Written by: Anastasia Salter, Pop-Culture Editor
Right now, huge numbers of gamers are logged on (or trying to log on) to Diablo III’s servers to play the latest in the Diablo series. I’ve been a fan of the Diablo series since I was a young gamer. I always played the same character—the Rogue. Not because I was wedded to the class. Actually, magic-using was more my style. But the Rogue offered me something most games didn’t: the chance to play an actual female character, which in 1996 to my twelve-year-old self seemed pretty important. Later, with Diablo II, I’d have the exciting choice of two character classes, the Sorceress and the Amazon (yes, really). Diablo III promises evolution: now, the selection of gender doesn’t impact roles, and a female can be a barbarian while a man can take the shoes previously filled by amazons. So, is gaming now a bastion of equal opportunity? Did fifteen-plus years do the trick? (Spoiler: not so much).
There was a strange equity to opportunity in the original Diablo, as not only could players only choose one gender per character–the stories were actually written in a way that suggested these were the only options. For instance, the all-female ranks of rogues in Diablo were explained through the “sisterhood”—rogues apparently didn’t take male applicants, perhaps in fear they wouldn’t fill out the uniforms:
The outfits have gotten a little more covering in Diablo III, and my teenage self would no doubt be once again excited about collecting the most kick-ass, best-looking set of armor. (Hell, my adult self is already gearing up.) Of course, my perception of what makes for good armor and the artists’ have often been at odds.
A fascinating article yesterday by John Scalzi took on racism, sexism, classism, and a whole bunch of other “isms” by evoking the game industry, offering an explanation of the status of “straight-white-male” in gaming terms: “the lowest difficulty setting there is.” Gaming isn’t the usual space to turn to for rational discussion of who has it easiest in the great game of life. But in this case, the metaphor is somewhat apt, although of course in the game of life everyone’s starting stats are set by the great dice roll of fate.
The choice of a multiplayer game as a lens to look at privilege (as much as Scalzi works to avoid the term, this is precisely his topic–the type of privilege that is hardest for those with it to perceive, as it is always clouding their view) is certainly meeting nerd culture where it stands. Gaming culture has a well-deserved reputation for hostility to all sorts of marginalized voices within the community, as the Dickwolves debacle with Penny Arcade reminds us, as the battles over booth babes at PAX reinforced, as the dearth of speakers from outside the community’s perceived “mainstream” at most major conventions ultimately reflects.
But multiplayer games are very much about level playing fields. Opportunity is always somewhat balanced: each class is intended to have its strengths and compensating weakness, so that the player who chooses the barbarian can keep up in their game experience with the witch doctors and vice versa. In practice, this always falls apart–the characters are never really balanced. Play strategies and player skill always advance the best players, often in ways the designers of the systems didn’t account for. And guides and communities form on the internet for optimizing success.
This, too, is a little like life. It’s also why players on the east coast grew particularly impatient when they found out that Diablo III’s launch was at midnight pacific time, meaning that those with jobs or other obligations (like me) went to sleep before yesterday’s 3AM opening. These players resented the head start given to West Coast players, as the start time was more reasonable for them, or at least, as reasonable as any midnight launch is likely to be. Further mutterings started when the servers kept going down under the strain, and some players were locked out, and their predicament was made even worse by the knowledge that others were still playing. Hardcore gamers are used to seeking any edge, and competition is inherent in most hardcore gameplay (while less prevalent in the casual market).
With this mindset, Scalzi’s comparison can backfire. Gamers are used to looking for ways to defeate an apparently balanced environment, and exploiting the “straight white male” privilege may not look so different from powergaming a character class. And gamers in elitist guilds, like World of Warcraft’s infamous “Elitist Jerks”, are quick to point out that in games mastery and aggression are rewarded, and imbalance can always be overcome by skill.
To players who approach any game (perhaps including the game of life) with this mindset, privilege can be another game exploit–particularly as the lens of the game reinforces a player’s belief system, and in the case of video games the gaze of the straight male has continued to shape representations of other characters. Just as video game heroines have historically walked around with insufficient support and exposed cleavage as part of their everyday dungeon-crawling to satisfy a percentage of the audience, so too are other identities often put on in games as costumes designed with the same attention to cultural respect as the outfits of “cowboys and Indians” play. Life is like that video game, and the gaze of those with power (straight white male or otherwise) shapes the view of everyone else.
Scalzi’s contention that a straight white male (with sufficient points in wealth) plays through the game of life on easy mode perhaps unthinkingly is a good start to framing privilege in the gaming space. But as gaming remains a culture where particular voices dominate, the metaphor of a the game might be as filled with problems of perception and power as, well, the rest of life.