Themes of War and Refugees in 'Mass Effect' Are More Relevant Than Ever
The names and faces of the missing. Screengrab: BioWare


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Themes of War and Refugees in 'Mass Effect' Are More Relevant Than Ever

Moral complexities ultimately require making a choice.

This story originally ran on War Is Boring.

Mass Effect 3 isn't a "message" game.

The third entry in the science-fiction video game trilogy made by BioWare between 2007 and 2012—there is a fourth game on its way—marries the aesthetics of space opera to the cinematic beats of action films. Problems in this universe get fixed through tough-guy/gal posturing and blazes of gunfire.

The games have a rich setting riven with compelling conflicts and well-realized characters, but also occasionally dumb dialogue and plotting which prompted outcry over the trilogy's ending.


However, at their best, the games pose serious ethical and political dilemmas—and make you live with their consequences.

While playing Mass Effect 3 is about uniting the various races to resist an invasion, details in the game suggest at what's going on outside the military struggle, too. It depicts, with a few background details, what happens to refugees in times of war.

"You can't turn people away!" one man snaps at a desk-bound bureaucrat. "My family's onboard. Just let them land. I'll pay."

In the world of Mass Effect, the security of the galaxy falls to a beefed-up stand-in for the United Nations. A security council of three alien races calls the shots from an enormous space station called the Citadel. The first game of the series, cleverly, is about humanity's campaign to be admitted to that council.

In the final game of the trilogy, a machine race known as the Reapers launch an unstoppable, genocidal invasion—one that sees the homeworlds and colonies of all the races eradicated, one after another. As planet after planet falls, millions flee to the Citadel.

When you return to the station, you discover that Docking Bay E24—normally used to off-load diplomatic cargo—has been repurposed to accommodate the refugees. However, they aren't allowed into the rest of the station, where the lucky few still benefit from its amenities.

At one end of the bay, pictures of missing people fill a wall. Some are certainly dead, others are simply missing—longed for but unlikely to return. Refugees gather here, some searching among the pictures, others clearly in mourning. A few sit and stare meditatively.


It's a reminder of everything they've lost.

Over the course of the game, as more and more refugees arrive, more and more pictures decorate the wall.

Sorry, not allowed. BioWare capture

The refugees live in empty shipping containers stacked one upon the other. They appear to receive adequate food and water, but go without privacy and basic medical supplies—even though the facilities of Huerta Memorial Hospital are only an elevator ride away.

They have little in the way of employment, save by selling goods and services to each other. They spend their days awaiting news from the outside that could change their fortunes for the better. Armed security guards are everywhere, trying to quiet down the agitated civilians.

"You can't turn people away!" one man snaps at a desk-bound bureaucrat. "My family's onboard. Just let them land. I'll pay."

"This isn't about money," she replies. "The wards are already at capacity for refugees. There's just no room."

"Where's my family supposed to go?" he demands.

"I don't know, all right," she says unhappily. "But they can't land here."

In the game, you can intervene to support the refugees, such as re-purposing additional docking bays to accommodate more of them. But doing so has an economic cost—the bays' output are subtracted from your war effort.

Mass Effect's themes borrow from historical examples when governments preferred to tell refugees "they can't land here." In 1939, the United States denied entry to the passenger ship MS St. Louis carrying more than 900 Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany.


An estimated 254 passengers later died in the Holocaust.

In 1942, British and Turkish officials refused entry to a Jewish refugee ship bound for Palestine. A Soviet submarine then torpedoed the vessel at sea with 700 on board.

In 2015, the Thai navy intercepted a drifting boat, abandoned by its captain, overloaded with 300 Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in Myanmar. The Thai navy repaired the engine and sent them off into the sea.

In October, Hungary closed its border with Croatia to keep migrants from passing through. In April, the European Union negotiated an agreement allowing it to send refugees in Greece back to Turkey without due process of asylum requests—contravening the E.U. Convention of Human Rights.

The European Union now claims Turkey is safe in a reversal of its stance prior to the deal. Ankara then began sending hundreds of refugees back into Islamic State-held territory in Syria. Turkish border guards even fired on refugees seeking to cross the border, killing eleven.

But leaders have sometimes accepted the cost of protecting refugee lives.

When millions fled South Vietnam after it was conquered by the North in 1975, more than 2.5 million refugees resettled in North America and Europe in a coordinated campaign. Not all were so fortunate. Between 200,000 and 400,000 "boat people" drowned at sea when turned away by various Southeast Asian governments.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel famously accepted more than one million refugees into Germany in 2015, a move which has come with both economic and political costs and led to a rise in neo-Nazi attacks. Germany then used its influence in the European Union to pressure other countries to accept a proportional share, to much criticism and opposition.


Even some less wealthy countries, like Greece, have made serious efforts to aid refugees despite limited means.

Saving lives—or making them much more tolerable—has a cost. Simply operating the camps on the Syrian border, which currently host 2.7 million refugees and are in deplorable condition, costs Turkey $500 million a month. The bill for housing, feeding, and educating refugees accepted into Germany is estimated to amount to 21 billion euros.

Paying those bills is not easy.

But for all the turmoil, Europe and the United States are not fighting another world war. The world economy is not performing wonderfully, especially following the Brexit vote, but it's hardly dire straits in the wealthier countries. The money could be found and redistributed where it's needed. But there are other concerns.

A migrant camp for space travelers. Screengrab: BioWare

Fear of refugees

In Mass Effect 3, a Security Zone separates the claustrophobic docking bay from the rest of the station, a "precautionary measure to ensure the safety of permanent Citadel residents," according to a holographic guide.

Officials block the refugees from leaving the bay because officials fear that some may have been "indoctrinated" by the invaders, and might attempt to commit acts of terrorism and sabotage. The theme echoes real-world fear of terrorism in Europe and North America.

The overwhelming majority of refugees who secure a life in a developed country—with real jobs and homes, not tents and handouts in a desolate camp in the desert—just want to resume interrupted lives and benefit from the peace and prosperity of places not torn by violence and starvation.


This is not to say terrorist groups do not exploit migrant routes to move their fighters between countries. In June, Germany arrested three Islamic State members (one whom arrived in the country as a refugee) suspected of preparing a terrorist attack.

While the Islamic State does not need to exploit refugee routes, doing so serves the group's goal of exacerbating anti-migrant sentiment in the West. This, in turn, can provoke governments to isolate refugees away from society, inadvertently handing terrorist groups an opportunity to recruit.

Near the end of Mass Effect 3, you explore a planet intended to be a safe haven for refugees of the galactic conflict. But as you investigate, the haven is revealed to be a trap laid by a fanatical terrorist organization that indoctrinates the arriving refugees into its ranks.

In short, isolating refugees can create the problem you're trying to avoid. In the real world, young men who have been stuck in impoverished camps for years—or even, in some cases, their entire lives—without employment or realistic prospects for a better life, are vulnerable to recruitment into rebel armies and terrorist movements.

In Kenya, enormous camps holding 500,000 Somalis displaced by more than 30 years of civil war have become recruiting grounds for the Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group Al Shabaab. As Kenya is fighting Al Shabaab, the extremist group has retaliated with deadly terrorist attacks in Kenya, killing hundreds.


This in turn has led to Kenya announcing in May it would not accept more Somali refugees—a move which could drive more people into Al Shabaab's ranks. In Congo, Hutu refugees fleeing Tutsi militias in Rwanda became a major armed faction in the Congolese civil war. Their presence drew in a Rwandan invasion, which in turn triggered the involvement of eight additional countries.

In Chad, rebel factions such as the Justice and Equality Movement recruit from camps populated by Darfuri refugees. And the Palestine Liberation Organization grew out of refugee communities in Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan.

This is the risk of keeping people in camps for years with little prospect of employment or safe housing. Of course you'd want something better if you were stuck there. If you aren't one of those risking your life on a rickety boat run by shady smugglers, hoping for a chance to live in a developed nation, then maybe you could improve your fortunes with a gun back home.

But that's a hazard for developing countries in the throes of war, not developed Western ones. How bad are the risks for those choosing instead to gamble on that boat to Europe? Imagine that every two weeks, an airliner with 140 people aboard crashed, killing all aboard. How would the world react?

You shouldn't have to imagine very hard, because if you replaced the airliner with a boat, that would reflect how many migrant lives (the majority of them refugees) are being lost in the Mediterranean. More than 3,700 people drowned attempting to cross the Mediterranean in 2015 alone.


Recently, 700 migrants are believed to have drowned in three days in May. A Google search shows slightly fewer page hits reporting on this incident than on the controversial killing of a gorilla in the Cincinnati Zoo.

In the first Mass Effect game, you encounter an entire race of refugees, the Quarians, forced to flee from their homeworld after an uprising by a robot race of their own creation, the Geth. The Quarians are space nomads, widely disliked because they are perceived as economic migrants that steal jobs from the local economy.

The Quarians want their homeworld back. Screengrab: BioWare

You fight Geth robots several times in the first two games, and a Quarian even joins your team. In Mass Effect 3, the Quarians launch an ill-advised attack to recapture their homeworld. As you intervene in the conflict, you discover that the Quarians opened fire first in the war with the Geth, but have rewritten the history books and largely forgotten how it actually began.

Both races are internally divided between hawkish and moderate factions—but the logic of mutual paranoia allows extremists in both groups to drive events.

This moral complexity brings to mind the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in which two nations have historical claims to the same land, and at various times, have conducted surprise attacks, perpetrated massacres, and sought to drive each other from their homes.

It's a war between people who have, at various times and in various ways, been dispossessed. It's a conflict between two nations of refugees.


It's a war between people who have, at various times and in various ways, been dispossessed.

So the final point, here, is that refugees aren't just innocent victims, but people with all the diversity and complexity that entails. Some seek to make new homes in safe places they can raise their families and pursue their livelihood. Others dream of returning to their homeland and seeing justice—as they see it—done there.

At the arrival desk in Docking Bay E24, a security guard queries a teenager waiting by the arrival desk.

"What are you doing here?"

"I'm waiting for my parents," she replies brightly. "They put me on the rescue transport and told me to wait for them. They'll come find me as soon as they can."

"I guess this is a safe enough place," the attendant allows.

When you later return to the docking bay, the girl is still waiting. The guard asks her why she appears depressed.

"The shuttle must be really slow, that's all. Do you think they're O.K.?"

"I don't know…" the guard mumbles. "I'm sure they'd be happy knowing you're safe."

"It's just … I miss them so much," she says, her voice breaking.

This time, the game offers no way to intervene, no solution to the girl's problem. She is just one person lost among countless others, without a home.

Like the security guards, there are no comforting answers to offer. But we can choose, as individual and as nations, whether or not to extend a helping hand.