Thursday, January 26, 2017

The Aspie Adventures of Commander Shepard: Neurodiversity, Moral Dilemmas and the Power of Gaming Narratives

So I’m actually going to do something different with this post. While everyone else seems to be focused (rightly so) on the Trump presidency and the potential disasters that it may bring for civil rights in both America and the world, I’d like to use this entry to talk about something else. I recently got into, played through, and finished the Mass Effect series, and had some interesting insight dawn on me after a particularly deep conversation with a friend. For those of you reading this who are not gamers, the Mass Effect games are a trilogy put out by Canadian-based development company BioWare and are unique in that almost every aspect of the story is shaped by the moral and situational choices made by the player throughout the adventure. Stereotypically ‘good’ choices are highlighted in blue during in-game dialog, and ‘bad’ are red...but these are only available if you’ve put the time and effort into going down either path almost exclusively. The other, non-highlighted options are the messier and arguably truer to life ones. It all got me thinking; would being on the Autism spectrum have impacted the choices I made throughout the 40 hours I sunk into the series? The answer I discovered, upon reflection, is fascinating but not clear-cut.

The cliched, almost stereotypical way to look at this would be that, as someone on the spectrum, this kind of game should be easy. I should almost always choose the logical choice, emotions be damned (because apparently we spectrum-dwellers have low Emotional Quotient), and let the game play out according to some grand design based on optimal character specs or some other similarly arcane factor. The reality was, at least for me, the complete opposite. After all, as I’ve mentioned numerous times on this blog before, the problem with Aspergers isn’t a lack of emotion (at least not in my case), but rather an over-abundance of feeling approaching sensory overload. This, combined with a mind that does not always grasp the nuances of social situations can make for an interesting approach to games like Mass Effect, which are built on moral and ethical dilemmas. There is one story arc in particular in which I feel that the choices I made were impacted by my Aspie brain. The way I dealt with it screams Aspergers because it was a case of my trying to do the right thing for a character and horribly mangling it socially.

Warning: Spoilers for Mass Effect 2 ahead. I know it’s been out for years, but if you haven’t played it yet, you probably shouldn’t have even read this far in this post. Seriously dude...I appreciate the support for Neurodiversity but drop this RIGHT NOW and go play through this epic series. You won’t be sorry!

With that disclaimer out of the way, I feel safer explaining the story in question. One of the overarching themes of this franchise has been our relationship with technology in general and, specifically, the relationship between synthetic and organic life. One race, the Quarians, long ago created robotic servants called the Geth who, in the time-honoured tradition of Hollywood robots everywhere, rebelled against their organic masters, pushed them off their homeworld and forced them to wander the cosmos for centuries. Naturally, Geth and Quarians were not fans of each other, so when Tali, the resident Quarian on your team (and all around lovable character) finds out her people are putting her on trial for helping the Geth, I of course made the choice to take her back to the Migrant Fleet and help her reclaim her honour. Things got complicated during the mission to gather the evidence necessary to exonerate Tali, however, when it was discovered that her father – a high ranking Quarian admiral – was the one experimenting on live Geth behind everyone’s backs. Enter the moral quandary; Tali begged me to let her take the fall for her father, despite his begging in a recording we recovered that I not let his daughter suffer for his mistakes. If I did what she asked, her father would be known as the good man he was rather than for the one grave error he made, but Tali herself would be exiled and never allowed to return home. For a race as family-centered as hers, that was almost a fate worse than death. In my mind, the course of action was clear and it required me to betray her trust, tell the court about her father and clear her name. I figured that, even if she immediately hated me, she’d be able to return home after the mission we were on, and it would play out well in the end.

Except it didn’t.

Tali hated me for the rest of the game, and my choices then got her killed during the game’s climax, so ultimately my actions – seeming so right in the moment – backfired on me and no amount of apologizing could make it better. Despite it being a video game, this really tugged hard at my heart strings and it brought me face to face with the fact that, to those of us on the Spectrum, the path that seems most logical may not always be the correct one in terms of society and interpersonal relationships. I’ve often had it happen in real life where I acted similarly; making a decision that I thought was the right one to make only to realize later how explosively disastrous it was because I failed to take into account other factors. This is, of course, due to the Executive Functioning difficulties those of us on the Spectrum face, and while we’re the most sympathetic and apologetic people under the sun when our transgressions are explained to us, it is so very easy for us to not even realize we’ve done something wrong at first.

I’m sure I can think of far more examples of how the decisions I made in this amazing series of video games were affected by my being an Aspie, but Tali’s mission hit me hardest and stuck with me for the rest of my play time for this exact reason. While I grant that not all video games are art, one of the key attributes of an artistic medium is that it forces us to examine ourselves, become introspective and find a personal connection with the work in question. For an Aspie who feels too deeply, this is easy enough to accomplish in a game like Mass Effect which is built around its characters. When those relationships force me to then realize truths about myself, my own thought processes and decision-making behaviour however? That, to me, is when this series transcended mere entertainment and became something more - art.

So thank you BioWare. I’m a little late to the party with this one, but you taught me a lot about myself and took me on one hell of an adventure in the process!

As always, yours in diversity,

Adam Michael