Sunday, 20 May 2012

Privilege the Video Game: Version 1.1

Among my e-mails, the other day, I found something from Julie Gillis with a link to this article about privilege. Basically it compares privilege (social inequality) to the difficulty setting of a video game. It acknowledges that other factors (such as individual personalities and abilities) influence what effect privilege has on a person’s life. In the case of the linked article, the other, personal factors are represented by ‘stats’ in video games. Basically the analogy is like this: difficulty setting (privilege) is about how the world perceives and interacts with your character, while the stats (personal circumstances) are about how well you are individually equipped to deal with the world.

Of course I immediately posted the article to Facebook, and I was immediately told that comparing life to a video game is too simplistic. My answer to that was, yes, of course it is. Analogies and metaphors are (hopefully) useful tools used to help understand a complicated idea. Often that means the metaphor itself is much simpler than the reality of the complicated idea you’re trying to explain. In this case, the video game metaphor is meant to provide a very basic framework to help explain social privilege. I certainly do not think that a video game can really simulate real life, but hopefully video games can provide a useful (if simple) metaphor to help us understand life, specifically social privilege.

I was also hit with a comment about how economic status is far more important factor in how easy or difficult the “game of life” really is. After a bit of thought, I’d have to say I agree to some degree. The metaphor of difficulty setting for privilege is a bit off. If life were a video game, then economic class would be the difficulty setting. After all, in the west we have what are mostly capitalist economies, particularly true in the U.S. Everything is affected by what economic class you belong to. Also, like difficult, economic class, can theoretically be changed; albeit, not as easily as hitting Esc and shifting through some options. Though, that’s not a perfect metaphor either, I suppose.

Anyway, I don’t think that’s quite the end of the video game metaphor for privilege. To my mind, privilege could be better compared to all the invisible systems in a video game that affect the game world but that you, the player, don’t even see. It’s like the random number generator (RNG) or the mob spawner. It’s like the bits of code that determines what a randomly generated dungeon will look like or which bits of dialog an NPC will say to your character. For the non-gamers out there: it’s like bits of code in Tetris that determines which shape appears next. The player doesn’t see the calculations made that determine what will happen; the player just sees the results. Similarly, it’s often difficult to see privilege at work. We may see the results, but sometimes we don’t recognize that it’s privilege.

Mostly though, the reason I think my analogy works a bit better, is because having privilege (or not) doesn’t necessarily translate into having an easy or hard life. What having privilege does mean is that in many situations, a person who belongs to a privileged group will have certain advantages over someone who does not belong to that group. So to bring it back to the video game metaphor for a moment: it’s as if your ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, etc. determined how often you landed a critical hit, or how often the simpler tetris pieces appeared. If you have more critical hits (or more simple tetris pieces) does that make the game easier? It can, but it doesn’t necessarily make the game easy. The player can still end up coming up against an enemy that’s just too powerful (or end up with a mess of tetris pieces that appeared in an unfortunate order). And whether a player is good at the video game or not matters, of course. A player’s individual abilities also determine how far in the game s/he gets.

So then, how does this translate back into the real world? I’ll try to provide an example: a transwoman and a cis-woman both apply for a job. The fact that one is trans and the other is cis-gendered is known by the employer. The cis-woman, in this case has privilege based on the fact that she’s cis-gendered. Does this mean she will necessarily get the job? No. Does it mean that the cis-woman hasn’t had a hard time landing a job until that point? Nope. It doesn’t even mean that the cis-woman has had an easier life than the transwoman. What it means is that in this case, the cis-woman is more likely to land a ‘critical hit’ (and get the job), based on stereotypes and discrimination against transwomen.

Society (invisible systems) has been set up in such a way as to be biased against certain groups and then people often perceive that bias as a norm. That is what privilege is.

This was also published at The Good Men Project.

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