The Problem with the “Lowest Difficulty Setting”

by Erin on May 23, 2012

I’m subscribed to John Scalzi’s blog, so I got the “lowest difficulty setting” post in my email last Tuesday morning and read it with a progressively sinking feeling. If that gets around, I thought, it’s not going to be good. (And indeed it wasn’t, to the point that there have been a few posts following it specifically about how severe the backlash has been.) But I left it alone. This is the converted appropriating a metaphor, it’s a little squicky, but no harm, I supposed. Gamers can take it.

But I started to write this when I read John’s comment that the purpose of the post is to provide well-intentioned advocates of privilege-comprehension with a metaphor that would be “comprehensible” and “palatable” to straight white men who don’t like the word “privilege” — and at that point I put my hands on my head and started mumbling no no no no no please don’t do that.

The reason why you shouldn’t, “dudes”, isn’t primarily the awkward cultural appropriation (speculative fiction reaching to take what belongs to games). You shouldn’t because it’s not going to work. And in fact it probably does make things worse.

I pored through the comments hoping to find evidence against this. John is smart and well intentioned, I thought, so maybe I’m missing something. I was looking for a single instance of gamer (or non-gamer anti-privilege person) saying “hey I never understood privilege before but now I TOTALLY GET IT.”

Except there isn’t one. I couldn’t find a single one. And I don’t expect to. That’s how cultural appropriation works: it’s nifty for those appropriating, not for the indigenous culture. (For those upset about the use of cultural appropriation here: no, this is not Tom Cruise the “samurai” saving Ken Watanabe, but the fundamental problem is the same: use of a metaphor without understanding of its cultural implications — absolutely a different scale of problem, however.)

This should tell you that the core metaphor as presented doesn’t work, or rather only functions to act as a righteous bludgeon for the already-converted (of which there are many gamers, make no mistake). If you go to where gamers are reading the essay, most of them are passing it by (“Clearly, the gaming community has trouble understanding the (overused) concept of priveledge, so trying to dumb it down for us was necessary. Thanks.”) or arguing with it — as many within the speculative fiction community have enjoyed pointing out. Look at all the poor upset white boys! Look at all these dumb people I had to censor! It is such a good thing we fine science fiction people with our noble culture may yet save these gamer savages from the perils of their own primitive thinking.

What bugs me most is that this reaction doesn’t actually have that much to do with whether or not gamers understand or accept the concept of privilege. It has to do with its presentation, which claims to be helpful but came across as one nerd trying to dominate another nerd (and one of them has a cheering squad: hey, what kind of memories might that evoke in your average non-athletic intelligent eighteen-year-old?). Gamers get that — and they’re programmed not to respond well to it.

The same way that you don’t wade into a science fiction convention and start declaring that George Lucas is the greatest science fictional romance writer ever to have lived, you don’t wade into a nest of gamers and start calling them “casual players”. Rather, you can, but most reasonable people would assume that the consequences are upon your own head if you do. Do I agree with this attitude toward ‘casual’? Fuck no, but I’m aware that it exists, and that the use of this particular metaphor was calibrated — I think unintentionally, out of lack of connection with game culture — to be about as maximally offensive to a core gamer as it could possibly be. To be “casual” takes away everything about their primary self-identification, and is not going to remotely elicit a rational response.

The nature of privilege is that it is invisible. Calling this demographic a bunch of care bears is not going to open their eyes. It’s going to piss them off, it’s going to hurt them, it’s going to make them remember every time a bigger more popular kid got in their face and told them that what they are is stupid, that their struggles have no meaning, that they don’t deserve to be understood. In the wake of that pain, they will only retreat further, and make the jobs of those of us trying to reach them harder, because when you’re inside your own pain you aren’t able to contemplate systems, you can only see the world through the lens of your own experience. And what is painful for a veteran of the game industry’s culture wars in watching this is that teaching systems is one of the things that video games do best. The context of the game lulls you into safety so that you can think rationally, process differently — it’s enormously powerful. So to see something like this come at it in such a backwards fashion, and in fact give the community an excuse to retreat into defensive shield-banging — it’s sad and exhausting.

If it was instead a vector for Internet drama and self promotion, rock on, it did that. But there’s a price, and those of us on the borderlines are going to be picking up the tab.

My problem is I want a change. I want my people to understand me again. This matters to me because I have been driven out of communities I used to love (like Kotaku; like Penny Arcade) by exactly the attitude that John’s post is trying to correct.

So here instead are some metaphors that I think might have a better chance at working — with the caveat that what is really needed is for people to sit down and talk to each other like people, without lecturing or aphorism. But with that said, here are some things gamers do understand — often better than the general public.

Gamers Understand Systems

This is what the post was reaching for, but never got to because the train of thinking stopped at “straight white male is easy mode”. “Easy mode” does not a system make. “Easy mode” is an approach, a perspective, and so is manifestly cart before horse, especially if you don’t already understand the major lines of force at work in the core loop.

This is the beginning of the bigger picture:

We are all in this system together. Your starting stats were not your choice. In fact, if you don’t understand this system, the lack of understanding you have is a product of the system itself. It’s a product of suburbia and some of the very best intentions of the generations who have come before us, who desired prosperity and safety and a hopeful future. They were not wrong to do so.

But the problem is that their desire and the pockets of safety they created also created distance between the more fortunate and the most fortunate. The fact that you reject the concept of “privilege” is part of the system. The fact that because you have low exposure to minority cultures you are able to lump them into a fictitiously complaining “other” is part of the system.

The thing that is painful about a metaphor like this being used to hurt gamers is that it represents everything gamers should be better at. Understanding systems is a critical life skill (and an under-taught one), but understanding systems in a game is intuitive and fundamental. That’s why this metaphor is so appealing. But its design is fundamentally flawed, which is also why gamers reacted to it the way they did. When their cognitive analysis kicked in, they found it unsupported and subjective, because it was as it was drawn.

So here’s a design lesson: you don’t come to the design with the motivation. You don’t force the player to use the mechanics that convey your message. You set up the system and then you let the player draw the conclusion. This is what fundamentally differentiates interactive design from other art forms — including writing. A system that makes obvious its intended author-driven conclusion is a broken system. Revelation occurs when the hand of the puppeteer is invisible. Leading with “lowest difficulty setting” is showing the hand.

And there was something else the system was missing.

Gamers Understand Numbers

The fairness of any game system is assessable by the balance of its numbers. This is where a ‘message’ comes through, if there is one. And the reason why this metaphor, properly drawn, would have been so effective is that gamers — especially online gamers — have an innate sense of fairness and balance. They understand that an unbalanced system is inherently wrong, and that is what we live in.

But the only thing that will convey that within the context of this system is objective measurement. Fortunately, that measurement is readily available.

These are ten random examples of quantifiable improperly calibrated system balance in American society:

This list could keep going. (It probably should keep going, but hopefully this is enough to make the picture very, very clear.) Jim Hines has another rundown.

So let’s take one of them and extrapolate its design implications: the 77/100 rule for women’s compensation. Imagine if, according to random drawing, you had received a game that only included support for 77% of the achievements. Most other people received the fully featured game, but yours caps out at 77% — 100% is impossible. How would that impact every aspect of your thinking whenever you played that game, whenever you talked about it with other players, whenever you read about it in the press? What if the players who had the full game — which is most of them — never wanted to talk about your missing 23%? What if they thought it was no big deal, or worse, didn’t even know what you were talking about when you brought it up? You’d keep your head down, you’d play because it’s the game you have, but being unable to talk about this core part of your experience with most of the other players would persistently distance you from them, like a piece of glass in your shoe. That is what system imbalance does.

At the end of the day we would never ship a game that randomly removed 23% of the features for half of the population, so it’s a little surprising that these numbers are considered okay in our daily life.

There are other ways of quantifying privilege. One way is to just start keeping count and paying attention. The brilliant “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh does this. This is the article that first made me really connect with and understand what privilege was. It was what made me believe it — because it itemized in very specific and concrete terms the things that those of us who live with privilege (absolutely including myself, though I’m only the “straight” of the “straight white male”). It made them familiar, quantifiable, and immediate — which is exactly what a game simulation does. (Especially revelatory to me was #15, I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group, not just because this happened to me all the time when I was younger, but because as a community we do this all the time in the game industry — the very first question I received on the #sffwrtcht interview was what it was like to be a woman in games — but that’s another discussion.)

The system has become very good at programming into us that the word “racist” is bad, but it has been terrible at getting us to own our place in the system that is racism. It is way easier to apply a binary definition of “racist” to a person and demonize that person — and therefore also react violently when “racist” is applied to us. But “racism” is systemic imbalance in a particular direction.

And, of course, everyone’s a little bit racist, because we live in the system and are shaped by it. Our sheer life experience will give us limited exposure to some cultures, and with limited data, our brains naturally type based on insufficient evidence. This isn’t something to be afraid of or ashamed of. It just is.

That doesn’t, however, mean nothing can be done about it.

Gamers Understand Agency

This might be the most important part of the message.

You have the power to change this system. You can be the hero within it. Gamers know this. That however dark the circumstances, there is always a win state. Even if this might not be true in real life, you strengthen yourself by assuming that it is, because you’re always looking for the win. This is also what makes things like systemic racism so difficult to talk about with game-cultured players, because it seems like such a tremendously unfair and unmovable system. Our instinct is to check out of it.

But the thing is, if the ruleset does work this way, you’re ripping yourself off by not understanding it. You’re within the system and you’re not even aware that the system is there. You can choose how you use it and how you operate within it — but you should make that choice from an informed standpoint. And if you think the system doesn’t work this way, you should defend that position by presenting systemic evidence that refutes the numbers that currently come back from the system (see above).

And that’s the bottom line. Understanding the system makes you a better player. For yourself, for your guild, for the game.

This is a really great essay about what you can do about privilege, and these things really do help. Remember the 23%. What helps is understanding. What helps is acknowledgment. What helps is listening. When you shout from the outside, when you deny the numbers, when you pretend it doesn’t exist, you’re being a Jack Thompson. Don’t be Jack Thompson.

Finally, there will come a moment when you have the advantage, and you can open the door for someone else. When you do that, you will be a hero.

Gamers Understand Mainstream Market Pressures

Gamers have also understood for quite a long time now that games like Ico are rare and games like Call of Duty are very common. Gamers don’t like this and in fact grouse about it constantly.

Often the game publishing industry is held responsible for this, and not unreasonably so. But game publishing doesn’t hate Ico (or Journey or Facade). Game publishing is a system. It neither hates nor loves anything, and this indeed is partly why it is the recipient of so much gamer angst.

The system is not designed to provide you the highest quality games. The system is designed to make money. By definition this means the system is designed to make the lowest quality game that you will pay for. It is highly incentivized and structured to give you exactly as much quality as you will demand and not one iota more. This system is not evil. It is not malicious. It is market physics.

But just because it is a system with rules and force trajectories doesn’t mean it’s unchangeable. The same is true for racism and actively negative establishment systems.

Affirmative action — for instance — is like kickstarter coming in to pivot the system, manifesting the will of an educated populace to retrain the market to a force other than the one it has been optimized around. It exists to attempt to create new markets that will achieve independent sustainability and strengthen the larger market — the way that Kickstarter campaigns, ideally, provide venues for new games to be made that are outside the traditional game publishing area of expertise, and hopefully create entirely new genres of games over time. And Kickstarter really doesn’t threaten the establishment. By its very nature, it can’t. If a game could be made within the traditional publishing space, the fact is it probably would be — it’s easier, more profitable, and more stable. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room in the space for both, and in fact it’s a good thing for the entire market that both exist.


It may be that all of this is water under the bridge at this point. My fear is that the accelerating stratification in these communities — some have argued in all communities — means that over time we will be less and less capable of communicating with each other. For those of us nomads who are happiest moving from group to group — cross-pollinators — it’s this frustrating experience of witnessing group polarization and feeling powerless to stop it. I have bowed out of more of the gaming community than I’ve liked, and the “lowest difficulty setting” post made me uncomfortably aware of how I don’t yet fit in the “angry progressive speculative fiction” tribe, either. Cognitive dissonance, hello.

And at the same time I have this angry gnome in my head whispering that the divisions are bullshit. We are all one community. So in this much I disagree with recent calls to end “Geek Pride”, even when I agree with the content of those arguments. But if a concept of Geek Pride unifies us as a community, if it makes us part of a tribe, let us use it to hold ourselves to a higher standard. Let us use it to be responsible for the actuation of our geek ideals. And let us not leave anyone behind. If you dug the post, fine, have at — just let’s not pretend that the reaction was anything other than a natural response to an attack calibrated to generate hate, and realize that your glee in othering those who didn’t understand it may be creating enemies out of allies.

I’m so tired, guys. I’m so tired of the rage. I’m so tired of the distance. I’m not saying it isn’t justified or that I don’t understand it. I’m just saying it’s harder, but better, to reach into the face of rage with love. I’m not saying that anyone does or does not have a right to be angry. I’ve felt it, I feel it regularly, especially when my community produces things like this that make me want to break things. But at the end of the day we should be able to reach higher than posts that lash out (“dumb”, “stupid”, “homophobic”, “racist”) at people whose primary crime is ignorance, and over whom we have the privilege of education.

I like to think that the only way to fail is to despair.


Thank you to Corvus Elrod and the gang at the Homeless Moon for discussing this stuff with me and beta reading this post. It was difficult to write and is not perfect, so I sought extra eyes. Any of its wrongness is entirely my own. :)

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