Monday, April 5, 2010

Quarian Exiles: The Politics of Mass Effect, pt. 1

This post is part one of a three part series exploring the politics of the Mass Effect universe as created by Bioware. Each post seeks to explore some of the political and cultural dynamics of the series through the lens of real world politics and ethics. Comments are appreciated. You can find part 2 here and part 3 here.

Warning: These posts include minor spoilers for the lore of
Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2.

Our understanding of identity and belonging is constantly shifting. As it stands now, personal identity is wrapped up with our nationalities and cultures. We give credence to borders and stress non-existent divides, even in an increasingly globalized international environment. How we relate to each other as individuals, groups, and governmental bodies maps the future of our political landscape. The threat of war and violence, and the hope of peace and mutual cooperation, is dependent on how we manage conflict during times of strife. These truths will extend into space along with human advancement.

Our cultural artifacts are teeming with realized perceptions. Elements of reality weave their way into our fictions, colored with personal views on every subject. Videogames are no exception. Along with lore, those game designers tasked with world building fill their games with political dynamics. They draw on compelling narratives we see today while simultaneously planting their own cultural perceptions on politics, intentionally or otherwise. Bioware's Mass Effect universe, with its collection of alien creatures and well envisioned political structure, is an excellent place to explore how real world politics plays out within game worlds.

Migration and Nationality

The quarian species, in my opinion, is the most interesting galactic race in the Mass Effect universe. A brief intergalactic history lesson: The quarians designed the intelligent robotic race known as the Geth, a persistent enemy in both games. Originally a source of cheap labor, the Geth slowly became sentient. The quarians, fearing an uprising, began to terminate their creations. The Geth defended themselves, forcing their creators into a mass exodus of their star system. The quarians now live a nomadic lifestyle aboard a flotilla known as the Migrant Fleet.
Without a home world, the quarians are essentially a permanent diaspora of refugees. Millions of real world populations are members of diaspora or refugee communities. According to a 2009 report from the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), roughly 42 million people were "forcibly uprooted by conflict and persecution worldwide" at the end of 2008. While many of these displaced persons will repatriate as some point, a staggering number must seek asylum in another country and may never return home.

The way we understand nationality is defined by a political system framework based on independent nation-states. According to international law, every person in the world has a right to leave their country for another. However, receiving states (aka countries) have no legal obligation to accept these individuals as citizens. Which means individuals, and even whole groups of people, can be stateless.
In the ME universe, the quarians are functionally a stateless-nation. As punishment for creating the Geth, the Citadel races ignored their pleas for help when their star system was being taken over and removed their place on the Citadel Council, the intergalactic governing body. This would be tantamount to the United Nations ignoring a nation of 17 million for a grievance that occurred three hundred years ago.

A Shared Experience

There are several examples of well known stateless-nations, perhaps the most prominent being the nation of Palestine. While there is a political body of the State of Palestine which claims political autonomy over a geographic region, they are given only limited international recognition and do not control a large portion of the area they claim. Other prominent examples of stateless-nations include the Jewish people before the creation of Israel, the Kurdish ethnic group, and the Romani people, known more commonly by their derogatory moniker of Gypsy.
The quarian species mirrors each of these populations. Their stories contain common elements of the refugee experience. On the planet Ekuna, quarians established a long-term colony before receiving approval from the Citadel. Because of this illegal act, the Citadel Council gave the planet to another species and forced the quarians to leave their colony in one month before they would obliterate the settlement from orbit. Similarly, in 1980, nearly 300,000 Kurds were removed from their homes in Iraq. When such an event occurs, many homes are sold to other citizens, making repatriation a difficult and ugly process. Regardless of the legality of unauthorized settlements, the forced removal and subsequent take over of homes is an all too common occurrence amongst refugee communities.

Diaspora groups often struggle with stereotypes and xenophobia, which are created by circumstance. In ME2, a quarian woman on the Citadel is falsely accused of theft. It quickly becomes clear quarians are generally distrusted by other races. Their nomadic lifestyle and limited resources necessitates extensive mining, the dropping off of criminals, and temporary employment.

Thus, popular beliefs about quarians stealing jobs, breaking the law, or stealing resources develop. These problems are then attributed to the quarians at large, not their unfortunate circumstances. Instead of mutual cooperation, stereotypes and hatreds form. The Romani, often associated with a nomadic life style, have suffered similar hatreds for over 500 years. They were among the groups of people with whom the Nazis attempted genocide during World War II.
To maintain a cultural heritage in a potential fractious scenario, the cultures of diaspora communities often develop unique and insular characteristics. The nomadic ways of the quarians and their reliance on group cohesion amongst the flotilla means they pay little attention to the actions of other galactic races. They even lack official political ties to humans, since they have yet to travel through human territory. They also embark on a pilgrimage, itself a well known faith practice amongst various religions. Although rather than return to a holy place, quarians leave their community and only return when they can add value to their fleet. The mythology of a wandering and shattered people is incredibly powerful. It has kept Jewish culture particularly strong despite its widely dispersed population. It would not be strange in the ME universe to hear quarians mutter their own Seder-like saying "next year on Rannoch."

Massively Effective?

On many occasions, saying a group of people compose a stateless-nation assumes these individuals have a right to self-determination within a territory. It becomes very problematic to say every seemingly homogeneous group deserve a land of their own. For one, cultural homogeneity does not exist, especially within borders. Even within culture, minorities exist and must be accounted for within their political system. Therefore, we must be able to make the claim that groups can maintain a healthy culture free of injustice even when they are citizens of a larger country. What, then, for the quarians?
The ideal situation for most refugees is to return to a safe home, preferably their own. Tali's loyalty quest reveals two factions amongst quarians arguing for and against war with the Geth. If we presume, as evidenced by Legion in ME2, that the Geth are not an inherently evil race of robotic killers, then finding a peaceful solution would be best. Perhaps the quarians should find a new planet to settle, or perhaps they can reconcile with and live alongside the Geth. Personally, I would like to see the quarians regain representation on the Citadel. International recognition and mutual cooperation across borders is imperative in our interconnected world and in Bioware's fictionalized galaxy.

Regardless of future events in the ME universe, the story of the quarian diaspora is compelling. It represents real world political dilemmas and actually suggests players immerse themselves within moral difficulties - no other game world is so audacious. I do not mean to make light of real world injustices by drawing parallels with a fictional videogame species. On the contrary, science-fiction has long been a venue for writers to explore political and cultural dynamics freely. The interactivity of games enriches such a unique environment. What better place than amongst the stars, in our own vessel, to prod at our own political realities on a galactic scale?

Thanks for reading and come back next week for the continuation of this series: Salarian Dilemmas.


  1. This is a very good overview of the parallels between the reality and a fictional universe and Mass Effect with its well described political layer is an attractive target for such an attempt.

    Cannot wait for the follow-ups.

  2. I'm rarely interested in any kind of video game lore, but this was one area where Mass Effect 2 resonated with me over its predecessor, despite the Quarians' situation being the same in both games. I think the real-world parallels are far more explicit here, and I agree with your last paragraph that this was a bold choice for BioWare, given how easy the situation can be connected to Israel and Palestine.

    I'd say that I find the Quarians the second-most interesting race in Mass Effect, after the Asari, as I'm fascinated by how they're increasingly being portrayed as a race of weird, manipulative sex predators.

    I also wanted to thank you for writing posts like this -- I really like that there's someone writing about video games from an international relations perspective.

  3. I actually found the Quarians to be one of, if not the most, interesting races in Mass Effect. I was actually a little disappointed that Tali wasn't developed more, but that might just have been because of how I played.

    I haven't had a play ME2 yet, but I'm glad it sounds like they get more screen time.

  4. @ Michael

    Thanks for the visit!

    @ Duncan

    I agree, ME2 handled the lore much better, partly because it was consistently tied to and revealed by the loyalty quests.

    The Asari are fascinating, although I have not planned to give them a post just for themselves. In addition to the sex-predator bit, they also combine with it the noble and upper class attitude.

    I didn't mention it here, but Ilium, the Asari homeworld, does not permit the Migrant Fleet into their system in an effort to keep their city uncorrupted by the less class. Include their reproduction methods and you have a strangely homogeneous political and cultural body.

    Thanks for reading it. I'm glad someone else finds it interesting.

    @ Nels

    The quarians get much more screen time in the second game, as does Tali, which made me very happy. I'd still like to see more Turian politics, however.

  5. Fabulous analysis and parallels, this was a very enjoyable read.

  6. Totally agree with the final paragraph here. Science fiction is so appealing for me because it offers a way to explore not only humanity's political situation, but also a wealth of philosophical problems and possibilities. and the issues it examines are nearly always shaped by the period in which it is written.

    It's telling that the Mass Effect series dwells on contemporary issues of the difficulties of accomodation diverse group interests within a formal political structure, and the inertia about dealing with urgent problems (The Reapers = climate change?) where there is little political will to confront them.

  7. Totally agree with the final paragraph here. Science fiction is so appealing for me because it offers a way to explore not only humanity's political situation, but also a wealth of philosophical problems and possibilities. and the issues it examines are nearly always shaped by the period in which it is written.

    It's telling that the Mass Effect series dwells on contemporary issues of the difficulties of accomodation diverse group interests within a formal political structure, and the inertia about dealing with urgent problems (The Reapers = climate change?) where there is little political will to confront them.

  8. I just found this blog today. Like what I have read so far, and will certainly be visiting often! Great work!

  9. @ Michelle

    Thanks for giving it a read!

    @ Chris

    The reapers as climate change. Brilliant.

    @ Beers

    Great to have you!