Friday, May 18, 2012

Sci-fi author explains straight white male privilege to gamers

First of all, let me say that I'm definitely NOT a game nerd. Its just not my thing and we'll leave it at that. But I am always interested in new ways to explain the concept of "privilege" in our culture. I ran across one today that definitely does that.

What I found is a blog post by sci-fi author John Scalzi. I'm also not much of a reader of that genre, but apparently he's a big deal in that world.

Here's how he uses the world of gaming to explain straight white male privilege (at least the parts I understand as a non-gamer).
I’ve been thinking of a way to explain to straight white men how life works for them, without invoking the dreaded word “privilege,” to which they react like vampires being fed a garlic tart at high noon. It’s not that the word “privilege” is incorrect, it’s that it’s not their word. When confronted with “privilege,” they fiddle with the word itself, and haul out the dictionaries and find every possible way to talk about the word but not any of the things the word signifies.

So, the challenge: how to get across the ideas bound up in the word “privilege,” in a way that your average straight white man will get, without freaking out about it?

Being a white guy who likes women, here’s how I would do it:

Dudes. Imagine life here in the US — or indeed, pretty much anywhere in the Western world — is a massive role playing game, like World of Warcraft except appallingly mundane, where most quests involve the acquisition of money, cell phones and donuts, although not always at the same time. Let’s call it The Real World. You have installed The Real World on your computer and are about to start playing, but first you go to the settings tab to bind your keys, fiddle with your defaults, and choose the difficulty setting for the game. Got it?

Okay: In the role playing game known as The Real World, “Straight White Male” is the lowest difficulty setting there is.

This means that the default behaviors for almost all the non-player characters in the game are easier on you than they would be otherwise. The default barriers for completions of quests are lower. Your leveling-up thresholds come more quickly. You automatically gain entry to some parts of the map that others have to work for. The game is easier to play, automatically, and when you need help, by default it’s easier to get...

You can lose playing on the lowest difficulty setting. The lowest difficulty setting is still the easiest setting to win on. The player who plays on the “Gay Minority Female” setting?Hardcore...

Oh, and one other thing. Remember when I said that you could choose your difficulty setting in The Real World? Well, I lied. In fact, the computer chooses the difficulty setting for you. You don’t get a choice; you just get what gets given to you at the start of the game, and then you have to deal with it.

So that’s “Straight White Male” for you in The Real World (and also, in the real world): The lowest difficulty setting there is. All things being equal, and even when they are not, if the computer — or life — assigns you the “Straight White Male” difficulty setting, then brother, you’ve caught a break.

Apparently the article stirred up quite the reaction. It got over 800 comments (before Scalzi had to shut them off) and over 100,000 hits.  He then wrote a follow-up article addressing some of the comments/questions that is also a good read.

There's something very powerful about those of us with privilege being the one's who take on the mantle of dealing with it rather than always leaving that task to those it marginalizes. We certainly need both voices in the struggle. But someone like Scalzi knows from experience what it means to have privilege. He has it and knows whereof he speaks.

He is also obviously being heard in an arena that is not often challenged with things like this. I came across this story via ColorLines  - where you'll also find an interview with Scalzi about the piece. Here's what he said about that.
Well, nerds, geeks, dorks, all those people - my tribe, if you will - there’s a potential for understanding there, because they’ve had the experience of being an outsider. The flipside of that is this idea that all oppression is equal oppression. So there’s a fine line to tread here, to tell people “you can understand some of this but there’s some of it that you’re not going to get, that you haven’t felt.” The door’s open to understanding, but there’s more to it than just that.

The reaction you see in the comment threads is a part of that - “well, I didn’t have it easy, I was pushed around too, I’ve had bad things happen in my life, and I don’t know what you’re talking about with other people getting a higher difficulty setting.” And the response to that has to be subtle. The metaphor of “difficulty settings” is very facile, but for someone who has a lot of real issues they face every day, they can certainly feel like this doesn’t relate to what’s going on in their lives. Moving that to a broader cultural frame is a difficult conversation. There’s a chance for empathy, and a chance for pushback, and a lot of that depends on the individual. Which is true if you’re talking about nerds or other folks.
Thanks for getting it out to your "tribe" John!


  1. He doesn't really have to explain it in those terms. Many players are upset that people with higher difficulty settings get ahead of them. They know what's going on. They just aren't interested in doing right. If they were, they would've done better without having to be forced. I know I'm using generalizations. I'm talking about most of the privileged people you have to explain privilege to. They also see the default settings change a little bit. Easy isn't as easy as it used to be.


  2. You can also see this in the reaction of those who feel that their "privilege" is being eroded. It's similar to forcing someone who is comfortable playing on the easy setting to have to up their difficulty to medium.

  3. The next challenge is to actually create the game "The Real World", with the computer setting your difficulty level.

    Let's see how many people are interested in playing that "game".

  4. This is a great and updated simile for the Millennial Generation to absorb. As Chris Anderson stated similar to forcing someone comfortable with easy to go up to medium.

    I play Civilization quite a bit and CivFanatics have a forum set up to talk about the unfair advantages the computer players get on the higher levels and how it makes them have to make no mistakes and sometimes cheat to overcome the unfair advantage built inot the system.

    As Paulo Freire observed in his magnum opus, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, "Discovering himself to be an oppressor may cause considerable anguish, but it does not necessarily lead to solidarity with the oppressed."

    So, hopefully an illustration as brilliant as this can do more than just open the eyes of the entitled but also lead them down the path of humanity.