Winning Conditions: A Discussion of Scalzi’s "Easy Mode" White Male Article

Back in May of this year, John Scalzi caused no small amount of kerfluffle by writing an article that tried to explain white male privilege to privileged white males. It’s an excellent article–one that stayed with me for quite a while after I read it. (Obviously: I’m writing a response to it four months later.) Here’s a snippet from the start of it:

Dudes. Imagine life here in the US — or indeed, pretty much anywhere in the Western world — is a massive role playing game, like World of Warcraft except appallingly mundane, where most quests involve the acquisition of money, cell phones and donuts, although not always at the same time. Let’s call it The Real World. You have installed The Real World on your computer and are about to start playing, but first you go to the settings tab to bind your keys, fiddle with your defaults, and choose the difficulty setting for the game. Got it?
Okay: In the role playing game known as The Real World, “Straight White Male” is the lowest difficulty setting there is.
This means that the default behaviors for almost all the non-player characters in the game are easier on you than they would be otherwise. The default barriers for completions of quests are lower. Your leveling-up thresholds come more quickly. You automatically gain entry to some parts of the map that others have to work for. The game is easier to play, automatically, and when you need help, by default it’s easier to get.

First off, let me just say that I agree with Mr. Scalzi. Not that I can speak from experience (having always been a straight white American male), but I’ve lived enough places in the world and spoken with enough different people to recognize and acknowledge that living through life as a straight white American male is–generally speaking–much less difficult than any of the other options available.

So if I agree with his article, why in the world am I writing a response this late in the game?

The main thing that I keep coming back to in my thoughts is this: if this is a game, what is the winning condition? Because that makes a huge difference in how you play the game. I’m a big board gamer, and I know that there are plenty of games out there these days where you can feel like you’re winning the game, only to end up losing in the last round, finding out that your strategy has been misdirected the whole time. (Ticket to Ride, where you get aced out by the longest track, to use a popular example.)

And the thing is, life can’t be reduced down to a single winning condition.

(NOTE: this is not a snarky post where I point out that Mr. Scalzi was using an oversimplified metaphor. He freely acknowledged that in his article. This is a post where I think about the ideas he laid out in his post and discuss my own thoughts about them.)

With this in mind, let’s take a look at some of the potential winning conditions many people shoot for in this MMRLRPG (massively-multiplayer real life role playing game) called The Real World (TRW). Would I be right in claiming that most people want to be happy in life? I think I would. And so I think it stands to reason that most people base their winning condition on something they believe will bring them happiness. Such as:

  • Amass the most toys/money/cars/nice stuff–Many people just stop with this one. He who dies with the most toys at the end of the day ends up winning the game. This is sort of like the old High Score mechanic in video games. The ones where Mario wasn’t just about getting past the final Bowser, but you had arbitrary points the whole time. If this is the winning condition of TRW, then clearly life is not fair. (Something most of you probably already knew anyway. Sorry if I spoiled it.)
  • Have an experience-filled life–See exotic locations. Check items off on your bucket list. Learn new languages. Live in different countries. Eat strange foods. Life has a ton to offer, and he who experiences as much of it as possible wins.
  • Have a successful family–Doesn’t matter what else you do in life. You’re focused on having a solid family, with children that grow up to be successes and are in a better spot than you were. (Of course, the trick is that values of “better spot” are very arbitrary, and vary widely from person to person . . . )
  • Leave a mark on the world–Whether it’s through your business or as a politician or as a service worker. Different than just having a successful family–this is more focused on affecting other people, rather than people related to you. So she who has the biggest business wins. Or if you become president, you win. That kind of thing.
I could keep going, but you get the point. There are a ton of different ways to “win” TRW. And you don’t have to focus on just one. Maybe one person wants a mix of two or three or more of them. (Or for some people, the winning condition they’re focused on might be more basic: not dying. Not starving to death. There are certainly a slew of lives where people have little in the way of choice as to what their winning condition will be.)
One of the points I’m trying to make is that it’s very difficult to look at someone else’s life and decide that they’re better or worse off than you are. Oh, you can compare how they’re doing in one category or another to how you’re doing, but you have no idea if they even care about that category. A woman whose focus is all on her family might well pity a single woman who has a successful career–and that businesswoman might well return the pity for the poor woman saddled with all those children. To assume other people have the same winning condition you have is often a mistake.
Of course, this whole conversation is further complicated if one starts to take religion or any sort of an afterlife into account. Scalzi’s original article, which likens life to World of Warcraft, makes an immediate comparison possible: earning all Teh Moneys in WoW gets you very little in terms of real life success. Earning all Teh Moneys in real life might get you just as much, from an eternal perspective. You can’t take it with you, and all that. (I personally believe what you do and say in this life has a very real effect on what happens to you after you die, which thus informs what I focus on as winning conditions for this life.)
But that’s opening a whole nother can of worms, and this article has gone on far enough.
I’d argue that there are certainly some winning scenarios where “Straight White Male” ends up being a disadvantage rather than an advantage. Being rich and well off can make you tend to be self-satisfied and complacent. It can warp your character, change who you are, who you become. Look at lottery winners, and try to tell me their lives are improved by getting what they thought they always wanted.
Anyway. I could go on, but I won’t. Those are all the thoughts I’ve got for you at the moment. Take ’em or leave ’em. I’d be happy to continue this discussion in the comments, whether here or on Facebook or Twitter. Got anything to add? Fire away!

1 thought on “Winning Conditions: A Discussion of Scalzi’s "Easy Mode" White Male Article”

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