The Other Difficulty Mode

What Halo Can Tell Us About Identity & Oppression

Samantha Allen is a transgender woman, ex-Mormon and a PhD student in Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Emory University writing a dissertation on sexual fetishism. She writes regularly for The Border House and has contributed to Kotaku and Medium Difficulty. She is also an erstwhile singer-songwriter. You can find her on the web or on Twitter.

If being a “straight white male” is, as John Scalzi argues, like playing a game on the easiest difficulty, then those of us who are less privileged are playing on a harder difficulty. While I think that this metaphor is a sound tool for initial conversations about privilege, its underlying theory of power is too simplistic. This metaphor splits the world into straight white men and everyone else, leaving the reader with no way to account for the many different kinds of oppression that affect us (racism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, ableism, etc.) and the specific ways in which these oppressions interact. Difficulty settings in games also tend to be arranged on a bipolar line with predictable, quantifiable changes being made to the gameplay as the difficulty increases. Our social identities, by contrast, are multidimensional and we cannot simply arrange them on a line from “most oppressed” to “least oppressed.”

Feminist scholars have, at times, employed overly reductive and simplistic models of power. An exclusive focus on patriarchy, for example, ignores forms of oppression based on other facets of women’s identities. Black feminist theorists in the 1980s and 1990s developed theories of “intersectionality” in an attempt to correct for feminism’s narrow-minded focus on gender alone as the fundamental source of oppression. The Combahee River Collective pointed out that “the major systems of oppression are interlocking” (Combahee River Collective 1982). Later, and most famously, Kimberle Crenshaw used the term “intersectionality” itself in order to describe a view of power that can be attentive to specific oppressions that occur at particular intersections of identity. For instance, black women’s experiences of oppression cannot be described by simply adding an understanding of racism to an understanding of patriarchy; rather, black women experience oppression that is specific to their social position as black women.

Crenshaw focuses particularly on black women in her work in order to “articulate the interaction of racism and patriarchy” (Crenshaw 1991, 1265), but she also notes that intersectionality can “provide the means for dealing with other marginalizations as well” (1299). Importantly, these systems of oppression “interact” and “overlap” (1265); they do not operate independently. While feminist scholars have recently begun to interrogate the usefulness of intersectionality as a critical concept (see, e.g., Puar 2011), it remains a necessary tool for adding complexity to discussions of privilege that can too easily slide into polarized, dichotomous thought.

Legendary Difficulty

The Halo franchise might seem like an unlikely example of a game series that can effectively model an intersectional analysis of identity and oppression. After all, on a thematic and representational level, the Halo games are about as hackneyed as science fiction can get. How can a game about a space marine shooting aliens possibly have something to say about, say, transmisogyny? Why would I turn to Halo to think through intersectionality when misogynist and homophobic slurs abound in its multiplayer modes?

There are certainly games that, on a thematic and representational level, address particular forms of oppression more explicitly than would a Halo game. There are also games that are created and played by marginalized communities. Most pertinent to my own experience would be games like Anna Anthropy’s dys4ia or Mattie Brice’s Mainichi that are explicitly about the experience of being transgender. But games can also affect us on a mechanical and systemic level in ways that might not, at first blush, seem to cohere with their representational content. This is precisely why a game series like Halo can effectively model intersectionality.

Halo has a more complex difficulty system than most first-person shooters. Unlike the games that John Scalzi seems to be referring to during his exercise in metaphor, the Halo games—since Halo 2—have implemented a complex system of difficulty modifiers known as “skulls” that alter unique game parameters. Players can select which skulls they would like to activate and the gameplay experience will change as a result. Here’s a list of a few of these skulls and the effects that they have in Halo 4:

Famine: Enemies drop less ammo.

Mythic: Enemies have more health.

Catch: Enemies throw more grenades.

Black Eye: The player must melee enemies in order to recharge her shield.

Tough Luck: Enemies dodge more frequently and attack even more persistently.

Iron:  The player must restart the entire mission if she dies.

Cloud: The player’s radar is turned off.

Cowbell: Explosion radii are increased.

These skulls allow the player to alter the difficulty of the game in a way that goes well beyond choosing between normal and hard or, in Halo’s case, “Heroic” and “Legendary.” Crucially, each of these skulls modifies a different system in the game (from the player’s radar to the enemies’ behavior to the physics of explosions) rather than simply scaling the entire difficulty of the game en masse.

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. If Cowbell and Catch are both activated, then not only do enemies throw more grenades, but those grenades create even larger explosions than they would under normal conditions. If Cloud, Black Eye and Mythic are all enabled, then not only must the player melee enemies in order to recharge her shields, but she also cannot use her radar to locate those enemies and, when she does melee them, it will barely make a dent in their health.  The most extreme challenge available in a Halo game is completing a mission on Legendary with all the skulls on (LASO, for short) and coping simultaneously with all of their compounding consequences.

Everyday Skulls

With the skull system, the player can craft unique, idiosyncratic difficulty settings in a way that figuratively matches up with the complexity of social identities and the forms of oppression that are specific to each of them. Consider, for example, some of the “skulls” that are active for me when I walk down the street as a 5′ 10” transgender woman.

Catcall:  Some men on the street make lewd comments or honk their horns at women.

Sex Detective: Some people try to determine your chromosomal sex when you have conspicuous bodily traits.

Joker: Some people laugh when they discover that someone is transgender.

These skulls interact in a unique way: A man might whistle at me from a distance (Catcall) but, as we pass and he catches a closer look, he might be observant enough to read me as transgender (Sex Detective), at which point he derides me publicly (Joker). Each sort of marginalized social identity comes with its own set of “skulls” that can interlock and produce a complicated and unpredictable set of effects. These “skulls” straddle some identity categories while remaining unique to others. For instance, I share the Catcall skull with cisgender women, but the Joker skull is unique to my experience. Similarly, I share the Catcall skull with African-American women but I’m typically not followed at retail stores based on racial profiles of shoplifting (the “Shopping While Black” skull).

To complicate John Scalzi’s metaphor about “privilege” and game difficulty, then, I would suggest that being a straight, white, rich, upper-class, cisgender, able-bodied heterosexual male is like playing Halo on “Easy” with all skulls off. Any other configuration of identity means ratcheting up the difficulty and turning on several pertinent, identity-specific skulls. The Halo series is an unlikely but nonetheless compelling tool in thinking through marginalization. But because Halo games, like many video games, are composed of interlocking systems that interact with each other, they provide us with complex modes of experiencing, however figuratively, the intersectionality of identity and oppression.

Instead of settling for this subversive interpretation of Halo, I want to conclude on a more speculative note. What would a game look like that combined the systemic complexity of Halo with the social message of Merritt Kopas’s Lim or the narrative themes of Mainichi? Do we have the resources in the independent game development community to create such an experience? Real Lives 2010 is a step in this direction but, as a simulation game, the player mostly observes the statistical unfolding of their character’s lot in life instead of palpably struggling against game systems that model forms of oppression. If we could create such a game—some Halo/dys4ia hybrid—would we even want to create it or would uncannily accurate representations of oppression hit too close to home? Perhaps the abstraction and beautiful simplicity of a game like Lim can function, in part, to shield us from the awful complexity of our own experiences. But maybe there are things that we can still learn experientially about ourselves and our Others through a game inspired by Halo in which we feel what it’s like to be alien.

Works Cited

Combahee River Collective. 1982. “A Black Feminist Statement.” In Gloria T. Hall, et al,  eds. All of the Women Are White, All of the Men Are Black, But Some of Us Are Brave. New York: Feminist Press. 1982, pp. 13-22.

Crenshaw, Kimberle Wallace. 1991. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color,” Stanford Law Review 43: 1241-52.

Puar, Jasbir. 2011. “’I Would Rather Be a Cyborg than a Goddess’: Intersectionality, Assemblage, and Affective Politics.” Transversal.


  1. Fantastic article, Samantha! For my part, I feel that part of the issue in terms of these simplistic models of power emerges from the language of design itself; because games are so tied to statistical models in simulating reality, they tend to present themselves as representing numerical realities; the notion of +4 or -3 oppression is very strange, and I think tends to reinforce antagonisms at a very elementary, binary level.

    Perhaps, if we were to think in terms of modelling human dynamics of intersectionality, what we would need is a computing machine on the level of Dwarf Fortress (yes, I just typed that) dedicated to representing a conversation. Perhaps this “skull system” could work in terms of describing each speaker; the player could plug in a series of traits, and, and the computer would generate a background for the NPC, modelling its reactions. This would, of course, do little to represent the accumulation of cultural and biographical intersections which really lend themselves to these interpellations, but perhaps it would be a start.

    Anyway, a thought. Thanks again!

    • That’s a great point and I think points to the limitations of the medium, at least in its current state. Some things are just too complex to be quantified in a neat or easy manner, and identity is about as complex as it gets.

      That said, I think we can supplement the procedural/statistical nature of the videogame with narratological and visual cues so that we can get a bit closer, if that’s something we even want. Using Anthropy’s game as an example, without the “narrative” context, that could just be a game about frustration in general. With a few tweaks, dys4ia could be about putting together Ikea furniture (or something). But I think it succeeds because it uses a bunch of disparate elements in concert with one another, each possessing its own representational strengths.

      And just while I’m thinking about it, I wonder what dys4ia or Samantha’s Skulls game would look like if it took place in Uganda, for instance, where any hint of “deviation” from heteronormativity is essentially an automatic death sentence (or imprisonment). If one of the Skulls were “Geography,” for example, then maybe certain inputs would mean the game ends the moment it starts; in this case, you don’t even get to play the game, so to speak, on any difficulty level. This might be a way to use the statistical nature of the medium to highlight that reality.

      • Thanks, both of you for your comments. Kyle, I think you’re definitely onto something about making character behavior more dynamic. I think part of the problem with our medium is that it’s mostly about objects hitting each other in virtual spaces and we haven’t turned our attention to nuancing other game systems (although we’ve heard plenty of ambitious talk about it from folks like Molyneux.)

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