Thursday, August 4, 2011

O Commander, my Commander...

After a brief lull, BioWare's Mass Effect 3 marketing efforts are back in the buzz this past week.  I've been quiet on the topic so far, because I knew my knee-jerk reactions wouldn't help the dialogue along in any way, and I needed to think long and hard to sort out my feelings on it all.

So in the meantime, I've been doing some reading.  Stories about the Facebook vote and its outcome are all over the web, and a few have resonated with me.  I feel that each article I read raises at least one valid point, but that each also manages to miss another point.  In total, I think the sum of stories I've seen around the web finally gives me a launch pad from which to write.

Default DudeShep, via BioWare's website

Until now -- and still, for the time being -- this guy here has been the face of Commander Shepard.  Despite the wide variety of faces a player can see, despite the fact that a player can immerse him- or herself in the Mass Effect universe for 50 or 100 hours without ever once hearing Mark Meer, this character has been the face of Shepard as far as all marketing is concerned.  He graces the covers of both game and soundtrack.  He is in trailers and commercials.  He, in all his white, male, muscular glory, has been Mass Effect to everyone who hasn't played it, as well as to a number of folks who have.

However, we've known for a month or two now that in response to overwhelming fan demand, BioWare / EA have consented to add a little something to the marketing for Mass Effect 3.  The other half of Commander Shepard is getting her own trailer, and her face will be on one side of the collector's edition of the game.  Fantastic!  Equal representation, right?  But this created a question over at BioWare: whose face?  What does a default female Shepard look like?

Despite the fact that BioWare had no trouble coming up with a default white male space marine on their own, they felt the need to toss this question to the masses.  Their marketing / social media team placed six potential Commanders Shepard into a photo gallery on Facebook, so that Facebook fans who "like" the game could vote on their preference.  In an interview, David Silverman said that this tactic was their response to the "fan devotion" that had created the FemShep movement in the first place.  The fans created the pressure for BioWare to alter their marketing, and so the fans, it seems, must bear the burden of what inevitably follows.

The "beauty pageant" aspect of the Facebook vote has been praised, condemned, blinked innocently at, and sorted through. In a piece of news that virtually everyone and their grandmother saw coming, the conventionally attractive white, blue-eyed blonde seems to be the winner of the contest.

Get used to this lady; seems she's about to be Commander Shepard.

None of the available options felt entirely right to me.  At first I thought it was because none of them were "my" Shepard, but over time I realized that actually, it has much more to do with their facial features and hairstyles overall.  All of the Commanders on display looked unfamiliar to anyone whose primary experience is with the Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 character creation system, just as released photos of Ashley Williams from the third game look unfamiliar to anyone who encountered her in the first or second.

So I was willing to overlook a certain level of detachment with this Commander Shepard.  I certainly don't have anything personal against this particular image; she's fine.  She's a video-game character, taking on the role of action hero.  Even of the six available and unfamiliar options, though, she's not the one I would have picked.  Despite my Shepard looking like an aspirational, gamer-ego self-insertion version of me (ultra-pale, with red hair), of the available voting options and for marketing purposes, I preferred Shepard number four (who in fact holds second place in the voting):

And no, not because of the red streak in her hair!

Regardless of which face Shepard wears, I appreciate that she stands in the exact same pose, with identical weapons and (anatomy permitting) armor to her male counterpart.  One of the most remarkable things about this franchise to date has been the complete equality of both versions of Commander Shepard.  The game, required to accommodate both characters, has been unable to go off the rails into hugely gendered territory in either direction.  When it comes to writing and to character animation, the existence of each Commander Shepard keeps the other in line.  The Commander can't have any specific issues related to gender or race, because of the choice in the player's hands.  Lesley Kinzel summed it up incredibly well, while writing about her Shepard:
These games were not written specifically with a woman, much less a woman of color, as the protagonist. At best they were written to be gender- and race-neutral, or at minimum they were written as the cultural default (i.e., white and male). Either way, the story lacks the encoded racism directed at characters of color in even the best of media representations.

When Brown Lady Shepard is rude, or curt, or dismissive, the reactions she receives from others are not to her gender or her race, but to her words. Why? Because the character was written with the expectation that most people will play it as a white dude, a character for whom reactions based on gender or race are inconceivable. He’s “normal”, y’see. In real life, and in most media representation, we are culturally conditioned to respond differently to a big ol’ white dude with no manners than we do a woman of color doing the exact same thing.

I have a completely unprovable feeling, deep down, that someone at BioWare knew before posting a single picture which of the six Shepards would win the contest, or at least knew that the redhead and the blonde were the two most likely candidates.  What I can't help but think, when I read Silverman's interview, is that "throw it to the fans" was BioWare's chance to avoid the responsibility for that choice.

As pleased as I still am that there's going to be any female representation in the marketing of Mass Effect 3, this feels like BioWare's way to have their cake and eat it, too.  The character being chosen is exactly one that the team who came up with the default male Shepard could have picked entirely on their own, but this way they get to absolve themselves of doing so.  It's what "the fans" wanted, after all, and if many of those fans represent the absolute worst of the misogyny inherent in gamer culture, well, it doesn't actually matter.

Astonishingly, Jerry "Tycho" Holkins, of Penny Arcade, was right, when discussing this.  (The gents at PA have a less-than-stellar track record of dealing with gender issues.) 
The comic makes a perfectly good point - it's just the wrong point entirely for the discussion.
Tycho wrote: "It’s one of these online shitstorms in certain quarters now, people don’t like how it shook out, or who might have shaken it out. That’s the trouble with democracy, huh? The wrong people are always voting."  And it's true: none of us can really look at fans of a game voting and honestly claim that some should have a say, and others shouldn't.  If you're going to let the player base have a say, then all players should have an equal chance to raise their voices.

The question is: should the player base really be having a say at all?  Writer Dennis Scimeca has wisely observed:
Gamers who play as FemShep are intensely attached to the character. She has inspired numerous fan videos on YouTube both inventive and hilarious. Websites have been created to celebrate her. She has even taken a symbolic role in the social justice community.

This devotion is what made an open vote on her official depiction so puzzling to me. That devotion comes from only 18% of Mass Effect players. Allowing votes from the other 82% who have no vested interest in a depiction of a female Commander Shepard feels like disrespecting the dedicated fans who made this marketing campaign happen, by drowning their voices in the noise of the mob.

I've realized: that's the crux of my discomfort.  At first I thought it was personal -- I felt like something special to me was being invaded by an unruly horde, and I felt that it was on me to grow up and get over it, because I have no personal claim on any of it.

To a certain degree that is, admittedly, true, although I never needed or wanted to see specifically my Shepard on the box.  But the thing is: it doesn't really matter which Commander Shepard is chosen.  The actual problem runs far deeper than this leading lady.  The problem is that once again, as seems to happen so often in our society, a female body and a female appearance have become a matter of public debate and public determination.  Shepard may be a digital construction, rather than a real woman, but she has still just become the subject of a popularity contest -- and, yes, a beauty pageant -- for a majority male audience.

The issue is not that Commander Shepard is a blonde; the issue is that she is and remains FemShep.  That's what the Penny Arcade strip missed.  She is still the other.  When Shepard is a woman, she is not a default anything and BioWare won't position her as such.  Can you imagine if she had always been on the box, and if DudeShep were the one a fan campaign had finally brought to prominence?  Where is the world in which we the fans vote which one of six beefy men to put on the reverse cover?

The frustration I personally feel is not one of betrayal or of disgust; BioWare is, ultimately, a software company.  Their job is to turn a profit and to sell as many units of their games as possible, and I certainly don't begrudge their actions.  My frustration, rather, is of lost potential.  Lesley was right: Mass Effect was a chance for something different.  For so many players, FemShep has been something different.  And this marketing change was a rare opportunity for something new, for something special.

Instead, we have this supermodel.  She doesn't invalidate the Commander.  She does, though, return many of her players, who had hoped just this once for something other than the stereotypical Hollywood wet dream, to the margins.

Alas, we players of the badass lady are in the minority, and minority voices are easily overridden.  Perhaps there should never have been a vote to start with, but as there was, I can't cry about its outcome.  Of course ultimately, it's all so much chaff in the wind.  Neither the trailer nor the collector's edition box art affect the game one tiny bit.  They never would, never could, and never did.

But BioWare was so, so close.  The FemShep campaign took us all three steps forward, and the FemShep Facebook vote took us two steps back.  We're still a step ahead of where we were, to be sure, but it could have been better still.  I hope to see a "next time" where it can be.


  1. I think this quote from Dennis Scimeca's piece is the most relevant here:

    This is not to suggest that Bioware is disinterested in social justice, but it's entirely possible that the same kind of projection which is applied to the female Commander Shepard by the social justice community is being applied to the company that created her, as well.

    Or to put it in the context of your last paragraph: Chances are it was always just a single step forward. Yes, they could have been more daring and just chosen something very different, but I'm pretty sure the huge potential for some super-progressive statement through the FemShep box art was illusory from the start. Bioware is as Hollywood as any video games company ever has been (even moreso since being bought by EA) and Mass Effect is their most Hollywood franchise. It doesn't make any sense that they'd designed that particular FemShep to win since I am pretty sure that if they had developed one on their own it would simply have been based on the default redhead hairstyle from ME1+2. Letting a vote happen probably made it more likely that there would be a more progressive FemShep, not less, even if it only raised the chances from 0% to 20%.

  2.  Although I am not thrilled about the whole "vote on character appearance" aspect, I just can't get too excited about the ultimate result. 'Cause, whatever the result was, it wasn't going to be the Real Commander Shepard (i.e.  mine), anyway.

    As it is, it seems fitting that Marketing FemShep is just as blandly conventional as Marketing ManShep. Yay, equality?

  3. Hmm, that Williams looks the same to me. She's just casual - hair down and no armor.  I mean, if they have her fighting in that outfit, that's stupid (and I wouldn't put it past them).  But it doesn't look like they redesigned her face much.

  4. Nothing brilliant to say here, just a thank you for your eloquence in highlighting this.  I'm on the same channel.  The vote thing was... you know...

    I miss you more then Michael Bay missed the mark
    When he made Pearl Harbor
    I miss you more than that movie missed the point
    And that's an awful lot girl
    And now, now you've gone away
    And all I'm trying to say is
    Pearl Harbor sucked, and I miss you

  5. Shepards 1,2,5,and 6 all have the same face, the only differences are the hair color and the eye color.

    "Instead, we have this supermodel."

    They all are supermodels. Everyone of these women fit the idea of being "conventionally" beautiful.

  6.  I have the same unprovable feeling that you have.  It's exacerbated by the attitude I've seen from Dan Silverman over Twitter, in an E3 interview about the femShep campaign in which he appeared not proud about femShep, but *embarrassed*, and so on.  Until May, it seems, he had no idea femShep had a fan base--but the devs knew, and tweeted about it frequently.  Then he was surprised, and then he took over the cause as if it were his own idea, and...held a beauty pagent.  Silverman was also behind the decision to market only male Hawke for Dragon Age 2.  (!/dsilvermanea/status/72860007858831360). 
    I feel like the BioWare writers mostly Get It.  The devs mostly do as well.  And marketing?  Well, there really is no BioWare marketing--it's run by @dsilvermanEA and  @EAGamer, and they're so far out of touch with BioWare that it's incredible.

  7. blonde commandress shepard makes me say "ewww", and not because she isn't smoking hot (because she clearly is and clearly is designed to be, though personally i think she looks a little creepy with that sultry leer on her heavily made-up face). it's because, in all of those pictures, my first thought is "commandress" and not "commander"--like you said, she's absolutely not default, in any way. whereas in the game, my female shepard (which i'm about to import to me2 and run through it, once f:nv is finished with) is hardly sexualized at all (way less than my male shepard, who is kind of a flirtatious horn dog now that i think about it...).

    i'm really irked by the whole fan voting idea, and equally so by the results of it. again, like you, i really enjoyed being able to play through my shepard's story. and i still will. but it's weird to have her canonized as that.

  8. Why does everybody just miss the fact that she looks like Samus Aran from Metroid?

  9. Interesting points. I had no idea about the things you said about Dan Silverman, if that's all true (and I don't doubt you a bit), then it's a shame that the fanbase has been laying most of the blame on Casey Hudson.

    The writers definitely Get It. Patrick Weekes and others have given me hope that FemShep will remain FemShep in game, even if marketing takes her someplace completely else.

  10. I've actually seen a lot of people mention that, in various articles and posts and tweets and comments.  It just doesn't matter all that much, to me.  *shrugs*  If it does matter, it's in the requirement that a certain kind of leading lady fit a certain kind of physical profile that they both share, which puts us right back here where we are.

  11. Yeah, cosign.  I'm actually not worried about the game at all at this stage and pretty much drool on my keyboard at the thought of getting to play it.  And the concerns I do have actually revolve much more around their replacing Jack Wall with Clint Mansell for the score than around anything to do with Shepard, heh.

    But the marketing, and all of this... still gives me a big ol' *facepalm* day.

  12. One idea I played with (and ultimately cut from the post, because it didn't fit) was the realization of how important the voice acting has become to me.  The appearance of Marketing FemShep feels more important to me than anything Marketing DudeShep because my Commander's voice is going to be coming out of that mouth, and that's just weird.