This little essay is about cultural privilege and, eventually, video games. It just takes a little while to get to the games, so bear with me.
When I decided that being a "sensitive guy" wasn't good enough, and that I wanted to better understand who I was in terms of what the experience of others was like, I made a horrid discovery. I had a ring in my pocket - no, not just a ring, but THE ring, the "one ring to rule them all." Worse, I'd been slipping it on and off heedlessly, nearly unconsciously.
Here's what I mean. Being a straight, male WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant), or being readily able to pass for one in contemporary American society, comes with a lot of privilege, and it's really easy to be unaware of it. In fact, the moment you become aware of it, you've taken the first, halting step towards not using it.
Here's what cultural privilege really is: it's selective invisibility. Being able to go anywhere and do anything without having your right to be there and do that questioned. Some theorists have described this as being "unmarked." Privilege isn't having people throw games in your favor, it's them letting you play without charging you a poll tax or asking to see your papers or making you play with the sun in your eyes.
When you want attention or aid, it's there, but that's secondary. The big thing is that everyone assumes you're where you're supposed to be and doing what you should be doing. Privilege is the privilege of "doing it for yourself." It's the ring of power, sitting in your pocket making your finger itch whenever someone might challenge or threaten you. Blink and I'm gone.
This is why, for example, the male (and, with one exception, white) Justices on the Supreme Court seem not to get how Walmart's policies could be sexist when there's no policy saying "be sexist" and promotion is delegated to individual store managers.
Yes, sometimes privilege requires that you bathe, shave, wear a suit, maybe even cut your hair. At most, this is passing. It also requires that you keep your mouth shut when other privileged people say racist or sexist things - that's one of the rules of invisibility, if you make any unexpected noises, they'll know where you are.
Of course, sometimes keeping quiet isn't enough - a friend of mine in a smal town landed a much-needed factory job. His boss kept inviting him to church, and he always declined. Then, one day, his boss was there as the conversation turned to how - get this - black women are so "filthy" that none of the guys there would dirty their penises by having sex with one (obviously, the words used were less polite). My friend didn't say anything, so he was pressed to agree. At that point he refused to go along, by just noting that he found some famous black woman attractive and that, given a chance with her, he'd take it. He was "let go" without cause a few days later.
That's the real reason why cultural privilege is like the one ring - it's malignancy is insidious, leading slowly but surely back to it's cruel lord: dehumanization. And when a group of people is thoroughly dehumanized, any atrocity is possible.
This is where games come in. Sure, in many games the protagonist is misunderstood or the victim of "prejudice," but somehow this is nearly always because the character is "special" and that character uses that specialness to go anywhere and do anything without consequences (usually).
Outsider status in games tends to take a form similar to the liminal phase of adolescence in our society: the cops will chase you for a little while after you torch everyone on the sidewalk with your flamethrower, but then they'll give up.
Most games also feature enemies to be slaughtered wholesale, most often humanoid but always conveniently subhuman - whether because they're zombies or because they're simply "bad." And if they're not strictly bad, you can always make it up to them later. The frog people may be pissed that you stole their sacred idol and killed more of them than the entire population of Vietnam, but they'll forgive you if you complete the mushroom quest enough times.
Put the ring on, blame "not me" - it's okay. They weren't really people, not people people anyway. Videogames practice a fantasy version of dehumanization (note that it IS just a fantasy) on a consistent basis.
That's what it means to have privilege. When was the last time you played a game where NPCs ordered your "avatar" (a term I'm not fond of) to sweep the street, and if you didn't, you were thrown in jail? If you can think of a scenario even remotely like this, I bet you got to kill the bastards later in the game, right?
This is what I was trying to get at back in '08 with my post contrasting Muslim Massacre, Roach Toaster, and Iji. I wish I'd elaborated on my argument a bit more at the time (and kept my focus more strictly on the game) - but I doubt it would have saved me from getting flamed by the forum buddies of the creator of "Roach Toaster."
So, I still have the ring of power in my pocket and sometimes it finds it's way onto my finger all by itself - or at least it seems that way, looking back at the instances when I've taken advantage of still looking (relatively) normal and "respectable," and the times when I was in a position to do something about prejudice but did and said nothing.
I've criticized the colonial elements in Tolkien before, and the Peter Jackson movies are far from perfect, but Tolkien understood something about the casual seductiveness of power, and Jackson did well in making Frodo's behavior like that of a heroin addict, because privilege not merely grants invisibility, it is itself invisible to those who possess it, and yet addictive.
Anyone know which way it is to Mount Doom?