Authors

Lisa Nakamura

Lisa Nakamura is professor of Screen Arts and Cultures and American Cultures at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She is the author of Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures of the Internet (University of Minnesota Press: winner of the Asian American Studies Association 2010 book award in cultural studies), Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity and Identity on the Internet (Routledge, 2002) and co-editor of Race in Cyberspace (Routledge, 2000) and Race After the Internet (Routledge, 2011). She is writing a new monograph on social inequality in digital media culture, entitled “Workers Without Bodies: Towards a Theory of Race and Digital Labor.”

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On May 15, 2012 popular science fiction writer John Scalzi published a post to his blog Whatever entitled Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting That There Is.”

I learned about Scalzi as did many non-fans, through John Schwartz’s admiring New York Times piece published July 6, 2012, which cited two influential and eloquent blog posts he had written that had gone viral: “Being Poor” and “Straight White Male.” (Read “Being Poor.” It will break your heart, as will the hundreds of comments from readers who share their personal narratives of the unique humiliations of poverty. Here’s one: “Being poor is fighting with someone you love because they misplaced a $15 dollar check.”)

As Schwartz writes, Scalzi posts to Whatever almost every day, and the blog gets over 50,000 hits a day. Scalzi covers a huge variety of topics, but these two posts on poverty, race, class, and gender have reached the widest audience and generated the most commentary and controversy because he writes from a position of absolutely unassailable white geek masculinity as a popular science fiction writer. Media fandom has taken on a newfound social currency as an indicator of masculinity in the post-internet age, and producers of sci-fi “canons” such as Scalzi have correspondingly become bigger dogs in the popular culture sphere. Scalzi skillfully deploys the cultural capital he enjoys as a much-admired and widely read science fiction writer as a means to assert a new form of patriarchal power — geek masculinity — and he employs the rhetoric of gaming to solidify his authority with male readers, for whom digital games have become a form of social capital

Scalzi exercises a great deal of thoughtful and expert control over reader participation; he has an elaborate commenting policy, in which he reserves the right to delete or “mallet” posts that he finds offensive, and he has been known to shut down comment threads when they get too long or feel unproductive to him. However, even he expressed surprise at how controversial the “Straight White Male” piece proved to be. He published two follow-ups to the piece responding to the thousands of mostly-angry responses he received specifically from white male readers. In the second of these he wrote that it has “been fun and interesting watching the Intarweebs basically explode over it, especially the subclass of Straight White Males who cannot abide the idea that their lives play out on a fundamentally lower difficulty setting than everyone else’s, and have spun themselves up in tight, angry circles because I dared to suggest that they do.”

The “Straight White Male” piece is short, sweet, and eloquent. It’s easy to see why it went viral. It employs the discourse of video gaming, one assumed to come naturally to “dudes,” Scalzi’s stated intended audience, as a metaphor for explaining how race and gender confer automatic, unasked-for, mechanical advantages on players who are lucky enough to be born white and male. Just like the difficulty level one chooses while playing a game, these advantages gradually become invisible as the player becomes immersed in the game. What does become noticeable are deviations from this norm–when a quest is “too hard” the player may become aware of the difficulty setting that they chose, but otherwise that decision as a decision fades into the background. This is, indeed, how privilege works in “real life.”

The term “game mechanic” doesn’t appear in the piece but it underlies the argument throughout, explaining how points that a player can spend on advantages like “talent,” “wealth,” “charisma,” and “intelligence” are distributed by “the computer,” and that players must “deal with them,” just like they must in real life. This argument makes racism and sexism seem socially neutral, mechanical, structural, and not a personal act of aggression or oppression perpetrated upon one person by another. In short, they are institutional, invisible, “mechanical,” always business, never personal. Indeed, as Scalzi states at the beginning of the piece, his purpose in using gaming as a metaphor for life was to avoid the use of the term “privilege” altogether, since straight white men react badly to it. As he writes, “So, the challenge: how to get across the ideas bound up in the word “privilege,” in a way that your average straight white man will get, without freaking out about it?”

Indeed, Scalzi’s argument is successful because it allows his privileged readers to abstract themselves from the equation and see understand racial and gender privilege not as something that they are “doing,” but rather as a structural benefit that they receive without trying. All gamers understand that the ludic world is above all constructed, in the most literal sense. If a boss or a monster kills you, you cannot take it personally — likewise, if you pick up a rare epic weapon, you cannot really claim credit for having “earned” it since it’s a programmed part of the environment. Scalzi understands above all that his readers cannot tolerate the feeling of being blamed for their privilege. Explaining race and gender as a structural advantage, an aspect of a made environment that was designed to reward some types and punish others, lets white male readers hold themselves blameless for their own advantages.

Many of Scalzi’s critics object that his metaphor isn’t perfect, since some games do let players choose many aspects of their identities, and game mechanics and difficulty settings work differently in different games. Nonetheless, the basic premise — that difficulty settings create a pervasive experience of ease or hardship and affects every aspect of a gamer’s experience, just as do race and gender — certainly help us understand how privilege works in “real life.”

However, the way that this argument works perpetuates the notion that men are automatic members of geek and gamer culture (which many men are not) and that women aren’t. As a man, Scalzi employs the discourse of gaming–leveling, “points,” dump stats–as a technique to appeal, specifically, to straight white men like himself, who “like women.” (And presumably don’t want to see them oppressed; cranky women just aren’t as fun for men to be around!). Heteronormative white masculinity is equated with expert, fan knowledge of gaming mechanics, structures, discourses–what Mia Consalvo has dubbed “gaming capital” in her excellent study of games and cheating. Scalzi employs this language’s value as a system of signification marked as inherently masculine. Gaming discourse becomes a male backchannel.

This technique is very effective because gaming capital is in fact aspirational for many young male players, as much a goal as it is a reality. Masculinity is performed by the display of technical knowledge, and gaming is the most recent iteration of this form of social display. Gaming itself becomes a mark of privilege within symbolic discourse. Even men who have no idea what “dump stats” are hailed by this argument because gaming capital is assumed to be intrinsically masculine. As George Lipsitz, another white male critic of white male privilege, puts it in his writing on the possessive investment in whiteness, the “dump stat” of gaming discourse is difference itself.

In an example of publishing on the lowest difficulty setting, Scalzi’s essay got much more play on the Interwebz than postings on this topic by any female games or science fiction blogger. While digital media and publishing have definitely changed the way that feminist scholars work by giving us more and faster outlets to publish for a public audience, there is no doubt that we are working at the highest difficulty setting. Most of us don’t have 50,000 readers, and are not popular science fiction authors with ties to the television industry: not that most men are either, but some men are, and no women are. Scalzi would be the first person to acknowledge this.

As Scalzi puts it, “the player who plays on the “Gay Minority Female” setting? Hardcore.”  Women of color gamers who publicly identify with the culture of gaming find themselves shunned, mocked, and generally treated in ways that are far worse than one could find in almost any other social context. Aisha Tyler, an African American actress who has appeared on television programs like 24, found out what it meant to be perceived as an intruder to “gamer culture.” After she emceed the Ubisoft demo at the Electronic Entertainment Expo more commonly known as E3, the largest and most important gaming industry conference, the backlash against her presence on social media like NeoGAF, YouTube and Twitter started with the terms “annoying fucking bitch” and went on in a similar vein. As Kotaku noted in “Aisha Tyler Rants ‘I’ve Been a Gamer Since Before You Could Read’” The trollery directed at her exemplifies a troubling problem at the core of nerd culture. A hardcore base wants respect and recognition for the merits of whatever they love, be it comics, games or something else. But when someone they perceive as an outsider professes to share this love, the pitchforks come out.

Tyler responded with a beautifully written essay (not a rant!) on her Facebook page. She writes

“I go to E3 each year because I love video games.
Because new titles still get me high.
Because I still love getting swag.
Love wearing my gamer pride on my sleeve.
People ask me what console I play.
Motherfucker, ALL of them.”

Aisha Tyler’s presence at E3 presenting for Ubisoft constitutes a black, female claim to gaming capital. It is hardcore, to use Scalzi’s term, and immensely threatening. It is abundantly apparent that the more gaming capital becomes identified with white masculinity, the more bitter the battle over its distribution, possession, and circulation will become. As gaming culture becomes more heavily capitalized both economically and symbolically, it becomes both more important for women to gain positions of power as critics, makers, and players, and more likely that it will be denied.

Gaming space is part and parcel of what George Lipsitz calls the “white spatial imaginary,” and the stakes for keeping women and people of color out are the same as they were during redlining, blockbusting, and other techniques to police movement and claims to space in America. As George Lipsitz writes in How Racism Takes Place, “because whiteness rarely speaks its names or admits to its advantages, it requires the construction of devalued and even demonized Blackness to be credible and legitimate. Although the white spatial imaginary originates mainly in appeals to the financial interests of whites rather than to simple fears of otherness, over times it produces a fearful relationship to the specter of Blackness.” (37). Google Books categorizes this book under “Business and Economics.” Word.

Feminist scholars have been at the forefront of giving scholarly legitimation to the existence of virtual community through their ethnographic and theoretical academic writing. T.L. Taylor, Sherry Turkle, Sandy Stone, Lori Kendall, Tom Boellstorff, and Bonnie Nardi have wonderful monographs to this end. Most traditional anthropologists and sociologists were hostile to this idea when these works were published, yet today there is wide agreement that online communities create real affective environments with real economic value. The battle to legitimate online community as an area of study has been won; today we know that online community is real by the sound of keystrokes and game controller buttons as players enter their credit card numbers into their computers or consoles to purchase time in World of Warcraft or Xbox Live. However, though most agree that racism and sexism absolutely permeate game culture and the online and offline communities and narratives that constitute it, few seem to care, and even straight white males like Scalzi who write about it publicly are castigated. (For an antidote to this, Mary Flanagan’s book Critical Play. Seriously).

Though some of his thousands of readers may have violently disagreed with him, Scalzi was read and taken seriously. When a woman of color gamer like Aisha Tyler appears in public to talk about games, she is not taken seriously. She has to defend her credibility as a gamer, something that Scalzi is not asked to do. While commenters argued with his interpretation of how game mechanics worked, nobody claimed that he had never played them, a charge with which Tyler, despite her very public profile as a gamer, had to contend.

It’s one thing to say that women and non-whites are playing “the game of life” in hardcore mode — woman of color feminism has been telling us this for years. (See Grace Hong’s work on the Combahee River Collective in her powerful and rigorous monograph Ruptures of Capital). And even the popular press has taken note of the egregious state of gaming for women and minorities: this August the New York Times published an article entitled “In Virtual Play, Sex Harassment Is All Too Real.” I wish that there were both more outrage and more analysis as to the causes, practices, and effects of games in the white spatial imaginary, but I don’t fault the Times. Journalists are good at describing problems more quickly than academics are (though in this case the Times is many years late: even NPR beat them to this story by two years, which is saying something), but they don’t have the luxury of time to devote to deeper and more detailed writing. Journalists are good at bringing public awareness to problems like gaming’s pervasive racism, sexism, and homophobia, but awareness isn’t enough. It’s our job as feminist scholars, teachers, writers, and gamers to document, analyze, and theorize the white patriarchy that is so vigorously resurgent in games while never forgetting who profits here.

—-CITATION—-
Nakamura, L. (2012) Queer Female of Color: The Highest Difficulty Setting There Is? Gaming Rhetoric as Gender Capital. Ada: a Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, No. 1. doi:10.7264/N37P8W9V

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14 Responses so far.

  1. Michael J. "Orange Mike" Lowrey says:

    John Scalzi is an intelligent writer of intelligent textual science fiction. Please do not taint this discussion by using the pejorative term “sci fi” to describe his writing. Many older SF readers reserve “skiffy/sci-fi/SyFy” as an insult term for the worst of the worst: giant cockroach movies, loud-explosions-in-space films by intellectually-arrested post-adolescent males, the collected works of Irwin Allen, etc. If you must shorten “science fiction”, just call it SF, please.

  2. Gulliver says:

    I enjoyed reading this. As a non-gamer, it gave me some things to think about in our ever-digitizing culture. For example, it hadn’t previously occurred to me, even though it’s obvious in hindsight, that in carrying bigotry into the digital realm, people are successfully devaluing others even without seeing or hearing them (I understand gamer chat often now has audio, but I doubt marginalization online began with that). This is interesting to me as a person who takes a dim view of bigotry. And it’s also interesting to me as a sci-fi writer because I’ve often wondered what would occur in a future society where anyone could change their physical appearance, gender, species, and so forth with relative ease. The impetus for bigotry would remain, that’s human nature, but how it would be expressed is less obvious to me. It’s both enlightening and depressing to think that there is already, to a limited extent, a precedent for how bigotry survives metamorphosis.

    I suspect that where many straight white men, at least those who consider themselves socially conscious, stumble over the concept and reality of privilege is their confusion between blame and responsibility. By deploying the gamer allegory, John Scalzi shows how intrinsic power goes hand in hand with social responsibility as part of any life aimed at making the world more just. With power, asked for or not, comes responsibility. A person may have a right to shirk that responsibility just as a person has a right not to help a drowning swimmer, but doing so is not consistent with being a good person. Or, simply because you can doesn’t mean you should.

    And presumably don’t want to see them oppressed; cranky women just aren’t as fun for men to be around!

    Well, actually, not all consideration for women by straight white men such as myself is contingent upon our own comfort. Some of us actually care about social justice because we want the world to be a better place for everyone, not just ourselves. For example, I seriously doubt Scalzi wrote the piece because cranky women aren’t fun to be around. That said, I realize that observation was probably tongue-in-cheek, and am fairly impressed that it was basically the only snark. If I was a woman writing on the topic, I’d probably be less successful at not snarking. Heck, I’m a man and I’m usually snarkier when discussing the topic.

    Thanks for a nice thoughtful article. I’ll be sharing it with my partner and some friends, FWIW.

    • Lisa Nakamura says:

      thanks, you are right about the snark. I regret it now. The article rocks and I taught it to my students, who had a great conversation about it.

  3. Alex says:

    I disagree with Scalzi, and you, on one point here. I don’t think people read his blog because he’s male. Scalzi’s blog has a lot of readers for a couple of reasons. Mainly the breadth of his topics and research. Kind of like the Daily Show covers a lot of ground for people who don’t have the patience to watch a news channel, for me Scalzi’s blog finds a lot of trends before I become aware of them through other channels. Second, his blog is written with humor in an accessible style, like his books, making it much easier to read than some of the dry, lengthy screeds other bloggers are prone to. Find me a blogger with both of these talents and I’ll read them too.

    Not to deny the argument here, but I find this whole thing incomprehensible. I was active in gaming, role-playing and board games we’d play on a table, in the ’80s and ’90s. It was then a male-dominated hobby, being 80-90% male in most circles. The usual hypothesis we had for this was that gaming, like engineering or computer science, were math-oriented activities, and girls hit some sort of anti-math social filter around junior high that turned them away before they ever got to our circles. Most rational people saw this imbalance as an injustice, for which trying to be welcoming people was a tiny step of correction. Also I would say most “heteronormative” men preferred social interaction that included some women.

    I don’t recall seeing sexism, but once in a while we’d encounter a moment of racism, typically from someone who had no non-white acquaintances in their regular social circles. I don’t have the academic background to judge someone’s motivations, but most people interpreted such as plain rudeness. Maybe the first time it happened, one would just see it as an embarrassing moment that is best ignored, but if it happened more than once, it’s rude, and the appropriate thing is to call people on it. I never encountered a situation where it went beyond saying it was rude and having the person apologize, though other people I talked to had encountered more persistent insulters in the past and I suggested the option of walking away from the table.

    I don’t know why rudeness would be more acceptable in online gaming. Maybe anonymity lets people avoid consequences. Maybe people think trash-talking an opponent is an acceptable way of getting a psychological advantage. Maybe people think winning still counts if you exclude potential opponents. But basically it’s anti-social and should be met like any other anti-social behavior; acknowledge it, respond to it, discourage it.

    (Can’t say I’m comfortable being the first person to comment. I often throw in my two cents [or ten, I'm wordy], but I don’t want to lead the discussion. Many times I’ll agree with 95% of what someone says, or what someone has said, but I’ll still lead with the one point where I disagree. To me that’s just a clarification, not a real argument.)

  4. DexX says:

    I was at that Ubisoft press conference back in June, and frankly I am astonished that there was any backlash against Aisha at all. I thought she did the job well and came across as knowledgeable and charismatic, challenging goals when the whole event is scripted down to the last joke.

    For me, it was the white guy on stage with her that I wanted less of. I don’t recall his name, but he was some kind of “YouTube star” brought on by the marketing department to raise the event’s “cool factor” (unsuccessfully, I might add). He was the one who struck me as annoying, unfunny, and knowing nothing about games that he wasn’t reading straight off the teleprompter.

    Anyway, I digress. I tick most of the privilege boxes myself (white, male, and pass-as-straight bisexual) and I thought Ubisoft made a great choice of MC for the event. It didn’t even occur to me until now that it could be seen as a brave choice – a woman of colour hosting an event in a white-male-dominated field – but in retrospect I comment them for it, and I hope to see Aisha up on stage when I’m back at E3 next year.

  5. Jen Abrams says:

    Thank you for this excellent article. I’m a white woman who knows plenty of white men, so when I read the Scalzi article back in May I was really happy to have something I felt I could send to those white men to start a productive conversation.

    I appreciate the point that’s being made about “mechanical” privilege, and the way that framing can relieve white people of responsibility for white privilege. My goal, though, is to help myself and others I know understand privilege and find ways to transform it. On the ground, I’ve found that I’m more effective toward that goal when guilt and defensiveness are not engaged. (Certainly that was true at the beginning of my own process.) For this reason, the neutrality of the “mechanical” part of his argument is actually what makes it most effective as an anti-racist tool.

    This is not to dispute the argument being made above, which I think is valid. It’s just to say that purity on a theoretical or metaphoric level serves different goals than mine.

  6. Genevieve Williams says:

    Thank you for this. Though I take the point made by a previous commenter that Scalzi’s piece didn’t JUST get traction because he’s one of the privileged ones, he does have the “one of our own” advantage. And while I don’t expect his essay to resonate with every one of its target audience, it definitely resonated with my husband, a (mostly) straight white male and *also* a lifelong gamer. I’d been trying to explain this stuff to him for years and while sympathetic, he wasn’t quite getting it–then all I had to do was summarize Scalzi’s essay and his eyes lit up. “OH! Now I see what you’ve been saying!” He’s not dumb, he’d just never had to think about this stuff before.

    (Regarding the math comment above: that definitely happened to me; worse yet, it was perpetrated by a female math teacher when I was in junior high. Fortunately, in 10th grade I had *excellent* math teacher who helped me see that I’m actually good at it! Yay. The world needs more good math teachers.)

  7. Fred Fnord says:

    Quote:
    I disagree with Scalzi, and you, on one point here. I don’t think people read his blog because he’s male.
    Unquote.

    *sigh* I wish we could get past this.

    Scalzi isn’t read because he’s a white male. He’s read because he’s a good writer who has a bunch of published SF books and an excellent blog. But, talent and work ethic being equal, it’s a lot easier for a white male to get into that position. That’s the entire point, more or less.

  8. Cynical Jason says:

    The Scalzi pieces were great, and this was even more focused. I need to check out Flanagan’s book. Well done. (Oh . . . straight white male, here.)

  9. lilly says:

    Alex, d&d is adding and subtracting. Playing video games rarely involves anything like school math. Your your theory of gender exclusion is insufficient to explain such gender exclusion from high school boy cultures.

  10. Thales says:

    Scalzi needs to re-calibrate his difficulty setting. “Elite white” is “easy mode.” Non-elite SWM (i.e. 99.99% of straight white male population) is the “normal” difficulty setting. At normal mode, most people will take you seriously and want to do business with you (unless you handicap yourself in some way in attire, cleanliness or attitude — i.e. they will judge you as an individual). The goal should be to let everyone play at normal mode.

    • rowan says:

      Likewise, Scalzi approached the analogy from a structural standpoint partly because 99.99% of the SWM population isn’t in a position to alter the structure of society, and our position of relative privilege in it. The best we can do is treat all others with respect as individuals, regardless of their non-relevant characteristics, and vote in good conscience when the occasion arises.

  11. Mark says:

    This is a great response to Scalzi’s blog post. A post I, as a straight white male (but not a gamer), found to be an interesting take on this topic. I am curious, however, about your take on Scalzi’s post. I may have misinterpreted your feelings about his post, but it seems to me that you somehow devalue his opinion because he is a white male. As if being a white male doesn’t allow you to critique white male privilege. Is this your point of view? And if it is, I am interested to know why. I understand that the perception of criticism is inherently different, but I do not see why it should or would be devalued. Thank you.

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