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Nerdy Academia: The Many Worlds Of The Cycle (Part 1)

The goal of Nerdy Academia is to encourage, and provide examples of, close readings and academic-style analyses of nerdy works. There’s a billion essays about War And Peace out there but a scant few about fun things like nerdy fiction. I want to examine science fiction, fantasy, comics, video games, etc. just like I would with other sources of literature. I also want to deliver the – I guess you could call them essays although that sounds too stuffy – in short, easily consumable posts. Nerdy Academia is larger academic readings of both classic and pop nerdy works, breaking them up into smaller chunks for quick reading.

This week, we’ll start looking at personhood in Bioware’s Mass Effect series.

“I wouldn’t brainwash an organic race. I can’t see treating the geth differently” (Mass Effect 2, Legion: A House Divided). In deliberation on the ethics of recoding a fringe group of a robotic race known as the geth as opposed to completely destroying the entire group, Commander Shepard in the Mass Effect series of video-games compares the geth to organically occurring forms of life. This comparison is important within this universe because until the events of the game, the notion of atrocities against the geth held no weight. This is because for an act of war to be considered an atrocity, it must be committed against a definable people rather than, say, a collective of hardware. Rewiring circuits of combat drones, for example, would not carry the gravitas of Shepard’s decisions to rewrite the consciousness of the geth. Robert Arp and Tracie Mahaffey make a similar connection between personhood and moral responsibility in the television show, Battlestar Galactica. They conclude that the actions of the fleet, specifically the use of biological warfare, need to be analyzed morally because cylons are classified as persons. They concisely evaluate the terms of personhood based on the philosophies of John Locke, Daniel Dennett, and Derek Parfit. In their article, “’And They Have a Plan’: Cylons As Persons” they summarize the three previously mentioned philosophers’ ideas into five points. Since these five points have been successfully established as giving appropriate and definable results in evaluating the personhood of one fictional synthetic race, they can act as a quick tool in evaluating the personhood status of the geth. However, problems of perception and observation can both exclude and include the geth within the criteria and this problem is compounded when one compares multiple playthroughs of the games because the geth could be observed as both persons and non-persons within the same narrative. Analyzing the dual personhood of the geth within Mass Effect leads to the assertion that the universe in which the geth exist is one of many worlds in a quantum mechanic idea of multiple possible universes.

Legion is a squadmate in Mass Effect 2, and is a character in Mass Effect 3.

The five points summarized by Arp and Mahaffey are that a person to whom moral decisions of war apply “is a being who has the capacity to: (1) be rational or intelligent; (2) have robust mental states like beliefs, desires, emotions, and self-awareness; (3) use language, rather than simply transmit information; (4) be involved in relationships with other persons; and (5) be morally responsible for one’s actions as a free and autonomous being who could have done otherwise” (Arp & Mahaffey, 55). In the universe of Mass Effect, the geth occupy all five of these criteria. However, the problems of Shepard’s influence have the potential to sway the geth into, and also out of, qualifying for one or more of these criteria.

In his essay, “Canon and Contingency in Mass Effect Adam W. Ruch writes that the choice dynamic in the narrative of the Mass Effect universe typically present[s] the world as very open to the player’s input, malleable to the player’s will” (Ruch, 1). The player, and consequently Shepard, is the one to whom the universe is performing its existence and what is seen or not seen, and what is chosen or not chosen dictates the rules of existence within the universe. Ruch says “The canon of a particular work is ‘the way things are’ in that universe” (Ruch, 2).

Tune in next week when we’ll begin exploring the geth’s contingent personhood.