Life’s ‘Lowest Difficulty Setting’: John Scalzi Explains Privilege to Nerds

Science fiction can be a tool for social justice -- or it can sneak the status quo back in. John Scalzi talks about holding other straight white dudes accountable, and how his genre is evolving.

By Channing Kennedy May 18, 2012

Nerd culture — sci-fi and fantasy novels, movies, comic books, video games, conventions, and so on — has a complicated relationship with social justice. In some ways, speculative fiction is an ideal tool for social criticism, both through harsh analogy and through subtler representation. (Think Lt. Uhura on Star Trek.) And in other ways, that sky’s-the-limit potential for sociological juxtaposition is hamstrung by the same straight-white-male status quo that appears everywhere else. (Think Lt. Uhura’s glorified receptionist job on Star Trek.)

So it’s no surprise that for the past few days, a quickie blog post by sci-fi author John Scalzi, "Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is," has been blowing up the nerdier parts of the Internet. Scalzi, a straight white dude who lives in Ohio with his wife, daughter, and shelf full of book awards, proposes a deep-running video game metaphor to sugar the concept of "privilege," a term that regularly inspires recoil and horror in the people it describes. Says Scalzi to his fellow straight white men:

[…] 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.

You can lose playing on the lowest difficulty setting. The lowest difficulty setting is still the easiest setting to win on. The player who plays on the "Gay Minority Female" setting? Hardcore.

Within a day, the post garnered 800 comments before Scalzi closed the thread, along with thousands of Facebook and Twitter shares; it’s also inspired any number of constructive, solutions-oriented conversations (and some otherwise). The post’s direct outreach to straight while male nerds would be poignant at any time — but to put things in perspective, the other big video game/social justice story this week has been a major comics-and-news site’s belligerent unflagging support of a game about tentacle rape.

While it remains to be seen if the "easy setting" analogy will appear alongside the Invisible Knapsack in Social Justice 101 curriculums, Scalzi’s position as a straight white guy has enabled him to reach people who’d never take that class in the first place. A former newspaper reporter, Scalzi answered my request for an interview almost immediately, and we talked by phone as he ran to a hotel.

What motivated you to write this piece? Was it just part of your daily blogging initiative, or did you have some secret agenda?

It’s really one of those things that just sort of happened. I was reading an article on, "The 8 Stupidest Defenses Against Accusations of Sexism," and it mentioned that "being a straight male is tremendous fun and sexuality’s lowest difficulty setting," that it’s not particularly difficult and nobody gives you any crap for it. And I thought, that’s actually a pretty astute way of saying that, because it spoke to an entire generation of people who play video games. The only problem was that it was a bit too limiting. You could expand it beyond sexuality; being a man is a low difficulty setting, being straight is a low difficulty setting, and in our culture, being white is a low difficulty setting. Put those three together, and you have a really, really low difficulty setting for getting through life. Now, that setting doesn’t mean that life isn’t difficult. It means that all things being equal, you’ve got a better chance of getting things done.

I’ve participated in discussions on privilege before, and when you say "privilege" in front of straight white men who’ve never used the word before, they don’t really get the concept. So, "lowest difficulty setting" seemed to be a good metaphor for it.

Absolutely! And evidenced by the number of people it’s pissed off, it seems pretty legitimately effective.

[laughs] Well, like I’ve told people, the post got 800 comments and 100,000 pageviews. So we’re only seeing less than one out of a hundred people responding on the article. So for every person on there feigning outrage, there’s a hundred just reading it as food for thought. Not everyone’s going to come away from it convinced of the argument, and that’s fine. But what’s going on in a comment thread isn’t indicative of what’s happening when people read the article.

Though you’ve talked about class before on your blog, you left it out of this post. That made sense to me – you can’t talk about race and gender without implicitly pulling in money. But the argument that "class trumps race" is a common one in the argument against "privilege." Why did you decide to let it pass here?

You’re asking about why I addressed wealth as a ‘stat,’ rather than as a fundamental difficulty setting? Well, money is in many ways a great equalizer, and class and wealth need to be discussed. But when we talk about fundamental attributes that you’re born with – race, gender, and sexuality – a lot of money can overcome some of that, but at the end of the day, those three things still have to be dealt with. I don’t want to discount class and wealth, especially as someone who grew up poor and who’s gone full circle. But sometimes, when people talk about wealth, they’re doing it to obscure the fact that America still does have a problem with race, gender, and sexuality. They’re trying to shift the conversation to something they feel more comfortable with, as opposed to confronting the facts.

This video game metaphor speaks to a pretty specific subculture. As a science fiction author, do you think there’s something in nerd culture that fundamentally impacts how nerds perceive oppression? For example, some straight white male nerds feel that they’ve experienced oppression because they got picked on as kids for liking Dungeons & Dragons, and this narrative ends up insulating them and keeping them from seeking out a deeper understanding, or from legitimizing others’ experiences. At the same time, science fiction itself has a wonderful utility as a social justice tool; I always go back to Dr. King asking Nichelle Nichols not to leave her role as Lt. Uhura on Star Trek, because of the role model she was for young black women.

Well, nerds, geeks, dorks, all those people – my tribe, if you will – there’s a potential for understanding there, because they’ve had the experience of being an outsider. The flipside of that is this idea that all oppression is equal oppression. So there’s a fine line to tread here, to tell people "you can understand some of this but there’s some of it that you’re not going to get, that you haven’t felt." The door’s open to understanding, but there’s more to it than just that.

The reaction you see in the comment threads is a part of that – "well, I didn’t have it easy, I was pushed around too, I’ve had bad things happen in my life, and I don’t know what you’re talking about with other people getting a higher difficulty setting." And the response to that has to be subtle. The metaphor of "difficulty settings" is very facile, but for someone who has a lot of real issues they face every day, they can certainly feel like this doesn’t relate to what’s going on in their lives. Moving that to a broader cultural frame is a difficult conversation. There’s a chance for empathy, and a chance for pushback, and a lot of that depends on the individual. Which is true if you’re talking about nerds or other folks.

How does social justice appear in your own writing?

That’s an interesting question; I don’t know if it does in any sense other than that in the universes I create, I make an effort for them not to be just White People In Space – to show the representation in the future that I see in the world right now. I hesitate to say that that leads to social justice, other than not adding to the problem, you know what I’m saying?

I can’t say that I’ve consciously made the decision to talk about issues of social justice in my writing. But my writing reflects who I am, and my belief is that the world of the future is going to mirror and extend upon the world of the present. There are going to be things that are controversial now that will be taken for granted in the future. I wrote a short story, "An Election," where a character is having a conversation with his husband about running for city council. The story doesn’t make a big deal out of the fact that this is a man married to a man – nobody in this world is going to think about it directly. Does that equate to social justice? No, because it’s background rather than foreground. In the sense of not denying that it’s there, though; maybe that is something.

But isn’t that one of the primary powers of science fiction as a genre — the power of speculative representation?

Well, by imagining how things will be, you can get people used to that possibility. It’s also the case that you just default to using the world people already know and are comfortable with and not try to rock the boat, because you’re trying to sell stuff now and you don’t want to freak people out. It’s a matter of what you decide to do as a writer. Science fiction isn’t any different from other genres in that it comes down to who the writer as as an individual; they can be a force for good or a force for change or a force for the status quo. There’s no particular right or wrong way to do it, but the choices they make do make a difference.

This interview has been condensed and edited.