Mass Effect: Sexuality in Video Games

Many would not see the video game industry, which is widely viewed as a masculine market due to its focus on violence and heroism, as a battleground for sexual equality. However, game franchises such as the Mass Effect series have helped stir a dialogue over the freedom of player choice and what that means for the representation of sexuality and gender in this medium. Role-playing games like Mass Effect are modeled around the ability for the game’s player to choose their own path. Players can create their own character, pick their own clothing and interact with other non-player characters in whatever way they choose. Set in a galactic future, Mass Effect and its sequels have pushed this boundary to a point where players can develop romantic and sexual relationships with characters of any sexual orientation and even non-human characters.

The first Mass Effect game allowed for male or female characters to engage sexually with characters of the opposite gender. Both genders also had the option to develop a relationship with a ‘mono-gender’ alien character with feminine features. The uproar the first game created was less about this ‘lesbian’ sex scene, however, and focused more on the fact that ‘pornography’ was being marketed to children. This was despite the fact that the game was given a Mature rating and that the two-minute sex scene (in a 30+ hour game) shows little more flesh than an edgier prime time network drama, which children have much easier access to.

The second game in the franchise was more of the same, with a little more availability of lesbian options, but still no representation of gay relationships. It wasn’t until the third game that players were finally able to be truly gay or lesbian, and choose their own partner freely.

Ignoring the obvious controversy this created in the straight community, it is more interesting to look at how the player community reacted. Concerns from fans were not cultural or personal objections against homosexuality, but fears that the realism of the narrative would be lost if characters that seemed clearly heterosexual in past games were suddenly switching teams. Wanting to get it right, the writers of the romance scenes felt challenged to write homosexual characters who did not fall victim to the tropes of queer literature, in which the characters’ struggle with their sexual identity was the most important aspect of their personality. Rather than have it be shouted from the rooftops, they worked on creating real, complex characters.

There was also fear from male players that they would not be able to interact with male characters platonically without getting ‘ninja-romanced’ into homosexual interactions. In real life people can make their intentions clearer, but the game does not allow you to use body language to convey interest or disinterest, meaning characters of both genders might try and engage you in ways you don’t expect. Some players suggested it would be better to state your orientation as part of the character creation process, with options for gay, straight, bi, undisclosed and asexual. Someone even asked for polyamorous.

As it turns out, Bioware, the company responsible for the Mass Effect franchise, had planned the homosexual option from the release of the first game, but the backlash was too great. This didn’t stop consumers from modding the content back into the game, however. Throughout this process, in fact, Bioware has seen that players of all backgrounds prefer a wider availability of player choice, which to the gaming community allows for greater realism.

What is most interesting to me is how little debate there has been over the inclusion of inter-species romance and sexuality. I would expect this to be a point of controversy for the conservative side of the market, but it has gone by largely unnoticed. It astonishes me that people can get upset about the inclusion of homosexuality; an act some consider to be ‘inhuman’, when sexual engagement with something that is literally non-human is not even a point of debate. It is also an important victory that people were unconcerned with the inclusion of a ‘mono-gender’ character, regardless of her clearly feminine features. Hopefully this is a positive sign for the future of sexuality, though I am sure if our race does ever make contact with an extraterrestrial species there will be a controversy when man and our new neighbors inevitably begin seeking more than platonic interactions with each other. Still, the makers of Mass Effect have proven that maybe sometimes, deep in the emptiness of space, sexuality can indeed exist in a vacuum.

300 & The History of Sexuality


Upon reading David Halperin’s Is There A History of Sexuality? I immediately connected it to the 2006 film 300, directed by Zack Snyder and starring Gerard Butler, which is based on the 1998 graphic novel of the same name. The film focuses on the historic Battle of Thermopylae in which a small contingent of Spartan warriors took on a vast Persian army. The film and novel are clear fictionalizations of these events, but are interesting to look at for their representations and misrepresentations of a central tenant of ancient Greek civilization: masculinity and sexuality.

The film is ripe with eroticism and hyper-masculinity as the warriors themselves are near naked, incredibly buff and constantly cast in a romantic light. Spartan culture was indeed focused on the ideal male form, to the point of instituting a ritual in which weakness is discarded even as early as birth. Shaved Spartan boys are then thrust into a world of violence enduring what they called the agōgē in which they are taken from their mother’s and raised by men.

What the film completely ignores is the pedagogic relationship boys were required to develop with an adult male Spartan who would be their tutor. There is some hint of this between the soldier Stelios and his younger friend Astinos but what homoerotic behavior might be inferred from this is overruled by the quote early on in the film where the main character King Leonidas refers to Athenians as “boy-lovers” with a tone of disdain. The Persians, meanwhile, are portrayed as much more sexually open, having orgies and presenting themselves effeminately with makeup, piercings and perfumes. They are also portrayed as the villain however, and their legion of inhuman monsters fighting for their lustful androgynous masters makes the film seem even more homophobic.

The monstrous Persian representation, as well as Leonidas’s remark against homosexuality (or potentially pedagogy), is in stark contrast to the rest of the films conception. In addition to worshipping the male form, the film is overflowing with imagery of penetration. This is mostly in the form of spears and swords bursting through Spartan enemies and spraying blood everywhere. Indeed the fighting is glorified at an erotic level, frequently being slowed down to highlight the Spartan prowess at an almost pornographic level. These visualizations fit better with Halperin’s exploration of Greek culture and its focus on male dominance and insertion. The films few sex scenes also revolve around penetration, represented in one scene by the involuntary gasps of air Leonidas’s Queen must release with each thrust of his spear. In another scene the Queen gives her body to a politician to help win support for her husband’s war, and the climax of the film culminates in her penetrating him back with a sword in the gut.

This brings us to the role of women in Sparta, which was unique even amongst the Greeks of this time period. When a Persian messenger challenges the Queen for speaking out of turn, asking, “what makes this woman think she can speak among men?” she retorts “Because only Spartan women give birth to real men.” Even having more rights than most women of their time is somehow still summed up by male dominance, in this case Spartan ego. Still the Queen plays an important role in the plot of the movie and in the war effort, speaking at the Senate to rally support for her husband. Despite this the film emphasizes that love is a weakness in the eyes of the military. This could have to due with the male superiority in Greek culture, as women were seen as inferiors and objects of desire alongside boys. Real Spartan men were not permitted to live with their wives and could only visit them secretly in the night, though leaving the barracks at all was discouraged.

To me, Halperin’s purpose was to display that while today’s society views sexuality as a binary that has existed since the days of Adam and Eve, it in fact has a much more vibrant history. Indeed it seems Greek and Spartan sexual cultures were so different from our own that we cannot completely understand what it was to live within them, let alone expect a movie audience to grasp the cultural differences as historical realities.

Game of Thrones: Oberyn Martell

The popular HBO series Game of Thrones, written for television by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss is well known for creating a buzz among its viewers. This is not solely because of its renowned writing and production, which is based on the famous fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R.R. Martin. Throughout its run the show has featured many characterizations of today’s society’s ‘taboos’, which are meant to get viewers talking. One character in particular who has stood out in my mind is the Red Viper of Dorne, Oberyn Martell.

Oberyn is portrayed on screen as a macho, pansexual man with a love of lust and violence. Within seconds of his introduction to the show (already notorious for its sexually explicit content) viewers were thrust into a brothel bed where Oberyn was sexually engaging multiple men and women at the same time. Naturally his presence has created a stir in both the straight and queer communities and many have developed differing opinions on his portrayal.

“Then everyone is missing half the world’s pleasure. The gods made [women], and it delights me. The gods made [men]… and it delights me. When it comes to war I fight for Dorne, when it comes to love — I don’t choose sides.” – Oberyn Martell

Pedro Pascal, the actor who plays Oberyn, has expressed his own interpretation of the character:

“I think that he gives no explanation and makes no apologies for the way he lives his life, and I think that was very exciting and important to portray, that he has no hang-ups around the experience of pleasure, and he will take any opportunity to experience something beautiful, and I think he finds that in lovemaking. He doesn’t see the sense in limiting oneself of experience and pleasure, and I think that is very cool.

However, individuals from the queer community have expressed disappointment over the lack of label associated with Oberyn’s sexuality. While many simply do not like labels, others argue that Oberyn never definitively declaring the nature of his sexuality makes it seem like he is in some way ‘half-closeted’ and not truly willing to be associated with the bi or pansexual community. Many sources have him listed merely as gay, despite his clear attraction to women in addition to men. The bi and pan communities are seeking visibility and perhaps Oberyn’s on-screen actions are not enough to legitimize his (or their) sexual identity.

There has also been criticism over Oberyn’s characterization. He is not only incredibly masculine and hot-tempered (he is widely considered as one of the best fighter’s in the world), but he is very promiscuous with his sexuality. Many argue he is only two-dimensional for this reason. On top of this he is from a nation that has far different cultural values than that of most of the character’s on the show, and is viewed as an outsider. Again, bi/pan visibility may not be the same as promoting bi/pansexual identity, and to many the inclusion of Oberyn’s sexual tendencies might feel like a gimmick.

Alternative to these criticisms, a positive queer-centric dialogue has definitely been started by the introduction of his character. In my personal experience I can point to many of my straight, male friends who have fallen in love with his character despite their disconnect from queer culture. A community titled “GayForOberyn” has even formed on the website reddit and is filled with straight men discussing how Oberyn is making them question their sexuality. Well many in the community might be there out of mere appreciation for his suave personality and badass moves, I have perused the forum and even found a few posts were people have confessed that their crush on Oberyn has helped them come to terms with their bisexuality. When asked how he feels about his portrayal of Oberyn leading countless men and women alike to reconsider their sexual orientation, actor Pedro Pascal replied:

“That makes me feel wonderful. I think that that’s key to Oberyn. That he is the kind of person that is attractive and sort of breaks boundaries. He doesn’t play by the rules, so the fact that anyone would be attracted to him, no matter what their sexual orientation is, is very in line with the kind of character that he is. So I think that’s great.”

I think these conflicting viewpoints relate well to some of our in-class discussions about Caitlyn Jenner’s representation of the transgender community. Even if Oberyn doesn’t perfectly reflect the community’s struggle, he’s still an important presence. Shows like Game of Thrones thrive on being edgy and relevant (other examples in the show include cannibalism, zombies, incest, etc.) and while they may play up certain aspects of sexual identity, the visibility they allow for is not inherently good or bad but allows for a dialogue. Personally, Oberyn is one of my favorite characters, and at least in my own experience I cannot point to many other bisexual characters in any medium who have caused such a fan frenzy. At the end of the day everyone is different, so not every person in any of these communities is going to be completely satisfied by how an individual character represents their community as a whole, but the representation alone is a step in the right direction.