Refining the analogy in Scalzi’s “Lowest Difficulty Setting”: The Experience Privilege

I’m still crazy busy with work, pulling week after week of overnights, but I happened to have a night off last night (shock horror!) and could finally sit down to write. So, I know you folks would completely understand that I would have to talk about this post as soon as possible, didn’t you? I talk quite a bit about both video games and privilege, so this is my particular bailiwick.

John Scalzi apparently pissed off a lot of straight white males (not to mention the cis-gendered!) by pointing out that, despite their individual lots in life, they are in fact playing on life’s easiest difficulty setting — the playing field is significantly tilted in their direction regardless of how well off they, individually, are.

The analogy is a relatively good one, but the major flaw with analogies is that if they are not perfect, some asshat will come along and point out how the analogy differs, until you are left with building an “analogy” that is essentially the whole situation described in exacting detail. At which point, you are not making an analogy at all, and these same asshats would nitpick at details they don’t feel are true regardless of the preponderance of evidence that they are.

So, for you video gamers, I’d like to sharpen up this analogy somewhat, but not to the point where it is an exact analogue — I’m sure there’s still room for improvement.

Instead of a World of Warcraft style game, with a first-person shooter style four-point sliding scale of difficulty, let’s use a deeper, more fully-realized world, like that of the Elder Scrolls. One where the difficulty setting is actually fixed for everyone, because everyone faces the same laws of physics. The difficulty is thus entirely contained within the confluence of your birth circumstances and where you happen to be adventuring.

First off, the character generation is entirely left to chance — you don’t get to pick any of it, per Scalzi’s original analogy. Who you are, aside from what choices you make, is entirely out of your control. You do not get to choose what your skin color is, nor your birth sex, nor your sexual proclivities (outside the possibility that you’re actually given a window on the Kinsey scale and can choose to push it left or right to a degree). And if you choose to change your birth sex because it does not comport with your gender identity (which you also didn’t choose!), then you’re choosing one set of difficulty penalties over another — you’re choosing exposing yourself to bigotry over the mental anguish that comes with not correcting the identity/sex disparity.

The circumstances of your genetic lottery do not uniformly translate into a set of advantages or disadvantages, either. Depending on where you are born, or into what class of family, you will have an easier or harder time compensating for any trait that might otherwise confer penalties on you. For instance, a white person in a non-white country, especially one where white folks are distrusted, might find themselves significantly disadvantaged. And if you’re born a woman in an area where there is a matriarchy (e.g. the Mosuo, one of the very last such civilizations on the planet), you might have a significantly easier life than a man in the same region.

In the Elder Scrolls series, if you were forced by the genetic lottery over which you have no control to play a Khajit, the cat-like race, in an area like Skyrim, you would not only be distrusted as a probable skooma-dealer and thief by pretty much everyone you meet, you’d also have significant disadvantages handling the cold environs owing to your genetic makeup that prefers the warmer sands of Elseweyr. But even if you play as a native Nord, and are instantly trusted by everyone you encounter and have lower bars to hurdle in order to convince them to hand over that shiny quest item without a fight, you might encounter an Aldmer who hates all non-elves equally — the elven equivalent of White Supremacists. The Aldmeri Dominion would gut a Nord as soon as a Khajit for suspected Talos-worship.

Only, in the Elder Scrolls games, when you pick a character race, you’re actually conferred some penalties or bonuses to certain statistics and abilities. (When you pick a sex, it doesn’t affect your starting stats, but might affect how other characters react to you. Never, it seems, overtly differently, though.) In reality, you aren’t conferred different stats, even if you belong to a group that, on average, ends up developing with different focuses. You’re pretty much given the same number of points to start off, you pretty much can’t exceed a certain number in any category by default, those points are randomly assigned to certain categories, and people can train themselves through schooling opportunities and hard work to improve certain abilities and become tradesmen in whatever vocations they would like.

Unless, of course, the prerequisite training comes at a premium, or is gatekeepered by soft or even hard bigots who might charge you more, give you lower quality training, refuse to train you, or even attack you for no reason. Then the circumstances of your birth make a huge difference as to how your particular game plays. It’s the training, the improvement over time, that becomes an issue — if you’re somehow not allowed to train in a particular category because of your birth circumstances, and others in your circumstances are equally disadvantaged, that creates a systematic bias, thus women are “less physically strong” even where any individual woman could be more physically strong than any individual man.

These systematic biases dampen the outliers and reduce the effects of your initial stat rolls. The change in difficulty provided by your birth circumstances mostly comes in how available the necessary experience is, and how tractable the individual actors are to your attempts at improving your lot in life. Your game experience will thus depend very heavily on the genetic lottery, even though it isn’t reflected directly in the initial stats. If you’re an orc, good luck convincing people you’re smart, no matter how many points you dumped into the trait and no matter whether the game actually penalized you for your non-choice. It’s enough that enough people think so, for it to be so.

And that’s not even getting into the random encounters with people who may have a hard bigotry against your “kind”, whatever kind that might happen to be. If you’re gay, black, female, or otherwise don’t conform with heteronormative ideals of appearance or sexual expression, you have a higher risk of having physical or mental abuse conferred onto your person. You might have to fight for your very life in a part of the game where another character wouldn’t. You are, at that point, experiencing the ways in which your higher difficulty setting might make your game less enjoyable or might even get ended prematurely.

And even though those particular encounters might happen to anyone — straight cis-gendered white males might encounter an indiscriminate psychopath, or even a sociopath looking to kill everyone of a particular privileged class — the chances are a hell of a lot lower, the closer to the expected “default” of your environs happen to be. If you’re in Western countries like Canada or the US, the closer you are to white straight cis male, the lower your chances of these encounters.

It’s not like people playing on the easiest mode don’t face any challenges whatsoever, though! Even for very-privileged groups in our society, like males, there are such challenges. Men do face some very male-specific challenges, often as a result of the same infrastructure that causes so much difficulty for women. The same gender roles, which are drummed into men and women and which result in the systemic skews toward physicality and emotions for men and women respectively, also confer disadvantages which, while not as large as the ones women face, do in fact effect men detrimentally overall.

Privilege, as expressed in the difficulty setting analogy, does not suggest that everyone in the privileged group has it perfectly easy, or that everyone in the hardest difficulty has it perfectly impossible — there’s still a lot of room for variation within the modes, and they even overlap a good deal. You might be underprivileged in certain ways even while being privileged in many others, and each encounter is determined individually, taking into account or ignoring certain traits depending on the event.

Where your straight white male friend born into a rich family might have had every opportunity to obtain all the experience he needs to power level all the way up to, say, Investment Broker (with the perk of being able to generate more money from your current bankroll without actually having to go out and quest!), you, the practically identically configured easy-mode straight white cis male, might be stuck in the Burger Flipper class with no chance of obtaining the experience necessary to ever hit the next level, because you couldn’t afford college. Never mind that you had all the other privilege categories — you rolled snake-eyes in one that matters most, even though you had a better chance of not doing so than someone playing with dice that are loaded by all the non-privileged positions they hold. Knowing that black folks are statistically more impoverished in our society, and that this becomes a self-perpetuating cycle of poverty and lack of experience, someone else might end up with wealth as their dump stat even though they rolled naturally pretty high on that particular throw.

You, the ingloriously-occupationed white dude, still had a hell of a better chance of being accepted to that college than the Redguard to the mages college, considering everyone kept putting a curved sword in her hand and demanding that she train in melee, regardless of her personal affinity for Restoration. And even then, she’d be considered second class to all the powerful male warriors that make up the upper echelons. Never mind that she was born in Skyrim, so the best she can do to get by is serve drinks in the Bannered Mare, because no matter how forceably she was made to train in Two Handed Weapons, she never was so inclined. The hard bigotry that she faced is thus a bigger disadvantage than the soft bigotry that you, the Nord blacksmith’s son, faced.

Yes, I know, the Imperial with the fancy clothes got in no problem, even though you could outcast him any day. It surely does suck for you. But employ your empathy for a moment and you’re probably going to realize you still have it pretty well off in your circumstances. At least, compared to how it could be. You have an example serving you a drink at your local watering hole.

And let’s not even get into the myriad ways you must be privileged to understand any of this video game analogy.

Refining the analogy in Scalzi’s “Lowest Difficulty Setting”: The Experience Privilege

6 thoughts on “Refining the analogy in Scalzi’s “Lowest Difficulty Setting”: The Experience Privilege

  1. 1

    You analogized the hell out of that. Awesome. The last line was the perfect closer, like a boxer feinting left and then throwing the knockout punch with his right. Well done, good sir.

  2. 2


    Elder Scrolls is where my mind went after reading Scalzi’s lowest difficulty setting piece. While the games buy into different races having different abilities (which I don’t see videogames losing anytime soon) they’ve always been upfront about the local prejudices. One reason I like them so much.

  3. 3

    Hey, I do like the improved analogy. Or, maybe it’s just the talk about Elder Scrolls. I’ve enjoyed those since Daggerfall, though I haven’t yet gotten Skyrim. Anyway, I think it’s helping me understand privilege a bit better.

    One side comment. Back in Daggerfall, and maybe Morrowind too, sex did affect stats. I suppose that’s faded away as they’ve done better with the social interactions with NPCs.

  4. 4

    Sorry, but this analogy falls flat for me. All I know of Elder Scrolls is what I hear from my teenage son so the parallels are not so obvious and it feels like inside baseball. The strength of the basic difficulty level analogy is the simple sound bite quality that is immediately understandable to anyone who has played video games.

    It’s inevitable that some with be offended and nitpick the analogies as a defensive kneejerk. These folks just need to be called out as the nitwits and kneejerks that they are. Attempting to accommodate them by refining the analogy is a fool’s errand.

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