Collective Action Failure and Reapers.

Joe Yang – The primary concern of this article is collective action failure. Using the case of the Mass Effect trilogy, we discuss the challenges facing humans and aliens in the wake of an extragalactic invasion. The case study of the Reaper invasion and reactions in the Mass Effect universe are chosen because of the game’s support for branching narratives. The choice associated with variations in game direction show inevitabilities dictated by Bioware’s writing team.

Alien invasion is a commonplace subgenre. Contesting against the collective Other manifest through a technologically superior opponent reflects social cleavages, fears, and misinterpretations. The subject at the heart of this analysis is collective action failure in the wake of crises, predominantly in the wake of alien crises. Though stories assume the inclusion of an alien invader is likely to bring human cooperation and dismantle previous ties of entrenched realpolitik (Peck), there are problems.

First, this expectation insinuates a human, universalist perspective. Though the existence of an alien invader argues for global unity in most cases, an overwhelming number of alien invasions depict the issue solely from a human perspective. Second, the ideas of unity and connection presume a pareto relationship. Insofar as one human state or one human ethnic group vanquishes the marauders, then all of humanity benefits. Triumph becomes universal. Third, humans share a global history. Though cultures and civilizations clash at different moments throughout time, underlying biological similarities, carry similar lifespans, and are constrained by the closed system of the Earth. In the worst case scenario, people will fight for similar goals.

When we separate these three components from a scenario such as an alien invasion, what can we expect? What should we expect? Is universalism still apparent?

Mass Effect serves two purposes: the universe involves a variety of alien species, and the subject matter is in the format of a video game. The former is important because these species, presumably, may not be beholden to the same major issues plaguing human politics. Alien politics should, innately, be alien.

The latter is arguably more important. Because a major selling point of Mass Effect is its freedom in allowing the player to craft their own narrative, importance is not where things are different, but instead where things are the same. Constant themes and imagery in the unfolding of the plot of Mass Effect should reveal the writers’ subconscious expectations. Unchangeable progression is central. In this case, analyzing species and government response to the Reapers and reasons for becoming involved versus failing to become immediately involved underlie several presumptions about government policies.

Of all the calamities in the Mass Effect universe, the Reaper invasion creates two specific conditions that known to all races: losing is extinction, and there is no hegemon. For those reasons, we can safely assume mobilisation to be a multipolar endeavor, involving not only the Humans, but also the Turians, Asari, Salarians, Krogans, and so forth.

Furthermore, the claim of extinction bears precedence. We can easily point fingers at the case of the Protheans and the Arthenn before them (Timeline), but the annihilation of the Batarian Hegemony strikes a resonating chord; species extinction is recent.

Therefore, mobilisation of various groups against the Reapers implies the unity in the face of catastrophe. However, this may not be the case. Unification of the species in the Mass Effect series only occurs much later in Mass Effect 3, after the objectives regarding securing specific homeworlds are already accomplished.

Although the arrival of the Reapers supposedly unified the races against them, much of the Mass Effect series is bound in each race’s perception of rational decision making, imperfect information, and partisan politics which remain even up to its climactic finale. Tracing alien politics in the face of an increasingly pressing and vivid threat provides a window into our own expectations and beliefs in states when we face our own crises.

Mass Effect 1 charts human problems as a rising power. Having fought against the Turians during the First Contact War (Relay 314 Incident to the Turians), the humans are notable for their  adaptable military doctrine and recklessness (First Contact War). Humanity’s rise through military capability and saving the Citadel flagship the Destiny Ascension at the end of the game is reminiscent of a mix of events surrounding US rise to superpower status post-World War 2 and Japan’s rise to Great Power status post Russo-Japanese war.

Though the original Mass Effect looks at human concerns through a more liberal, supraspecies relationship, Mass Effect 2 is a partly perverted lesson in realist theory. After a lengthy time out of commission, Commander Shepard returns to find humanity having found a cushy and influential position in galactic politics. However, despite the strides made since the first Mass Effect, the Alliance is not the primary actor. Likewise, even at Shepard’s behest, trust regarding his claims of an impending Reaper invasion are brushed aside.

In Mass Effect 3 the Reapers invade, and most major alien species are forced to cooperate with Commander Shepard. However, cooperation requires certain objectives be fulfilled.

Analyzing collective action problems in the Mass Effect universe suggests some damning arguments for how we (consumers, critics, and analysts) perceive how the universe should work. The most telling of the Mass Effect series is on the dramatic shift from states to nations. Westphalian states are rarely the primary actors in the Mass Effect universe. Indeed, the Alliance is humanity manifest on the galactic political stage, the Hierarchy is the Turian equivalent, the Krogans are considered sons of Tuchanka, and the Quarians are part of the Migrant Fleet. Species-based nationstates make an appearance in the Mass Effect universe.

In the game’s present narrative, interspecies conflict on a grand political scale are very rare, save for one major exception. The dynamics between Cerberus and the Alliance in the first and third Mass Effect suggests the near disintegration of states, but not on the level of rival species. Instead, the galaxy is split up between Citadel and non-Citadel space, with non-Citadel space acting in a manner of smaller empires and confederacies within its territory. No monopoly of violence exists within Terminus space.

Instead of states, the Mass Effect universe is implied to have adopted multi-species politics evident in the political muscle of the Citadel. Unlike the United Nations, the Citadel has a formidable fleet, various Great Powers (such as the Turians and the Humans) are heavily concerned with its institutional law, and usurpation of leadership is difficult and potentially random. Even in a state of complete human domination, the members of the Citadel council are aliens and must abide to native standards.

This evolution of politics to a multi-state level initially implies empire, but there are also clues planets such as Palaven and Earth are almost completely autonomous, evidenced by their ability to maintain their own fleets regardless of Citadel regulation and their tendency to propose independent trade policies.

When the Reapers invade, not all species rallied with immediacy. Local politics take priority over the larger picture, and securing one specific group required antagonising another. Racial, ideological, and religious cleavages between both humans and aliens became immediate threats to a unified galactic defense against the Reapers.

In the Mass Effect trilogy, collective action failure occurred because each species became concerned with their own local dynamics, seeping into Shepard’s ability to mobilise a swift counterattack. The fractured galaxy meant a united front a difficult goal. Doom did not beget universal solidarity.

The choice between sterilising or curing the Krogans and the choice between aiding the Quarians or the Geth are firmly rooted in the historical narrative of each individual species. For this reason, the Reapers signify a physical destruction, whereas compromising on the historical values ingrained in these species feuds is destruction of identity. Collective action problems can be rooted in said identity, with species unwilling to compromise because of their perceived self-worth and their relative power to their adversaries. By extending concern of impending doom beyond these two historical narratives, reconciliation can occur.

Curiously, one major group experienced considerable cleavage: the humans. The Alliance and Cerberus became major actors during the Reaper invasion. While the other species fought furiously as united groups, humanity experienced as close a civil war was possible in the Mass Effect universe. Espionage, raging battles, and subterfuge defined the relationship between the Alliance and Cerberus.

The reason may boil down to perception. The Illusive Man may genuinely believe an alternative exists to combatting the Reapers, thereby marginalizing the incentive to join the Alliance in conventional war. In other words, the diverse opinions in humanity eventually became the ravaging force which split up Earth’s forces between the Alliance and Cerberus.

So, what does the Mass Effect trilogy tell us about collective action failure? Right from the start, every time we involve ourselves, we expect an associated cost. The larger the organization, the larger the cost. As seen in the Salarian offer for help by sterilising the Krogan, or the Quarian offer for help contingent on betrayal of the Geth, collective action failure can be cost associated with the history of an actor in that given position. Conceptions of anarchy and imperfect information, whether conscious or subconscious, is not a major concern.

Unification will eventually occur under a crisis, but success is paradoxically both pareto and zero-sum. At the same time, though decisions are considered zero-sum, the outcomes suggest positive sum. The politics of Mass Effect 3 and the failure to cooperate in the initial arcs of the game imply that by helping one group, you leave another to fend for themselves. The game, at the same time, suggests that by following through a specific plan meticulously and carefully enough you can reach a positive sum outcome.

Bounded rationality is still a pervasive issue. The infighting from the humans between Cerberus and the Alliance is a prime example of how both actors consider their approaches to combatting the Reapers to be rational, optimal, and the ‘only discourse’. Disparaging the Illusive Man for his actions erroneously assumes full understanding of the costs and benefits associated with Cerberus’ actions. Devolving this down to a simple ‘power grab’ or the acts of a crude, antagonistic ‘terrorist group’ undermines the interplay at work.

Lastly, there is faith in international organizations. Though realism and structural realism argue that states (or their equivalents) would eventually lead to dominant powers, we see in the case of the Mass Effect trilogy that the equivalent of states – civilizations – are restrained by the dominant legal and bureaucratic structures preceding them. Successful political management is dependent on negotiation, give and take, and dialogue.


Peck, Michael. “Alien War Brings Mideast Peace.” Foreign Policy. Foreign Policy, 07 2012. Web. 28 Dec 2012. <>.

“Timeline.” Mass Effect Wiki. 28 Dec 2012. <>.

“First Contact War.” Mass Effect Wiki. 28 Dec 2012. <>.