Elihu Katz Colloquium: Aaron Trammell, University of California, Irvine

Hobbyists: The Historical Roots of White Geek Masculinity
Aaron Trammell
13 Nov 2020 - 12:00pm to 1:30pm
Virtual Event
ASC Only

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This event will be held on Zoom. The link to join will be emailed to the Annenberg community on the day of the event.

About the Talk

This presentation will argue that in order to understand the normalization of whiteness in digital culture — as Kishonna Gray,  Safiya Noble,  and Ruha Benjamin  have argued — we must better understand the people who constitute the cultures that work closely with digital technology. I look toward hobby games and hobbyists to recuperate a more complete genealogical understanding of white masculinity in geek culture. As a method, genealogy helps to reveal the complex and often counterintuitive ways that subjectivity is produced, normalized, and made invisible. My historical work shows that unlike the Irish—who cast themselves as white in order to gain social privilege in America’s racist society —hobbyists see themselves as outsiders. The denial of white male privilege established by hobbyists continues to define the socio-technical space of geek culture today.

About the Speaker

Aaron Trammell is an assistant professor of Informatics at UC Irvine. He graduated from the Rutgers University School of Communication and Information in 2015 and spent a year at the USC Annenberg School as a postdoctoral researcher.

For Trammell, serious scholarship yields important real-world results. His work explores the military ideologies at the center of many games (both analog and digital) — and how those games shape identity. “There is a patriarchal logic in games that influences how we see ourselves,” he says. “This has ramifications for women, people of color and other minorities.” By opening up the design process to diverse communities, Trammell hopes to expand opportunities in tech and to build better and more relevant experiences for gamers, who increasingly rely on gaming technology for job training and skills-based learning.

Trammell’s research reveals the inherent — and often subtle — biases in games. Role playing, he notes, has its roots in military strategy, which historically prioritized traits like masculinity and whiteness. The result: Many prospective game designers feel excluded, while potential players confront scenarios that foster misogynist, racist and homophobic thought. “To give people at all levels of gaming the tools and techniques for succeeding, we need to recognize the invisible lines of power embedded in those games,” Trammell says. “My work sheds light on what can make a game a hostile space, paving the way for positive change.”

The key to Trammell’s work is an emphasis on the power of imagination. “Once we learn history, we can take steps to alter its trajectory,” he says. “Then we have the freedom to envision something different: worlds — inside games and outside — that are based on principles of inclusion.” Trammell sees the Department of Informatics as the ideal place for this reimagining. “The department is renowned for its ability to participate in both theoretical and technical discourse around information and computing, on a high level,” he says. “When it comes to blending these things together so seamlessly, no one else even comes close.”

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