The Influence

For videogame producer Lisy Kane, encountering the first Mass Effect was a game changer. By Maddee Clark.

Lisy Kane

A scene from the 2007 video game Mass Effect, and Lisy Kane (below).
A scene from the 2007 video game Mass Effect, and Lisy Kane (below).
Credit: BioWare (above), Bri Hammond (below)

Lisy Kane is a Melbourne-based video game producer. A role model for women working in the gaming industry, she is in high demand on the speaker circuit for gaming, tech and STEM education and was recognised by Forbes in its prestigious Forbes 30 Under 30: Games in 2017. In 2014 Kane co-founded Girl Geek Academy with a mission to teach one million women how to get into tech and launch their own start-ups by 2025. Her work is featured in ACMI’s exhibition Code Breakers: Women in Games, now showing at Yarra Ranges Regional Museum.

We caught up to talk about the original Mass Effect (2007), a much-loved sci-fi role-playing game for Xbox developed by BioWare. The franchise, which released its fourth instalment to a devoted fandom in 2017, depicts a distant future where humanity and several alien civilisations have colonised the galaxy using technology left behind by an advanced precursor civilisation.

When did you first play this game?

I played the original Mass Effect game when it came out in 2007. At the time I was just coming out of high school and looking at going into the games industry. It was a really important part of my transition from being a gamer to then having the idea of making games myself.

The thing that I remember is that it was the first time where I could choose to be a completely customised Asian character. It was also the first game I could remember where the female option was actually more celebrated than the male option within the culture, and the male option of the main character was quite bland. Even my male friends were like, “No, I’m gonna play the female character.” Then when I was in my final year of university, [the games festival] PAX Australia happened for the first time. And I weaseled my way into getting a press pass for it through university and came down to Melbourne, because I’m from Brisbane, to see the game developers of Mass Effect speak.

I’d done a bit of research around how games were made, but it was still pretty new to me. On the panel were the BioWare writers Patrick Weekes and Karin Weekes, who were the narrative designers of the game. I was like, wait a second, that’s Karin Weekes! And I realised that it made so much sense, that there were not just men creating this game, and that’s why these characters were so rich.

I’d come up as a very traditional gamer, playing all the AAA classics, so I’d never really had to think about games critically before. I was one of two women in my games course at university. The idea of female protagonists and creators, it was the first time I’d been challenged by that. It sparked that whole discussion with myself around why I should be in the industry.

You’ve been involved in gamer culture for a long time! What sort of shifts in the culture have you observed as a result of Mass Effect?

I’ve always had technology around me. My first game was on an old-school black-and-orange clunky Honeywell laptop when I was a really young kid. PAX was my first real introduction to gaming culture, though. We didn’t really have anything like that in Brisbane, that idea of culture and engaging with it as an artform rather than just entertainment.

I think the biggest thing Mass Effect contributed to in gaming culture is the distinct feeling of ownership. In the culture that we see now there’s this emergent storytelling where I can project myself into it, so I feel like I partially am the game developer. I can feel like the creator of the game itself. The companies ask for a lot of feedback, as well as beta testing and alpha testing, and they work that into their games. You don’t get that as much in film, for example, it’s more of a one-way conversation.

I think BioWare also contributed to the idea of building out relationships in games, including romantic relationships. One of my favourite things about Mass Effect is you have got all these different romantic arcs you can play with. I had this one particular character Garrus, who’s an alien but he looks like a cat, and I was like, “this cat is hot”. And we went on dates, we had romantic outings. He knew that I was a human, and he’d be like, “I bought you a bottle of wine. I think this is what humans like”. And I’d be like, I’m blushing.

There are so many dating and romance games now that are so different to Mass Effect. But it is such an important part of what people loved about it. The only other thing was like The Sims – you could fulfil your fantasies through The Sims, which is another obviously massive franchise – but this was definitely more role-play because it had such a great narrative, and it was almost like [the television series] Firefly in the way it referenced that space cowboy look.

It has succeeded in reaching such a wide audience. What kind of audience do you see for yourself as a creator?

I’m a producer by trade, so my role is in enabling others. A big part of my job is to work with teams to help them reach their full potential and develop games. The thing that I look for in the games that I associate with is diverse teams and unique stories. I care about having as many different concepts and games as possible coming out. I’d come up through doing film and TV before I focused on games – there are so many different types of films but games have been really trying to catch up. So, when I attach myself to projects, I want to make sure I’m supporting a team that has something unique to bring.

Do you think that consumers are in a place with games where they are creating more of that demand, that they want to see more variety and to see themselves represented?

One hundred per cent, more than ever. There are many small independent creators releasing their work on so many platforms, away from those bigger commercial platforms, and being very successful. So there is an appetite. We have diverse audiences. The big blockbusters have their thing going on, but there is a huge appetite for so many different styles of game right now.

There’s also the fact of unique storytelling. It’s not just about even the production of good-quality fantasy worlds, there are just some amazing stories out there that have never been told before. As a gamer, to be able to see a snapshot of someone else’s life through a very immersive medium is incredible. I’m interested to know what other people do and experience, and games are a great medium for that. You can be in their shoes, can actually be driven through it and make the decisions on behalf of that person, which I think is a powerful thing. I’m interested to see how that can continue to be a medium for social change.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 2, 2022 as "Lisy Kane".

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