Videogames and white privilege

Via Balloon-Juice, I found this excellent essay by John Scalzi on using videogames as an illustration to talk to straight white males about the inherent advantages they have in life. Scalzi’s main point is that in the imaginary MMO called The Real World, choosing to play as “Straight White Male” is the lowest possible difficulty setting imaginable.

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.

Like I said, it’s an excellent piece, and I recommend reading it. My first reaction when I read it was, “Hey Scalzi! Mixing videogames and politics is my thing. Stick to writing your excellent fiction books, of which I am a huge fan, and when will you be writing more, and oh, you can’t answer because this conversation is imaginary and you don’t know me.”

My second reaction, however, was that Scalzi used the wrong game in suggesting an example of an MMO with a difficulty setting. In World of Warcraft, the balance-obsessed designers at Blizzard have pretty much created a world where playing as any of the race/class combos is not significantly more difficult than playing as any other. Now, some of my colleagues and friends in the biz will disagree with me on that point, and I will stipulate that there are some minor differences, but they are marginal, and it doesn’t really serve the analogy well, and I fear that the underlying point may be lost on some people who compare the concept of white privilege to playing an Orc Warrior vs. a Human Hunter.

For a detailed analysis of class-based leveling in WoW that will surely test the limits of your sleep avoidance abilities, check out this link. The key quote being:

The difference in played time between the slowest class and the fastest class while specced for fast leveling is no more than 6-10 hours. I’ve found that all classes can level at a rapid pace, but there are clear enough distinctions to separate them in my mind.

The game Scalzi should have used was EverQuest. In EverQuest, after selecting your character’s race and class the game will warn you about particular combinations that might be particularly difficult. Playing as a Dark Elf Necromancer in EQ means being labeled as Kill On Sight (KOS) to the guards in many towns. Merchants will refuse to buy or sell from you.  Now that’s a difficulty level.

Scalzi’s main point is still true though. Playing as a DE Necro doesn’t mean you can’t advance in levels or acquire gold and items. It just makes it harder. And it doesn’t mean that if you play as an easy character that you won’t have to work or that success is guaranteed. It just means you’ll have an easier time and oftentimes more and better opportunities will present themselves.

The real problem with Scalzi’s analogy though is not that he used the wrong game or that people might not understand it. It’s a simple enough analogy; people get it. The real problem is that many white people just don’t believe it. They are convinced that the playing field is level. Many more will readily admit that the playing field used to favor straight white males, but that it has recently been tipped too far in favor of minorities.

I’m not sure that any analogy will change that. It requires showing hard data and statistical analysis, and there are a lot of people who are seemingly immune to those methods, some because of inability to do the math, but most because they have simply chosen to just not believe the data.

Author: Wiesman

Husband, father, video game developer, liberal, and perpetual Underdog.


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