by Maddie Higdon and Lee Clark
Across the couch is an ethereal blue alien with intricate face tattoos. Aria T’Loak is the most powerful mobster in the galaxy. She’s known across star systems as ruthless, cunning, and reasonable. I need her support desperately. Earth is under attack and no formal organization can deliver reinforcements or supplies with as much efficiency as Aria’s vast criminal network.
She’s driving a hard bargain. If I want her assistance in saving Earth, she wants a virtual blank check. I don’t have a choice. Over the course of my relationship with Aria, she asks me for various favors, some large, some small. At one point she asks me to deal with a military leader interrupting smuggling activity. I can extort him, implore him, or assassinate him to stop his interference. I have a variety of options within those three strategies to apply various degrees of pressure.
Welcome to the world of intergalactic relations. This is just one example of the countless nuanced situations that the Mass Effect games ask players to navigate. It’s challenging, it’s fun, and it has intellectual value for developing diplomatic abilities. Think of Mass Effect as a really creative training simulation for negotiators.
The Mass Effect franchise is made up of widely successful video games, books, and comics. A feature film is rumored for the near future. The franchise explores an incredible universe in which countless alien species interact, negotiate, and wage war with one another. The Mass Effect universe is based on the premise that as alien and human societies develop and begin to explore space, they eventually discover technology left behind by a long-extinct race of all-knowing beings that allows faster-than-light travel. By using this technology, the various species are able to conduct large-scale economic, social, and military relations with one another.
The series focuses on Commander Shepard, a space captain fighting to save humanity from a myriad of existential threats by negotiating alliances with amenable alien organizations. The video games in the franchise gained widespread popularity in large part due to the freedom of choice offered to players. Players can customize everything about the hero, from appearance, gender, and abilities, to personality and diplomatic approach. By customizing the character, the player creates a unique gaming experience because every decision in the game affects the events that unfold.
Shepard must navigate a nuanced and interconnected world where NGOs, representative bodies, militaries, corporations, and militant groups all compete for conflicting goals. Every species has a representative at an intergalactic Council, tasked with making and enforcing galactic law. But beyond this, every species has splinter groups and diverging interests that make cohesive negotiation difficult. Bioware, the game’s developers, really went for the gold in creating a complex diplomatic world to navigate.
Major game choices play out in the form of interactive conversations in which the player is given a set of lines to choose from. Options for speaking fall on a spectrum with polar ends of Paragon (diplomatic, calm, and reasoned) to Renegade (harsh, demanding, and aggressive). Players may choose to conduct negotiations for alliances and supplies using either of the polar strategies, or a combination thereof, to achieve their objectives. This dynamic provides valuable insight for the aspiring diplomat, because tone, word choice, and policy directives all affect negotiations and must be carefully weighed to advance goals.
While most players will choose the over-simplified tracks of polite accommodation or abrasive demands, players seeking a more intricate experience are able to select negotiating options that go deeper. This is where the game’s value lies for students of diplomacy. Players need to weigh the values and goals of relevant actors and consider them in planning strategy. All relevant groups must be considered. All possible outcomes must be considered. All nuances and facets of conflict must be included. As these are true for the diplomat of our universe, so are they true in Commander Shepard’s. This is most evident in the case of the Krogan genophage.
Case Study: Forced Sterility and Interplanetary Colonialism
One of the most complex diplomatic conundrums within the Mass Effect universe is the Krogan Genophage. The Krogan are a race of large reptilian bipeds which reproduce rapidly. As their technology advanced, the amount of inter-tribal conflict increased, ultimately leading to nuclear war on their home planet. In order to take advantage of their large population size and overall aggressive nature, a more advanced species known as the Salarians brought the Krogans into galactic society to assist them in their own security interests.
Although the partnership proved helpful to the Salarians in reaching their immediate goals, the ever-expanding Krogan race was quick to become a threat to the galaxy. With a combination of military prowess and a significant population growth rate, the Krogans were unstoppable in direct combat. In response, the Salarians developed a virus (the genophage) which adjusted the fertility rate of Krogans to compensate for high Krogan birth rates, ultimately stabilizing the population to pre-industrial growth rates. Although this move was arguably an offense to human rights (krogan rights?), it was successful in preventing all-out war, and possibly genocide, with the Krogans. The cost is a terrible grudge between the two races that lasts for generations. The Krogan see the Salarians as condescending colonialist despots and the Salarians see the Krogan as backwards savages incapable of higher society.
In the final installment of the series, Shepard is presented with the opportunity to either facilitate or prevent the cure of the Krogan genophage. Both of these avenues have immediate and far-reaching implications. If Shepard chooses to facilitate the cure, diplomatic and strategic relations with the Krogan greatly improve, and they will then pledge the assistance of their clans and mercenaries in the fight against the reapers. As defeat of the reapers is Shepard’s ultimate goal, this appears to be the best immediate strategic move. However, without any limit on Krogan fertility rates, there is a risk that they will return to their aggressive, expansionist behavior as their numbers increase. Curing the genophage also results in a breakdown of relations between humanity and the Salarians, whose advanced engineering and technology will be sorely missed.
Alternatively, if Shepard chooses to prevent the cure from reaching the Krogan population, then the intergalactic community will avoid the possibility of an eventual return to Krogan aggression in the galaxy. Doing so will also cause a rift in relations with the Krogan, and the loss of a powerful strategic ally. This option also garners military support from the Salarian race, which can prove to be highly useful in regards to their advanced technology.
As is often the case with real life issues, there is no clear win here. One gain is always given up for another. No matter the decision made, something must be sacrificed. It could be a race of beings or it could be strategic advantage. It is up to the player to choose between the practical and the moral. By using such intricate and touching narrative devices, the Mass Effect franchise crafts an experience that uniquely captures the essence of what it means to weigh costs in lives and suffering in the pursuit of a higher goal.
As with diplomats in our own universe, Shepard must carefully weigh the consequences of every decision. This does far more than offer a dynamic, customized narrative experience; it helps train the player to use foresight. When negotiating international issues, enormous military, industrial, political, and moral ramifications are all at stake. Mass Effect can be a valuable tool for the aspiring diplomat in creating a mindset that helps evaluate all these factors.
In the last two decades, major public and private firms have increasingly turned to wargaming and simulations as training tools to prepare negotiators for the critical problem-solving that is required by major global issues. What Mass Effect offers to aspiring diplomats is a nuanced and dynamic simulation of complex hypotheticals that pose both moral and practical challenges that must be solved with clear strategy. If simulations for surgeons and future generals are valuable tools for developing those critical skills of foresight and calculation, why then would an exquisitely crafted virtual reality not be equally valuable for future diplomats?
Lee Clark is a master’s candidate at the Patterson School for Diplomacy and International Commerce. His professional interests include diplomacy, security, and humanitarian work. He is currently interested in study abroad and internship opportunities. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Madelyn Higdon is a master’s candidate at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce. Her academic focus is on Security and Intelligence, with a regional focus on East Asia. She is currently seeking career opportunities in International Education.