For the last couple years, my entertainment obsession has been skewing toward watching people play D&D on the interwebs. I’ve never played D&D, or any table-top role-playing games, really, because I’m basically a hermit and have no friends that I really want to spend hours with every week. Or the desire to commit to such a schedule, actually (where I have no problem arranging my life around watching other people do it, apparently).
I was also thinking about a smallish meltdown I saw recently, of a smallish kid playing a game, something not going quite her way and her crying ‘no fair’. I’ve actually seen this kind of thing with kids. I’m fine with being upset when things don’t go your way. I have a little trouble with ‘no fair’. Which I realize to kid’s doesn’t mean ‘the game is stacked against me’ so much as ‘this didn’t go the way I wanted’. Which got me started thinking about how you talk to kids about fairness, and empathy, and luck, and so on, and it came into the back of my head that I know there are people using D&D to teach and practice this kind of thing, especially with socially vulnerable kids, with ASD and so on.
But that got me thinking about other exchanges I’ve seen recently, about race and racism, wealth inequality, and all kinds of social ills, and that got me thinking about privilege. And D&D provides a nice little analogy that I’m working out and am going to try to share here.
In D&D, your player-character has some base statistics: Strength, Constitution, Charisma, Intelligence, and so on. At the start of the game you ‘roll’ you character, using dice to set up your base statistics. So you roll a bunch of numbers and can distribute them among your statistics. My character is a fighter so needs a ton of strength and constitution, so I’ll use my top two rolls for those stats, she needs less wisdom or charisma, so I’ll use the bottom stats for those. And so on. A stat of 10 or 11 is ‘average for a human character’. The stats govern a bunch of skills, like ‘athletics’ and ‘persuasion’. If you have high strength, you get a bonus to ‘athletics checks’—in the game, you have to lift a boulder, or hold back a horde, or whatever, and you have to roll a die to see if you succeed or not, against some attribute or roll of your ‘opponent’. So let’s say you’re arm wrestling in a bar against another character. You roll a 9 but your high Strength stat gives you a +3 bonus to that for a ‘check’ of 12. Your opponent rolls an 12, but their low Strength gives them a -2 penalty to their check, so they have 10. You win. But they might have rolled a 16, so even with their penalty and your superior Strength, they’d have won.
Certain ‘races’ (aha!), which in the D&D context and ‘human’ and ‘dwarf’ and ‘elf’ and so on, and ‘classes’, which are ‘fighter’ and ‘thief’ and ‘wizard’ and so forth, have additional bonuses or penalties to certain kinds of checks, and certain items, spells and so on impose bonuses and penalties as well. So, making stuff up because I don’t know D&D that well really, a dwarf might have a bonus to Strength-based checks, where an elf might have a penalty. A warrior might have a bonus to Strength-based attacks, but a goblin might have a penalty. Plus or minus whatever their base rolled statistics provide them.
In D&D it is totally clear that some races, classes, or holding certain items or positions in society, come with certain advantages or disadvantages. There’s also a game mechanic called ‘advantage’ (or ‘disadvantage’) that requires you to sometimes roll twice, and take the higher (or lower) roll for your check. This is imposed by conditions (“you’ve been hit with a blindness spell, roll for attack with disadvantage”, “you are on your favored terrain, roll an acrobatics check with advantage” etc.
And no one is particularly disturbed when someone with an intrinsic disadvantage (e.g. a low charisma score) nonetheless gets ‘advantage’ on a charisma check because their opponent is drunk or something. And certainly no one is miffed if they roll high enough to just pass the check, with or without their individual bonuses or disadvantages. Because that’s The Game.
So here’s where the privilege thing comes in. Sometimes in Real Life™, people for whatever reason have bonuses or penalties. Not a lot they can do about it. Tall people have an advantage (for a lot of things) over short people. Strong people over weak people. Healthy people over sick people. Rich people over poor people. And yes, that’s just The Game. But think about this. Sometimes people have advantage or disadvantage, not because of their own stats or skills, or others, but just because of who they are.
So imagine you’re a sick person trying to get health insurance. You can’t help being sick, but it’s going to cost you more than a healthy person. That’s The Game. (We can argue about The Game and its rules, but this is what we have.) But in the interest of Fairness™, maybe we want everyone to have better health care, which means getting more people insurance. So maybe in game, to keep everyone alive, we create a system where anyone who rolls below 6 on a health check gets another roll. They get advantage.
Is that giving them an unfair advantage over healthy people? Is this taking anything away from healthy people? Is this making it harder for healthy people? Or is it just addressing an intrinsic imbalance in the system for the benefit of everyone (since presumably not having to lug around a dead body in your party, or having to stop in the middle of every fight to waste healing spells and potions on them is in everybody’s interest)?
Female Humans® may be at a disadvantage for, for instance, salary rolls. They may have to do more (roll higher) to compensate, relative to Male Humans®. Is this The Way Things Are™? Maybe. Is this fair? Probably not.
Humans of Color™ may be at an intrinsic disadvantage, having to roll higher to avoid Suspicion™, Confrontation™, and Brutality™. Is it fair? Is it right? No. So if we address it, are we penalizing anyone? Are we providing an unfair advantage, or are we attempting to address an intrinsic imbalance?
Humans of Ambiguous Gender and Color® may be particularly vulnerable to all sorts of things for all sorts of stupid reasons.
This is not to say that individually, one may not have an astronomically high Charisma or Strength stat, or happen to roll high a bunch of times in a row. But that doesn’t mean that they (and anyone else in their Class) didn’t start out with, or continue to experience, a disadvantage or an intrinsic penalty.
So don’t point at the disadvantaged person who happened to roll two 20s on a check and say ‘well, obviously this Class of people don’t need and don’t deserve a small bonus ‘because’ it means it puts you at a disadvantage. It doesn’t. It just means your advantage isn’t as meaningful as it might be.
And people Don’t Like It™ when privileges they are used to having Just Because®, or maybe have never even thought about, are called into question. But they may get up in arms if a disadvantage someone else experiences all the time gets redressed.
Which is just silly.