“Class dictates how people are allowed to make games. Class is an important factor in who’s making what kind of games and how, and yet we have such a hard time including it in our conversations because the majority of us come from an academic background or from tech backgrounds. And the former have a lot of shame about discussing their privilege while to the latter it’s all but invisible.”
Anna Anthropy’s recent talk at the MIT Game Lab is a challenge to the utopian idea that game development has become more inclusive and accessible. I agree with pretty much everything she has to say in the talk, and I’m not going to summarize much of it because you should go and listen to it for yourself. But social class is a slippery concept, and I feel Anthropy muddies some of the issues she raises by equating social class solely with wealth. When she talks about how class “affects our access to means of creation” and “dictates what methods are available and unavailable to whom” she’s really talking in terms of economic access to training and resources.
The material dimension – money – is always relevant. But at the same time, libraries are free, second hand bookshops are cheap, and this hasn’t exactly changed the fact that different groups relate to books in different ways. Anyway, the argument I want to make is that there’s a psychological dimension to social class that affects what we aspire to, and which goes beyond being poor and feeling embarrassed about it.
I need to tread lightly here to avoid making the argument that “there aren’t many people from group X in game development because group X don’t want to make games!” That line of thinking relies on the idea that individuals have total free will. I’m free to wear pink all the time – if I want – but that freedom of choice is constrained by societal expectations which I will have internalized to some extent, and because it’s “normal” for boys to not like pink, I feel no desire or inclination to locate the various pressures that made my preferences that way.
I’m going to talk briefly about gender because there are some overlaps here. Women represent just one fifth of recent applicants to UK computing degree courses and less than 12% of the UK games industry’s workforce, where they are more likely to have non-technical roles. But the perception of computing as a boys’ club isn’t universal; computer science in some countries is dominated by women (Mellström, 2009). One piece of research suggests that the high drop-out rate of women in Australian computing degrees was partly down to the amount of prior knowledge course instructors assumed students would have (Roberts et al, 2012). In other words, courses are often based around the model of the obsessive hobbyist becoming a professional. Researchers in the US and Europe have suggested that low female uptake in computing is partly down to the stigma attached to the “nerd” label. (Berg et al, 2002; Bury, 2011). Adolescence is a time when pressure to conform to gender expectations is at a high, and being traditionally feminine in Britain or the US usually suggests being highly sociable; spend too much time at a computer and run the risk of being an outcast.
The same issues could be said to apply for working-class boys. Studies of British youth have highlighted how working-class young people tend to prefer communal leisure activities whereas middle-class youth cultures emphasise individualism (e.g. Hendry et al, 2003). This might be related to middle-class parenting’s emphasis on individualism (Lareau, 2011). Educational research in the UK has stressed how groups of working-class boys still tend to value “laddish” masculinities which reject school and scorn those who are seen as enjoying learning (e.g. Willis, 1977; Francis, 2002; 2009). Laura Stanley’s research reveals how some non-white; low-income American men reject computer-based work as feminine, because their backgrounds lead to them to favour physical work and face-to-face interaction (Stanley, 2003). Similarly, American academic Ellen Seiter suggests that the social penalty for “being a nerd” is higher for working-class youth (2008, p41).
This idea that the middle-class value individualism while the working-class value community is painting in broad strokes, but when we do see it in action it’s an example of habitus. Habitus is a sociological term (e.g. Bourdieu, 1984) used to describe the dispositions we take from our social origin which affect how we see the world. A social class habitus is related to wealth (or lack of) but it can hang around generations after a family has become richer or poorer. Bourdieu uses food as an example – a family might have once been poor and lived on a cheap, carbohydrate-rich diet. A generation or two later, the family can afford more, but a taste for heaped mashed potato remains. Obesity could be seen as a class issue – it’s not just the relative cheapness of less healthy food, but the way that the working-class comes to prefer it even if they can afford something healthier. Whenever we identify a social climber’s “working-class roots” – their residual attitudes and tastes – we’re identifying elements of habitus, and this aspect of social mobility gets played out in countless “fish-out-of-water” type comedy scenarios in film and TV. Anyway, I’m waffling. But the concept of habitus helps to illustrate how some groups might avoid creative, solitary pastimes even when they can afford to do them.
Labels like “nerd” and “geek” play a role in how young people identify which interests are appropriate for who. They’re identities which are encouraged by middle class parents and educators and have value in the adult world of work, but they’re also unpopular for many young people under the social pressures of adolescence (Bury, 2011; Mendick and Francis, 2012). The social price for taking on that mantle varies depending on the cultural expectations that come with your identity. I doubt I’m the only one who didn’t feel particularly compelled to shout about my experiments with Adrift, RPG Maker or the Warcraft 3 editor in the schoolyard.
The reason this is Kind Of A Big Deal is that creativity determines who gets to speak through media. On one side we have a very materialist, money-focussed concept of a “digital divide” between those who do and don’t have technology or access to technology. But even if creative technologies become available to all, what less obvious factors allow one group to maintain an advantage? We’ve seen it before in terms of traditional pen-and-paper literacy, and we’ll no-doubt see it again. I’ve met dozens of poor kids with miniaturised digital typewriters and pianos in their pockets, but few of them will go on to publish books or write songs.
TL;DR; I’m not suggesting there’s no exclusionary sexism or racism keeping non-white non-straight non-rich non-dudes out of computing and game dev. And money is always a factor. But there’s also something about the solitary nature of most creative pastimes that repels some and attracts others. Giving disadvantaged groups access to software and training is a good start – but encouraging them to participate involves thinking about more internalized notions of identity. Or something.
Here are some sort-of-related questions I’ve been recently asking myself;
Feminist research has suggested that boys get a head-start in tech from their familiarity with games (e.g. Kerr, 2003; de Castell and Jenson, 2008). If so, how does the type of game affect this sort of informal learning and technological acculturation?
Does social class mediate game tastes (e.g. Hovden and Klevjer, 2012) and, if so, how might this affect who does and doesn’t show an interest in making games? Does sci-fi imagery engender a love for technology? Do platform preferences (e.g. console verses PC gaming) relate to social class? If they do, how does this affect our ability to view games as something we can make? I’m thinking of distinctions between open and closed systems, and mod-making software as a very PC-specific thing. Also, we generally see more top-down, management and strategy type games on the PC. What ways of thinking do these games engender?
How important is access to a canon of older games, for people to become game designers? How do pirating older PC games and console emulations fit in?
- Berg, V. A. L. Gansmo, H. J. Hestflått, K. Lie, M. Nordli, H. and Sørensen, K. H. (2002) “Gender and ICT in Norway: An overview of Norweigian research and some relevant statistical information.” [.pdf]. Online.
- Bourdieu, P. (1984) Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Google Books/Harvard University Press.
- Bury, R. (2011) “She’s Geeky: The Performance of Identity among Women Working in IT” in International Journal of Gender, Science and Technology. Vol 3. pp. 34-53. http://genderandset.open.ac.uk/index.php/genderandset/article/view/113/244 (no paywall)
- de Castell, S. and Jenson, J. (2008) ‘Theorizing gender and digital gameplay: Oversights, accidents and surprises’ in Eludamos. Journal for Computer Game Culture. Vol. 2. No. 1. pp15-25
- DiSalvo, B. and Bruckman, A. (2010) ‘Race and Gender in Play Practices: Young African American Males’ Proceedings of the Fifth International Conference on the Foundations of Digital Games. pp56-63
- Francis, B. (2009) ‘The role of The Boffin as abject Other in gendered performances of school achievement’ in The Sociological Review. Vol. 57. No. 4. pp645-669
- Hendry, L. B. Shucksmith, J. Love, J. G. and Glendinning, A. (2003) Young People’s Leisure and Lifestyles. Taylor and Francis e-Library. http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=YBWfweSjJh8C&printsec=frontcover&dq=Young+People’s+Leisure+and+Lifestyles&hl=en&sa=X&ei=SyFMUsLYNqXA7AaXrIHgBA&ved=0CDEQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=Young%20People’s%20Leisure%20and%20Lifestyles&f=false
- Hovden, J. F. and Klevjer, R. (2012) ‘Game space and social space’ paper presented at Norsk medieforskerkonferanse, Kristiansand, 18-19. oct. author’s own translation http://janfredrikhovden.files.wordpress.com/2012/10/hovdenklevjer2012videogameskristiansand.pdf
- Kerr, A. (2003) ‘Girls/Women Just Want to Have Fun – A Study of Adult Female Players of Digital Games’ in Level Up Conference Proceedings. University of Utrecht, Utrecht. pp. 270-285.
- Lareau, A. (2011) Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life. (2nd edition). London: University of California Press. http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=JuQuoPKMPF4C&printsec=frontcover&dq=lareau+childhoods&hl=en&sa=X&ei=vyFMUriFIqfE7Aai34CADQ&ved=0CDMQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false
- Mellström, U. (2009) ‘The Intersection of Gender, Race and Cultural Boundaries, or Why is Computer Science in Malaysia Dominated by Women?’ in Social Studies of Science. Vol 29. pp885-907
- Mendick, H. and Francis, B. (2012) ‘Boffin and geek identities: abject or priviledged?’ in Gender and Education. Vol. 24. Pp15-24.
- Roberts, M. R. H. McGill, T. J. Hyland, P. N. (2012) ‘Attrition from Australian ICT degrees: why women leave’ ACE ’12 Proceedings of the Fourteenth Australasian Computing Education
- Seiter, E. (2008) “Practicing at Home: Computers, Pianos, and Cultural Capital.” in McPherson, T. (ed.) Digital Youth, Innovation, and the Unexpected. London: MIT
- Stanley, L. (2003) ‘Beyond Access: Psychosocial Barriers to Computer Literacy Special Issue: ICTs and Community Networking’ in The Information Society: An International Journal. Vol 19. No. 5. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/715720560#.Ukwf2oashQY
- Willis, P. (1977) Learning to Labour: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs. England Gower Pub.