Pokemon and Privilege

Today, just under two years after I started playing, I reached the maximum level of 40 in Pokemon Go.

“Wow,” you might be thinking, if you’re the sort of person to care about video game achievements, “what an incredible accomplishment!”  And maybe you might consider that accomplishment to be evidence of particular proficiency and/or effort on my part.  After all, I’m the only level-40 player in my entire circle of friends, by a substantial margin.  But my own skill at the game, above-average though it may be, is not the only thing that has determined my success.  Let’s talk about privilege.

According to most dictionaries, “privilege” can be generally defined as an advantage available only to a particular person or group.  Privilege as a societal concept encompasses everything from specific hardships that people in one group can avoid while people in another group have to contend with, to certain opportunities that one group can take advantage of much more easily than another, to the aggregate effect of those increased opportunities and decreased hardships has on a group’s overall “success” by whatever metric you choose to measure.

I find concrete examples much easier to work with, though.  So let’s look at the various factors besides my own skill and effort that have allowed me to reach level 40 far ahead of my friends.

  1. Office location.  I work in downtown Seattle.  This confers two huge advantages – the proximity to a large number of other players makes​ doing raids on a daily basis simple with a minimum of planning, and the high density of Pokestops means that I almost never run low on items.  (Both of those factors also mean that there are lots of Pokemon downtown and along my commute route.)
  2. Job schedule flexibility.  As a software engineer, much of my work time is unstructured; I can choose to go get lunch at a time that is convenient for joining a raid group while I’m out.  With a successful legendary raid awarding 10,000 XP, the 150 legendary raids I’ve won so far (including several under double- or even quadruple-XP conditions) account for around 10% of my XP total.  Once in a while I’ve even been able to dodge out of the office for a quick coffee-break-length raid at a gym right by my office.
  3. Personal safety.  Specifically, the fact that I can walk down the street without having to maintain constant situational awareness.  I can spare the attention to catch Pokemon and spin stops as I walk, without worrying that someone might take advantage of my inattention.  (Don’t worry, I still keep my head up when I’m crossing streets.)  This is a product of both my physical presence as a six-foot white male and the fact that my office is in a rather safe part of town.
  4. Disposable income.  I haven’t actually spent much real money on the game, since most of my purchases come out of Google Play credit I get from answering surveys, but I have on occasion spent a few real dollars to get some coins to buy some items.  Still, not everyone has the spare money to spend on something frivolous like that.

An interesting aspect of these privileges is the way they reinforce each other; each privilege strengthens the effects of others.  My schedule flexibility is a bigger benefit when combined with my office location (and access to frequent, well-populated raid groups) than it would be if I worked someplace that had only a handful of Pokestops and not much raid activity.  The large amount of activity around my office and commute route would be harder to take advantage of if I constantly had to worry about whether I was safe on the streets.  The lucky eggs I can buy with the spare cash I have available to spend on the game act as a multiplier on the increased XP I get from the other benefits.

I’m proud of having reached level 40; it did take a lot of effort on my part.  I’ve seen plenty of people in my raid groups that reached level 40 significantly earlier than I did, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t still have privileges that made it easier for me to do so.  And similarly, having reached level 40 before any of my friends does not mean that I’m inherently better at the game than any of them.  It would be deeply deceptive – and insulting – to assume that someone else’s failure to reach the level cap is an indication that they are incompetent at the game, or that they’re just not bothering to do their best.  And it does not diminish the work that I’ve put in to acknowledge that I have benefited from privilege as well.

Luckily, Pokemon Go is just a game.  The players’ respective levels and rates of XP gain don’t have anything to do with our ability to feed ourselves, our housing, our access to medical care, or the strength of our voices in our political system.  Ability to earn XP isn’t a matter of life or death – or even a matter of comfort or destitution – and so the fact that some people are privileged far beyond others isn’t something we need to spend a lot of time rectifying.

But structural privilege in the real world is just as strong an effect on people’s abilities to survive and thrive.  And when people with lots of privilege ascribe their success to nothing more than their own hard work and virtue, and then assume that others’ lack of success must therefore be the result of laziness or worthlessness, it’s a selfish, deceptive outlook on how the world works.

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