All Skulls On: Teaching Intersectionality through Halo

From left to right: Matt, Carl, Samantha (the author), and Cody at the Halo Station.

From left to right: Matt, Carl, Samantha (the author), and Cody at the Halo Station.

“Let me just close the door so the other instructors don’t find out I’m letting you play Halo,” I joked to my Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies 100 class. I knew I was taking a risk on this teaching activity. I was worried that it would come across as a shameless, gimmicky attempt to glam up the difficult topic of intersectional oppression.

My friend and fellow WGSS 100 instructor Lauran planted the seed of the idea for this activity when she, citing my proclivity for video games, recommended that I read John Scalzi’s blog post “Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is.” I liked it. The article was clear, accessible and completely on point. Scalzi’s argument is that being a straight white man is like playing a video game on easy mode: some challenges remain but the player is at an automatic advantage.

As I tried to think about how I would incorporate Scalzi’s article into a lesson on feminist theories of intersectionality, however, I realized that it couldn’t do as much work as I would need it to. Scalzi’s article is a fantastic thought experiment revolving around a brilliant metaphor. While I couldn’t fault it for its simplicity, then, I realized that I would need a more complex metaphor that could capture the way in which systems of oppression interlock and compound each other’s effects.

That’s when Halo came to mind. I wrote an article for First Person Scholar describing how the “skull system” in Halo virtually models the way in which systems of oppression, as Kimberlé Crenshaw observes,  “interact” and “overlap.” In a Halo game, skulls are elective difficulty modifiers that affect particular game systems. For example, activating one skull halves the player’s ammo while activating another removes the on-screen radar. As I wrote on First Person Scholar, “Activating multiple skulls in a Halo game effectively models intersectional forms of oppression. The individual effects of each of these skulls do not simply run in parallel; rather, they intersect, overlap and interlock, just like systems of oppression.” For example, one skull will make enemies throw grenades more frequently while another skull increases the explosion radius of those same grenades.

When we came to our unit on intersectionality, I assigned students to read both Scalzi’s article and my First Person Scholar essay alongside some foundational feminist texts on intersectionality and privilege. And, as they did their reading over the weekend, I was at home devising an elaborate activity with a staggering number of moving parts. Given the complexity of the activity, it’s understandable that I would try to hide the proceedings of my class. It could have gone horribly awry. But did it? Here’s what happened and what we learned from the activity.

The Activity

When I asked for a volunteer with substantial Halo experience to come forward at the start of class, Bryan jumped into the hot seat. I handed him the controller and loaded up the iconic beach landing section of the “Silent Cartographer” level in Halo: Combat Evolved. The game was set to Casual difficulty with no skulls activated. Unsurprisingly, Bryan cleared the beach handily, even as he re-familiarized himself with Halo’s control scheme. On this initial run, the grunts (the basic enemy type of Halo) were practically paper thin and the Elites (a more advanced enemy type) didn’t require much effort either.

But that’s when we kicked it into high gear. I turned the difficulty up to Legendary and activated each of the skulls that have negative effects, briefly explaining to the class how each one would affect Bryan’s experience. As the odds stacked higher and higher, Bryan steeled himself for the challenge. We restarted the beach landing and my students cheered him on: “Go Bryan, go!”

Bryan playing "Silent Cartographer."

Bryan playing “Silent Cartographer.”

He failed within thirty seconds.

Following this initial demonstration, I broke the students up into six small groups and assigned each group to work through some internet resources on forms of oppression and privilege centering on race, gender identity, ability, sex, class and sexual orientation (one category per group). [You can find the resources I used on this handout.] I asked the students to try to think about forms of oppression and privilege that might seem to pertain only to the identity category in their particular group. In other words, I asked them to intentionally do non-intersectional thinking.

Meanwhile, Christopher Sawula, my friend and colleague at Emory, ran what I term “the Halo Station”: two XBoxes hooked up to two monitors side-by side, one loaded with Halo: Reach and the other with Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary. Christopher granted some students the opportunity to play through Halo: Reach’s single-player mode set to Casual difficulty with no skulls on. But he also cajoled other students into coming up in pairs to attempt the beach landing scene on Legendary difficulty with all  skulls on (LASO, for short). If students didn’t know how to play Halo, Christopher would help them learn the controls. Or as he so eloquently put it: “My role was mostly to tell students that B or Rb was used to punch people in the face.”

At the halfway mark, I recombined the students into two large groups, ensuring that at least one student from each small, category-specific group had a seat in each circle. With these miniature intersectional think tanks in place, I asked them to combine forces in order to think about ways in which the forms of oppression that they had discussed in their small groups might intersect with forms of oppression that others had discussed. Meanwhile, students at the Halo Station continued to play under Christopher’s guidance.

The Results: Halo Station

The Halo Station’s primary purpose was to function as an engaging, interactive metaphor for students to think about privilege, oppression and intersectionality. I wanted the Casual Halo: Reach players to experience the seductive privilege of triumphantly moving through space as obstacles practically eliminated themselves. And I wanted the Legendary Halo: CE players to tacitly feel the compounding effects of intersecting forms of oppression. Beyond this basic metaphor, however, the activity produced three notable teachable moments.

1) Carl was the first student to play Halo: Reach set to Casual. She wasn’t particularly skilled at Halo, but the challenge was so minimal that she was able to traipse lazily through the level, enjoying the scenery. Sometimes Carl would get swarmed by enemies but he almost never failed the level, except when he fell into the water because, as Carl put it, he thought that Master Chief could swim.

Cody, Ivan, Carl and Christopher at the Halo Station.

Cody, Ivan, Carl and Christopher at the Halo Station.

After a few minutes she tellingly revealed, “I’m bored.” Despite Carl’s relative inexperience with Halo, the level was so unchallenging that he felt like the game was simply handing her an undeserved victory. This moment of boredom relates to John Scalzi’s idea that playing a game on easy is akin to navigating the world as a “straight white male.” While the challenge of Halo on LASO proved to be too much for my students, the privilege of the Casual difficulty mode readily facilitated Carl’s carefree journey through the forest.

2) As Christopher funneled students through the LASO challenge, he heard frequent expressions of frustration. (“One student almost spiked my controller,” he reported to me later as we ferried my TV back to my apartment.) Some pairs of students tried repeatedly to clear the beach, failing every time. Eventually, Christopher had a difficult time recruiting new pairs of students to come play the LASO setup. As one pair reluctantly trudged to the front of the classroom after much poking and prodding, Matt cautioned them, “It doesn’t matter how good you are.” I used Matt’s warning as a teaching moment to explain how interlocking systems of oppression work: it often “doesn’t matter how good you are” (at your job, for example) because, if you are perceived as belonging to certain identity categories, you will be at an automatic disadvantage.

3) At one point, Caitlin, who had never played Halo before, was playing the Casual setup while Cody (reportedly the best Halo player in the room) and Rob attempted to clear the beach on LASO. Christopher and I stood back and watched their progress side by side. On the Casual setup, Caitlin was standing perfectly still, firing wildly into the air, hitting nothing, while seven grunts poured ammunition into her Master Chief. It wasn’t very fun for Caitlin but she was, at least, surviving.

Meanwhile, on the LASO setup, Cody and Rob could not defeat a group of two or three grunts. I asked the students to compare each other’s experiences. “What’s the problem?” I asked Cody and Rob, “Caitlin isn’t having any trouble staying alive and she’s fighting even more grunts than you.” This moment taught us that different people approach similar obstacles with certain preexisting advantages and disadvantages that radically alter the probability of their success.

From left to right: Caitlin, Laura, Rob and Chris at the Halo Station with a large discussion group in the background.

From left to right: Caitlin, Laura, Rob and Christopher at the Halo Station with a large discussion group in the background.

The Results: Discussion Group

In the two large discussion groups at the end of class, I asked my students to do some intersectional thinking about how the forms of oppression that they had discussed in their small groups might overlap and intersect.

One group combined the facts that 1) many states don’t have employment protections based on sexual orientation and 2) hiring practices tend discriminate against people of color. A gay or lesbian person of color, they realized, can be fired based on their sexual orientation and then have a more difficult time regaining employment than a white gay or lesbian person would when trying to find a job. I would compare this to the function of the “Black Eye” skull in Halo which, when activated, unfairly requires the player to melee an enemy in order to recharge their shields. With the “Black Eye” skull turned on, the player is faced with a nearly impossible challenge precisely when they are most vulnerable.

Students in an intersectional "think tank."

Students in an intersectional “think tank.”

Both groups honed in on the intersection of ability and class, noting that not everyone is able to afford the assistive devices and medical care that a person with a disability might require. One group noted that ability seems to be a particularly significant axis of oppression given that people with disabilities also face difficulties in the workplace that would be compounded by other factors such as sex, race, sexual orientation or gender identity.

I was impressed by my students’ intersectional thinking in these extemporaneous “think tanks.” Given that this was the first time many of them had performed an in-depth investigation of particular forms of oppression, I was amazed by the speed with which they stopped thinking beyond rigid identitarian divisions and started thinking intersectionally. Within the confines of a short, fifty-minute class, my students were already hypothesizing about the intersection of race and sexual orientation in hiring and firing practices and about the intersection of class and ability in purchasing assistive devices.


Because I was initially concerned about the complexity and effectiveness of this activity, I was relieved to receive positive feedback from my students. The Halo Station was a flashy way to grab my students’ attention, yes, but it also proved to be an effective tool for facilitating some intersectional thinking.

Sarah H. posing while playing Halo.

Sarah H. posing while playing Halo.

Sarah H. wrote:

“At first I wasn’t sure how Halo could relate to this concept of intersecting identities, especially since I had never played Halo before nor knew how the game worked… After seeing several of the other students play the game, it made me think more about the concept of intersectionality. For instance, it is much easier for a white, upper-class, straight man to move through the world and [he] is afforded multiple privileges that many others who do not fit into this mold run into on a daily basis.”

Sarah shared my initial trepidation about the activity but ultimately found Halo to be a useful thought experiment in elaborating a concept of intersectionality. Susan similarly reported that the activity “reminded [her] of the existence of numerous types of oppressions and how they interconnect.”

David used the activity as an opportunity to think about his own social location:

“As an upper middle-class white person, there are so many forms of oppression, which I may be aware of, but I have not really experienced myself. I felt the video game test …. [was] a really good metaphor for how some people’s lives are much easier or more difficult … on a daily basis. People who come from an ‘easy setting’ like an upper class straight white person, have little obstacles in their daily lives and are able to easily and smoothly go about their day-to-day activities. Those who are on a ‘difficult setting’ face so many obstacles like racism all the time.”

On a related note, Caitlin wrote that, taken as a whole, the week’s readings and activities on intersectionality “really made [her] step back and think about all of the things [she] take[s] for granted every day.” And conversely, Rebekah noted that by “observing [her] classmates playing Halo,” she realized that “the more oppressed one is the more one has to prove themselves.”

But perhaps I should conclude with an anecdote about my own participation in the activity: At the end of class, my pride got the better of me. I was confident I could clear the beach. I called on Cody, my Halo all-star, to be my partner. Because I’m an experienced Halo player and a LASO veteran, I was fairly confident that Cody and I could end the class on a triumphant note.

“Take it slow,” I advised. “And follow my lead.” We held back, hiding behind rocks, sniping grunts with our pistols and using grenades to wear down the Elites’ shields. Partway through, I got lucky and was able to melee a defenseless grunt in order to recharge my shields. We made it to the last two Elites and those students observing the action at the Halo Station excitedly told us we were almost there.

Then our pride became our downfall. “ We’ve got this,” I assured Cody and we rushed in. But Cody went down in the skirmish and, as I swooped in from the flanking position, I was summarily dispatched by an Elite. “It doesn’t matter how good you are.”

About Samantha Allen

Samantha Allen writes about gender, sexuality, and technology. She is currently a staff writer for The Daily Beast and holds a Ph.D. in Women's, Gender, And Sexuality Studies from Emory University. You can find her on the web or on Twitter.
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51 Responses to All Skulls On: Teaching Intersectionality through Halo

  1. prezzey says:

    This was really cool, and a great read too. Props to you!

  2. Alex says:

    This is so great! I loved your FPS post, and it’s so awesome that you were able to use it in your class. Thanks for writing about it here!

  3. CaitieCat says:

    This is really excellent, both to read and as a concept.

    I wonder whether Mass Effect 3 might be even better for this (I assume you know the following, I’m adding for readers who might not) – in that you can set up characters to be of widely differing appearances and colours, and either play as man or woman (only two options, so far, but it’s better than one). It’s a TPS, rather than an FPS, and the difficulty setting isn’t as flexible, but I think cheat codes could work similarly.

    • Are you thinking of using the Mass Effect 3 single-player mode or some sort of multiplayer setup?

      • CaitieCat says:

        Actually, it’s funny you asked that. I realized in discussion with a friend over lunch that while it has a visual improvement, the experience would work very differently, and I think much less well than the one you picked.

        Because there’s no “intersectional” way to add difficulty, it’d have to be sort of reversed, using cheat codes: the “easy” setting would be lowest difficulty, all cheat codes on, while the “hard” setting would be highest difficulty, no cheats.

        BUT, it’s very different to imply that the privileged setting is so because they’re using cheat codes (an active choice to make life easier), and that the less-priv setting is just hard, without any degrees of difficulty in it…I just don’t think it would work as well, because those dynamics are so different, whereas your own experiment more closely matched the reality of intersectionality.

        So, on further consideration, I withdraw my recommendation, and commend you even more for finding such a cool way to introduce (that’s for your wee troll infestation) the basic concepts of intersectionality. Brava, ma’am, bravissima. :)

        • Hahha! Thank you CaitieCat! There are some other games that have systems like this, though, that I could definitely use. Bastion comes to mind. Can you think of any others?

          • CaitieCat says:

            That’s a good question. I think I will post it on my LJ for a bit of a think.

            I know I’ve become a bit of a ME zealot since I played 2 and 3 (1 only just became available for PS3, my only console), just because of the sheer amazing wonderfulness of being able to play a badass killa who looks something like me! I don’t think I’d realized before how draining it was to always have to hear the wrong pronouns all through the game, or be represented by a man (I’m a trans woman, took the plunge off the priv ladder 20 years ago now). I *loved* (well, still love) GTAIV, loved the character of Niko and his complexity, his basic urge to be a decent bloke, but ME let me realize how the little psychic injuries of constantly being a man in a game world were really messing with my head.

            So, I’m still playing GTA, but I play a lot more in ME.

            Oh, also, randomly, Rockstar? FUCK YOU VERY MUCH for not fixing the RDR online so that we can use the small selection of women characters that even exist in the MP game (something like 7 out of more than a hundred – and all but two of them unavailable due to a game-killing glitch).

            • Let me know if you hear back from LJ. The more I think about it, the more Bastion would definitely work well for this. Because it’s a 2D game with simple controls, it might also be easier for non- video game players to pick it up in the span of 50 minutes.

          • A.Beth says:

            When I first read Scalzi’s article, my mind leaped to EverQuest (EQ classic, currently only available on the Mac server, Al’Kabor). The different races have explicit “this is an easy race/class combination” or “this is a hard race/class combination.” The game is full of factions; some races and classes have a lot of cities where they are welcome, and are fairly easy to play (class mechanics). Other races (like the reptilian Iksar) are hated by just about every other race (stupid mammals), and have factions within their own home-city — which means some Iksar merchants won’t even speak to an Iksar of the “wrong” class!

            Iksar are considered a Hard race to play, even if one picks a class with relatively easy mechanics and survivability.

            Bard is a hard class for a long time… Mind, it’s also the best class for killing things by screaming and running away. ;) (Intersectionality falls down, alas, as there are no Iksar Bards. Which is a shame, because I would totally play one. *facepalm* )

            Unfortunately, it tends to take several hours of play to get the nuances, so it probably wouldn’t work out at all well in a classroom setting. …But it’s what jumped to mind.

            • That’s a really awesome comparison. Thank you for pointing this out. I missed the MMO bandwagon the first time it came around so I’m afraid EQ is like a foreign language to me. Maybe one day in the Singularity, we can have a class in EQ.

  4. Jason says:

    This really allowed me to feel like I took the class (I’ve played a lot of HALO) and has given me a lot of think about. Thank you.

    One small thing: in Results 1) the gender switches from him to her for Carl. Intentional? The gender confusion caused me grief in sorting the meaning which was a lesson in and of itself.

  5. Kimiko says:

    Thanks for being a cool and good teacher :) I hope others will read this post and make use of it in their own classes.

  6. Sean says:

    Came here from Scalzi’s blog. Nice activity and write-up. I hope you keep using it to teach, as it sounds effective.

    One note: when you’re discussing Carl’s experience with Halo, you seem to be using the pronouns “he” and “she” interchangeably to refer to Carl. It makes the agency in the paragraph unclear.

  7. For those asking about Carl’s pronoun usage, Carl identifies as genderqueer/gender fluid and does not subscribe to a single set of pronouns.

    • Kimiko says:

      I figured as much. Someone of your expertise on the subject wouldn’t do that unintendedly :) Yay for confusing the cissexuals.

      • Carl expertly navigates the difficult waters of cisgender confusion and generously helped me select the appropriate pronouns for those two paragraphs. Thanks, Carl!

        • Greg says:

          A good friend of mine, in seventh grade, decided that English was in dire need of gender-neutral pronouns, and so created the following:
          “Se” (he or she)
          “Erm” (him or her)
          “Eirs” (His or hers).
          We couldn’t get them to catch on, unfortunately (or fortunately.) The egotistical part of me wonders if the trans community would find them useful…

          • I admire your friend’s creativity and initiative. I can’t say I’ve heard people use “se,” “erm,” and “eirs,” but in the trans* and gender-nonconforming community people have varying pronoun preferences.

            Some people use zi / hir / hirs, some people use they / their / theirs, other people want to shift between male and female. Those are the most common ones I’ve heard used.

  8. Frankie says:

    I actually work on the game in question, and I thought this was fascinating stuff.

  9. seebs says:

    I thought Scalzi’s post was pretty brilliant to begin with, but using it like this, with a hands-on experience? Inspired.

  10. Aaron says:

    Only in academia. These kids are paying hundreds of dollars in tuition to play Halo to learn about oppression. If you want to learn about privilege, try interacting with people who are less privileged than you, such as tutoring inner-city children. This upper white-class “teaching tool” is a mockery of the very the concept of what it means to live life with a “low difficulty setting.” Of course this lesson received “positive feedback” from students — it’s comfortable and easy to sit in a room messing around with a video game, talking about metaphors.

    • Aaron, while you’re a little terse, I definitely have spent some time thinking about your criticism. First, this is not the sole way that they are learning about oppression and privilege. My students have done substantial reading on the subject prior to this exercise. I’m not solely relying on Halo to teach them about the world. I do think it conveys a very particular lesson in a forceful way.

      I don’t want to reduce the experiences of oppression to the seeming silliness of a video game, hence the outside reading that they did. And yes, it’s a metaphor and it has all the limits of metaphor but metaphors are one of the tools that we use to learn.

      As for the tutoring comment, I can only say that I’m limited in what I can accomplish as an instructor. I can’t exactly take them to tutor schoolchildren within a 50-minute class period. Many of my students are involved in service efforts on campus and in Atlanta.

      Thanks for your critique.

    • prezzey says:

      I think everyone does experience oppression in one’s own life already, even the archetypal Straight White Cis American Abledude (if only by seeing other people being oppressed), so the issue is not to experience oppression but to be able to conceptualize it. Concepts like “intersectionality” sound very dry and “academic” in the wrong sense, and the goal is to make these concepts have staying power in people’s minds, the way they approach social issues, etc. (At least IMO, I’m not teaching this course!)

      I often write magazine articles about oppression (in Hungarian) and it is NOT trivially easy to come up with examples that people will find memorable and that will stay with them. Analogies across very different domains tend to have that elusive staying power, even if the mapping is not perfect in every respect.

      Not saying tutoring inner-city kids is wrong, obviously!

  11. ABE says:

    I came to your blog from John Scalzi’s blog, where he mentioned your creative use of his thought experiment.

    “the more oppressed one is the more one has to prove themselves.”


    “It doesn’t matter how good you are.”

    are unbelievably true.

    I would add to your arsenal (don’t know how to find it, but Google may help), a BBC documentary on the effects of stress. The research documented examined seven levels worth of ‘stressfulness’ in the British public service sector, from people at the top who were nice, genuine, loved their jobs, got lots of things done, etc., etc. to people who were on the lowest level, receiving all the stress, having no control over the content of their jobs or how they did them, no control over policy or work hours – with the (sadly predictable) result that those on top were extremely healthy individuals – and those on the bottom had multiple illnesses, lost work days, problems holding the job at all, etc., etc.

    Predictable, yes, but chilling to watch the interviews with the lucky/unlucky individuals.

    The ones one the bottom rungs were definitely living at the highest difficulty setting. Their LIVES were shorter.

    This was a result documentary, not an experiment like yours, showing the full effects in the workplace. I may try to find it again and watch for the other difficulty settings you’ve added, but the intersection effect was definitely there.

    The other thing this post reminded me of was the research done on mice hierarchy and stress that accompanies overcrowding, as the BBC ‘people at the top of the ladder’ had huge financial advantages which typically also resulted in much wider ‘territories’ and personal space both on and off the job.

    I see from the photos that many of your students are young, presumably healthy, white males. Good for them for taking this class.

    If you have time, and can continue this experiment (which is awesome – there, I just had to say it), there is a definite benefit to playing in levels where fewer skulls (?) are used: start easy; add one difficulty; then add another – you now have not only the single effects of the two, but the intersection effect.

    Your attempting to win LASO version was still a perfect ending.

    I am amazed you did this in one 50-minute class period. Simply amazed.

    • Thanks for your comment! The class period following this one they watched a documentary about increased infant mortality rates among African-American women based on the stresses of racism. This reminds me of your recommendation.

      In this case, the stresses of racism can override other factors like socioeconomic status.

      Thanks also for your suggestion. I asked my students what they would change about the activity and they, too, suggested that I incrementally increase the difficulty and more thoroughly demonstrate the intersecting effects. Next semester I’ll be teaching Monday and Wednesday instead of Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The classes will be longer and I can make this activity a little more elaborate.

      Thanks for your feedback and your recommendation.

      • Cordate says:

        There’s been some recent research that finds that stress at young ages alters gene expression as well, causing not only changes in health but in behavior. Here’s one such paper: Methylation’s turning out to be a lot more complex than previously thought and there’s some interesting hints turning up lately that some epigenetic information can even be passed on to an organism’s offspring.

  12. Gilmoure says:

    Very cool! John Scalzi’s article opened my eyes to this and now he’s linked over to here. Cool!

  13. Larry Clapp says:

    Also came here from Scalzi’s blog. Neat article, neat activity.

    Carl’s choice of pronouns confused me too; thanks for clearing it up.

    This may be straying into “teaching your grandmother to suck eggs” territory, but, are you familiar with Hofstadter’s A Coffeehouse Conversation on the Turing Test?

    • I haven’t read that before but my first publication (forthcoming from Feminist Theory in *sigh* a year) centers on the Turing Test, so I’ll be sure to check it out sometime!

  14. Patrick Haggood says:

    Herman Cain’s daughter and the fellow from N. Dakota each is in his/her own vehicle which runs a stop light, races away from the police car and smashes into a wall. Which car ends up riddled with bullets?

  15. Larry Clapp says:

    Yes, the confessedly imperfect analogy is, indeed, imperfect, both in Scalzi’s essay and in the Halo game.

    And besides, “it’s certainly possible someone playing at a higher difficulty setting is progressing more quickly than you are, because they had more points initially given to them by the computer and/or their highest stats are wealth, intelligence and constitution and/or simply because they play the game better than you do. It doesn’t change the fact you are still playing on the lowest difficulty setting.”

    how do you compare the opportunities of a rich black woman with those of a poor white man

    I suppose by trying to control for the relevant variables. Give the former the perks of being straight and rich, and the anti-perks (is that a word?) of being black and female. Give the latter the perks of being straight and white and male, and the anti-perks of being poor.

    And finally … do you have an axe to grind with John, or an axe to grind with Samantha? Now, to be sure, there’s nothing wrong with honest criticism, but I guess I’d hope for something more constructive than “there’s a flaw”. We’re comparing real life to a first person shooter here, after all.

    p.s. My kingdom for a “preview comment” button! :(

    • Pandora Eve says:

      Technically, he doesn’t have an ax to grind with either of them, but he is very well-known in the science fiction blogosphere for being like this. He seems to have gotten himself blocked from about every SJ blog in existence for this sort of thing.
      This is why I had a mini-freakout when I saw his name in the recent comment section.

      • Hi Will, I don’t have time to get caught up in a long discussion, but I definitely want to key you into our discussion policy which you can find at the top of our home page.

        Most spaces on the internet are not friendly to feminists and so you should be aware that our careful moderation here is necessary to maintain the safety and the integrity of the space. Open, unfortunately, does not always mean safe.

        But also per our discussion policy, I welcome your spirited disagreement. It seems like class is your main area of focus and I respect that level of attention.

        I also don’t think it’s fair to dismiss the effects of racism as being minimal compared to class difference. For instance, please see the documentary I linked to above which shows that upper class African-American women still suffer increased rates of infant mortality based on the bodily impact of the daily stresses of racism.

        You’re running the risk of playing what we call “Oppression Olympics” (see Discussion Policy) where you argue that one particular form of oppression trumps them all. No one has any interest in playing that game; intersectional analysis includes class and doesn’t need to turn into a “race to the bottom.” In my article, I never claimed that any group as a totality unilaterally has it worse than any other group, I simply gestured towards some particular intersectional nodes of comparison.

        • I believe Will’s last comment (a reply to this one) was definitely continuing along the “Oppression Olympics” road that I explicitly noted was against our Discussion Policy. I didn’t make the decision to remove his comments from this section but I definitely support the wise higher-up who came along and made that judgment call.

          • Alex says:

            Shetterly is notorious for this exact thing all over the internet: playing Oppression Olympics, saying class is the only issue that really matters, making ignorant comments about racism, etc. Thank you to you and to our readers and commenters for your patience while we dealt with him.

    • Larry Clapp says:

      I think it’s too simplistic to say the game or the easy setting as if there’s only one. There are many ways to be oppressed, and many ways to be disadvantaged. To me, to say “the game is capitalism” implicitly ignores or at minimum inappropriately downplays other dimensions of oppression.

      Again, control variables. For a given level of wealth, who will have an easier, less oppressed life, black or white? For a given wealth and race, who will have an easier, less oppressed life, man or woman? For a given wealth, race, and gender, who will have an easier, less oppressed life, the person in the wheelchair or the one not? For a given level of whatever (hah), who will have an easier, less oppressed life, the neurotypical cis or the transgendered autistic?

      Your point seems to be that in the US, the dominant factor is wealth. Okay, so? That hardly means that other factors are irrelevant. And it certainly doesn’t mean that you can’t use a good metaphor to try to teach wealthy people how their lives look from the point of view of non-wealthy.

  16. Cody Lestelle says:

    Interesting piece, although I would like to see some analysis as to what it means for college students to play as the “Master Chief” in a war against aliens while working for the US military in order to learn about oppression. The whole idea of the skulls in Halo being used to teach intersectionality(1) certainly makes some degree of sense as a metaphor for conveying the concept. But without some critical reflection on the role of the academy and the military-industrial complex in creating and maintaining oppression, this exercise seems to be rather moot.

    The dream of ‘social mobility’, held as a scarce resource by the academy, is used as a tool to convince people to join the military.(2) People either join the military and/or acquire a bunch of student debt in the process of getting a degree. Once they have a degree, the options for employment are increasingly limited to companies complicit in colonial wars against the planet and peoples.(3) All the while, the military uses technologies pioneered by Halo and X-Box live in order to have people pilot drones (through a video-game like interface) to drop bombs on (real) people outside the US in order to take their ‘resources’ and bring them back to the universities and the military-industrial complex to power the infrastructure and for further research on War and Control.(4) If students learning about intersectionality and oppression in universities do not present a sufficient challenge to the colonial wars against the planet and peoples, there is little point in studying oppression and intersectionality beyond self-satisfaction/distraction and the creation of more highly refined colonial subjects/colonizers.

    1) For an expansion on Crenshaw’s conception of Intersectionality, see chapter 1 of Andrea Smith’s “Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide” @

    2) See “The Economic Draft” @ and “The Debt Resistors Operations Manual” @

    3) For a briefing on the operations of major transnational corporations and their role in wars see the 3 part documentary film”The Power Principle”@ and read “How the Militarized War on Drugs in Latin America Benefits Transnational Corporations and Undermines Democracy ” @
    To see who is currently hiring, see

    4) On the use of drones see “Rise of the Drones” at
    -On war for resources, in addition to the above sources, see “Afghanistan: The Endless War for Resources” @ ;
    -On universities and research for war, see: “The Demarest Factor: US Military Mapping of indigenous communities in Oaxaca, Mexico (Documentary film 55 minutes)”at
    AND read “Research Universities: Core of the US science and technology system”@
    AND see …David Price: “The CIA Is Welcoming Itself Back onto American University Campuses”@
    AND see “Secrets of the CIA Full Documentary”@

    • Hi Cody, Thanks for your comment and your list of resources in case others are interested in your line of thinking.

      I think we can have a debate about whether my use of Halo is complicit with US militarization or whether it’s a subversive use of Halo that cleverly runs athwart those possible alliances. I selfishly would like to believe it’s the latter.

    • Alex G says:

      While I haven’t played that much Halo, I believe that Master Chief owes his allegiance to the United Nations not the United States (UNSC is United Nations Space Command).

  17. Ginny says:

    The exercise does not ignore class. Do the readings. Or, heck, the article.

  18. SMD says:

    This is incredible. While I’ll probably never have the opportunity to do something like this with a game (I’m unlikely to teach a course similar to yours — sadface), it inspires me to consider new ways to use video games and the like to teach all kinds of things. I’ve used E.V.E. Online to explore digital communities, but that wasn’t as a metaphor (obviously).

    Thanks for this. You rock!

  19. Adam Lipkin says:

    As a gamer and an Emory alum (’94C, English), the existence of a course like this makes me extra happy. Thank you.

  20. namelesschaos says:

    Thank you so much for this post. I love, love this idea and love that instructors like you exist.

    To explain why I love this post so much a little background about myself I have two degrees two my name. The first was in dietetics in nutrition ,a degree that focused a lot on how to communicate to lay people,…and Women’s Studies ,a degree that most definitively did not. One of my biggest frustrations I’ve experienced in the second degree is that lack of any focus on how to explain these concepts to people whoa aren’t fellow gender/sexuality students. Others in my class have expressed the same concern how are we supposed to make a dent in the world if all this program taught us is how to sit in a room talking with other like minded people.

    Which finally leads me back to why I so love this idea. This is the type of thing that can gets lay peoples attention. This is the type of thing that builds bridge with an audience; too many academic’s give presentation in ways that seem intentionally designed to build a wall. This is the type of creative thinking that I had in first degree ,that I thank God gave me transferable skills to be able to speak to lay people, that I so missed in second.

    This is the type of creative approach that wouldn’t leave me and so many of frighting off disillusioned about ever being able to make a dent outside the aforementioned room filled of like minded people. Obtuse theoretical jargon is unlikely to make a dent outside the room of like-mindedness but “Skulls” this, this might make that a little dent.

    Thank you again, (and extra thank you if you actually read this rambling mess of a thank you post)

    • Thanks for your comment! One of the things that’s been frustrating in the more critical responses to this article (not yours, to clarify) is the idea that I’m wasting my students’ time. This was a supplement to a traditional lecture on intersectionality and a whole lot of reading on the subject.

      The purpose of the activity was, as you pointed out, to catch their attention, to build some bridges and to give them a point of entry into further feminist conversations. One of my teacherly fantasies is for my students to have conversations with their friends about intersectionality and feminism the next time they’re playing Halo with their friends or they’re at a party where someone is playing Halo.

      “Intersectionality? What’s that?”And then the activity continues!

      • Jason says:

        Well I think you’ve achieved that at least with me. It’s given me the opportunity to try to discuss it with people (wife, sister, friends). This example is easy to relate to and a good entry into having conversations about the consequences of those ideas as they relate to our real world situations.

        It’s given me the opportunity to begin to hear people’s stories and think about how to be a more positive influence.

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  23. David says:

    I’m another one who got here via Scalzi’s blog. I read his original SWM:Easy Mode post, and found it an interesting metaphor, but it wasn’t until I read you post here that I felt I really understood it at an emotional level (as a SWM myself). It was the bits about the *frustration* felt by your class members, when they being repeatedly beaten on the Legendary mode, that reminded me of all the times I’ve played games that kicked the crap out of me, and sense of how the game was playing in a way that just wasn’t *fair*. The bit about how it didn’t matter how good you were, you were still getting your ass kicked, also resonated particularly well.

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