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Gamasutra – Opinion: Ass Effect

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A rearguard action is sweeping the world of video gaming. “Butt me no butts!” cries the neo-Puritan game developer as they erase all evidence of women’s derrieres from gaming. “Get thee behind me!” shouts a wickedly censorious gaming journalist. Surely this ass-inine craze is yet more evidence of the cancel culture we hear about from all sorts of powerful people with lofty platforms? Have beleaguered gamers again become the butt of an evil SJW joke?

Ever since it was first reported that BioWare were planning to remove some of the (in)famous butt shots from Miranda Lawson’s cutscenes in Mass Effect’s remaster, there was a feeding frenzy from outrage-merchants on social media. “Since human anatomy is now considered problematic according to game journalists, here’s a bunch of pictures of some nice videogame arses. #freethebutt,” reads one representative tweet, with four screenshots of various video game women’s butts attached.

Quite frankly, I agree. The butt should be free! But Mass Effect’s strangely wandering Miranda-cam is not “freedom” in any meaningful sense, and the tedium of this Groundhog Day debate about sexuality in games illustrates how narrow the horizons of sexuality remain in gaming.

After all, there’s much, much more to sex than the occasional butt shot. Sex isn’t static; it’s life itself; it’s part of your personality; it’s expressive and vibrant. Miranda’s butt shots (and most of the casual titillation throughout Mass Effect, actually) are dishwater-dull, however.

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What started the social media firestorm back in February was an interview with Metro, where Mass Effect: Legendary Edition’s Project Director Mac Walters said that his team had only changed some of the camera angles: “Kevin [Meek] actually called out some camera cuts that were just…. why was that focusing on Miranda’s butt? So in some cases, we said, ‘Okay, we can make a change there’.” Earthshattering, I know. How will we ever recover?

Indeed, now that the Remaster has hit the streets, we can see that it was as advertised. No one’s covered up, the camera angles are just more tasteful at key moments.

I could just leave it there, to point out the obviousness of the mountain that Twitter sharted out over a hapless molehill, but it’s worth defending this particular artistic choice, and then delving deeper into the sexual bankruptcy of the “puritan” accusation being leveled by some.

First, what’s actually wrong with the butt shots in the first place? What’s gained by changing them? That’s an artistic question.

Cutscenes are, by design, cinematic. Done well they can convey a range of emotions through deft use of visuals. They can make a scene feel tense and confining, or convey joy, transformation, alienness, et cetera. Everything in the frame is (or should be) a choice. Visuals communicate just as clearly–sometimes more clearly–as the spoken word.

This is why it’s important to understand what your visual language is saying and ensure it harmonizes with the spoken language–unless, of course, you want the dissonance between the two to be deliberate and communicate on its own wavelength. In short: you do not want accidental dissonance that ensures the visual language is making loud fart noises over your Very Serious Dramatic Moment.

And that’s precisely what one of the most infamous Mass Effect 2 butt shots does:

In this scene, Miranda is about to start her personal quest, which focuses on saving her younger sister. At the exact moment of the above screengrab, Miranda has literally told Shepard that she’s afraid of her sister being kidnapped by her maniacal supervillain father. The camera then lingers on this shot, which is as fine an example of unintentional physical comedy as you’re apt to find in a video game. It is genuinely laugh-out-loud funny at the worst possible moment, deflating all the scene’s seriousness. When I read the interview with Kevin Meek, I immediately thought of this scene, and lo and behold it was indeed adjusted to be slightly less dissonant.

Visual language includes the body. This particular shot offers sexual gratuity in a scene that in no way requires it. Indeed, the scene is actively harmed by it. This isn’t a value judgment on the visual language in question–it does not call for it to be banned, it does not suggest it is morally ‘bad.’ It’s simply inappropriate for what needs to happen here. Contrast this with Peebee’s sex scene from Mass Effect: Andromeda which begins with a gratuitous, clothed butt shot. It’s precisely because the clothes are about to come off that this note of visual language is wholly appropriate. It helps set the tone of the scene. Sensuality is expressed visually, and it also serves to express something about Peebee herself: confidence, an attempt to control the space and be in charge for once when Ryder’s around.

This brings us to the heart of the matter.

I’ll be the first to admit that some feminists in videogame-land, fresh off a Women’s Studies 101 lecture that they didn’t actually pay enough attention to, have a tendency to overuse the term “objectification” when criticizing media. “Objectifying” is not necessarily a synonym for “sexy.” As I observed in a previous Gamasutra article, sexual objectification is less about being sexy than it is about being indistinct; reduced to something less than yourself.

Philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues quite persuasively that real objectification lies in what she calls fungibility–a kind of interchangability. The objectified body is not necessarily sexy, but deindivudated, and therefore fungible with any other body or body-part. Individuality and identity are lost.

While being reduced to that is a sexual experience that consenting adults can agree to in a safe manner, media representation is different. A fictional character is, obviously, not real and therefore can’t consent. Instead, we can look at whether or not their agency is represented, and whether their character leaps off the page as something closer to a fully-formed human being (or human-like creature). We can say a character is objectified if they, or the camerawork used on them, or any number of other bits of visual language on/around them, communicate nothing special about the character beyond the fact that they’re generically “sexy.”

And, indeed, that was a large part of the problem with Miranda’s portrayal. Focusing on her ass when she’s baring her soul to Shepard undermines any sense of her character, reducing her to the camerawork’s sexual slapstick. That vantage point left a view of Miranda that was interchangeable with any other fully-rendered avatar in the game, from Shep herself to the ubiquitous Asari dancers. Ironically we get a better sense of Miranda’s own sexuality from the Shadow Broker Terminal in Mass Effect 2 that chronicles her slightly depressing, slightly amusing tour through dating websites looking for no-strings-attached sex. It wasn’t the most original thing in the world, but her character shone through there: a serious woman committed to finding the most efficient path to a one night stand. Very her.

This sort of thing is why I’ve so fiercely defended Bayonetta over the years; her sexiness very clearly expresses her character. Playful, cocksure, ostentatious, and more than a little camp. Miranda’s hotness was, for lack of a better term, generic. Even James Vega, arguably an attempt to provide a sexy male character for the franchise who would appeal to players attracted to men, had a sexiness tied to something agentic in his character: he’s a fitness buff.

Fixing the camera work in Mass Effect 2 and 3 doesn’t fix all of Miranda’s problems, but it lets her have a little more dignity. For a remaster that chiefly offered 4k graphics rather than so much of the polish the series required, this is still a small miracle.

Katherine Cross is a Ph.D student in sociology who researches anti-social behavior online, and a gaming critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications.

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