Philosophy and Mass Effect: A Response to Popbioethics

Hello everyone! Over the last couple of weeks I have been analyzing and answering an article by Kyle Munkittrick at titled “Why Mass Effect is the Most Important Science Fiction Universe of Our Generation”. You can find the first section here, and the second here.

This week I’ll be wrapping up this discussion, looking at Munkittrick’s third and final point, and his conclusion regarding the importance of the video game Mass Effect to the science fiction genre as a whole. The third and final chapter of this game series is now out, and since I am currently playing through it, next week I’ll be taking a look at the game itself as a final examination of the Mass Effect series, taking a look at some of the controversy surrounding some writing decisions in the end of the game that I think we can all learn from. But before that, let’s take a look at Munkittrick’s final point.

The Philosophy

“In nearly every great popular science fiction universe, there is a flaw… the assumption that life has meaning, that intelligent life has a purpose, and that humanity contributes anything to that universe.”

The philosophy of Mass Effect is Cosmicism, which Munkittrick defines as (quoting Wikipedia):

The majority of undiscerning humanity are creatures with the same significance as insects in a much greater struggle between greater forces which, due to humanity’s small, visionless and unimportant nature, it does not recognize.[emphasis added by Munkittrick]

Reaper citadel battle
The undefeatable... being defeated.

According to this philosophy, humanity cannot attain meaningful existence, and to play Mass Effect, which embodies Cosmicism, is to consider the value of the lives of other species, the meaning of life on the cosmic scale, and the importance of individual relationships in the face of cataclysm. One must accept the premise that the technology to explore the universe is a trap, and a structure that forces galactic civilization to follow an invariable path.

All of the issues surrounding the development of each of form of intelligent life, from the reproductive genocide of the Krogan, to the war between the synthetic A.I. Geth and their creators the Quarians, are stripped of their sense of evil because of the very nature of the universe, that the path of life and civilization itself is an artificial and designed construct of a malevolent and ambivalent force. Above all the myriad issues that threaten natural life is the ancient threat of the Reapers, biomechanical equivalents of the Elder Gods of H.P. Lovecraft’s work. The Reapers are inconceivably powerful, are immortal, and bend the minds of anyone who encounters them, driving most insane and enslaving the others to their ancient, undeniable will. They come every 50,000 years to wipe the slate clean, to decimate all intelligent life, then slip away into dark space, to wait once again for civilization to develop along their pre-defined paths and inescapable controls.

“The Reapers and their cyclical destruction of civilization represent one of the most nihilistic interpretation[s] of intelligence in the universe ever presented. Mass Effect answers Fermi’s famous question, “Where is everyone?” with a matter-of-fact, “They have been consumed.”


Mass Effect is the first blockbuster franchise in the postmodern era to directly confront a godless, meaningless universe indifferent to humanity.”

As Munkittrick claims, the setting, medium, and message all work to frame the philosophy of Cosmicism, which “forces the player to recontextualize his or her participation in the experiment of existence…By exploring and expanding upon the big questions asked by the last century of science fiction, Mass Effect has become the standard bearer for the questions the next century of science fiction will seek to answer.”

My Conclusion

So the nature of the universe, that it is a “godless, meaningless universe indifferent to

lovecraft elder gods
Unimaginable. Eternal. Madness.

humanity”, is essentially what Munkittrick points to as being the most defining feature of Mass Effect’s universe, and by extension, the primary element that affects its candidacy as the most important of our generation. Certainly by the very words of these creatures, and their obvious connection to Lovecraft (they even look like his giant evil space squids), the philosophy of Cosmicism is  intended to be the metaphysical punchline of the Mass Effect universe. I don’t think there’s any denying that.

However, is this actually what the world presents to its audience? Do the Reapers actually perform their necessary roles of unimaginable, undefeatable, and immortal beings?

We have already established that while humanity is intended to be insignificant in the world of Mass Effect, they are up front and center anyway, a flaw in execution that effectively minimizes the equalizing factor Munkittrick claims the world to have. If the Reapers are not actually performing the role of the Elder Gods, then Mass Effect is not actually embodying Cosmicism either. The Reapers are the fulcrum upon which Munkittrick’s analysis stands. I believe that the Reapers fall short of this goal for the following reasons:

  • They are not eternal. The Reapers are old, possibly millions of years old, but they had a beginning, and they can certainly meet an end. They were not only originally self-created beings (since they are essentially biomechanical synthetic robots), and while they seem to be “ageless” (they do not die simply due to the passage of time), there are several cases already in the series in which they have been killed or are found dead (and I can only assume more will follow in the final chapter of the game). In two occasions, these Reapers were killed by the player himself, a human. This flies directly in the face of both Munkittrick’s point that humans are insignificant, and that the Reapers create a universe where humans are incapable of attaining meaningful existence. In these two instances, even though the Reapers were in weakened states, humanity proved it could affect the “undeniable” and “inescapable” fate of the galaxy.
  • They are not unknowable. The Reapers are advanced beyond imagination, but so were the Protheans, who were the last generation of intelligent life consumed. In both cases, humanity and the rest of the races have studied and gleaned from technological remnants, and have pieced together the story of the cyclical annihilation, as well as effectively figured out the general steps needed to prevent it. While they have been wrong, outwitted, and defeated along the way, and have little hope, they still have some hope. Lovecraft’s Elder Gods are characterized as offering no hope to the insects of humanity. This is the fundamentally important aspect of Cosmicism that Mass Effect fails to impart through the Reapers.
  • They are flawed. The Reapers make mistakes. Sovereign, the first Reaper the player meets through the story, relies on his domination of a single Turian named Seren to act as an agent in the world as he attempts to open the door for the cyclical destruction. This plan falls apart, however, leaving him vulnerable to the mortals he thought he would crush effortlessly. This failure proves that the Reapers are not beyond the flaws of the morals they dominate, and do not embody the dark perfection of Lovecraft’s Elder Gods.

Because of the failure of the Reapers to sustain the environment of Cosmicism they are designed to create, the narrative that Munkittrick intends to elevate suffers from discordant tone and mismatched themes. This is still a hero story, perhaps the first true epic of video games, however, because it does not remain consistent with its setting, message, and philosophy, it cannot be called the generational genre definer that Munkittrick would claim it to be. Certainly a story like what he describes would be incredibly meaningful, and Mass Effect certainly is important for pushing the envelope in many ways, but it is unwise to prescribe such importance to a fledgling work, especially in an unproven medium. The classics are only classics because they have survived the test of time, after all, and such a label as “The Most Important Science Fiction Universe of Our Generation” is only something that can be truly given once time has shown it have the merit to last.

I hope you have enjoyed this discussion as much as I have! Next week I will take a look at the final installment of the series and attempt to explain the outrage surrounding its controversial ending, and what we can learn from it as writers. Until then, do you think that Cosmicism is a defining philosophy of our time? Let me know in the comments below!

5 thoughts on “Philosophy and Mass Effect: A Response to Popbioethics

  1. I haven’t played it, but watching my partner fight, argue and head-butt his way through Mass Effect games with his female Shepard has been like enjoying a very long, hugely epic and exciting movie with interesting and detailed races not just fighting, but negotiating. Big difference, there..

    I liked this post a lot. An excellent analysis of the Reapers. I’m looking forward to finding out more about their origins. Already seen some fantastic battles with Reapers (standout one on Krogan homeworld. OMG) Hoping that the controversial ending won’t spoil the series…!

  2. Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed it! I enjoyed writing it. I really do like this game, even though it seems like I spent the last three weeks bashing it. The worldbuilding is excellent, and the narrative is great- which is probably why so many people are upset. Ending such a great series on a sour not is not something any fan is willing to put up with. I hope you like it, anyway- it seems not everyone thinks its terrible. I guess I’ll have to find out for myself!

  3. Excellent and well reasoned evaluation of the game! I love the Mass Effect IP, and the complex stories it weaves so seamlessly. I do somewhat differ however, in my assessment of the games moral stance or ‘what it means to me’. While the philisophical cosmicism is undeniable to me there is a deeper message underlying the despair so central to the plot which is: Commander Shepard. Specifically, what he or she (despite the paragon/renegade paradigm) represents both to humanity and biological/organic life more generally. What I mean is… The Reapers are this ancient and terrible race of sentient machines right? I mean they have been around at least 37 million years according to the lore and probably much longer. Their origins ultimately remain a mystery and their power as well as the scale of their slaughter boggles the mind. The word “Trillion” is difficult for people to conceptualize. We are told that in the ME galactic community their are trillions of people from all kinds of species. Not only will they be exterminated but this cycle of destruction has been repeated thousands of times. The odds of being the first organic civilization to defeat the reapers is beyond abyssmal. And yet… Shepard can ultimately succeed. Without any spoilers, it is possible to destroy the reapers and permanently end their cycle of genocide forever. Commander Shepard thus occupies a messianic position in the lore not just for humanity but all sentient life, and yet his humanity remains intact.. Thus, the Project Lazarus reference in the beginning of Mass Effect 2 are particularly auspicious. As a shotgun-weilding Jesus ready to lay down his life for the survival of the galaxy he becomes a sort of antithesis of George Orwell’s Winston in 1984. Rather than representing humanity abject failure, he represents the best of our species – the inexorable belief that a single individual- of either gender, or any race, or any sexual orientation might rise to become the savior not only of his people but of all people. The fiction of the mass effect universe convincingly establishes a scale that is virtually unrivalled in any science fiction intellectual property in any medium. I personally find it inspiring- and as a soldier who has participated in many battles in the real world I have seen first hand the effect that competence, charisma, and the heroic spirit of a true warrior can have on people – of all races and cultures. To that end, Mass Effect and the iconic Commander Shepard make a compelling case for humanity and our future, and in my opion, through their incredible narrative, at least partially elevate the medium of videogames from the past time of ‘kids’ to meaningful social and cultural inspirations for a new generation. To Shepard – and the creative minds at Bioware who crafted such a masterpiece. Cheers!

    1. Cody, you’re absolutely right about Shepard (I figured out how to spell it!) being a messianic figure. Whether or not he actually dies in the end, he has still given up everything to save not only human kind, but all sentient life. No matter what choice you take at the end of ME3, you are still ensuring a future through the sacrifice of one man. There are also strong elements of the classical “hero from the outside” seen in works like Beowulf and other mythological stories (which is part of the reason I think everyone seems to be so upset about the ending- it doesn’t mesh with expectations. We get an Oedipus ending with no catharsis instead of an Odyssey ending with a victory through great cost.

      1. Thanks for the response! Interestingly enough, I did somehow overlook the Beowoulf/mythological hero angle of it. The story is so deep and awesome that I can overlook the “not perfect” ending to appreciate the greater story being told by Bioware. I DO hope they add an epilogue of somekind, I think that would go a long way towards appeasing the legions of angry fans. Not sure if you played Dragon Age: Origins but they somehow made a few lines of text at the end of the game carry emotional weight (although the epic score definitly contributes to that)

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