Shepard 5 Is Alive, Even If You Don't Want Her To Be

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There’s been something of a kerfuffle going on based on the decision to run a contest on Facebook to decide the new default female avatar in Mass Effect 3. On one side, some creative types and feminists find it disappointing that the avatar that was far and away the winner of the vote, Shepard 5, was horribly generic. The other segment of the population tends to sway between ambivalence and amplified outrage that the other side would consider the female avatar generic “just because it has blonde hair.” Before going too much further, please keep in mind that this is an argument on the Internet.

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But when digging just the tiniest bit deeper, it becomes a little clearer that this isn’t just about the hair color of some default model. For the fans of FemShep — like the ones who finally convinced BioWare to include FemShep in their marketing at all — this is about the first depiction many gamers will be seeing of the female avatar. The first truly marketed version of something they have come to embrace as a sizable community. And guess what? It seems like many of those who fought for a promoted FemShep aren’t pleased with an avatar that lacks personality.

As one of those creative types that find Shep 5 disappointing, I can’t say I disagree with them. For anyone out there that immediately responds to such expressions with, “what’s the problem, it’s just a game/book/movie/noun,” the problem is this: It could have been so much more than that. Protagonists don’t see a lot of variety in video games. This all ties back in with personality and another point of contention some folks seem to have with the way detractors of Shep 5 have been expressing themselves.

A popular argument for those against is that Shep 5 lacks personality. This doesn’t mean she doesn’t have a personality and is somehow less interesting as a person; it means that she is visually less interesting than others. The definitions have been conflated for so long that it’s important to set the terms straight, and their usage, in order to foster a more thorough understanding and debate.

So, now that we’ve set that straight, time to move onto the cipher-like nature of our named protagonist. Though he or she may be named, known throughout the galaxy and not at all silent, Commander Shepard follows a long tradition of silent protagonists that gamers were meant to fill in with their own thoughts, feelings and responses. This is, in part, why character customization is such a big deal and people will often talk of “my Shepard” and so on.

It also explains the generic, personality-lacking nature of the default avatars. (That’s not to say I completely understand why they’re even bothering to change default avatars, but I digress.) Yes, avatars as in plural. FemShep isn’t the only option that’s been formulated to provide an almost entirely generic starting point. Bald, white, masculine, kind of hot DudeShep is just as generic. It stands to reason that blonde haired, white, feminine, kind of hot FemShep would be the obvious fraternal twin.

There are many, many more arguments out there both against and for the change that haven’t even been scratched in this editorial. Folks that think Shep 5, and for that matter all the suggested FemShep alternatives, look way too young, folks that think the detractors are just hating on blonde women, young women and so on. The list of opinions goes on and on. But maybe this controversy has been for the betterment of FemShep as a whole.

It’s shown that people care what FemShep represents. It’s shown what FemShep already represents to them personally. It’s shown that even something completely untouched by marketing can provoke powerful responses from fans. Most of all, it’s shown that people truly invest in representations of their values and opinions.

After all, I’m Commander Shepard. And so are you.

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