Samantha Allen has intervened against that trend. As we have discussed on several occasions, Joe Scalzi's essay on straight white male privilege will likely overtake Peggy McIntosh's work, as the default example for introducing the concept of white privilege to the (white) general public. Samantha Allen did something laudable and difficult: she has actually used digital media--in this case the video game Halo--in an effort to teach her students about systems of privilege and Power.
Samantha Allen modified the game difficulty settings of Halo in order to simulate, in a very basic way, how some players will find success or failure in the game, both because of personal ability, but most importantly because of how the game is rigged either for or against them. Modeling the foundational concepts of intersectionality and privilege, Allen's experiment led to observations by the participants such as the following:
“As an upper middle-class white person, there are so many forms of oppression, which I may be aware of, but I have not really experienced myself. I felt the video game test …. [was] a really good metaphor for how some people’s lives are much easier or more difficult … on a daily basis. People who come from an ‘easy setting’ like an upper class straight white person, have little obstacles in their daily lives and are able to easily and smoothly go about their day-to-day activities. Those who are on a ‘difficult setting’ face so many obstacles like racism all the time.”I have mixed feelings about Samantha Allen's participant exercise. As she discussed here, there are many limitations to her approach to teaching students about systems of oppression, domination, and subordination: life chances cannot be reduced down to a simulation which a given "player" can choose to end at any time.
The majority of Black and brown folks cannot decide, for the most part, to walk away from their racial identity because it is inconvenient. Women cannot choose to become gendered male at their leisure. The "disabled" cannot instantaneously modify their bodies to become "abled" and physically "advantaged" in American society.
However, a straight white male, playing a version of Halo on the hardest difficulty setting, can choose to turn the game off if they are frustrated. And if life were a video game, the "straight white male" setting would involve free advice, customized manuals, and many opportunities to fail with minimal consequence that people of color and women are not allowed.
Moreover, video games--as games--are prefaced on rules that are constant. The "real world' is not structured in such a way. For the Other, the rules are forever malleable, contingent, and changing.
I agree that in many ways the first person shooter is a natural fit for an exercise designed to expose the dynamics of white privilege as a set of advantages which are normalized and made "natural," such that the player takes them for granted.
As an alternative, I would suggest that a real time strategy game, where the human player faces an enemy that has unlimited resources, full view of the map, and can act faster and without constraints than their adversary, could perhaps be a far better fit for an exercise intended to teach players about institutional inequality and systems of unearned advantages in American society and elsewhere.
Systems of power are less like the fast, personal, and direct engagement of a first person shooter--on a meta level, using that genre is a surrender and conceit to the myth of rugged American individualism, Horatio Alger, and the reality of "color blind racism"--than they are a turn based or real time strategy game.
The latter type of video game would tell us far more about systems of privilege than the former.
Samantha Allen's exercise leads to some other questions. Primarily, how do those in the social justice community effectively "teach" the in-group about the experiences of the Other? Is this even possible? What are the practical limitations of both respect and empathy?
Video games, even in their best iterations, are simulations and simulcra of reality. As much as they may strive for "realism," video games are mediated realities and mere interpretations.
True, life chances can be abstractly modeled by a game. The real world consequences are very, very, very different. And what do we do with the liberal or color blind racist, who after playing a game such as Halo in order to teach them about situations of privilege and advantage is actually reinforced in their bigoted priors, because well "it is all just a game" and "they did okay" because of their inherent talent, ability, hard work, and practice?
Ultimately, can social justice exercises that are designed to create empathy and respect for the diversity of human experience actually backfire by reinforcing systems of white privilege?
And by presenting complex and interlocking systems of Power as a "game" do well-intended activist practioners then actually do more harm than good?