WINGS 101: Privilege and Videogames

I am going to try to relate privilege to the topic of video games and media in general. Please check the Further Reading section at the bottom for more resources on this topic.

Privilege basically means what it sounds like: some people have benefits (usually that they were born with) that make life easier for them, due to how our society is set up and how that society views some groups. However the intricacies of privilege are much harder to explain. There are a huge number of different types of privilege, which often give vastly different benefits. A simple example: if you are reading this, you probably have Internet access; that is a privilege. Each type of privilege one has, or doesn’t have, often affects one’s life to a massive degree.

Male privilege and white privilege are some of the most often talked about privileges. Both of these give different but distinct benefits to one’s life. A male will not have to frequently deal with someone dismissing their reasoning, and a person with white skin will not have to worry about being given an offensive nickname in every day conversation. It is important to remember that privilege is something to be aware of, not to be defensive about. It is an unfortunate reality that ideally would not exist. Recognizing and acknowledging privilege is hard, but incredibly important. Those with privilege often never question the benefits they have always had and view their accomplishments as the sole result of their skill. For example, using video games as an analogy, in Sid Meier’s 2010 GDC talk he explained how the player never questions whether they have earned a reward. They simply accept it and “feel it was their own clever play, their own incredible strategy that earned them that cool reward.” Although he was talking about game design, he could also have been describing privilege. Privilege and the benefits that it brings are not earned but one can feel that they are.

Privilege can be described in many ways. In some ways it is not having to worry about certain things. Not having to worry about if someone will be disgusted by your choice of partner or even not having to worry about your name being a detriment to finding a job. And since the privileged do not have to worry about these things, it is often hard to remember that others do. Being part of one privileged group often makes it hard to see and understand something one never experiences. For example: being able-bodied means one never has to find the wheelchair ramp, which also means it is never considered. An able-bodied person can remember seeing wheelchair ramps on several buildings, but does not check where they are on every building.

Privilege can also be described as bonuses or even powerups. Someone who has god mode always on will not have to worry about enemies dealing damage, but will have to navigate their way around obstacles, while someone else who has noclip always on will have to worry about taking damage but can just walk through the obstacles. Someone who has both on won’t have to worry about enemies or navigation. Privilege is similar: it allows those who have it to do certain tasks with ease, while those who lack that privilege often have obstacles or extra difficulties placed in their way.

It is, unfortunately, a privilege to see people of the same identity as oneself represented on screen. It is also a privilege to play a video game with an avatar that is remotely like yourself. Williams, Martins, Consalvo and Ivory’s (2009) study found that very few people of color and very few women were represented in video games. Another study (Dietrich, 2013) found that even when customization was an option, most games made it impossible to create an avatar that looked like a person of color. Character creators that do not allow the creation of certain people sends the message that they are not important enough to be represented. White males are often treated as the “default” in video games, which makes all other races and genders “alternative”: an extra that does not necessarily need to be included. They are frequently seen as a bonus, and are often only added to a game late in production rather than planned from the start. The massive amount of games that all have the avatar being a white male also sends the message that anyone else is lesser and causes them to cease to exist in the realm of video games.

An screenshot of a first person shooter: Doom 3.
The white hands of the protagonist in Doom 3.

The white hands of the avatar in a First Person Shooter are a good example of this. They are a visible symbol that the avatar is like you; so long as you have white skin. Therefore, if they wish, a person with white skin can imagine that they are the avatar, the hero in this story. However the skin color makes it hard for anyone with olive, brown, black or any other skin color to see themselves as the hero. And since there is almost no diversity in First Person Shooter avatars, they never get to see themselves as the hero.

Unfortunately, having one’s identity be present in media at all is a privilege. Everyone should have the opportunity to play a game and see someone like them represented on screen. Without stereotypes. Especially when one has to face those stereotypes every day. As you can probably guess, not having one’s culture continually reduced to a stereotype or caricature in media is also a privilege. Perpetuating stereotypes is a huge problem in society at large, but especially in video games. Stereotypes erase experiences by reducing an entire group to nothing more than a caricature. Individual’s lives and experiences are ignored and distorted in this way.

A picture of four enemies that all are wearing grass skirts and carrying a variety of strange spiked weapons.
Stereotypes for enemies in Resident Evil 5.

Stereotypes are lazy design, encouraging and reinforcing the reduction of an entire group to something less important. It should not be that hard to treat humans, who may be different in some way, with respect. Stereotypes in media also hugely affect how people from those groups are treated in real life. We get most of our information about the world through the media. If all the information we get about one group is negative, then it isn’t much of a stretch that we would start seeing people from that group in a negative light. If someone never sees the diversity within the group, they will assume the entire group is the same. Media that perpetuates stereotypes is problematic and does cause harm by erasing everything they are from public knowledge and replacing it with an insulting construction. Keep in mind that enjoying problematic media is alright, but one should be conscious of the problems and be able to admit that they exist.

Acknowledging that things are not perfect, that there are things that need fixing, is an important step in educating oneself. Being aware of how privilege affects your opportunities and others’ opportunities in society gives context to challenges that others face.


Further Reading:

White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack by Peggy McIntosh

When Worlds Collide: Fandom and Male Privilege by Lucy Gillam

How Prejudice and Bias Works by The Angry Black Woman

Nerds and Male Privilege by Dr. NerdLove



Dietrich, David R. Avatars of Whiteness: Racial Expression in Video Game Characters.

Meier, Sid. Everything You Know is Wrong (around the 05:14 mark)

Williams, Dmitri, Nicole Martins, Mia Consalvo, and James D. Ivory. (2009). The virtual census: representations of gender, race and age in video games. New Media & Society 11(5), 815-834.

  • AndyB
  • Andy B has an Anthropology-Computing background and as such, is accustomed to bridging the gap between social issues and technology.