Mass Effect: The Ultimate Meritocracy?

The ideal of societal advancement based solely on merit and hard work is know as "meritocracy." While not a reality, has BioWare's sci-fi epic captured this ideal?

Tali: Is it common for human women to be front-rank fighters, Chief Williams? I know that salarian women do not serve in the military.

Ashley: It’s becoming more common, but it took a long time to prove that “ladies” could handle an assault rifle or a shotgun.

Tali: On the flotilla, we don’t have the luxury of sexism. We need the best hands for every available job.

Ashley: Sounds nice, but I don’t think I could get used to the uniform.

The above quote from Mass Effect 1 perfectly summarizes in a nutshell the argument of this post: that BioWare's massively successful RPG series shows a universe that, while obviously flawed, portrays a place where merit and ability above all else determines one's lot in life. Mass Effect does plenty of things right; it's three games tell a compelling story, the third person shooter mechanics are tons of fun, the dialogue options offer a real sense of player agency, and much more. One thing that the best science fiction does is to take complex philosophical and/or political issues and comment upon them while at the same time telling a gripping story of future happenings, events, and technology. Star Trek, in particular, is famous for tackling issues such as racism, climate change, and war (among many other important topics) in its' 726 episodes and 13 movies.

The writers at BioWare, like Gene Roddenberry, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and other great science fiction authors and visionaries, portray real life issues before, during, and after the galaxy wide conflict with the Reapers. Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3, in particular, grapple with what it means to be a person and self determination in the face of negativity, specifically in relation to the Geth and their search for true sentience. The same conflict between the Quarians and Geth explores how prejudice and ignorance can hamper, and (if the player's decisions go the wrong way) ultimately, foil any possibility of peaceful coexistence for the two races.

However, what this post deals with is BioWare's treatment of social mobility and meritocracy across the various space faring species of the Milky Way galaxy. The following are various examples of a progressive worldview the races of the Mass Effect universe share in relation to merit, not species, class, etc.

Commander Shepard

At the start of the game the player customizes Shepard's appearance. His or her race, gender, and various other appearance based attributes can be and are changed at will. This basic fact makes meritocracy a default setting at least in the Systems Alliance. A black woman, an asian man, skinny or fat, old or young, all are welcome in the Systems Alliance and all are allowed to succeed or fail on their own abilities.

As part of the customization in the first game, the background history of Shepard can be customized. Either option, whether she/he grew up in space, an orphan on the hard scrabble streets of Earth, or on a small colony world, Shepard only got where he/she is because of their (from now on I'll just use their for convenience sake) talents and drive to succeed. The psychological profile as much as the pre-service history shows how no matter the path, Shephard got their promotion to Commander through hard work and ability, not family connections or personal wealth.

Whether holding off hordes of enemies to protect squadmates, surviving while the rest died, or simple ruthless determination, all psychological profiles show a person whose drive and talent put them on track to become the first Human Spectre. Their last name wasn't Udina, or Grisham, or Anderson, but they were still able to become a symbol, not just for Humanity, but for the whole galaxy. 

Equal treatment of LGBTQ+

The most influential and powerful Human in the galaxy, if the player chooses, can be gay. Or lesbian. Or bi sexual. Or any gender/sexual orientation. Through its' romance system (and character customization), Mass Effect allows its' player to choose their character's sexual orientation. This shows that the Mass Effect universe's races don't judge their members by gender or sexual orientation. This, however, was not without real world pushback. 

Mass Effect 3 garnered a ton of controversy for including gay romance options. Steve Cortez, the shuttle pilot on the Normandy, turns out to be homosexual. However, tragically, he is also a widow. Romancing him takes a lot of finesse, tolerance, and patience. Even if you (like me) choose to play as Femshep, or just don't pursue a relationship with him, Cortez is still a great character with a ton of depth and backstory. BioWare, as usual, put a significant amount of time and effort fleshing out Cortez as a character, and not just the obligatory gay man put in for affect.

Although lesbian relationships had been included in the previous game (ME2) with Kelly Chambers, the final game in the trilogy opened up options for same sex relationships for the male Shepard as well as the female gendered hero. Both games have bi-sexual characters; the aforementioned Chambers in ME2, and Samantha Traynor in ME3. For the first time in a flagship AAA game, both males and females had the option of engaging in same-sex relationships in game with the same characters. True meritocracies discount gender identity and sexual preference in determining the "winners" and "losers" of society. And this is the case with the species that populate BioWare's ME universe.

The Asari

If you count Liara, then all three Mass Effect games include same sex relationships. However, I don't count her. Although in appearance all Asari resemble human females (and the voice actors match said gender), they are most definitely not. They aren't all women. Or all men. Or gender fluid. They are mono-gendered. Asari biology allows for reproduction with any gender of any species. So, as a society, Asari not only won't, but CAN'T judge other Asari by gender or sexual preference. Take it a step further, and when dealing with other species, Asari in particular are truly gender blind.

If there is one race whose sexual freedom is truly progressive and accepting, it's the Asari. For a species that lives more than 1000 years, sexual and reproductive rights are trivial and don't generate controversy like they do on present day Earth. As long as it's consensual, Asari are free to copulate with whomever they like. Whether it's a female Hanar, a male Elcor (well, it probably happens), another Asari, and so on, all Asari can, and do, have consensual sex with any willing partner.

In addition, the idea of "mother" and "father" can have very different meanings for Asari. So there is no stigma attached to having "two mothers" or "two fathers," like there is in many places of 2017 Earth. Below are some snippets of conversations between Liara and her "father," Matriarch Aethyta:

Aethyta: So, yeah. My dad was a krogan.
Liara: Yes, I'm aware of that.
Aethyta: So that makes you a quarter krogan. 
Liara: That's... not how it works.
Aethyta: I'm a thousand years old. I've had kids with hanar. Don't tell me how Asari reproduction works.
Liara: Wait... I have a half sister who's part hanar?
Aethyta: I thought that wasn't how it worked.

Aethyta: Just take care of yourself out there, okay kid?
Liara: I will, Dad. 
Aethyat: Hey, I've called a few friends. Commandos. Eclipse girls who owe me some favors. They're all yours. Just tell 'em where to go.
Liara: You're giving me... Asari commandos?
Aethyat: We'll, you're too old for me to buy you a damn pony.
Liara: You're the best father a girl could wish for.

Talk about gender identity meaning nothing. If taken out of context and just given the audio transcript, most would think it odd that a "female" called their "female" parent "dad." However, Asari aren't males or females. They treat everyone equally, regardless of their parents race or sexual preference. If nepotism occurs, it occurs in a meritocratic way as well. I guess 1000+ year lifespan truly does impart wisdom.

Krogan

At first glance, this may seem like an odd choice. After all, Krogan society is heavily gender biased. However, this is simply due to numbers. With the Genophage severely curtailing Krogan births, female Krogan are guarded fiercely. This has resulted in a society divided on classic male/female gender roles (i.e. males as hunters and warriors, females as childcare providers). However, unlike in human society, this gender divide did not make female Krogan second class citizens in comparison with their male counterparts.

Putting gender aside, Krogans are fiercely egalitarian, in the most Darwinian and harsh sense. Although fiercely selfish and bloodthirsty in nature, Krogan respect others simply on their merits, nothing else. I mean it literally, NOTHING else. One of their most damning insults is, "you're not worth killing". That's as Darwinian as you can get.

Natural selection doesn't take into account the color of a turtle's skin, or the gender of a slug. Similarly, Krogans don't care if you're Human, Asari, Turian, Salarian, or a Thresher Maw. If you show yourself to be capable, then you're accepted. When the rare Krogan is born, its' status is decided purely upon the survival of the fittest principle.

When coming of age, only those Krogan who pass the Rite of Passage are allowed membership into their Clan. In ME2, Shepard helps Grunt pass his Rite of Passage by, among other things, killing a Thresher Maw -- this test many, many Krogan don't survive. In order for Clan Urdnot to approve his membership, Grunt must show that his inclusion in Wrex's Clan is merited. His skill as a warrior and survivor are proven by his successful completion of the Rite.

Wrex is able to see that Grunt is a good judge of character by Grunt's pick of Shepard as his ally in the Rite. So, for all their regressive views of violence and its' role in problem solving, Krogans are meritocratic to a fault in choosing the members of their clans.

 Gender and Racial Equality

I touched on this before with Commander Shepard, but I'd like to go into more detail with this entry, specifically among Humanity.

By the 2180s, Humanity seems to have mostly abandoned any racial, ethnic, or gender bias (at the very least among its' own kind). Depending on your choices, Captain Anderson can be a Council Member (either way he gets promoted to Admiral and already almost was the first Human Spectre), a former female convict becomes an invaluable Alliance instructor for young biotics (Jack), a clearly crippled individual is allowed to pilot one of the Alliance's most important ships (Joker), and a clearly Middle Eastern (and possibly Muslim) criminal is allowed to redeem himself and become an integral member of the player's squad (Zaeed).

Religion, ethnicity, skin color, gender, they all don't seem to matter to Humans. Even the ultra xenophobic Cerberus employs Zaeed, Jacob, Miranda, and Kasumi. When given the chance, even criminals such as Kasumi and (technically) Shepard are allowed to re-assimilate into society after having proven their good qualities and their intentions. Just because Kasumi is Asian, Zaeed is Middle Eastern, and Miranda was genetically engineered, it doesn't mean they can't succeed in the universe of Mass Effect.

The Squad

Ultimately, the greatest sign of meritocracy in the Mass Effect universe has to be your squad mates. All species, all genders, even artificial intelligences are represented in your squad across all 3 games -- hell, even a friggin' Prothean is accepted as part of the gang, and he just woke up after 50,000 years of hibernation.

If you look at the picture above, Humans aren't the majority. For Commander Shepard and their team, all that matters is that you are the best in the Galaxy at what you do, and you're useful to Shepards mission. What other group includes the first truly sentient Geth, a Prothean, EDI, two Krogans, and a bunch of former criminals (Jack, Jacob, Miranda, Kasumi, Zaeed, Thane, and technically Shepard themselves)?

If you need one example of how Mass Effect is a meritocracy, then look no further than the squad mates Shephard recruits to their cause.

Published Feb. 17th 2017

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