The Straight White Male & RPGs: An Expansion Including Candy Land

John Scalzi’s post Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is, in which he compares life to a role playing game is a nearly perfect metaphor:

In the role playing game known as The Real World, “Straight White Male” is the lowest difficulty setting there is.

This means that the default behaviors for almost all the non-player characters in the game are easier on you than they would be otherwise. The default barriers for completions of quests are lower. Your leveling-up thresholds come more quickly. You automatically gain entry to some parts of the map that others have to work for. The game is easier to play, automatically, and when you need help, by default it’s easier to get.

He goes on to talk about the number of points you are given at the start, and how the way you apportion them will affect your results. Nearly perfect metaphor. It will stick with me for a long time, and I haven’t played an RPG since about 1991.

And I’ve thought of a way to extend that metaphor to even more usefulness. Today I was listening to episode 4 of Slate’s negotiation academy podcast, and they were talking to Dr. Richard Haass, a guy who had been involved in some of the biggest and most important negotiations of modern times, such as those between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. As he was discussing negotiations he brokered between Arabs and Israelis, I realized that he went into it having completely lost his qualitative sense of who these two groups of people were.

What I mean is this. When you think about Israelis, or about a specific Israeli, or about Arabs or a specific Arab, you most likely get a feeling in your gut about that person based on everything you know of their culture, food, religion, clothing, history, everything. That feeling could be positive or negative, and your reaction to that feeling could be positive or negative as well. For example, if your gut is giving you bad thoughts about an Arab, you still might have the presence of mind to override that gut feeling. And further, the way you act on that may be to overcompensate, or compensate perfectly, or do nothing.

That’s qualitative. You see an Arab or hear the word “Arab”, and you have a feeling about him or her. What Dr. Haass did in the negotiation situation was to attempt to have no qualitative response at all. Instead, he just saw the Arabs and Israelis as having particular competing interests, particular histories, particular economic situations, etc. These factors may all sound qualitative, but the video game analogy helps provide a mental crutch for removing the qualitative aspect, for suppressing your gut reaction to the word “Arab” or “Israeli”. It allows you to see (or at least attempt to see) another person not as Arab or Israeli, or black or white, but as a human blank slate to which has been added quantifiable characteristics.

To be sure, I’m not advocating that this is the way everyone should regard each other, all the time. Engaging our intuition and qualitative feelings is an important part of human interactions, and an essential part of the kinds of relationships most of us want, friendships and loves. What I’m saying is, the quantitative approach can be a useful tool, both for use in specific cases and interactions, and in thought experiments aiming to change your general paradigm.

For me personally, mention “Arab” or “Israeli”, and I immediately am awash in feelings and judgments. And closer to home, as much as I want to be neutral and want to fight for social justice, I know that when I see a black person I get certain qualitative feelings welling up inside me, based on direct friendships I’ve had with black Americans, based on my lifetime of experiences with the African-American culture through person-to-person contact and the media, based on all the thinking and philosophizing I’ve read and done, based on conflicts I’ve been in, and likely based on other factors I haven’t thought about. Some of the associations are positive, some of them are negative. And what I choose to do with these associations is constantly evolving, and again is sometimes positive (which I of course strive for) and sometimes negative (which I of course strive to weed out).

What the video game analogy does is allow us to put all of those qualitative things aside, and instead give everyone the same blank human-shaped slate, and then characterize that slate with numbers. Or, more accurately, with “numbers”, since you won’t actually be assigning specific numbers to any specific characteristics. You will just be thinking in terms of reducing all characteristics to those that could be assigned numbers. So for example, in this model, there are no numbers for “black” or “white”, because those are qualitative. But there might be a number for degree of marginalization of a person’s culture, and another number for degree to which the person can be recognized as coming from that culture. Or maybe you can reduce these characteristics to things even more fundamental than those. I won’t even begin to try to provide a list of characteristics that could be reduced in this way.

In the game Candy Land, there are six colors and six kinds of tasty treats that stand in for numbers of spaces moved. This analogy might not work as well if you never loved Candy Land as a kid, but when I was five I very specifically remember getting caught up in the game. The colors and especially the treats all fired my imagination, even though they were all just stand-ins for simple numerical values, spaces on the board that were closer or further away from the goal. I love numbers and analytics and can be quite competitive, and part of my excitement in the game was indeed in getting the largest numerical jump forward possible, but if the cards had just shown numbers they never would have gotten me into the game the way the colors and treats did. The fact that the candy cane and the gum drop were the least desirable of the candy spaces and the fantasmagoric neopolitan ice cream sandwich was one of the best meant so much more to me than if they had merely been given, say, letter designations (e.g., “move to space D”). This quantitative and qualitative coupling has served me into adult life, where Monopoly and Risk are two of my favorite board games.

So you can see how you can apply this to people. That person across from you is not black or white, is not an ice cream sandwich or a gum drop. They are a person with certain underlying analytical characteristics that represent their experiences, desires, blind spots, struggles, joys, angers, confusions, etc. What’s more, you yourself are too.

As a concrete example of the benefits of this technique, try this thought experiment: what if we did this exercise and discovered that the numerical profile of Irish and Northern Irish exactly matched that of the respective numerical profiles of Arabs and Israelis? (Clearly not so, but just by way of example.) This is similar to the techniques I imagine Dr. Haass uses. As a good negotiation facilitator, he would have to drop his cultural associations and open himself to understanding the ways in which, say, Northern Irish and Israelis might be the same. Or Northern Irish and Arabs. Or any such combination. But mention any of these four groups to me and I am immediately flooded with emotional associations about them, and they are all very different. But by imagining applying the quantitative approach, I suddenly see them very differently, almost as an alien would. All of my qualitative feelings about their cultures and stereotypical behaviors get washed away, and I’m left with only the image of blank slate human being filled with characteristics.

And then I can see myself in the same way. I’m not that special. Just a container of characteristics.