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On Privilege (Part Three): Privilege and Gaming

Jason Beck
United States
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Felix alearum famis! Et posse impares sumus erimus en tui semper favoris.
Proprietor of The Bored Gaymer, BGG's most popular blog with the words "Bored" and "Gaymer" in the title!
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Or: How I learned to stop worrying and love default character settings

This is the third and (hopefully) final part of TBG’s series on privilege, "On Privilege". You can find the first two, equally-interestingly-named, posts here and here, respectively. In the first post, I undertook to explore the idea of social "privilege" and discuss what it is. In the second post, I attempted to draw a distinction between privilege and personal prejudice, while also discussing the individual experience of privilege itself. In this post, I would like to tie "privilege" back into gaming- that is, back here, to our hobby- and discuss how privilege affects games and why it can have negative consequences for our hobby writ large.

I’ve loaded the past two posts up with a lot of caveats, a lot of disclaimers, a lot of attempts to say, "Hey guys, no one’s attacking you (least of all me), so let’s try to have a reasoned, measured discussion about social privilege and not be dicks while we do it". I will reiterate those here, in brief: Privilege is a thorny subject and it is imperative upon us to discuss it (as, frankly, all other topics) in a mature manner that absents itself from mud-slinging. It helps no one- least of all people who want to draw attention to privilege and its deleterious effects on society- if we enter into some kind of "discussion" that centers around attacking this person or that person, this group or that group, in some ill-considered attempt to score some rhetorical justice over our perceptions of past or present grievances.

Similarly, it is also important for us to approach this topic (and others) with an open mind, and the consideration that yes, it is possible that we might be wrong, or that we might have assumptions about the world and how it works that we’ve not examined, and so on. In other words, we ought to be polite, we ought to be kind, and we ought to be open to ideas that may challenge us. The experience of empathy is not something we should frown upon, and if, through discussion, we can open up our own experiential matrices to a fuller understanding of how Other People live their lives, well, that’s a worthwhile endeavor, I think.

But you’re not here for an after-school-special-lecture on how We Should All Be Friends Or Whatever, so let’s move on.

The most difficult part of a discussion about privilege is- at least in some sense- how invisible privilege can often be. We refer to things like "glass ceilings", and I think this metaphor is appropriate: A glass ceiling isn’t something that you’d necessarily see until you got pushed up against it. Privilege can be like this, too; we might not realize that we’re enjoying some social benefit or other until someone points it out to us. Privilege isn’t (necessarily) something that has to be related to Really Big Social Problems, though. The white privilege that I enjoy is certainly real, but privilege can trickle down into the cracks and seep into things that we might not expect.

In some sense, this blog itself is actually an example of privilege in our hobby, of privilege in gaming. When I started this blog, I did so because I thought that I might be able to bring an (hopefully) interesting perspective to a metaphorical table where queer views are (as far as I can see) usually underrepresented. I was met with a lot of comments to the effect of, "Why is this necessary?" and, "What could you possibly have to say about this? Sexuality doesn’t matter!"

I don’t hold these sorts of comments against the people that made/make them because I actually do understand why someone might genuinely think that this blog is unnecessary. Since heterosexuality is the default, the "norm", the assumption, in our society lots of people simply don’t realize how pervasive the influence of sexuality is on our culture, or on our way of life, or on our speech patterns, our hobbies, our movies, our television shows. An heterosexual sees an endless parade of male-female couples in advertisements, movies, tv shows, newspapers, hears songs about them on the radio, or at the opera, and it doesn’t faze them because why would it? It’s a representation of their life. This, in some sense, is their privilege: They don’t need to make any effort at relating to any of these things because they’re relatable by default.

Those damn-troublesome-queers, on the other hand, aren’t necessarily going to see it the same way. It isn’t that male-female couples in games (or wherever) bother me: I’m not ridiculous, I don’t begrudge anyone their happiness, and boy howdy that would be a miserable way to go through life, wouldn’t it? What does bother is the lack of representation, and it is this lack that we can see so obviously in the field of gaming.

We can see this lack obviously because when attempts at representation are made, a holy shit-fit is kicked up by- well, by certain people. When Mass Effect 3 was released a few weeks ago, its review-numbers were tanking on sites like Metacritic because of the high volume of people registering to deliberately give it a low score (usually a 0) to express their displeasure with those damn queers who just seem intent on ruining everything, apparently. ME3 is just an example- and one that I’m going to explore, later (probably), in more depth- but it’s not enough to just hand-wave away these types of responses as being from "jerks on the internet" or some such.

The fact is that these types of comments and reactions are commonplace whenever queer issues come up in gaming, and attributing them to some tiny group of people is silly, because these groups aren’t tiny. Similarly, if a game franchise does decide to include things like same-sex romance options (or whatever), the usual lineup of commentary gets trotted out. That is, if people aren’t just flat-out saying that "being gay is wrong and I don’t want it in my game", then the language gets couched in other ways, like, "I don’t have any problem with the gays but I don’t understand why they have to shove this in my face", or, "I don’t have any problem with the gays but this is obviously just [X Company] pandering to the Political Correctness Police".

Is it? Seriously, though. Is including a same-sex romance option in a game actually shoving it in your face? And if it is (somehow?), how is your experience any different from mine? In both cases, we’re seeing things in-game that are not representative of our respective sexualities/experiences. The privilege here- and in gaming, generally- is one of representation. You won’t have to worry about a game that doesn’t include heterosexuality in its role-playing elements, because they nearly all do (and if you do manage to find one like that- well, no big deal, you can just go buy one of the literally thousands of other games that appeals to your sense of self instead). (Note, here, that this discussion could easily be applied to questions of gender, or ethnicity, or physical ability, or whatever, but this blog is about gaymers, really, which is why I am restricting the discussion.)

The same controversy erupted when Bioware released Dragon Age 2 and had the audacity to include male-male and female-female romance options. You can read my reaction to it here, but of more direct interest is this post, wherein a "Straight Male Gamer" unwittingly illustrates how privilege operates in our hobby (and then David Gaider responds brilliantly).

The OP says things like, "Its [sic] ridiculous that I even have to use a term like Straight Male Gamer, when in the past I would only have to say fans". This is unexamined privilege speaking. David Gaider’s response is worth reading in full, but the main point I’m interested in is this:

"You can write it off as "political correctness" if you wish, but the truth is that privilege always lies with the majority. They're so used to being catered to that they see the lack of catering as an imbalance. They don't see anything wrong with having things set up to suit them, what's everyone's fuss all about? That's the way it should be, any everyone else should be used to not getting what they want."
This is how privilege spills over into our hobby. There are assumptions at work, assumptions about how the world operates, how people operate, what people like, and so on, and when games cater to the majority, it seems (to the majority) like it’s totally normal. (I will again reiterate that this is understandable, but once these things have been pointed out, they are no longer particularly excusable.) The normalcy of being catered to can blind "us" in other ways; like I said, my experience of the presentation of sexuality in games is not actually massively different from someone else's, it just *seems* different because society has decided it is.

In some sense, privilege is one of the- perhaps the main- thematic currents that has been running through my blog from the beginning. I’ve discussed gaymers and representation, and heteronormativity, and how to create more inclusive atmospheres for us, and so on. One of the points I’ve also consistently tried to make is that when our hobby is more inclusive- both in the atmosphere wherein it is played, as well as the actual games themselves- everyone wins. A greater experiential diversity doesn’t hurt anyone, and the corresponding expansion of our own empathetic possibilities is not to be dismissed as meaningless.

On a related level, gaming and gamers still remain outside the mainstream. Yes, ten million people play World of Warcraft. Yes, you can see legitimate television advertisements for Mass Effect 3. Yes, dudebros play games like... Halo, right? Or Battlefield 3? Look, I don’t really know. It’s one of those. Anyway, the point is that, to most people (at least in these-here Yoo-nited States), "board game" means Monopoly, Risk, or Scrabble. This thought horrifies us, as gamers (because it should, because Monopoly oh godsssss please noooooo, amirite?), but note the parallels here: The lack of experiential diversity among a lot of people leads them to conclude things about your hobby; it becomes difficult to explain that, "No, I mean, I actually play Magic [Settlers/Power Grid/Crokinole/Dungeons and Dragons/Apples to Apples/Killer Bunnies/Diplomacy]".

But the ongoing diversification of the hobby (as more and more games dispense with traditional, pre-conceived thematic notions and begin to explore inclusivity) is a good thing, because on some level we all have a proverbial "freak flag". It isn’t particularly "normal" to want to sit down and play a board game about, um, trains, or European postal systems, and yet here we are.

The ongoing and growing awareness of how these "different" and "other" things (like differing sexualities) is decidedly a Good Thing, and something that we ought to encourage. No one’s sitting down here to ask for preferential treatment; it’s a question, instead, about asking others to recognize the preferential treatment that they already receive, and to maybe think about it a little, and to realize how calls from "other" types of gamers for more and better representation are not something that hinder or harm the hobby, but rather help it.
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