Cross-posted at The Border House.
I’ve written a lot about Mass Effect previously, including a rather long criticism of some of the subtle (and not-so-subtle) gender bias at play in the universe BioWare has created. For my last post, I’d like to take a look at the character of Wrex and how his situation as well as that of the Krogan species is used to teach players about privilege.
Conversations between Wrex and the other members of the crew are clearly meant to mirror conversations about race and racism on Earth, with Wrex delivering withering smack-downs of ignorant privilege. My first example, a conversation between Kaiden (in my game it was Ashley) and Wrex on an elevator, makes this connection obvious, referencing a racist attitude that even those with minimal knowledge of racism can usually recognize:
YouTube (starting around 1:37):
KAIDEN: I haven’t spent much time with Krogan before, Wrex, and I have to say, you’re not what I expected.
WREX: Right. Because you humans have a wide range of cultures and attitudes, but Krogan all think and act exactly alike.
KAIDEN: Well, I–I didn’t mean… forget I said anything.
This conversation is an obvious allegory for racism on Earth; most people recognize that treating or talking about an entire race as if they are all the same is racist (at least, I hope so…). However, the game goes deeper than that, exposing a more subtle act of privilege:
YouTube (relevant portion is at the beginning)
WREX: What can I do for you?
SHEPARD: What’s your story, Wrex?
WREX: There’s no story. Go ask the Quarian if you want stories.
SHEPARD: You Krogan live for centuries. Don’t tell me you haven’t had any interesting adventures.
WREX: Well, there was this one time the Turians almost wiped out our entire race. That was fun.
SHEPARD: I heard about that. You know, they almost did the same to us.
WREX: It’s not the same.
SHEPARD: It seems pretty much the same to me.
WREX: So your people were infected with a genetic mutation, an infection that makes only a few in a thousand children survive birth? And I suppose it’s destroying your entire species?
SHEPARD: You’re still here. It can’t be all that bad.
WREX: I don’t expect you to understand. But don’t compare humanity’s fate to the Krogan.
SHEPARD: I was just making conversation. I wasn’t trying to upset you.
WREX: Your ignorance doesn’t upset me, Shepard. …
Some privileged people make the mistake of trying to show non-privileged people that they relate to their struggles by comparing experiences that really aren’t comparable. For example, a white person saying they can understand racism because they experience discrimination for being a nerd, or whatever. This statement may not seem as racist to some white people, but it minimizes the systemic nature of racism and how deeply it affects people of color. (See also Derailing for Dummies’s “But That Happens to Me Too!“.)
Even better, Shepard follows it up by making the intent excuse–don’t get so offended, Wrex, he didn’t mean to upset you! Which is more crap, because intent doesn’t matter: what Shepard said was still offensive and wrong.
A lot of the racism allegories in Mass Effect are anvil-like in their obviousness, things that have been done over and over in fantasy and science fiction–but on occasion the game goes deeper and explores some of the more subtle aspects of systemic racism and privilege. Have you noticed any other examples of this in the game, or in other games? Do you think this is an effective way of subtly teaching players about the nature of privilege?