Gaming Masculinity: Video games as a reflection on masculinity in Computer Science and African American culture [Conference Notes]

by Latoya Peterson

These are the notes for “Gaming Masculinity: Video games as a reflection on masculinity in Computer Science and African American Culture.” The notes are from a paper by Betsy James DiSalvo, presented at the Texas A & M University Race and Ethnic Studies Institute’s Symposium exploring Race, Ethnicity and (New) Media.

The abstract to the paper reads:

There are a number of efforts to broaden participation in computing to include underrepresented groups. However, few of these efforts have identified African American males as a population with cultural and gendered values that may inhibit them from entering Computer Science (CS). In this paper we will explore masculine identities within computer culture and African American culture by using video games as an object of inquiry. We hypotheses that the technological agency exhibited with video games is based upon cultural and gender practices; and by exploring video game play practices we can better understand how to increase the technological agency of African American males and broadening their participation in CS.

The paper/project was funded to help increase participation in the computer sciences, with a particular focus on underrepresented groups.

The research (hosted at the Georgia Institute for Technology) began by examining video game use by African American males, sparked by an exchange with a student. The student lamented:

Me and some of my black friends were talking about the other guys in CS. Some of them have been programming since they were eight. We can’t compete with that. Now, the only thing that I have been doing since I was eight is playing basketball. I would own them on the court. I mean it wouldn’t be fair, they would just stand there and I would dominate. It is sort of like that in CS.
– Undergraduate CS Major

This led to the researchers (Betsy James DiSalvo, Sybrina Y. Atwaters, Jill Dimond, and Dr. Amy Bruckman) to re-examine the assumptions around what makes for a successful computer science graduate. They decided to take a closer look at play practices. Play practices of being outside are the norm in many communities, but are not conducive to computers/gaming which require long amounts of indoors/solo time to become proficient.

The researches also examined the dominant environment in CS programs. Hacker culture is privileged in the CS learning environment, meaning that many students are drawn to the program because of their existing skills. This marginalizes many students who decide to enter at the college level, and do not have years of experience experimenting with programs on their own. CS programs also tend to trend toward the strongest programmers in the class, encouraging a DIY approach to learning, and leaving behind students who are new to the discipline.

DiSalvo and the other researches created a model for the “Idealized CS Masculinity.” The researchers were looking at cultural influences and how our presentations shape our interactions with our peers. For those in the CS community, the norms there rejects the body. There is not a premium placed physical performance, personal appearance, or even in some cases, hygienic personal care. Instead, the community values technological agency and proficiency above all. Competitiveness is encouraged. This type of person is also heavily attracted to technology, computer parts, and the latest gadgets and inventions.

In contrast, the researchers noted Idealized African American Masculinity was very different than computer science norms. For one, feedback from respondents noted that there was a body centric emphasis. A premium was placed on athleticism, physical power, appearance, and physical performance. There was little value placed on technological agency. So, from the beginning, the divergence in values could contribute to why there are less African American males in computer science programs.

However, there was a strange quirk in the research: Young black males may play video games more than most other groups. However, DiSalvo notes this data is not statistically significant – with gaming becoming a ubiquitous activity, there is only a slight increase over other groups with reported play rates.

Connections between video games and CS have been documented, but not qualitatively, meaning there isn’t a definitive connection between a heavy interest in games and an interest in working with computers. “Hardcore” gaming also does not have a consistent connection between hours played and the interest in CS Major. However, research has shown that gaming practices can be leveraged into CS Interest – and since video games are a cultural touchstone for the Millennial generation, it makes sense to pursue that link.

Looking at the data also revealed more trends: young black males often participated in community of practice, where video game competition was also a form of bonding. Sportmanship was emphasized. From a tech standpoint, African American males are more likely to playing on consoles instead of PCs, which limited opportunities for hacking, cheating, and modifying. However, they did play console games online with using digital cable. In contrast to the CS respondents, they did not consider online gaming to be a social activity, preferring in person play.
Family members were considered important in game play, and game time was often multi-generational. Their gaming experiences were also heavily gendered, playing mostly with male friends. Solo play is considered practice time for family events.

With these differences in mind, Georgia Tech created the Glitch Video Game Testers program to introduce more technical concepts into gaming and to encourage more African American youth to enter computer science programs by demystifying the field.

Latoya’s Note: Clearly, Betsy and I had a lot to discuss with reference to her research. I am fascinated by the paper she and her co-authors produced, and the interesting potential to increase the ranks of blacks in tech through gaming outreach. However, post presentation, one factor stood out to me in particular as needing further exploration. The paper examines the role of race, but not class in the development of skills – and, just speaking from personal experience, class heavily influenced my gaming experience. We discussed the divides around the ability to deconstruct technological items in the home, and how for some families, there would not have been the opportunity to experiment with the family computer by taking it apart. The console vs. PC divide is also, in some ways, a matter of class – to purchase a game console means that the owners will be able to play all the games issued for that console for the next 3 – 5 years, if not more. If a new version comes out of a system comes out, the system will not become obsolete. However, in the 1990s in particular, there was a constant need to upgrade your computer to keep pace with the changing technology. This dynamic was not present with a console – though the desire for new games would be there, older games could still be obtained and played. I am interested to see how discussions of social issues and technology continue to develop.

Related: Can Video Game Testing Spark Interest in Computing Among Black Youth?