.

    Secondly, if I run together the idea of racial essentialism with the idea of species essentialism it is because genre depictions of different sentient species do tend to be modeled upon relationships between different races. In fact, quite often they’re comments upon precisely that. There are obvious parallels between the scientist’s attitudes towards the Krogans and attitudes displayed by the likes of the apartheid government, the current Israeli government and even US right-wingers towards the German people (who, it was assumed, would lapse into trying to take over the world again if the Europeans didn’t bribe them into pacifism using the open markets of the EU).

    If RPGs (and genre as a whole) are going to assume that different sentient species = different races then I find it bizarre that the template used for race is one that is so profoundly out of date. I would love a video game that depicted the different species as profoundly different but even if you do buy into the idea of species essentialism, I don’t see why that difference would only ever manifest itself at a behavioural level.

    An RPG which took a similar approach to inter-species relations as say Watts’ Blindsights would be a huge step forward in terms of the quality of SF ideas, but if we can’t have that, can we at least move beyond the kind of sub-Tolkienian essentialism that Mass Effect 2 displays?

  7. JKP says:

    Interesting, Jonathan, but I take issue with your statement:

    “However, despite his being responsible for the deaths of millions of innocent Krogan, one does not have the option to dump Solus out the nearest airlock or fly to the science fictional equivalent of the Hague in order to have him indicted for war crimes.”

    In the game itself, Mordin is *not* responsible for the deaths of “millions” of innocent krogan. If you question him about the nature and effect of the genophage, it affects fertility rates of the krogan. This is not the same thing as killing an individual (although I suppose if you are a member of the hardcore pro-life movement, you could consistently argue that every embryo is sacred and is entitled to the rights and protections of a citizen.)

    Second:

    “at no point does it question the idea that the Krogan are an inherently violent species who will, sooner or later, try to take over the rest of the Galaxy.”

    In fact, the character of a krogan — Urdnot Wrex — DOES call this into question. He acknowledges that the krogan DO have violent tendencies, but is attempting to lead them out of their self-destructive violence in the past.

    I also second Paolo’s other examples.

    I suggest that you give the game another play-through and explore every dialogue option carefully — there are quite a few subtleties that might be overlooked if you simply rush through it to get to the end.

  8. Jonathan M says:

    Paolo — I agree that there are variations, but I think that these (in particular the Krogan poet) are included as examples of variations that confirm the rules made quite clear by the mainstream of the plot :

    A plot that suggests that there can be such a thing as a “Pure Krogan” psychology. That really is just dyed in the wool essentialism and while Grunt does flounder a bit and do a bit of soul searching he only really finds himself once he conforms to that ideal.

    I’m hoping that the third Mass Effect game might make some room for these assumptions to be questioned or at least engaged with. One of the series’ major themes has been the idea of human nationalism in a galaxy where humanity is seen as a junior species (Tolkien again via Brin) and I would like to think that the writers have enough creative nous to want to step back from that political narrative and question it.

    However, I think the chances of that kind of thing happening are much more likely in the second and third volumes of the Dragon Age series, which has shown a much more aggressively pro-active attitude towards traditional genre tropes (quite possibly because the game’s set dressing is much more reliant upon them).

  9. Jonathan M says:

    Thanks for the comments though guys… interesting points all round :-)

  10. Jonathan M says:

    JKP –

    On your first point, I think that this is an example of the game’s tendency to muddy the waters. Consider transplanting Solus’ methods to our world. Apparently the Apartheid regime was in the process of developing biological weapons that only affected black people. Imagine that that research had reached fruition and the government released the virus in its townships. Suddenly the Black population is reduced to ‘more manageable’ levels.

    Now, this isn’t the same as shooting people in the head, but it’s still morally unacceptable. It’s involuntary eugenics on a planetary level. It’s preventing a species from propagating itself because of utterly irrational bigotry.

    The fact that the game bends itself in two to make this act of genocide seem morally acceptable says quite a bit about the game’s refusal to confront precisely the essentialist opinions that Mordin holds.

    On your second point, I agree that Wrex questions the vision of the Krogan as savages. But they are just words. Wrex was also the greatest Krogan warrior in a generation and while he had a vision for a better society, he accepted the existing social structures of his people. In the second game, Grunt is compared to Wrex precisely because he’s a great warrior who managed to bring down the wormy thing.

  11. Jason T says:

    I think some of these comments too readily dismiss Jonathan’s well-considered points. That said, I also believe that you too, Jonathan, dismiss Paolo’s points a bit too hastily.

    Making a distinction between “racial essentialism” and “species essentialism” is at best wishful thinking. Exploring human nature through other “races” is a long-standing trope of science fiction and fantasy, and the Mass Effect series has gone out of its way on multiple occasions to specifically note just how “human” the different alien races are; one character, Kaiden Alenko, even says as much explicitly at one point.

    That said, I do think the developers are trying to skirt a line here, and it’s up for debate just how successful they are. I don’t see how you can take Paolo’s examples as evidence in favor of authorial support for racial essentialism. Rather, I see numerous occasions throughout ME2 in particular in which the developers explicitly, if subtly, attempt to critique the practice of racial essentialism in science-fiction themselves. On Illium, for instance, one news organization apologies (via “radio”) for equating assassin Thane Krios’s skill with his drell heritage. At another point on this planet, you encounter a krogan businessman who defies any stereotype of the species, introduced without any option to remark, “Hey, what kind of krogan are you?” I believe the developers are at least attempting to suggest that “racial” essentialism is bunk, but stereotypes are still very present and very powerful in this world. It’s not clear to me how offering numerous exceptions to the stereotype comprise an endorsement of that stereotype.

    The main example that you seem hung up on, Jonathan, is that of Grunt, but I find it problematic to see the very existence of his character as an implicit endorsement of the racial essentialism evident among the denizens of this fictional universe. This is somewhat tantamount to implying that the developers implicitly endorse Samara’s Justicar code, or Mordin’s research practices, or Thane’s philosophy behind guilt-free assassination, or Jack’s history of crime. In each of these cases, as with Grunt, you do have the option to tell these characters that their beliefs are misguided (including a fairly in-depth side quest with Mordin that looks like it could possibly result in convincing him to cure the genophage entirely for Mass Effect 3). Even the group that patronizes you, which is nominally aligned to humans, is essentially a terrorist group, which doesn’t exactly reflect well on our “race” either. At the end of the day, this is a story about recruiting people whom you know quite well to be ruthless and dangerous because they seem the most likely to get your job done. It is very much about the moral challenge of sacrificing your principles in order to do something that needs doing.

    All of that said, let us not also forget that Mass Effect is a big game, and a product of multiple writers. It does seem plausible that different portions of it might not agree with one another entirely. It would not surprise me to learn that the writers creating non-violent krogan on Illium were working in a different room from those making Grunt’s loyalty quest, centered around a celebration of krogan thirst for blood. I don’t see these plot points as wholly irreconcilable, given that so much of the game thematically hinges upon the influence of culture, but I think it’s fair to recognize that we can’t necessarily say that this game represents a single authorial “vision.”

  12. Ben says:

    Sorry about the belated reply. You say you doubt that there is such a thing as a “fixed human nature”. I am not arguing that there is a “fixed” human nature. However, I would say that there is a difference between human nature and parrot nature, in that there is little overlap between the characteristics and capabilities of humans and parrots raised in the same environment. Would you agree with that?

    “Indeed, species essentialism is not a problem when it’s stating that all Krogan process sound in the same way. What IS species essentialism is the idea that because you’re a Krogan you’ll want to grow up to be a warrior.”

    So you accept that being a Krogan would affect how you process sound, but you don’t accept that being a Krogan would affect your desire to be a warrior? Even within our species, the propensity to violence is strongly correlated with possession of a certain genetic marker (the Y chromosome) – and yet you don’t think that different species might differ in their propensity to violence?

    If your criticism was that Mass Effect 2 didn’t reflect a realistic level of intraspecific variation, then as Paolo has pointed out, there was at least an attempt to show that not all members of each species are the same. You could argue that the attempt doesn’t go far enough, but it seems unfair to completely ignore it.

    You say: “Secondly, if I run together the idea of racial essentialism with the idea of species essentialism it is because genre depictions of different sentient species do tend to be modeled upon relationships between different races”. So what you’re saying is that because “genre depictions of different sentient species … tend to be modeled upon relationships between different races” it justifies “run[ning] together the idea of racial essentialism with the idea of species essentialism”. That doesn’t follow. You don’t agree with the former idea, so how can it support the latter?

    This is not to say that the idea that “genre depictions of different sentient species do tend to be modeled upon relationships between different races” isn’t true. I agree that depictions of differences between species do clearly draw from racial stereotypes. As I said, the problem there is that the differences between species would be *much greater* than the (largely fictional) differences between human races or even the differences between human cultures.

    If your argument was just that ME2 lazily draws from racial stereotypes in depicting different species, then I might agree. However, as far as you are making any kind of coherent argument at all, you seem to object to the idea that “being a member of a particular species entails certain physical and psychological facts”. That is only objectionable if you don’t understand the meaning of the word “species”.

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