“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.
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!”
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.”