Monday, May 6, 2013

Teaching About Systems of Gender, Race, Class, and Other Types of Privilege Using the Video Game Halo

Many great ideas about how best to teach students about such concepts as unearned privilege, identity, and social mobility are left as abstractions--they linger online, in articles, as conversations between friends and peers, or as "future projects" and "proposals" in the footnotes of books and articles.

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?


Chidimma Agunwamba said...

for more updates
thanks for sharing

Anonymous said...

I'm very happy to find this great site. I want to to thank you for ones time just for this fantastic read!! I definitely loved every little bit of it and I have you book-marked to check out new stuff in your blog.

Also visit my webpage ... exercises to jump higher

Anonymous said...

Hey there would you mind stating which blog platform you're working with? I'm planning to start my own blog in the near future but I'm having a hard time deciding between BlogEngine/Wordpress/B2evolution and Drupal. The reason I ask is because your layout seems different then most blogs and I'm looking for something
unique. P.S Sorry for being off-topic but I had
to ask!

Also visit my webpage; Click For Source

Samantha Allen said...

Thank you for this thoughtful engagement with the activity. It is, as you point out, a metaphor and all metaphors are limited in their explanatory capacity and pedagogical usefulness.

I try to balance this activity out with readings and lectures that drive home that life is not "just a game," but that we'll be using the game as a memorable way to reflect on the way systems interact in life. I'm not trying to say that Halo is simulating life so much as Halo is a touchstone for the kind of systemic, interlocking thinking required to think about intersectional oppression.

I'm aware, though, that as the activity circles around that it can seem like what I'm trying to do is say, "Look, they learned what it was like to be gay by playing Halo." Instead, what I'm trying to get them to see is that life is more nuanced than just "easy" or "hard," that there are all sorts of unexpected effects ("skulls") that change one's lived experience.

I agree that first-person shooter as a genre is strange for this exercise. On the one hand, Halo is a big brand that has a lot of cachet with some of the people I'd most like to reach through this activity. On the other hand, it's not very accessible for "non-gamers," and is, as you point out, about a certain kind of rugged individualism.

Part of my concern with switching to an RTS is that I generally have between 50 to 90 minutes to teach a class period and I need to find something they can pick up, learn and engage with in that time. For that reason, I've been thinking about using Bastion by Supergiant games which has a similar difficulty system but might be easier for people to pick up and play.

But thank you! There has been a lot of surface-level conversation on Twitter, a very good comments thread on The Border House and a rather difficult comments thread on John Scalzi's blog, but this is the most thought-provoking thing I have read about the activity so far.

I will definitely be taking your critiques into account as I try to re-design this activity and think about if/how I can use it in the future.

chauncey devega said...

Nothing but complements from me. I think what you did was great. As a practical matter an RTS would not work for an in class exercise.

Do share. What and how did the students respond beyond what was shared in the various pieces on your great exercise in critical pedagogy?

You followed through where most dare not to. Kudos to you. I am going to try to follow through on my observation as well.

Stay strong and keep us updated. What were the comments on Mr. Scalzi's site like?

Samantha Allen said...

There was one commenter who kept on beating the "class is everything, race doesn't matter" drum and one commenter who just REALLY HATED Peggy McIntosh and wrote thousands of words about it, but apart from that, Scalzi's commenters were really thoughtful.

I think it gives the students talking points, right? When I taught them about transphobia through video games, it equipped them all with a few links that they could easily share with friends and discuss. Halo also gives them an easy conversational access point. Games make the units stick out and make the material memorable. In talking with my students, those activities really stood out.