Mass Effect’s revival reminds us it’s time to abolish the space police
After the wave of demonstrations last summer season following the authorities killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor (to name a few), the subject of defunding the authorities started to see more regular and severe public conversation. A number of city board even presented procedures to reallocate authorities funds to social programs with greatly inferior spending plans. Authorities corruption, which had actually formerly been glossed over by reformist attract root out the couple of bad apples, was lastly split broad open, exposing the racist structural rot underlying the whole organization. Possibly policing, as an idea, was bad? Possibly it couldn’t be reformed, however ought to be eliminated rather.
The significant fallout from these distressing occasions and discoveries end up impacting the world of home entertainment, significantly consisting of NBC’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine. A program in the imaginative family tree of other office comedies like The Workplace and Parks and Leisure, Brooklyn Nine-Nine has to do with an imaginary authorities precinct in Brooklyn, staffed by a young and varied team of wisecracking police officers. In spite of being a far cry from Oakley-stunting, tactical vest-wearing, thick-necked white male representations of authorities, the characters on the program might not leave the numeration sweeping through the media landscape. It ended up being the topic of viral tweets and a Collider post asking the concern of whether subsequent seasons of the program may not see the precious cast moved to a completely various and depoliticized line of work, like ending up being firemens, post workplace employees, or perhaps public school instructors.
The Collider piece paints an engaging photo of the program’s root issue: What occurs when we enjoy a story’s characters however dislike the ideological structure of their tasks? Can the 2 even be separated?
BioWare’s popular science fiction trilogy, Mass Result — now packaged into the single Legendary Edition and launched on modern-day consoles — probably experiences a comparable issue. These video games experienced runaway appeal at their height and keep a devoted fan base to this day. The Legendary Edition is evidence enough that there stays a long lasting sense of goodwill towards the franchise, enough to invest the time and energy required to upgrade and re-release it.
However when most fans recollect about what they really enjoy about the video games, it’s the unforgettable relationships in between the young, varied cast of characters that they tend to raise. Less warm recollection is invested in the tasks these characters hold, which exist (in different kinds) in the military arms of the galaxy’s significant political gamers. Whether it’s as Earth Alliance Armed Force, Cerberus Commandos, or renewed Alliance Navy Officers, Shepard and their team are constantly some variation of glorified area police officers. They take a trip the galaxy, keep security, and impose order, while mainly being unaccountable to any power beyond their own.
How, then, might an abolitionist viewpoint effect a series like Mass Result? What brand-new tasks might Shepard and their crewmates be appointed that would still enable them their friendship, their heart-wrenching minutes of remarkable stress? How do we take these abundant circumstances of sci-fi melodrama and extract them from the unseemly and violent drudgery of imposing order throughout a large and disorderly frontier? How do we move far from a property that streamlines the Lovecraftian secret of the Reapers into interchangeable robo-zombies to be contended from behind chest-high barriers? A facility that nicely categorizes a large myriad of alien races into classifications of the obedient and the lawless — one group to love, another to assassinate within the poorly lit passages of spaceport station?
As a plan, Mass Result doesn’t instantly look like modern-day American policing. Instead of an area beat, Shepard patrols light-years of area. Their team is comprised of aliens, robotics, and human beings of various races and genders (however, it deserves keeping in mind, Black females are missing). Their remit is really unlimited, varying from noir-inspired investigator cases to terrorist attacks to full-blown military skirmishes.
Yet like a lot of sci-fi, Mass Result designs its remote dreams on the structures of our own society. The kind of federal government that rules over the video game’s setting is a familiar, apparently liberal one. An alliance of Earth countries works together with a more effective council that represents the other dominant alien societies (Space-NATO, if you will). Unlike the obviously authoritarian bent of the ancient Prothean empire that came in the past, Mass Result’s modern universe resembles our own, both in structure and in messaging. Flexibility of option, as an idea, is valued (or a minimum of, the impression of it is). Private flexibilities and representative democracy are obviously the requirement.
However these apparently informed modes of guideline come with the heavy arm of order securely connected. In his book A Vital Theory of Authorities Power, Mark Neocleous argues that “the genius of liberalism was to make the police appear as an independent, non-partisan agency simply enforcing the law and protecting all citizens equally from crime.” He includes later on that “the existence of discretion allows the state […] to appear as standing at arms-length from the processes of administration and thus the policing of civil society.”
Standing in plain contrast to the Castle Council’s apparently determined and careful kind of governance, Shepard’s driven and hegemonic power hogs the spotlight. They are provided unlimited freedom to do what the Council hesitates to be viewed as doing: keep everybody in line. Despite their different main titles, Shepard acts with the approval of the galaxy’s judgment powers, who provide overall discretion. How else would you explain the occasions of Mass Result 2, in which Shepard returns from the dead, now working for Cerberus — a violent pro-human company identified as terrorists by the Council — and is permitted to continue running basically the like prior to? And when they go back to the fold in the 3rd video game, they’re never ever taken to job or made to represent their previous choices. This is since Shepard’s power is an authorities power. It is a kind of power, as Neocleous puts it, that “persistently manages to break through any parameters imposed on it.”
This holding true, it appears quite proper to see Mass Result through an abolitionist lens. Like the police of the liberal West that so frequently cross the line and unfortunately turn to violence, Shepard rationalizes their own bold and violent habits as a regretful requirement. In truth, like police officers in reality, whose “special status as the sole legitimate users of force has contributed to a mindset of ‘them against us,’” as Alex S. Vitale explains it in his book Completion of Policing, Shepard tends to strongly protect the requirement for their careless and hyperviolent technique. In one scene, they rail against a news reporter who tries to challenge their narrative. They’re also endlessly impatient with the Council’s caution and its natural distrust of the upstart human race. Despite the later games’ increased focus on maintaining relationships and navigating ethical quagmires, Shepard will always remain a burning point of white-hot light, unable and unwilling to slow down and reflect on the consequences of their behavior.
In discussing the hypothetical career changes of Jake Peralta, Charles Boyle, Amy Santiago, and the rest of the characters from Brooklyn Nine-Nine, the Collider piece suggests that there is little thematic connection between the characters’ lives and their status as police officers. But this rings false, considering how much of the show is committed to the “copaganda” of valorizing police work. When they’re not up to zany hijinks at the precinct, the officers of Brooklyn Nine-Nine are out solving crimes and catching criminals. This is pure fantasy, a fabricated depiction of what police actually do, which falls more along the lines of harassing the homeless and mentally ill, and profiling and frisking young Black men. At its root, the show’s purpose is to defend and uphold the myth that police are our guardians. It’s a myth that contributes to the “self-serving and convenient obfuscation,” as Neocleous puts it, citing historian V.A.C. Gatrell, that “the police are concerned first and foremost with crime.”
Even when Brooklyn Nine-Nine tries to address police wrongdoing, such as in an episode where Terry Crews’ character is accosted by a racist fellow cop, it reduces the problem to one bad apple who needs to be reported, leaving the system itself intact and reified.
Mass Effect is equally invested in defending Shepard’s role as galactic super cop, as the man or woman upon whose shoulders all of galactic security rests. From the earliest moments of the first game, you are told that the galaxy is on the verge of violent chaos, even if you are rarely actually shown it. Rest assured that, outside the boundaries of “civilized” space, there are pirates, slavers, and other bogeymen, which unaccountable figures like the Spectres must fight against.
Once the Reaper threat is established in Mass Effect, it takes over the remainder of the games’ plot as the ur-concern. Here, in convenient all caps, is a challenge not just to the Council’s political hegemony, but to the very fabric of civilization. It’s hard to argue against Shepard needing to discard the rules and considerations of the status quo, against them needing to utilize every tool in their violent arsenal in order to face this massive threat. Unquestioned is why only Shepard can fill this role, why only they can be the one to ultimately decide what is to be done with trillions of souls. “Part of the illusion of security is that we are meant to bow down before it without even asking what it is or how it came to be granted such a status, just as we are expected to bow down before the police power that claims to secure us,” Neocleous says.
This dynamic plays out in the ways in which Shepard relates to the rest of their crewmates as well. When not serving as appendages to Shepard’s will, Shepard’s comrades will often bring their own personal dilemmas and problems to the table. Yet they usually rely on Shepard to make the final decisions about how to handle their issues. It is Shepard who has ultimate agency over how they live out their lives. They play defense attorney for a helpless Tali facing the accusations of her own people. They decide what happens to Thane’s criminal son, Samara’s criminal daughter, and Jacob’s criminal dad, to stay on theme.
Policing is about power, the power to maintain order using one’s maximum discretion. In providing police with such a free mandate, we make the trusting assumption that they will always make the correct decision. When they make a mistake, as they inevitably and often do, there are very few mechanisms with which to punish them. This makes the police — like the government it represents — a fundamentally paternalistic organization, one in which we are to place all our faith so that it may secure our lives (though only in the ways that it sees fit).
Knowing all this, it’s difficult to picture a version of Mass Effect without a centered and paternalistic Shepard. What is Mass Effect if you remove this figure who is established to police both political and personal boundaries?
The themes of order and hierarchy thread their way through every layer of the narrative, determining who is cherished and who is vilified. Even though the games go to great lengths to establish the diversity and rich variety of the galaxy, it remains a divided and unequal place. The Citadel and the main worlds you visit tend to be populated by select, respectable civilizations. Rarely do you visit the “lesser” worlds populated by alien races like the Batarians, who only tend to show up in combat zones as interchangeable cannon fodder, or in background stories as cartoonish villains threatening innocent colonists. They lash out from beyond the borders of settled space at the elites living in the center, a permanent criminal underclass. An underclass that arguably encompasses any alien who isn’t lucky enough to be a part of Shepard’s crew on the Normandy.
Just as Brooklyn Nine-Nine would not be the same show if it didn’t use its plotlines to valorize police officers, Mass Effect would not be the same game if it stripped away its militaristic aesthetics and was led by someone other than its quasi-fascistic super soldier.
The intractability of this format comes down to a limit of imagination. Just as it is difficult to imagine a world like ours free from state violence, savage individualism, and insurmountable hierarchies, it is equally difficult to envision a game like Mass Effect where you are not playing as the ultimate securing force, the one who gets to put everything back in its place.
“The ideological work that the prison performs,” Angela Davis writes in Are Prisons Obsolete?, is that it “relieves us of the responsibility of seriously engaging with the problems of our society.” Games often perform a similar function. Shooting everything into place is the path of least resistance, and the one so often taken. But that doesn’t mean other paths are impossible.
You can explore a vibrant and colorful galaxy without serving as its enforcing power. You can experience these complex story systems in satisfying ways without requiring all final decisions to be subject to your own approval. It’s all possible, but it requires courageous vision, as well as hope and trust in others. Mass Effect lends rhetorical support to this cause, particularly in its endings, which aim for “peace across the galaxy” while likewise arguing that a lone, unaccountable hero is the one to deliver it to us. In reality, it is only we, as players and as people, who should find our own method towards a much better world.
Jobber Wiki author Frank Long contributed to this report.