This study of forum conversations dedicated to two aliens in Mass Effect, Tali and Garrus, illustrates the impact of meaningful interaction and suggests a difference in the expression of attachment between players’ genders. The research done by Jacqueline Burgess and Christian Jones reveals emotional attachment, confessions of love, and threats to developers.
BioWare’s Mass Effect -game series is set in a future where humanity is a part of galactic society. The female Tali and male Garrus are members of the quarian and turian races, respectively. They serve as military squadmates, in the second game also as potential love interests, to the human PC (player character) Shepard. According to the researchers, the game was creatively used to solidify this relationship. Players wrote about walking around a dance floor with Garrus to simulate dancing and wearing the same helmet as Tali, whose face is permanently covered with one. They seemed attached to the NPCs in two categories of emotional attachment, a ‘trusted close friend’ and a ‘crush’, simultaneously. This was displayed especially with Tali. Players expressed their admiration of her courage and dependability, but also wished to continue their romantic relationship in the next game of the series. Were this not to happen, the developers were threatened with boycotts and throwing eggs, among other things.
The player character Shepard can be male or female but can only pursue a heterosexual relationship with Tali or Garrus. Differences between the choice of gender were found in the research. Players of male Shepard seemed to identify with their character, sharing the PCs feelings for Tali. Forum comments were exclusively written from a personal viewpoint, not the characters, including the confessions of love. Discussions on Garrus centered on the relationship between him and Shepard the character, a separate entity from the writer. Expressions focused on the feelings of Shepard, not the player.
Unlike the identification with male Shepard in their relationship with Tali, the researchers found that the players’ connection with female Shepard resembled a parasocial relationship; seeing themselves as separate from, but with a special relationship with, their character. While enjoyed, the Shepard-Garrus relationship was viewed as lesser. Tali expresses prior love for Shepard, but Garrus does not seem interested before the player begins expressing theirs. There are also potential romances beyond Tali and Garrus for Shepard. While the relationship with Tali was not questioned, Garrus was compared to other possible partners. The researchers highlight a study of Second Life, a virtual world, showing that 82% of players chose their PCs gender to match their own. They suggest that the differences between the romances with Tali and Garrus could be a variance in how players of different genders express attachment.
A research gap was identified in players’ attachment to NPCs, as many relevant studies are focused on attachment towards the player’s own character instead. The researchers point out that NPCs with sufficient potential for extensive interaction, as in a game like Dragon Age Origins, can cause meaningful emotions and love toward the characters. Still, the executive producer on Mass Effect 3 revealed discussions of potentially removing Tali. For emotionally attractive games, the researchers recommend analyzing player-created content as a priority. They state that this helps developers understand player responses to their characters. In the case of Mass Effect 3, the developers did not seem to have fully recognized the relationships the players had built with the NPCs.
The research method was a qualitative analysis from a large volume of forum posts. Thematic analysis was carried out to explore major discussion themes. Leximancer program was used to identify high-level concepts and relations between them, with human curation for sarcasm, jokes, references, and context issues. Netnography, an immersive data-analysis approach was also used, which included playing the three games and viewing fan-made content, news, and commentaries. The thematic analysis resulted in a codebook with definitions and example quotes of themes.
Burgess, J., Jones, C. “I Harbour Strong Feelings for Tali Despite Her Being a Fictional Character”: Investigating Videogame Player’s Emotional Attachments to Non-Player Characters. Game Studies, 20(1).
Banner image by Madeleine Fjäll. Used with permission from the artist.
Promotional screenshot by BioWare.
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