Emory Uses Halo To Teach Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies

Emory Uses Halo To Teach Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies



Starcraft II teaches game theory and multivariable calculus. World of Warcraft gives insight to instructors on how they should structure the classroom environment. Minecraft has even become mandatory in a Swedish school’s curriculum as it teaches urban engineering concepts. To add to this growing list of games for education, Emory PhD Student Samantha Allen has incorporated Halo into her lesson plans for teaching intersectional theories of oppression for her Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) introductory course. This is what I would call an interesting juxtaposition as it bridges the gap between the macho Halo protagonist, Master Chief with sensitive global issues of rights and accessibility to all.

It all started when Samantha read a blog post that gave the analogy that being a straight, white male in the world is like playing Real Life: The Game on the easiest difficulty setting. These characters are given good initial stats and challenges such as quests (complete school, get a job, get a girlfriend) are approached with little to no barriers. Compare this to the gay, minority female who has to play this game on the hardest difficulty setting. The game is the same. The rewards don’t change, and there aren’t really any tangible “benefits” of playing on a tougher difficulty. Simply put, your identity dictates your difficulty level at the start of Real Life: The Game. Although this is a hefty claim, Samantha believed this analogy could give insight on forms of oppression and privilege based on race, gender identity, ability, sex, class and sexual orientation.


How Halo Helps Understand Identity and Oppression

“How can a game about a space marine shooting aliens possibly have something to say about, say, transmisogyny?” Even Samantha rhetorically posed the question on her blog post explaining in detail how Halo and WGSS are related conceptually.

Halo’s difficulty system goes beyond just easy, normal, and hard. It incorporates a skull system, which is a multiplier effect to the selected difficulty level. Activating a skull modifies a particular game mechanic (ex. Cloud skull turns the player’s radar off and the Famine skull makes enemies drop less ammo). Although one skull act solely on one game mechanic, multiple don’t run in parallel. In fact, they intersect, overlap, and interlock. With Cloud and Famine skulls activated, not only is the player limited on ammo, but also finding additional ammo has become more difficult because the radar doesn’t display where foes are.

This intersection, overlapping, and interlocking of attributes is very similar to the intersectional forms of oppression mentioned above in Real Life: The Game. The gay, minority female not only has to deal with objective state employment laws but also has to overcome the subjective hiring practices of companies.


How Halo Was Brought To The Emory Classroom

She first had a student play Halo on both Casual and Legendary, all skulls on (LASO) difficulty settings to give the students a glimpse of how skulls work. Then, she split up the classroom into six smaller groups, having each group analyze one particular domain of identity (race, gender identity, ability, sex, class and sexual orientation). Each group was then broken up to two large groups, with representatives of the smaller groups contributing their knowledge of oppression on their form of identity.

For the second part of the class, she set up a Halo Station. The station had two screens set up side-by-side—one playing Halo on Casual, the other playing Halo on LASO. Each student took a turn playing Halo at the station, getting a stark contrast of the dilly-dally nature of Casual to the “in your face” aggression of LASO.


The Results

Within a 50-minute period, Samantha had the group discussions talking about how ability is a strong axis of oppression, as disabled people often don’t get the same access other people do.

The students at the Halo station clearly got the impression of what LASO is about. One student claimed, “It doesn’t matter how good you are.” This insight led to the discussion of how often it doesn’t matter your ability because your other identity categories may put you at a disadvantage.

Samantha concluded her pilot test, “Given that this was the first time many of them had performed an in-depth investigation of particular forms of oppression, I was amazed by the speed with which they stopped thinking beyond rigid divisions and started thinking intersectionally.”

A bit of visualization, mixed with some immersion and engagement can provide students with new ways to approach information. Gaining a new perspective, that’s what games give us.

Flickr Image by commorancy