Game theory: Was humanity wrong to fight back against Mass Effect’s Reapers?

17 mins read

Note: If that headline doesn’t give it away, there are major spoilers in here.

Mass Effect is without a doubt one of the most influential and important franchises to emerge from the last generation of consoles. Across three games players were treated to an epic narrative that featured the highest stakes of all – the extermination of all advanced, intelligent life in the solar system.

Naturally that very idea made it very easy to to encourage players to have their characters pick up weapons and fight back. The Reapers – the trilogy’s synthetic enemies – were so incredibly powerful and went about their task of invasion and destruction with a cold rigor that left no question as to what would happen if players, as Commander Sheppard, were not successful in their efforts to stem the tide. Humanity would be wiped from existence. That sounds pretty cut-and-dry from a morality point of view, right? The Reapers are machines, but intelligent machines, and therefore they have the capacity to be villains, and humanity is therefore morally justified in defending itself from that threat.

But in practice it’s not that simple. The moral issues with that lies at the core of why the Mass Effect games are arguably the most intelligent games of the last generation are, once you start digging, far more complex. Across the three games the narrative structure makes heavy use of the trolley problem hypothetical – one of the sources of the most heated debates and dissections by philosophers in recent decades.

The trolley problem

Within the field of moral philosophy, the trolley problem is a bit like the Rubik’s Cube, only it is completely unsolvable as only the best philosophy thought experiments can be. It’s a hypothetical mind problem that people use to contextualise larger debates within the field, and variations of it have been dreamed up and discussed among philosophers since 1967. It has even broken away from philosophy and people have found real-world applications for it within fields such as cognitive science and psychology.

The trolley problem is a hypothetical that works like this: There is a trolley racing down a set of train tracks, and a split in the tracks. On the one side there are five people tied up on the tracks, and on the other, there is one person. You are the person on the trolley, and you’ve got a lever. If you don’t press the lever, the trolley will continue on its path, and kill the five people on the track. If you pull the lever, then the trolley will be diverted and it will kill the one person, saving the five.

On the surface, it seems like a simple enough problem – pull the lever, save five lives. However in practice it’s a more complex issue than that, which is why only around 68% of philosophers when polled would actually opt to pull the lever and sacrifice one individual to save the five lives. Consider, for example, that the moment you pull the switch you are becoming involved with the wrong that’s being done. Either option results in death, but where you would not be responsible for the deaths of the five (because you’ve literally done nothing), you would be personally responsible for the death of one person if you pulled the lever. There are of course counter arguments to that position, such as an argument that simply being in the situation where you can pull the lever you are, in fact, a participant, whether you end up pulling it or not. And in turn there are other arguments to counter that one, and other reasons besides where not pulling the lever could be seen as the moral action. Entire books have been written about this particular thought puzzle and the debates that it causes, but without writing a book myself here the point here is that with the trolley problem, the ‘moral’ action isn’t as immediately obvious as it first appears.

And that’s true for the narrative of Mass Effect, which itself can be seen as a variation of the trolley problem. The Reapers arrive once every 50,000 years or so in order to purge intelligent life before it becomes too expansive and too advanced and, as a consequence of that, develops technologies such as synthetic life that would then destroy all organic life in the solar system. In other words, the Reapers act as the fellow on the trolley, who needs to decide between pulling the switch and killing one person, or doing nothing and allowing five to die. Their narrative function is to make the decision to kill the one fellow on the tracks (which is represented in-game as a function to destroy advanced organic life such as humans and their alien allies), but in doing so, they save five lives (the non-advanced organic life in the solar system, which are allowed to then develop into advanced organic life free of the threat of their predecessors having creating synthetic life that will destroy them… and facing a purge of their own 50,000 years down the track).

Taking things further, the Reapers are an example of a popular variant of the trolley problem, in which the one man on the tracks is actually a villain who was personally responsible for putting the five people on the other set of tracks (and then somehow ended up stuck on a different track him or herself). In this scenario it’s quite easy to argue that not only is it morally justified to pull the lever and kill the one person, rather than the five, but there’s a moral imperative to do so – the person on the trolley must pull the lever, else his/her inaction becomes absolutely immoral.

Now, of course, Mass Effect adds a further moral dimension to this problem – the one person on the track (humanity and other intelligent life) is not yet a villain, but will become one, and is unaware of his/ her potential to be a villain. The humans of Mass Effect’s universe have no idea that they are destined to doom all organic life by creating the game developer’s (BioWare) equivalent of The Terminator’s Skynet. Further, back on the trolley tracks, that future villain is so desperate to stay alive that he/ she is actively looking for a way to fight back against the trolley. These realities all adjust the scenario (and therefore moral discussions) around the trolley problem, but the point to all this is to highlight simply that the narrative of Mass Effect clearly displays a trolley problem hypothetical within it, in which the Reapers are the ones on the trolley, the unintelligent life of the solar system are the five people on one track, and humanity and other intelligent species in the solar system are the one person on the other track.

And the Reapers have decided to pull the lever. That’s where we can start having the discussion about who is right, wrong, moral and immoral.

But the Reapers are not people

I firmly believe that the Reapers are doing the morally justifiable thing in pulling the lever, and this means that by fighting back, humanity and its allies are, effectively, Mass Effect’s villains. My thought process here relies on a couple important features to the trolley problem, as it has been set up here.

1) The Reapers are not people 

It’s important to remember that the Reapers are not free-thinking organics, but are rather programmed synthetics. They are highly effective, with advanced AI and incredible power, but they are, effectively, robots, and are therefore following orders, according to their intended role within the universe. So, while the “humans and aliens might not create the synthetics,” might sound good as a defence to suggest the Reapers don’t need to make the purge, in practice it can’t apply, because the Reapers can’t make that determination by themselves.

Additionally, the probability that humans and their allies will create such synthetics is an unknown, but there is precedent within the Mass Effect universe to suggest that it is highly likely that they will do it, and doom themselves and every other living organism in the process. The Geth are a “species” or synthetics, created by and subsequently a threat to one species in the solar system, while the Krogan were doomed to annihilation thanks to technology developed by other species that prevented their ability to breed. These two precedents show that the advanced species of the solar system had arrived at the point where their technology was dangerous at a species-wide level, which is the kind of development that the Reapers were originally designed to prevent.

2) Humans don’t know they are the villains

In this particular trolley problem scenario humans and other intelligent life in the solar system don’t know that they are, on their current path, destined to destroy organic life. It’s the Skynet thing all over again (and a popular theme in a load of science fiction besides) – it won’t be until the switch is flipped and the destruction starts happening that the ramifications of technology advancement will be realised. And so, even though the humans are the ones that put the “five people” on the hypothetical track, as the villainous trolley problem variation describes, they don’t actually know that they are responsible for it.

3) Humans are therefore justified in fighting back

An important note to make for context is because humans don’t know they are effectively the villains in Mass Effect’s universe, there’s nothing especially immoral about them fighting back while they remain ignorant. This is important in the game context because it means that Commander Sheppard gets to be the hero in the desperate struggle, and players get to enjoy her (she’s always a female Sheppard when I play) as a hero, even as she’s representing villainy. We actually see this play out in a micro scale in Mass Effect 2 as Sheppard finds herself fighting for the villain, the Illusive Man, whose own personal philosophy and work would see humans act as the catalyst for the destruction of all other organic life in the name of ‘advancement.’ Sheppard doesn’t realise just how villainous he is at first. When she does realise what the Illusive Man is up to, she switches allegiance, thus maintaining her heroic qualities. We don’t fully understand the purpose of the Reapers until that infamous ending of Mass Effect 3, at which point, depending on how we’ve played, we do potentially have the option to join with the Reapers in their work.

4) Fighting against the Reapers is self-preservation, but also selfish

Putting aside that Sheppard and her human and alien allies don’t understand the moral ramifications of their fight, in the trolley hypothetical, the one making the real moral decision is the one on the trolley – in this case, the Reapers. They are responsible for deciding who lives and who dies, and as we’ve already noted, the Reapers are simply following through with their programming that states that when presented with a choice between “five lives” and the “life of one person that put the five in the perilous position”, the correct moral decision is to preserve the five at the expense of the one. In actively fighting against that, humanity and other intelligent species are acting in the interests of self-preservation, but are effectively arguing that their existence holds greater value than that of an exponentially larger number of individuals. I won’t get into the morality of acting in self-interest at the expense of others (that’s a whole other debate in moral philosophy), but that itself is a morally contentious position to adopt.

Taking into account all of the above, the picture you’re left with from Mass Effect is that its narrative is a complex one from a moral and philosophical point of view, and oddly enough what makes it so fascinating is the idea that perhaps, just perhaps, everything you do across the 100-odd hours it takes to play all three games through, is in effect fighting against an outcome that, were you placed in the shoes of the Reapers, you would see as a perfectly moral action to take.

– Matt S. 
Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld

This is the bio under which all legacy articles are published (as in the 12,000-odd, before we moved to the new Website and platform). This is not a member of the DDNet Team. Please see the article's text for byline attribution.

Previous Story

Review: David (PC)

Next Story

The Friday Ten: Ten essential PlayStation 4 indie titles to get stuck into

Latest Articles