Mass Effections: I Am Not a Hero

At their core, video games are mechanisms for people to play out their hero fantasies. Most of us don’t get the chance to be the sort of hero we grow up revering. The guy who charges a machine gun nest to relieve pinned down comrades. The gal who rushes into a burning house to save someone else.

We all want to be heroes and video games make for a painless way to “prove” that we are.

Some games give you classic heroes. Their honor, courage, and nobility are all that’s required to stack up a pile of corpses large enough to save the day.

Other games give you anti-heroes. They save the day by amassing an equally impressive pile of bodies, but through the POWER OF SARCASM.

Others still feature reluctant heroes. They require a catalyst, usually an attack on something or someone they love, before they save the day via a pile of corpses.

Also common are unlikely heroes. They are just an average Joe or Josephine; a common person who must create an uncommonly large pile of corpses to save the day.

At the root of it all is the belief that we would be heroes if only given the opportunity.


Mass Effect lets you be your own sort of hero. You can be the product of a spacefaring family, a poor Earth orphan, or a survivor of a colony wiped out by slavers. Although I am of Earth, the colonial option sounded closer to my agrarian roots.

You also get to choose your backstory. You can be the sole survivor of a mission gone wrong, a war hero who single-handedly repelled an invasion, or a renegade who ruthlessly completes the mission regardless of cost.

Without a personal connection to any of them, I picked the war hero.

We all want to be heroes.


I don’t have the physical courage necessary to be a hero.

That doesn’t make me a total coward. I probably have intellectual courage. I don’t settle for easy answers and I’m not afraid to question my beliefs, even those most cherished. That takes courage.

I have moral courage most of the time. I usually can be counted on to do the right thing. However, I’m also practical enough to choose my battles. Heroes don’t fight the good fight only when it’s easy or convenient. I could stand to improve in that regard.

I do not possess physical courage. Brave a storm of gunfire? I’m with Mike Birbiglia, who said he always supports the troops because otherwise he would be the troops and he would make the worst troops. Cross a barren wasteland? I stop running as soon as the temperature falls below 60 degrees.

Need more?

During my trip to Colorado, my friend Erik and I climbed Horsetooth Mountain. At the top, there’s an easy ten-foot climb into a gap between the mountain’s “teeth.” It was well worth it; the view on the other side was too breathtaking to be captured by the archaic digital camera I owned at the time.

The way down was a little more difficult. Although I was doing well for having had little time to adjust to the altitude, I was dehydrated. The route I took up was useless. The outcroppings and cracks were spaced in such a way that I couldn’t climb down without either leg cramping up.

So I stayed on the first step down, pondering my next move and occasionally attempting to make the next step before wincing my way back to square one, as though I was going to magically uncramp if I just tried again.

I could have made the ten-foot drop, but I’m not Ezio Auditore (or Altaïr or Connor or Aveline). I could have hung from the ledge and dropped the remaining four feet, but I’m not Sam Fisher.

All the while, Erik offered encouragement and managed to internalize his eye rolling/laughing/ scorn. Finally, with rain starting to fall and a storm front moving in, I said “fuck it” and jumped down.

Erik. Now that guy’s a hero. None of the protagonists listed above would have put up with my bullshit.


Also implicit with our heroes, as you almost certainly picked up earlier, is the idea that might makes right, or at least that might and right make right. You can explore that idea here.

This is also what makes Spec Ops: The Line so powerful. It subverts the typical video game narrative by making you feel as little like a hero as possible, sometimes with a loading screen that explicitly says “YOU ARE NOT A HERO.” You can explore that one here.


We like to think we are extraordinary. Everyone thinks there is a hero inside of them waiting for an opportunity to showcase their courage.

We are right, of course. That potential is within each of us.

As wonderful as that is, it makes teaching high school students about the Holocaust, or any genocide, a pain in the ass. No one can empathize with anyone because every student thinks they would have “done the right thing” and stood up to the Nazis.

While many 16 year-olds possess the skills to be introspective and reflective, few have the practice or self-knowledge necessary to be completely honest with themselves about something like this. Nor do most adults, for that matter.

We love to think we are heroes.


It should come as no surprise to anyone that it took all of an hour of playing Mass Effect to come to grips with the fact that I am not a video game hero.

In the game’s first mission, you investigate a Geth raid on a human colony. After dispatching a few recon drones, you come across husks, humans who have essentially been turned into synthetic zombies. I won’t pretend to have been particularly scared the second time through. After all, not much is scary after you’ve already beaten the game.

During my first playthrough, however, I’m pretty sure I fought every husk while backing up as quickly as possible. Since husks don’t have the intelligence to operate weapons and just bum rush anything that moves, this is a solid tactical maneuver. The more I fall back, the more time I give myself to take them down before they reach me.


Backing up was the only thing I could do to keep from shitting my heavy armor.

I am not a hero.

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