If you’re a Border House regular, you know that last semester I taught my students about the feminist theory of intersectionality using Halo. Intersectionality is the theory that systems of oppression like racism, sexism, classism, ableism, homophobia and transphobia interact and overlap, compounding each other’s effects in unique ways. If you think about each of these systems separately, you’ll miss forms of oppression that folks experience at particular intersections of identity.
A few examples? Imagine being a gay, lesbian or bisexual person with a disability in the United States and not being able to marry your same-sex partner in order to receive essential health benefits. Imagine being fired for coming out as transgender (which is still legal in thirty-three states) and not having the resources to survive because you are working class. Imagine being an African-American woman shopping for a sharp business suit in order to counteract hiring prejudice and getting followed by security at the department store.
If you’re just thinking about any single system of oppression, you won’t be able to understand any of the above experiences. And you can’t just add systems like racism and sexism together, either. Intersectionality isn’t additive; it’s multiplicative. If you want to practice an intersectional politics, you have to focus on the ways in which all systems of oppression interact with each other.
Video games are uniquely equipped to teach students about oppression because they are likewise composed of interacting systems, systems that can often be challenging and unforgiving. As Ian Bogost notes in a recent blog post, games might be “the best medium for expressing certain things—say, the operation and experience of systems.” But most games don’t allow you to alter the behavior of individual game systems to a truly intersectional level of detail.
That’s where a game like Bastion comes in. Like Halo, Bastion has a set of elective difficulty modifiers that affect the behavior of individual game systems. In Halo, they’re called skulls; in Bastion, they’re called idols. The idols in Bastion can serve as metaphors for individual systems of oppression. Activating any one idol certainly makes game more difficult; activating more than one idol, however, further complicates that difficulty because the idols’ effects interact with each other in unique ways.
For reference, here’s a list of idols and their effects:
- Hensei: Increases the enemies’ attack damage.
- Acobi: Defeated enemies drop a bouncing spark that explodes.
- Lemaign: Slows the player’s movement speed after successfully hitting an enemy.
- Pyth: Increases the enemies’ movement and attack speed.
- Jevel: Increases the enemies’ armor.
- Yudrig: Touching the enemies deals extra damage to the player.
- Roathus: Enemies do not ever drop healing potions.
- Micia: Enemies regenerate health.
- Olak: Enemies randomly become translucent and immune to damage.
- Garmuth: Enemies randomly deflect the player’s attacks.
In order to metaphorically model the intersectionality of oppression, I invited my students to Emory’s Center for Interactive Teaching to play through an hour and fifteen minutes of Bastion. Here’s what happened:
Each student played through the tutorial level in Score Attack mode and built a Shrine when they first arrived at the Bastion. That’s when the fun began. Using my favorite random number spinner, I assigned each student a different configuration of idols to activate using the table below:
After activating the idols, my students continued playing through the game and recorded their feelings and experiences on a worksheet that I provided.
Most of my students were unable to weather the transition from playing without idols in the tutorial level to playing with idols in the main game. They described the experience as “frustrating,” “infuriating,” “confusing” and “impossible.” Philippe reported that he “almost threw [his] mouse,” adding that even a typical class session would be “far more enjoyable.”
My students also took note of the effects of each of the idols and occasionally perceived the ways in which the idols’ effects can overlap. Cameron (who had Roathus and Micia activated) could not obtain health tonics from defeated enemies (Roathus) and, as such, had to play more cautiously, shooting his enemies from a distance. But because he had Micia activated as well, “their health regenerated more quickly than [he] could shoot them.”
Isabelle honed in on the intersection of Pyth and Olak, observing that she would run out of health long before she could chase down ultra-fast enemies (Pyth) who would “randomly be immune to [her] hits” (Olak). And Renée noticed that, with both Lemaign and Pyth active, she was “at a disadvantage if there was more than one enemy present because it took time [for her] to regain speed but enemies were faster.” I encouraged my students to notice that their own idiosyncratic configuration of idols produced unique effects, just as particular forms of oppression are unique to certain intersectional identities.
But some students could not begin to parse out the effects of the idols. Alex rolled a two on the random number spinner which meant that she received the dubious honor of having all the idols activated. “I honestly can’t tell what is doing what because they’re all activated,” she said. She felt utterly defeated. The scribbling on her worksheet captured her growing frustration:
Alex’s experience demonstrates the potential hopelessness of being multiply oppressed. If you are a transgender woman of color, for instance, you might not know whether people are mistreating you because they are racist or because they are sexist or because they are transphobic. The answer could be any or all of the above. You might not be able to tell “what is doing what.”
As my student Abigail wrote, “With this combination of [multiple] idols, it just felt like I couldn’t win.” Hillary agreed: “Any one of these idols working against me would be hard but having so many has made it truly a challenge to survive.” Folks who are multiply oppressed are often made to feel precisely this way: like they can’t win and, sometimes, like they can’t even survive.
In contrast to Alex, Abigail, and Hillary, my student Anthea had a relatively smooth experience with Bastion. She rolled a lucky number one and therefore did not have to activate any of the idols. She reported that she “recover[ed] very quickly after attacks” and was “often offered more spirits [and] health.”
I should note, however, that not all students were able to take advantage of their positions of privilege. Elim felt as if she were “genuinely terrible” at Bastion but she was still able to recognize that “the monsters were dying whenever [she] successfully hit them” with the hammer. “[If] I had any video game skill,” she said, “the game would have been pretty easy.” As John Scalzi notes in a post on Kotaku, it is certainly possible—in life as in video games—to lose when playing on the lowest setting; it’s just harder to lose when there are fewer obstacles.
Overall, the Bastion activity was a little unwieldy to manage but it still successfully communicated a lesson about intersectional oppression in an engaging fashion. But there’s still a lingering question: Why did I make the change from Halo last semester to Bastion this semester? For one, I listened carefully to critiques of the Halo activity both in Border House comments (see especially this comment on Halo‘s militarism) and elsewhere (see especially Chauncey DeVega’s post on WAREN). Thematically speaking, Bastion is more palatable than Halo within a feminist classroom.
But Bastion is also a much more accessible game. It can be played on virtually any platform (and it can even run in the Chrome web browser). I’ve also found that it’s much easier for students with no prior gaming experience to learn how to play a top-down video game as opposed to a first-person video game. Bastion‘s accessibility also allowed me to better illustrate my point. During my Halo activity, only a handful of students could participate at any given time, playing on two XBox 360s with just two different configurations of skulls. I simply did not have access to more systems and televisions. During my Bastion activity, however, almost all of my students could play at once in a standard university computer lab, each with their own configuration of idols.
I’d invite other instructors to replicate this activity in their own classrooms and I’d certainly recommend it over my Halo activity for all of the reasons listed above. If you’re looking for a memorable way to teach a lesson on intersectionality, take your students to the Bastion and invoke the wrath of the gods.