From Syria to The Citadel: Social Media and Change

I want everyone to shut up for a second about the ending of Mass Effect 3. What? You haven’t even heard of that game? You’re either living under a very large rock (known as a planet) or you are a lawyer (+100 to lying). If you actually haven’t heard of Mass Effect 3, I want to be you. I want to be your brain and life. I want to ride the tractor at your Amish residence in the countryside and eat your home grown beans. I have seriously had enough of the Mass Effect 3 ending nonsense. I know, it sounds whiny, doesn’t it? Like I can’t stand it any longer? Well. I guess I really can’t. It’s been a month and we are still discussing whether it should be changed or not or if videogames are actually art or if Bethesda trolled us or whether Femshep is hot (no debate). I’m done with it. Shut up about the Mass Effect 3 ending for a second.


Okay, now that I have that out of the way, I want to talk about a facet of the controversy that has largely gone undiscussed: the incredible power that social media has had in pushing the “change the ending” idea (also known as the Retake Mass Effect movement [among various other nerdy names]). The culmination of this movement has seen Bioware commit to additional downloadable content that will work to alter the ending and aims to make it more meaningful to the fans of the Mass Effect series. This is near-unheard of in the video game world and the implications of this decision may not be entirely apparent at first, but I am sure it will somehow affect video games are made in the future. Importantly though, the power of the protestor has once again been proven.

Last year, TIME magazine named “The Protestor” as their person of the year. This decision was sparked by a number of revolutionary movements of 2011, such as the Arab Spring and the “Occupy” demonstrations that captivated the world. Many of these movements were characterised by well-organized, civil protests and were punctuated with Twitter and Facebook updates from common men and women, on the ground, in these locations. These movements did not rely on the mass media outlets to gain their power, organize their people and deliver their messages. Instead, they relied on social media, the internet age and the global connectedness that these services provided. The Arab Spring, which saw the removal of many oppressive leaders in countries such as Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, relied on social media to gather people together, at the same time, so that their message could be heard in their own country. Then, protestors on the ground would take pictures, upload videos (that were at times horrifying) and alert the global community to the problems they faced. In turn, this truly did effect change and indeed, it continues to do so, as places like Syria now see civil demonstrations aimed at overthrowing the current regimes.

Social media has revolutionised “The Protestor”. Now, we find social media again playing a huge role in a protest and, one could argue, that the fate of the human race is important in this protest too (although you’d probably get laughed at… actually, maniacally laughed at).

Social media has provided the engine to a runaway train named The Mass Effect 3 Ending Controversy (stupid name for a train). As people began to complete the game, they took to Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr in disgust, in addition to the various message boards that Bioware have created for the game, to do one of two things. 1) They wanted to cry foul at the unsatisfactory ending. 2) They wanted to cry even more foul at the unsatisfactory ending as they realised other people were also crying foul. People got mad. Like real, real mad. They ranted on YouTube and they pummelled message boards. The backlash from the fans was phenomenal. For a game that got so much right (evidenced by a huge amount of critical reviews), apparently, it got the ending really wrong. Seemingly overnight, Bioware/EA became the Muammar Gaddafi of the gaming world, except not as evil and with a far less impressive moustache. [sidenote: I though Gaddafi had a sweet mo’, but I just Googled him and what the hell is that thing? Seriously that’s child’s play]

The speed of the protest (in ME3’s case) is limited first by the length of time it takes to complete the game and explore the various endings. Here, this length of time was around a week (and certainly a lot sooner in some cases [like within a day of its release {seriously guys, please go outside, vitamin D and stuff, ya know?}]) so we could not see extensive protests cropping up, obviously, before March 6th and in the days directly succeeding it. We didn’t even really see any protests over the ending by major video game journalism sites that had early access to the game in full, yet in the background, a large number of consumers were vocalising their displeasure en masse. The speed of the protest would then (usually) be limited by the time it takes for the mass of consumers to share their displeasure with each other, organize into a cohesive group, define their message and deliver that message to the company or person they are protesting against. You can see that perhaps five, and definitely ten, years ago, this would have been a near impossible task, or at least a time-consuming one. If Mass Effect 3 was released in 2002, with the same “disappointing” ending, there is absolutely no way we would even be having these discussions right now. Perhaps a few angry “letters to the editor” would crop up in some video game mag and the forums would be abuzz, but the overall response would largely be muted, in time, by the inability of the protest to penetrate into the hearts and minds of the global Mass Effect-playing population.

Social media erased the second time-limiting step: organization.

It created a rallying point for the Retake Mass Effect protest and all those men, women and children that played ME3 and hated the ending. If you want to protest something today, all you need to do is tweet about it, and most of the time you can even direct that tweet to someone who works at Bioware or Bioware’s customer support Twitter or hashtag it with something witty that other like-minded people can latch on to and themselves tweet to their friends. Word-of-mouth becomes word-of-fingertips. That’s what happened here. The #holdtheline hashtag was prominent in the early days of the ME3 protest and was used as a way to encourage people to constantly speak up, in a civil manner, about the ending. The relentless assault lead to the protest that reached many more minds than it would have in 2002, with prominent websites such as Forbes and even the BBC picking up coverage of the drama, largely due to the displeasure being voiced via social media. Every blogger had an opinion; every video game website had seemingly-uninterrupted coverage as the drama unfolded. Wildfire doesn’t do the situation justice. Not only did social media create a rally point, it also provided the means to sustain protest. The benefit of a protest that uses Twitter or Facebook to convey its message is that the internet does not sleep so you can conduct a 24 hour protest with the comforts of home. Anyone with a mobile or internet connection can pick up the protest at any time, from work, from home, from school, at the chip shop. That, ladies and gentlemen, is an incredibly powerful thing.

So what now? Bioware and EA have come to the conclusion that the ending must be changed, and they want us to know they really aren’t bad guys and they really do listen to their fans. They were cornered and they crawled out of that corner on their knees, almost begging for forgiveness. Until I actually see the ending they produce and how they fit it all in, I have my doubts, but right now it feels like Bioware are the biggest losers here. It feels like the protestor once again won, that they toppled the oppressive tyrant. Yet, the victory of the Retake Mass Effect guys feels hollow to me. It feels like it has come at a cost to some sort of integrity that existed within that closed off development world. It is irrelevant now, and I don’t want to discuss the merits of video games as art or get into discussions about why the ending sucked, I just simply want people to realise how much power they have. How they can change the world and change the video game landscape. All you have to do is connect a Twitter account and you can do some pretty incredible things. You can get massive development studios to look at their game and completely change the ending. You can show developers what type of games you want to play (as evidenced by numerous Kickstarter campaigns, both successful ones and failed ones). You can show developers how to make great video games. You can show them what to include, how their story should be laid out… That power has been unheard of until now. That's the power of social media. Social media is the perfect medium for eliciting change

All I ask now is that you remember something Uncle Ben once said:

“With great power comes great responsibility”

Oh, and let’s shut the hell up about Mass Effect 3 now, ok?

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