Digital Heroisms Conference: Panel 2 | Femshep

Paper One: FemShep: An Accidental Female Hero

Grace A.T. Worm, University of Glasgow


Grace Worm is a second-year PhD student at the University of Glasgow studying Tamora Pierce’s young adult fantasy world of Tortall. Her thesis covers how Pierce navigates gender, race, and social injustices in her fantasy young adult fiction. Grace has spent her professional life as an educator teaching Fantasy and Science Fiction Literature, Contemporary Rhetoric, and Race, Gender, and Ethnicity in the U.S. to secondary students.


Bioware’s Mass Effect series, which follows Commander Shepard as she/he saves the universe and decides its fate, remains one of the most discussed and popular series of games across any platform. The original trilogy made waves in gaming by designing the main character to be playable as either male or female and, beginning in the second game of the series, for programming same-sex romantic relationships. The series both utilizes and challenges American ideals of individual heroism in military and fantasy. The first game was initially designed with the male Shepard in mind and for years he was the only version of the character to appear on game discs or advertisements. Online fan communities note that some players were unaware that the series was playable as a woman, however, since the series was first released in 2007, there has been a steady fanbase that feels the female Shepard, or FemShep, is the better character and hero. Reflecting this, Bioware has since tapped into the massive popularity of FemShep who now appears in advertising for the game.  Additionally, Bioware’s John Ebenger stated that 92% of players choose the Paragon, or good, options when playing, showing a strong correlation between players and ideals of heroism. Mass Effect is praised both academically and publicly for its gameplay and story-telling. In this paper I will explore what types of heroism the series explores, with particular attention to Mass Effect 2 and 3’s controversial endings, and how this perception of heroism in the series is changed when playing with FemShep.

Paper Two: We are FemShep: motivations and experiences of play in the makings of a Hero

Leandro Augusto Borges Lima PhD, Erasmus University


Leandro is a Lecturer at the Department of Media and Communication at Erasmus University Rotterdam. Leandro finished his undergrad studies in Social Communication/Journalism and completed a Master Degree in Communication Studies at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), Brazil. Since 2019 Leandro Lima is a Ph.D. in Media and Game Studies, an award received at the Culture, Media and Creative Industries Department at King’s College London. His main research interests lie in the area of videogame studies, digital media, politics and social mobilization. His doctoral research investigated the presence of political conversation in videogames culture through a case study of the Mass Effect franchise.


Otherworldly feats of power; outwitting any enemy; saving those in need; rescuing cats from trees; saving the world from an alien invasion. These are all examples of tasks accomplished by a variety of those we name heroes, be it in fiction or in everyday life. We know much about the journey of the hero in the mythology and literature, brilliantly outlined by Joseph Campbell in the structure of the monomyth (Campbell 1949). However, a hero can be more than their journey, and cannot be detached from the consequences of their existence in the publics that experience their journey. In this paper, I explore the particular makings of a hero, Female Shepard from the Mass Effect trilogy, from the perception of those that were both saved by her and used her to save others. This qualitative study is based on the extensive data collected for my doctoral research (Lima 2019), consisting of interviews (N =15), comments in Reddit (N=1664) and The Unnoficial Bioware Social Network (N=3971), and a particular campaign held in Twitter through the hashtag #FemShepDay (N=2376). Through a configurative analysis of this data (Lima 2017), I explore the different meanings of heroism that construct the persona of Female Shepard to each player, to the Mass Effect lore, and to the mythos of FemShep in the broad gaming/popular culture community. These varied perspectives and experiences of being or seeing FemShep indicate that a hero in a fictional setting is also a character that effects and inspires change in-game and off-game, creating a unique experience to the player that adds to the construction of the mythos of a character and its portrayal in popular culture.

By Gabriel Elvery

Gabe is researching the effects of Fantasy in single-player, narrative-driven video games. Their project will explore whether its effective use facilitates affective engagement with digital fantasy worlds and whether this digital affect has the potential to impact the emotional wellbeing of players in their off-screen lives. Gabe’s research will develop a new kind of reader reception theory by investigating whether literary analysis of video games has practical applications and corresponds with the experiences of players. The end result will make available a fuller understanding of the affordances, implications and impact of the Digital Fantastic.

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