Earlier this year, John Scalzi wrote a blog post titled Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is, which served as an interesting take on explaning the realities of privilege to folks who don’t always seem to comprehend how that whole privilege thing goes down in everyday life. From the post:
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?
Now, I dig RPG’s a lot (my wife might argue too much. (See: pretty much every day in 2011 after Skyrim was released), and I think that Mr. Scalzi using an RPG system as a metaphorical framework to explain how privilege breaks down for everyone was a very thoughtful and unique move.
For those of you unfamiliar, RPGs (especially western ones in the tradition of Dungeons and Dragons) have very complicated canons built around thoughfully created race and class systems. Normally in one of these games (Take Dragon Age, for example), one of the first things that you see after the intro screens is a character creation page. On this page, you choose your gender, your race, and your class (in most cases, these influence the skills that you can use in combat, rather than how much currency and connections you have available). Some RPG’s expand on this, some (notably JRPGs) rely on standard character tropes instead of extensive characterization from the outset.
But, keeping with Dragon Age as an example, you get to build your character from the ground up, even having the ability to tweak every facet of how your character looks.
In RPGs of this type, there are usually racial prejudices built into the larger story that affect your character’s perception within the game’s world. In Dragon Age, Elves have been enslaved for may generations, and are disparagingly referred to as “knifears”. In the Elder Scrolls series, people who choose to play as the humanoid feline Khajiit race are often called “rugs” or “cats”, and are unfavorably viewed as thieves and assassins, generally not to be trusted.
What’s interesting to me is what kind of biases (intentional or unintentional) slip through the cracks of these games. In Dragon Age: Origins, it was almost impossible to make a black character. Bioware (Dragon Age’s Developer) kind of addressed this in Dragon Age 2, but if you wanted to be a really darkskinned character, you were out of luck. And if you wanted to be a black woman, you’d end up looking like a naked mole rat or something equally ridiculous.
In Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, Redguards (the analogue to african races in the fictional area of Tamriel), were pretty much penalized for attempting to be wizards. Redguards suffered starting penalties to the stats that it took to be effective wizards (intelligence and willpower). Redgard males also suffered in the personality stat, which determined how other NPC races reacted to the character in-game. Some may argue that this is coincidence, but it’s an awfully disturbing one. In Skyrim, each race gets a daily skill. Redguards’ daily skill? They can run nonstop for a long time.
I know I’ve just gone the long way around to get to my point, which is this.
No, seriously though. This kind of thinking (which happens quite often with me and RPG’s, actually) provides insight into how bias and prejudice and privilege play so often in Fantasy, Sci-Fi, and basically any genre of western media dominated by groups in power, be they Whites or Males.
This kind of thinking also led me to write a few joke tweets under the #RacialRPG hashtag.
‘Blackness’: starting trait that provides baseline bonuses to strength, dexterity, & charisma. Gives permanent ‘hostile’ effect #RacialRPG
— Troy L. Wiggins (@TroyLWiggins) October 11, 2012
‘No hablo Inglés’ level 3 latin@ ability. Causes minor confusion to Whites & Blks that fail empathy check. #RacialRPG
— Troy L. Wiggins (@TroyLWiggins) October 12, 2012
So did I miss the mark here? Are these kinds of jokes too heavy-handed, or do they adequately convey the semi-ridiculous nature of bias, preivilege, and prejudice inherent in games, and by extension, geek culture? Do you have any #RacialRPG jokes of your own? Drop a line in the comments or just tweet em on twitter and at me so that I can laugh (or cry) accordingly.