“Assuming Direct Control”: Understanding the Mass Effect ending controversy with sociology

When we’re not hard at work, sociologists here at UT Austin try our best to unwind.  Sometimes, that means enjoying the beautiful Austin air, and sometimes it means sitting down on the couch, picking up a controller, and playing some video games.

One of my favorite set of video games I have played since my parents brought home our Super Nintendo in the early 90s has been the Mass Effect series, which takes place roughly 200 years in the future.  Humankind has stumbled upon interstellar travel and has found itself mixed up in a complex web of galactic politics that has been brewing for centuries amidst a variety of different alien civilizations.  Just as we’re solidifying our new position in space, massive synthetic life forms known as the Reapers begin harvesting the galaxy’s civilizations.  It’s up to you, as Commander Shepard of the Human Alliance Navy, to stop the Reapers, save humanity, and restore peace to the galaxy.

OK, but what really makes Mass Effect such an interesting series?  Like most other video games, the player has a considerable amount of control over the protagonist’s actions.  When I’m reading a novel, I may identify with a protagonist, but I don’t expect to be able to exert any control over him or her.  In a video game, I can make Mario jump, duck, and run.  Mass Effect takes this to an entirely different level: I can make my Shepard be male or female and adjust his or her physical characteristics, jump over carts, duck, run, shoot… and make weighty moral and ethical decisions that could potentially impact my entire experience moving forward.  Part of the fun with Mass Effect is engaging in conversations and learning more about the galaxy and the diverse individuals it’s made of.  I can have Shepard use her influence as a paragon to uphold peace in the galaxy, or I can act in a more renegade fashion, serving humanity’s best interests with brutal efficiency.  The choices don’t just matter in one given game, however: players can import their characters and their decisions from the first game into the second, and from the second into the third.  As a result, decisions I made as Shepard in 2007‘s Mass Effect 1, and 2010’s Mass Effect 2, matter today in 2012 when I play Mass Effect 3.  My female Shepard was an orphan war hero, but yours might be a grizzly looking guy who let his whole squad die. It’s easy to see how gamers have become intensely attached to their own, personalized Shepards.

Of course, Mass Effect”s developer, BioWare, is well known throughout the industry as giving players considerable choice throughout their games.  In their 2003 critically-acclaimed Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, you could fly around the Star Wars galaxy, wielding your light saber, and play as a “light side” or a “dark side” character; and Dragon Age: Origins had hours upon hours of side quests to explore with your character.  With increasing success, BioWare was bought for $860 million in 2007 by Electronic Arts (EA), widely considered to be one of the foremost video game publishers in the business.

If this sum seems like a lot, we have to remember that the video game industry itself is huge.  According to the Entertainment Software Association, more than $25 billion was spent on games, consoles, and accessories in 2010 alone.  In fact, The Economist recently released an article citing a consulting firm that actually put the video game industry’s worth at closer to $56 billion.

Certainly, money is one way of understanding influence, but when over 70% of American consumers are playing with interactive media, it seems a ripe site for studying social forces. But, with some notable exceptions, the industry and its products are generally left relatively undiscussed in sociology.

Now, originally, I had planned on writing a post on gender and sexuality in the Mass Effect series.  There are not too many female sociologist gamers, and I felt that I could offer a unique perspective on the series.

Then, I finished Mass Effect 3.

And by “finished” I mean, I threw my hands up in the air, my eyebrows scrunched together, and said, “That’s it…? Really?!” I would be lying if I said there weren’t expletives. Without spoiling the ending itself, after learning the Reapers’ motivations, the player is left making one final choice. The differences between the choices are inconsequential, though, and there is arguably no resolution of your weighty decisions over the course of hundreds of hours of rich, meaningful gameplay.

Apparently, I am not the only one that felt a bit hoodwinked, though. The last two weeks, the internet has been ablaze with impassioned discussion on the ending to the series.  Video game websites such as Kotaku, GameFront, and Penny Arcade have each expressed gamers’ discontentedness with the ending.  Mainstream news outlets like the Wall Street Journal, Forbes and USA Today noticed the uproar, and even the game’s Executive Producer, Casey Hudson, and BioWare’s co-founder Dr. Ray Muzyka weighed in on the discussion in attempts to address fans’ criticisms.  [Of course, please note that these external links may include some spoilers]

Why did the Mass Effect series leave us feeling so cheated? And why is sociology helpful in trying to explain this?

First, let’s talk about structure and agency, one of the frameworks we in sociology use to explore how individuals act in society and how society acts on individuals.  Imagine that I need to get from point A to point B:

Now, there are any number of ways that we could get there, as evidenced by my bright-colored squiggly lines a la Microsoft Paint:

I have the agency to get from A to B in whichever way that I choose. But of course, this isn’t how real life works. We live in a society that is in many ways constricted by laws and norms of behavior, one that gives us boundaries and structure:

 While I can still get from A to B in a path of my own choosing (my agency), I am forced to go through socially constructed channels to get there (structure). As a result, sociologists often question how much agency individuals truly have in deciding their own social situations.

But why talk about structure and agency? What does it have to do with Mass Effect and its ending? As it turns out, everything.

In Mass Effect, we exhibit our agency and make different choices or perform certain missions in a different order, but, at the end of the day, all Shepards will experience certain key plot points and missions through the plot structure that BioWare has laid out for us.  It’s sometimes hard to remember this, when it feels like it is we ourselves who are convincing a squad mate to make amends with his son, or saving data that could potentially save an entire alien species from a genetic birth disorder.

What I imagine fans of the series had envisioned of the ending was a series of vignettes that would show how your choices across the series, both big and small, had impacted the galaxy.  Of course, these endings would still be governed by BioWare (the circle “structure”), but the amount of variety between my experience as Shepard and someone who made different choices would be notable (the different colored dots):

 Instead, BioWare gave us these potential endings:

Even more frustrating, the three endings differ only slightly from one another.  Sure, many video games and other plot-driven media only feature one ending, so why be upset at all?  I suppose the ending to the Mass Effect series seems a bit underwhelming, especially after the series has been established as one that has placed heavy emphasis on a relatively wider structure of choice and outcome.  As a gamer, it’s hard to realize that, ultimately, my resolution with Shepard is not actually determined by me, but by the game’s producer.  And while my background in sociology helps me understand why my experience with Mass Effect 3‘s ending was so jarring, I’m not sure it actually makes me feel better about how BioWare overly constrained players’ agency with too narrow of a structure.

Dr. Christine Williams on the realities of the retail labor market

Sinikka Elliott, Christine Williams, Angela Stroud, Cati Connell and Dana Britton at ASA

Dr. Williams was honored with the Distinguished Feminist Lecturer Award in 2011 at the American Sociological Association Annual Meeting in Las Vegas

Christine Williams blogs about challenges facing retail workers in this months section of ASA Organizations, Occupations, and Work: “Upgrading Jobs in the Retail Industry”. You can read more about her research in an article Dr. Williams and UT Austin Alumna, Dr. Catherine Connell co authored “Looking Good and Sounding Right: Aesthetic Labor and Social Inequality in the Retail Industry,” in the Journal of Work and Occupations.

2012 Recruiting Events – what a pleasure

Our 2012 Recruiting events at the Scholtz Garten, the plush SAC Conference room and our dear old Burdine were enjoyed by all. I have to say that listening to everyone talk enthusiastically about their research and our community makes me very glad to be in such good company. Please take a moment to enjoy our 2012 recruiting movie. Hope to see many of you in Fall 2012!

A Foucauldian Critique of the Murder of Trayvon Martin by Lady Anima Adjepong

The recent murder of Trayvon Martin, a seventeen-year-old black boy is an opportunity to explore the dimensions of disciplinary power as Michel Foucault characterizes them. On February 26, 2012, a white neighbourhood watch volunteer, George Zimmerman murdered Martin in an Orlando, FL neighbourhood. According to news sources Martin was on his way home carrying a bag of Skittles he had purchased at a nearby 7-11. Zimmerman called police to say he had seen a “suspicious person.” He confronted Martin and shot him, claiming self-defence. Martin was unarmed. Florida State police have not arrested Zimmerman, stating that there is not enough evidence to disprove his claim of self-defence. I argue that Martin’s murder and the state police’s hesitance to arrest Zimmerman are exemplary of the success of disciplinary power.

The three instruments that ensure the success of disciplinary power are hierarchical observation, normalizing judgment and the examination. Each of these instruments worked together to result in Zimmerman’s overzealous trigger finger.

Euro-American civil society inscribes black bodies as criminal and outside of the social contract. This society consequently disciplines its members to police these bodies and defend the social contract. Zimmerman’s policing for civil society resulted in his shooting of Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman’s suspicion of Martin can be understood as part of a relation of surveillance that enables the discreet functioning of disciplinary power.

When Zimmerman recognizes Martin as a “suspicious person” his response, shooting and killing him, aligns with the disciplinary mechanism of punishing non-conformity. Martin’s presence in the neighbourhood did not conform to acceptable socially prescribed locations for blacks. Zimmerman thus undertook the corrective of disciplinary punishment by confronting and shooting Martin, thereby correcting the infraction that Martin’s presence entailed. The norm in U.S. American society inscribes criminality on the black body; the norm also requires that black bodies be incarcerated or disappeared (whichever gets rid of them faster). The power of the norm (Foucault 184) and its attendant violence is very much at play in Zimmerman’s response to Martin. Martin’s black body, inscribed with criminality must be confronted and disappeared, in order to re-establish homogeneity in the neighbourhood.

Finally, by recognizing Martin as “suspicious,” calling the police, then shooting and killing him, Zimmerman passes the examination with flying colours; he acts on the knowledge that produces the reality of blackness as criminal. Zimmerman’s actions are evident of his constitution as “effect and object of power [and knowledge]” (Foucault 192). Martin’s murder, and the police’s refusal to arrest Zimmerman is evidence of the disciplinary power of civil society that constructs blackness as its prey.

Police defence of Zimmerman’s murderous shooting as self-defence against an unarmed 140-pound teenager confirms Frank Wilderson’s assessment that “there is something organic to civil society that makes it essential to the destruction of the black body” (Prison Slave, 18). Despite the public outrage about the handling of the case, and the incoherence of the logic that a 240-pound man needs to shoot a teenager half his size in self-defence, it appears that legal action cannot be taken against Zimmerman.


Foucault, Michel. 1977. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Translated by Alan Sheridan. New York, NY: Random House Publishing

Wilderson, FB. 2003. “The Prison Slave as Hegemony’s (Silent) Scandal.” Social Justice. Retrieved February 15, 2012 (http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/29768181).

Lady Anima Adjepong is a doctoral student at the University of Texas. Her research interests are in gender, sports, race, and class. After receiving her bachelor’s in Comparative Literature at Princeton University, Lady worked in research consulting in Washington, DC. When the political climate in the nation’s capital got to be too intense for her, she moved to Austin, where the people are hippies and politics is on the back burner. In the rare moments when she has spare time, she tries to play rugby.

Texas: It Ain’t All Howdys and Y’alls by Chelsea Smith

March reading weather has sunshine and blue skies in Austin, TX

When I announced to my friends that I would be moving to Texas, I received a lot of skeptical responses, ranging from confusion (“why would you want to do that?”) to hyperbole (“you’re going to get shot”). Like many people considering a move to Texas for the sake of their education, I was well aware of the stereotype of all Texans as socially conservative, gun-toting cowboys and Southern belles. After living in Texas for five and a half years (in Houston for undergrad and then some, and now in Austin), I’ve learned that there’s much more to Texas than these stereotypes. Here are a few lessons I have learned that I would like to share as you decide if UT-Austin and Texas are the right place for you.

1. Texas, and Texans, are a lot more open-minded than expected. Given its bad reputation, I expect people would be surprised to hear of the progressive changes that have come out of Texas. In terms of LGBT rights, Houston elected Mayor Annise Parker in 2009 (and re-elected her in 2011), making her one of the first openly gay mayors of a major U.S. city. Additionally, Civil Rights leader Barbara Jordan was the first African-American woman elected to the Texas Senate in 1966 and the first woman elected as a federal House Representative of Texas in 1972. Located next to UT’s Texas Union building, a statue of Representative Jordan commemorates her political advocacy for the disadvantaged. Finally, southern comfort is more than a liquor that came out of our neighboring Louisiana. In general, Texas is known for its southern hospitality, and the large university base in Austin lends an even greater feeling of friendliness to the city.

2. Culture is culture is culture. The stereotype of Texan culture as the howdy’in cowboys and belles I mentioned earlier both reduces and ignores the diversity of cultures and people in Texas. The proximity to Mexico means a strong Mexican cultural presence, which has also branched off into a distinct Tex-Mex (or Mex-Tex, if you like) culture. Beyond breakfast tacos on restaurant menus and mariachi bands at weddings, Texas is at the forefront of immigration trends and shifts in the racial and ethnic makeup of the population that will soon come to influence the rest of the United States. Whether a research interest of yours or not, these trends have important implications for public policy and social relations that we are already experiencing in Texas and that foreshadow similar issues on the national scene. Furthermore, Austin has numerous subcultures and creative venues, evident in the annual South by Southwest festival, popular food trucks, and bicycle gangs.

3. There are “crazies” everywhere. One of my biggest concerns about moving to (and deciding to stay in) Texas were political extremists, by which I mean those who try to impose their political and social views on others to the detriment of public discourse. Regardless of your political inclination, extremism in either direction tends to be pretty scary – but these kinds of people exist everywhere, from Texas to Missouri to New York City. While their concentration may shift, you will never escape such people; and if your goal is to surround yourself with people whose views are exactly the same as yours, good luck navigating academia or any other profession.

4. You can’t beat the weather (except in the summer). Saving the most superficial for last, near year-round warm weather and sunshine can do wonders for your life. As I write this blog post, I am sitting on the patio of a cafe overlooking sunshine reflecting off the lake. I may also be studying for a midterm exam, but I am doing so in beautiful 75˚ weather – in the first week of March! For me personally, I am much happier and much more productive when I can be outside, and this is not a trivial factor in my quality of life. If running trails, bike rides, and kayaking year-round are your thing, you’re in luck. If admiring the December sunshine from your apartment window is your thing, you’re in luck.

To conclude what has almost become a public service announcement or love letter of sorts to Texas, I concede that there are disadvantages to living in Texas. The state legislature has passed recent laws to which I am very morally opposed and the traffic on I-35 is always atrocious. However, the advantages I have experienced as a Texas resident and as a member of UT’s nationally competitive sociology program are greater. When I first moved to Texas, I made a promise to myself to boycott cowboy hats and usage of the word y’all. Over time, I have confronted and moved past my own stereotypes and misconceptions of a state it turns out I knew little about. Y’all has slipped into my vocabulary. Although, a cowboy hat has yet to touch my head in any kind of seriousness.

Chelsea Smith is pursuing her doctoral degree in the Department of Sociology. Her research interests are in family sociology and demography. After graduating from Rice University in 2010, she worked on a longitudinal, mixed-methods study to examine gender differences in the graduate student experience, with a focus on STEM fields, gender, and fertility intentions. As a PhD student at the University of Texas, Chelsea plans on studying non-traditional families and relationships between parents and children.

Beyond the Cosmopolis: A Summary of Étienne Balibar’s ‘Cosmopolitanism and Secularism’

The honeymoon is long over, philosopher Étienne Balibar says in ‘Cosmopolitanism and Secularism: Controversial Legacies and Prospective Interrogations,’ between cosmopolitanism and secularism, and perhaps the taken-for-granted marriage of the two attitudes of liberal nation-states was not so legitimate to begin with.

Witness for instance the heated debates on universal human rights versus respect for cultural, religious difference (Islam), or the severe silencing of foreign, ‘outside’ influence in the interest of economic and ‘humanistic’ policies (the Eastern bloc, China). Have we reached an ideological antinomy and practical impasse? What will be the legacy of globalization in the XXI century?

Balibar insists, first, in order to extricate ourselves from sinking deeper into this mire, we rethink the opposition and antagonism between the secular and the sacred. Secularism, in a self-legitimizing gesture to adjudicate among all forms of recognized expressions on a bias separating politics and religion (and also the public and the private), institutes itself foremost as a theology of the Law. Instead, Balibar calls for a ‘secularization of secularism’ itself where legal systems play a self-critical role but cannot be the sole decisive agents in the arena of national and international relations.

Further, Balibar invokes the proliferation of assemblages and re-assemblages of ‘new religions’ and ‘new traditions’ such as liberation theology, Islamic feminism, stewardship ecology etc that would liberate and harness in new ways the reformatory and revolutionary energies that have become trapped and forgotten in current rigidified, codified, normalized, routinized everyday practices–akin to a sublimation of libido–and as such subject to performative critiques.

Thus, rather than the cosmopolitical, Balibar hopes to call for a ‘planetary construction of the universal,’ around an axis of the imminently reversible poles of the secular and the sacred, beyond the deadlock of cosmopolitanism and secularism.

On the Sociology of Sport by Letisha Brown

The study of sport within sociology opens up new avenues for investigating several
things within the social world. Through sport scholarship, there is room for critical
examinations of sexuality, race, gender, class, age, health and more. For instance, Dr.
Ben Carrington’s Race, Sport and Politics: The Sporting Black Diaspora, offers a
detailed look into the creation of one of the most longstanding tropes of blackness—the
black athlete. Drawing upon scholars such as Fanon, and Hall, Carrington’s work offers
new insight to the ways in which the field of sport has been used to create, as well as
maintain conceptions of racial identity. Carrington’s work is an asset not only to sports
literature, but also within the context of cultural, diaspora and post/colonial studies as

The study of sport also offers new ways to think about representation, specifically
as it pertains to masculine and feminine identities. The realm of sport is one stage in
which western ideals of the masculine and feminine are (re)produced. The history of the
Olympic Games for instance offers up several examples of the ways ideas of sex/gender
in western culture has been rendered within the context of heteronormativity. Early forms of “gender verification” within the games called for female athletes to undergo a visual examination given by a panel of gynecologists as a means of verifying that only “true” women were involved in the competition (Vannini & Fornssler, 2011). Though there had been incidences of men infiltrating female competitions, such practices became a spring board for determining means of sex/gender not only within sport but within the context of society at larger. To put it another way, the measuring stick of femininity and masculinity during these practices was based upon physical characteristics as the “true markers” of sex/gender.

It is important to look at the history of sport with a critical eye in order to fully examine
the ways in which such practices have been (re)produced within the context of the post/
colonial. Out of these naked parades grew, not only the “gender verification” of today—
chromosomal testing, etc.—but also drug testing within sport. Both drug and sex/gender
testing exist as a means of weeding out athletes who were “unnatural.” Studying sport
within the context of sociology offers scholars and researchers the ability to critically
examine contemporary notions of race, sex/gender, class, age and more.

There are a multitude of questions that still exist within sports sociology; questions that
can be answered via various theoretical frames. For those interested in studies of culture,
media studies, the body and embodiment, health, politics, and more the sociology of sport can offer you an entry point into your deepest area of interest. Jump into discourse.


Carrington, B. (2010). Race, Sport and Politics: The Sporting Black Diaspora. London: Sage.

Vannini, A. & Fornssler, B. (2011). “Girl, Interrupted: Interpreting Semenya’s Body, Gender Verification Testing, and Public Discourse.” Cultural Studies and Critical Methodologies, 11 (3) 243-257.

Letisha Brown is PhD student in the Department of Sociology at UT-Austin. She is the 2011 winner of the Barbara A. Brown Outstanding Student Paper Award awarded by the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport. She received this honor for her paper, “The Spectacle of Blackness: Race, Representation and the Black Female Athlete.”


Research Questions with graduate student Amy Lodge

Research Questions (RQ) is Q&A series profiling the faculty, graduate students, and alumni of the Sociology Department at the University of Texas at Austin. In brief conversations, this series looks at the diverse projects, interests, and sources of inspiration within the UT-Austin sociology community.

This week we take a look at the research of graduate student Amy Lodge, 2012 winner of the Norval Glenn Prize. The Sociology Department established the Norval Glenn Prize in 2011 to celebrate the memory of our esteemed colleague by giving an annual award to the best graduate student paper in the sociology of the family.

Research Questions (RQ): Amy, what brought you to the field of sociology?

Amy Lodge: I was (and am) drawn to the field of sociology because of the unique power of sociology to change the way we see the world. Living in an individualistic society, few of us are encouraged to see how our lives and the lives of others are shaped by broader structures and systems of meaning. Examining the world from a sociological perspective can be scary at first as we often have to re-examine our taken for granted understandings of the social world, but is ultimately an exciting and life-long learning experience.

RQ: Congratulations on winning the 2012 Norval Glenn Prize! Do you have any other exciting news you’d like to share?

AL: Thanks! I am excited to begin analyzing the data for my dissertation. Based on in-depth interviews, my dissertation will examine the processes and meanings through which social ties shape physical activity and how those processes differ for men and women, African Americans and whites, and over the life course. At the Annual American Sociological Association meeting in August, I will present preliminary results from my dissertation which focus particularly on how parenthood shapes physical activity differently over the life course and how that differs at the intersection of race and gender.

I am also excited about a forthcoming article appearing in Journal of Marriage and Family that I co-authored with my advisor Dr. Debra Umberson. It examines how mid and later life married couples experience changes in their sex lives and how those experiences are shaped by the intersection of gender and age.


Amy Lodge is a doctoral student in the Department of Sociology. She earned her MA in Sociology (2008) from the University of Texas and her BA in Sociology (2006) from the University of South Carolina. She is interested in gender and sexuality, aging and the life course, family relationships, race/ethnicity, and physical activity. She currently teaches Gender, Race, and Class in American society and has previously taught Sex and Violence in Pop Culture in the Department of Sociology.

Etienne Balibar Talk Today

Étienne Balibar will be speaking today at the Student Activity Center, on ‘Cosmopolitanism and Secularism: Controversial Legacies and Prospective Interrogations.’ The event is part of a symposium ‘Sacred and Secular Politics’ organized by the Center for European Studies et al, open to the public. I encourage everyone to go. Details here. Post to follow.

The leading contemporary Marxist theorist, Balibar was born in 1942 and a student of Louis Althusser, co-authoring Reading Capital with his mentor. He teaches at Paris X.