Yes, I know, this has been done before, most notably by John Scalzi. But I think that he muddied the issue slightly by referring to Straight White Male as “The Lowest Difficulty Setting”, because a) there really aren’t any difficulty settings in MMO games, and yes there are people pedantic enough to care about that, but b) it’s not about how hard things are for you when you have privilege. It’s about the way people react to you. So let’s talk again about white male privilege through the lens of ‘World of Warcraft’.
So let’s imagine that ‘World of Warcraft’ had been released exactly as it is now, but with a key difference–you don’t get to select your character’s race. It is determined for you, and you don’t get to reroll. Now, the game designers are going to be concerned with balance the same way they are in the actual game (probably much, much moreso for purposes of this conversation) so they make sure that all of the races have abilities of equal utility and no race is more powerful than the others. They are all equivalent, if not actually equal. They want a diverse game where being of a different race doesn’t make you want to stop playing.
But, and here’s where we’re walking away from Mr. Scalzi’s analogy a bit, they also want to accurately depict a world at war. The Horde/Alliance conflict is a big part of the mythology of the franchise, and (as with a lot of the fantasy universes out there) particular races are associated with particular franchises. They want this near-mirror version of WoW to reflect that. So NPCs react differently to different races. Many shopkeepers, for example, give better prices to dwarves than to tauren for the same goods because they’re sympathetic to the Alliance. Some mobs are set to be aggressive towards high elves on their own but not when blood elves are around because they consider this to be Horde territory, and they’re willing to attack anyone they think is pro-Alliance. Some gear is only available to certain races, because the NPC who gives that quest won’t give it to “filthy goblins”. All in the name of verisimilitude, basically.
And this is where they make their big mistake, as developers. They don’t balance that. They balance the races, they balance the classes, they balance playability…but they don’t balance the computer-controlled characters and their reactions to the players. So if you rolled an Orc, you find that shopkeepers charge exorbitant amounts for even the weakest items, and they pay out a pittance for the stuff you sell back. Going through certain commonly-traveled areas is extremely dangerous because the mobs that ignore high elves have a one-in-four chance of brutally murdering you if nobody’s around to . Many quests aren’t offered to your species. Can you still level up? Yes, but it’s a hell of a slog.
And so you complain to someone who rolled an elf that they have it easy. That they have a privilege you don’t, and that it makes the game unfair. The elf replies that it’s simply not true–they had to fight for every coin and experience point they earned, that they paid for their gear fair and square just like you paid for yours. They might not even realize that they get a better deal at the shops until you show them a screenshot; even then, they’ll probably say that the idiosyncracies of the game designers aren’t their fault. They may even doubt your claims that the mobs in a particular region are aggro–they’ve never been attacked, after all. They’ve never even seen anyone attacked. If you’re having a hard time, they say, maybe you should learn to play better.
And that’s privilege. It’s not a single big thing–it’s a number of tiny cumulative things. The big disparity in wealth and power came about one gold piece, one quest, one mob at a time. But it’s not a difference in effort, either; one person is being rewarded slightly more for the same amount of work. This isn’t to say that any one person is to blame for their privilege, though. They didn’t code the shopkeeper, they didn’t code the mobs, they may not even have been aware of the fact that the game played differently for them than it did for other people until they were confronted with evidence. But the key thing about having privilege is that you need to acknowledge it. Because otherwise, you’re going to walk around convinced you’re better at the game than everyone else because you’re working on the fundamentally false assumption that it’s fair.