You finally did it. You finally beat the Mass Effect trilogy. After spending 77 hours of playing Mass Effect 1, 2, and 3 you just want to….play it over again. Why is that? Why are you and most other gamers so willing to play the game over and over again? Why am I so Effect-ively hooked to this series, despite the fact that some critics say it is gravely overrated by the industry?
Putting aside all game reviews on Mass Effect’s gameplay or its eye-candy cinematics, there are many scientific and psychological factors behind Mass Effect addiction. Here are five ways that BioWare goes about immersing its gamers in the Mass Effect series while they play as the galactic evil-fighting Commander Shepard.
1. Better than a movie.
Throughout the 20th century, movies have been the key element of our entertainment but are now considered to be “the past,” according to Internet Entrepreneur Tobias Batton. With all kinds of media that we have access to today, movies have been one of the most famous and influential in our lives today. However, as time advances, video games have become a more efficient way of storytelling, even more than what a movie could ever do. Don’t believe it? Look at the recent sales figures of video games compared to films.
Now the question is, why? Why are video games such as Mass Effect gaining more attraction than cinematic films? The answer is that "games are one of the few media (perhaps the only one) truly capable of non-linear storytelling” (Batton, 1). All films, plays, etc. have only one story, and that story can only be modified by the writer or changed by the director. However, video games like Mass Effect have an interactive story wherein the player is able to make choices that will eventually define the story, which I will further explain in my next point.
In most types of media, the audience has to sit down and watch a television screen without any real interaction. Of course, the audience may be able to have a relationship with characters within a movie or television show, but that relationship will always be one-way. The actors of a movie are never going to obey audience commands in real-time due to a glaringly obvious reason: the scenes were already filmed. Due to interaction between the audience and the video game’s plot, audience members become more intrigued, and the story-telling process becomes more alive to the gamer.
2. The science of dopamine.
There is one neurotransmitter created in the brain that makes video games like Mass Effect so addictive and pleasing to its players: dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter formed in the body that in fact has many functions, but, as Psychologist Dr. Peter Gray said in his definition, “Dopamine is directly related to the knowing of a reward at stake that isn’t 100 percent guaranteed” (1). That is what gives the audience the rush, the desire to stay holding the controller for one more level, for one more achievement.
In films, there seems to be the same storyline over and over again. The story is so common that there are categories for certain plots, as if it were a formulated math equation. Even most video games tend to have this type of storyline, but Mass Effect defies this storytelling formula and carries its plot in a more innovative way. The reason why success is "not 100 percent guaranteed” is because Commander Shepard has the risk of actually dying — and so does the crew. Death basically erases characters from the plot, and they get replaced by dull substitutes... or their position isn’t filled in again at all. This causes great caution in the player when it comes to making decisions.
A great example may be in the second installment of this video game series. Once the Normandy’s crew gets captured by the Reaper-created Collectors, action must be made swiftly. If not, they all die a gruesome death of being melted into blended liquid in front of you and your squad mates. They don’t resurrect; they won’t come back. This is only one of the many important decisions the player must take, and some decisions are even limited by time, which means they must be made quickly.
3. The element of choice.
One main reason why Mass Effect (ME) has become so unique to its category of media is the element of choice, also known as agency. Within the ME universe, you take control of Commander Shepard, an intergalactic defender of the galaxy with one purpose: to save the galaxy from complete destruction by a machine race, The Reapers. Now, some may argue that there isn’t a real liberty in choice in video games because, in the end, all choices are coded and programmed by game creators.
This is true, but author Matt Hebert in his article, Choice in Video Games, poses a question. He states, “A game’s world is certainly confined to its specifically laid out rules,” and then goes on to ask, “but is the ‘real world’ much different?” (1). In reality, we are limited to the laws of physics, to physical strengths, etc. So what makes that reality any different in video games?
In ME, the player has one purpose, and one purpose alone. However, the player can choose how he/she goes about fulfilling this purpose. The player may choose to unite the galaxy to fight the Reapers with love and good deeds, or the player might intimidate and degrade others in order to do so.
This is how Mass Effect goes about immersing its players into addictive gameplay. It allows the player choose what path he/she wants to take in order to fulfill the purpose Commander Shepard was created for. To a certain extent, this concept touches our sense of reality, which I will also be explaining in my text topic.
4. The morality system
BioWare also immerses the player into Mass Effect through the game's morality system. In all of the games, many decisions gain the player Paragon points or Renegade points. Paragon points are considered to be the “good cop” side of Commander Shepard. On the other hand, the Renegade morality path is more of the “bad cop” Shepard. Each decision or dialogue option anyone makes will affect the morality of Shepard, but, like I mentioned earlier, there is still one purpose at hand.
Now, it isn’t just the paths of morality that attract the player, however, it’s the display of the morality paths. Whenever the player looks at Commander Shepard in the player menu, Renegade and Paragon morality points can be monitored by simple meters. This causes a “psychological desire within the player to fill it up” as Batton stated, and “gives an incentive to keep on playing till it is completely full” (Batton 2).
BioWare seems to have had this “psychological desire” in mind, because in order to progress in any way within these morality meters, one has to play the game. And that is just the thing: once you take a certain extreme in the morality system, you make certain decisions that generally correspond with your path — but what is the other side like? This seems to be the reason why so many N7-immersed gamers seem to be coming back aboard the Normandy for another 100 hours of gameplay. They played the part of one path, and now they want to experience the other.
5. 'Mass Effect' technology? Real science.
One of the main reasons why Mass Effect may trap a gamer in its addictive grasps is the real, innovative science that is proposed and used in the Mass Effect trilogy. As you travel the galaxy uniting races and kicking butt, you are provided with a vast array of futuristic weaponry and armor that you just wish were real. Well, according to renowned scientist and inventor Dr. Michio Kaku, protective force fields and eviscerator shotguns are not as far from the present as we may think.
In a live video interview, Dr, Kaku explains how we can make such technology a reality using scientific knowledge that as already been obtained. Obviously, there are some aspects of Mass Effect that are a little bit too far-fetched (such as omni-gel that cures anything from cancer to paper cuts in-game) but, excluding those, Mass Effect may have struck reality gold. Kaku talks about how technology such as the force field is completely possible with “layers of electromagnetic fields” and that “multi-layered fields can be put together in order to repel all objects."
Scienctists have also found out that invisibility is currently being experimented with on today's military aircrafts and vehicles. It is explained to us that we “can already make an object disappear using microwave radiation,” so all we would need to do is “create an armor to prevent any radiation seepage to our organisms” (Kaku).
So, this video game technology is, in fact, more real than one may think, and there are even more videos and articles on the web that prove these sciences to be feasible. This is another reason why players come back again to play Mass Effect: Because it touches yet another part of today's reality, and games such as these may have made a deep enough impact to shape studies for research. Using factual and futuristic technology touches our sense of reality. Therefore, the player is more easily convinced of the plot and immersed into the story despite Mass Effect being a fictional video game.
In conclusion, BioWare used many tools and ways in order to steal the attention of Mass Effect players. It appears that BioWare took into consideration more than just gameplay when crafting Mass Effect; the developers also thought of psychological and mental ways to make Mass Effect addictive to play. With Mass Effect: Andromeda coming soon, we should expect nothing less than another 100 hours of addictive and immersive gameplay that will have you on your seat for days.