I’m not a gamer. I have no console, I have an addictive personality, and I run a Mac — three strikes. If I could play games that aren’t directly ported to Mac (yes, I know about Boot Camp and it seems like a hassle), I’d probably never stop, so I can’t really afford to start.
But I’m fascinated by the Mass Effect franchise, and by the fact that its fans seem to love it so much that they really, really want it to change.
The Mass Effect universe is a place you want to live. It has a compelling story, cool environments, fully realized characters, and incredibly high stakes (fate of our species and several others, anyone?). As Kyle Munkittrick outlined in a fascinating essay at Popbioethics, it’s a science fiction realm on par with Dune and most other franchises you’d care to name. In the past I’ve played BioWare’s Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and I was stunned at the conceptualization and themes the company applied to George Lucas’ already-fully-explored universe. So while I don’t know Mass Effect, I’ve had a taste of its storytellers’ riches.
When Mass Effect 3 debuted in March 2012, BioWare introduced a new female character for the highly-sexed Commander John (or Jane) Shepard to get NSA with: Diana Allers, a reporter modeled and voiced by IGN Weekly/G4 show host Jessica Chobot.
This is fanservice of a high degree, and like all fanservice, it’s a dicey proposition. Inserting Chobot into the experience leaps several (already permeable) barriers between the Mass Effect world and the worlds of gaming, game coverage, marketing, and the sexual politics of its end users.
1. Jessica Chobot is a newsreader/performer for a news/marketing entity closely tied to the industry it covers.
2. Like most newsreaders, her qualifications lie not in her apparent knowledge of the news she reports, but her looks and ability to communicate (and pander). In the Olivia Munn tradition of nerd entertainment, she is presented as a hot girl who likes games and gadgets, and that is really all her viewers are encouraged to know about her. She’s a former model placed on IGN for you to lust after and, maybe, listen to.
Some YouTube users would rather just drown her out and focus on her boobs.
This is the photograph which made her famous, and it’s shorthand for her entire career:
3. Putting Chobot in the game as a character is a sop from BioWare to IGN, an in-joke for Chobot’s fans, and — baldly speaking — an opportunity to fuck Jessica Chobot. Geeks who’ve admired the newsreader sexually can now call her up to Commander Shepard’s quarters and get busy.
4. As stated above, the encounter with Diana Allers is strictly NSA. She will not be a game-long companion, a vital teammate, or even much of a strategic asset. Unlike several other characters, getting her into bed unlocks no achievements.
Some commenters — that species of Internet user that commonly seeks to remodel all published reality to its own whims, from movies to blog entries to video games to newspaper articles — have dubbed Diana Allers “the worst character in the game.” They’re not just talking about her place in the story, or the halfhearted animation and rendering of the character’s (Chobot’s) face and body, or even her less-than-compelling line readings. They’re talking about Jessica Chobot, human person, and her willingness to voice an opinion about the third-rail topic of gamer entitlement as it relates to Mass Effect 3. She did so in an early April blog post, since removed but partially preserved here, which inspired a further backlash that convinced Chobot to shut down (or at least downshift) her blog at IGN.
“Here’s the thing, and it’s going to sound really weird, but as a Bioware fan, this whole uproar has just made me so sad and a little heartbroken,” Chobot wrote by way of apology. “The petition, the attacks on a female Bioware employee and the reaction I received when it was announced I was a cameo in the game just kind of…well, hurt my feelings. Plain and simple.”
Reactions to l’Affaire Chobot/Allers are complicated by 1) the persistent sexism in gaming; 2) the sexually frank (by video-game standards) play of Mass Effect, which has been sex-positive in its softer-than-softcore way since the series’ 2007 launch; 3) Chobot’s position as a sex object/journalist, overlapping with 4) her character as sex object/journalist who can 5) be coaxed to commit the journalistic sin of sleeping with her source, which 6) opens the character and Chobot herself to the kind of slut-shaming of which YouTube/IGN/Xbox Live comments are made.
Again, the controversy goes back to fanservice, if you define that as a very specific attempt by an entertainment’s creators to give the consumers exactly what they want. If you seek always to satisfy the customers’ urges, stroke their egos, and wink at them knowingly — and I’m not saying BioWare does in every case — then you risk exactly the kind of response Chobot and EA are experiencing here. Savvy players will see through the gambit; unwashed morlocks will guffaw (in public forums) that they just got off with the hot chick from IGN. Either way, when the real people involved (Chobot, in this case) make a statement about that response, they are shouted down, driven out, shamed yet further for their role in the project. BioWare and EA won’t suffer as entities; the individual faces they put forward (or in the case of BioWare’s female developer mentioned above, private employees) will.
Oh, and the rich storytelling universe enjoyed by 3.5 million gamers, if shipping figures on Mass Effect 3 are to be believed — that suffers too. Fanservice at this level creates an uncanny valley where we perceive the gamemasters speaking directly to us, rather than letting us slip comfortably into a world we never made. The narrative Fourth Wall is there for a reason; you breach it at our peril.
What else is going on: I reviewed Great Lake Swimmers’ new album
over at the music blog Hearingade.