The invisible knapsack: why is nerd culture still a white male culture?

This week is the annual SXSW festival, an event where many a figurehead from the fields of art, tech and culture descend on Austin, Texas for a mash-up of pseudo-democratic panels discussing all of these things. Covering the event for Salon, Irin Carmon noticed a particular steadfastness in white male nerd culture despite the increasing diversity of talent in the fields of technology and entertainment:

Why should anyone care about the demographic breakdown of a bunch of semi-professional badge-wearers? South by Southwest isn’t just an excuse to Instagram breakfast tacos or jockey for party spots on the corporate dime; it’s also one of the few places for technology, film, music and activism to converge in one place. “This is where people come to see the emerging talents. The A-listers at SouthBy will be the real A-Listers in a couple of years,” said festival regular Rachel Sklar. And though there’s always going to be some sorting, it’s still a place where it’s slightly more possible to break in and access those resources.

That’s why Peterson has continued to come back and encourages other women and people of color to come too. “We have to make sure that we’re not ceding the technological future,” she said. Of women and people of color in those spaces, she added, “If people don’t see us, they assume we don’t exist.”

The reverse is also true: The future is increasingly made up of people who aren’t white, and in the United States, at least, the educated class is increasingly female, so technology itself cedes something by leaving them out.

As the technology world might risk effacing its own cultural relevance if it continues to resist its very diversification, so too the game industry would continue to expound the viewpoint of the player character’s straight white male gaze that’s so often taken for granted in games. Take, for instance, Manveer Heir’s comments in a Gamasutra interview about race in videogames:

I think there are a few things… First off, I don’t think the game having a black character, that shouldn’t be the selling point of the game. It needs to be an interesting game regardless of the protagonist, but that potentially when if someone plays that game, they discover the background of our protagonist has a better-defined character or something, or the race of the character actually affects the way characters talk to the player.

Things along those lines, so that when you’re playing the game, you discover something new that maybe is happening in the game that you aren’t used to, because you’re being treated differently, or you’re understanding the other side that maybe you don’t belong to, depending on your background. So, I think that if you market your game as “a game for black people” or “a game for Asian people”, it’s going to flop the same way most of the games for women flop. I don’t think that’s the good way to position that.

So, for me, it’s less about selling your game based on those merits, and rather having those merits be in there and be discovered by players.

What’s interesting about the need for diversity of representation in videogames, as the interview discusses, is how often games already approach these issues, couched as they may be in the lexicon of fantasy and science fiction. Rather than asking how games can begin to approach these issues more meaningfully, therefore, the important question may be why games eschew reality so readily in the first place. Interactive simulation already provides profound tools to enable empathy in the user. Learning how to apply that more meaningfully to real-world questions of race, gender, and sexuality is a task developers will probably be taking more seriously in the coming generation of games. 

Yannick LeJacq

[via Salon]