How privileged is a geek girl, anyway?

The last time I made a post at the Border House, I got called out on my privilege in flippantly suggesting that writing your own games is way easier than it looks. That really got me thinking, and a post I found today on the Geek Feminism blog brought those thoughts back to the forefront: If you were hacking since age 8, it means you were privileged.

As I’ve likely detailed before, I have indeed benefited from the privilege of exposure to computers at a young age. My father, an engineer and longtime gadgetphile, started bringing them home when I was about three, and before too long, I was typing DOS commands and installing software just like the rest of them. When I was ten years old and suddenly found myself curious as to how video games were made, and was subsequently given a book that taught me how to program in BASIC. These things could never had happened if my family wasn’t affluent enough to afford both the equipment and the education required to use it. That, I’m quite loathe to deny.

I was also afforded the privilege of having the support of both my parents in pursuing my geeky passions. I had a strong role model in my mother, who to this day enjoys a successful career as a doctor, and was always encouraged to excel in academic subjects so I could go to university and work towards a fulfilling career of my own in turn. I was never given the message that I was somehow less capable at computers, math, or science because of my gender. [1] Sure, my parents probably didn’t expect from the start that I’d make a career out of doing what I do, but when I did eventually make my choice, it was met with nothing but encouragement. For that, I am eternally grateful, and would love nothing more than to spend the rest of my life ensuring that more young women of future generations are given that same gift.

All that said, there is one element to the development of my abilities that I believe is borne out of a limitation: my history of poor social skills, at least in comparison to most girls of my age group growing up. Would I have spent so much time alone on the computer if I were able to socialise like other girls? Would I have been less inclined to pursue my interests so intensely if I were more aware of how negatively I would be perceived by my peer group if I did so? I’m sure the fact that I wasn’t a white girl probably factored in as well — I already knew I wasn’t “normal” in my culture, so what was the point of trying? So yes, my introversion and ability to hyperfocus on subjects that interest me are definitely things I consider gifts, gifts I couldn’t have developed if I hadn’t had the class privilege that allowed me the time and resources to do so, but I still have trouble denying that they also came to me at a cost.

I suppose that when I remarked that making games isn’t really that hard, what I really ought to have said was that making games shouldn’t be so hard. I need to be helping to create a world where anyone can have access to a computer at an early age, just as I did; fortunately, we’re much closer to that point today than we were when I was growing up. I also need to be helping to create an environment where women who came to computers later in life don’t feel belittled in indie game communities for not being talented or passionate enough, where they can easily find the resources they need to learn to use this great new medium to express themselves. Will that eventually lead to a world where it becomes more socially acceptable for a young girl to spend enough time on the computer to develop the same skills I was able to? I’d like to hope so.

  1. Or at least, if I was, I was too clueless to notice.
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9 Responses to How privileged is a geek girl, anyway?

  1. Anonymous says:

    interesting! i appreciate your response to these pieces and i’m sure the author of each meant well but, to be honest, both of the posts that you linked to made me somewhat uncomfortable.

    first, “marking games is hard”. i have two issues with this piece, although they are both somewhat nit picky.

    1) “the complicated process of game development itself can be a barrier to women entering the field”

    this quote is provocative – and potentially offensive/self-hating …but never explained.

    2) the citing of “second shift” as a barrier of entry for women who want to make a game seems wrong – as i understand it, the concept of second shift has more to do with the division of specific types of labor in a relationship rather than the division of actual time spent on labor.

    like i said, nit picky! my real complaint is the overall gloomy tone of the piece. sure, making a FANTASTIC game that you’re REALLY PROUD OF takes time and a lot of work and practice. however, that’s no reason not to try, and absolutely not a reason why a woman should settle for joining a team as merely a musician or writer.

    anyway, the second piece, “If you were hacking since age 8, it means you were privileged”, is interesting but largely irrelevant to anyone trying to actually do creative work, instead of merely talking (or arguing!) about it! you say that you “need to be helping to create an environment where women who came to computers later in life don’t feel belittled” and i applaud that but please don’t let articles like this discourage you or make you feel guilty about doing, or being able to do, the work you do. you shouldn’t have to make excuses or apologize for that.

    sorry for the long windedness! looking forward to life flashes by!

  2. Mory Buckman says:

    “I also need to be helping to create an environment where women who came to computers later in life don’t feel belittled in indie game communities for not being talented or passionate enough”

    Have you seen this? Have you seen women in game development positions who are accused (unjustly) of not being talented or passionate enough?

  3. Anonymous says:

    I was going to ask that as well, but my comment was getting too long as it was.

  4. Hi, Anonymous! Those posts made me uncomfortable, too, and that’s specifically why I engaged them: to figure out WHY they made me uncomfortable. Since you are, of course, anonymous, I have no idea why you would feel uncomfortable, but I’m making an educated guess that it’s because you yourself are privileged in similar ways. In any case, don’t give yourself the impression that unpacking one’s privilege is the same as self-flagellating. There’s no way I’m going to stop working on my stuff (what would I do with myself otherwise?) and being aware of these various issues isn’t affecting my ability to create. Still, these issues exist, and I feel the need to highlight them. If you don’t like it, tough luck.

    (By the way, capital letters are your friends. Just saying.)

    And to answer Mory’s question, yes. To give one easy example, there’s a comment in my Border House post where someone details that she’s constantly assumed to be a PR bimbo that her company has hired, not someone who actually worked on the game. Also, I myself have had this impression of other women in games, particularly those who worked in less technical roles than me, though I didn’t voice it to their faces. Somehow, I thought I was superior to and more talented than them because I started programming when I was ten. I’d like to hope I know better now.

  5. Anonymous says:

    oh, well my original comment was an attempt to talk through what i found uncomfortable about each piece!

    short version: i thought the first piece sent a damaging/negative message to aspiring developers, and i thought the second piece, while certainly true, isn’t really a reason to change your original position – that is, making games is (can be?) easy!

    even if that message is a little sugar-coated, i’m convinced it is the correct message to send to aspiring developers, especially children, regardless of their background/gender/privilege/whatever.

    (personally, i came very late to programming and game development, probably mostly due to a lack of awareness (or lack of aptitude in maths or sciences) rather than lack of access, as i did develop other tangential computer skills, like typing)

    anyway, i sense some hostility so i’ll probably just leave it at that. sorry for the misunderstanding!

    oh, and i won’t be changing my lowercase, thanks for the advice though :)

  6. Lee says:

    I think the notion of priviledge as presented by at least one of those posts sounds just a little bit like sour grapes. I know how it feels to be on the bottom because I didn’t have the head start that others in a given field apparently had. However, I’ve never liked the idea of using that as a stick to defend my fragile self-esteem with. It’s a poor artist who blames his tools, and it’s a poor creator who blames his upbringing for his lack of creative fulfillment. To my mind, the Randy Rizun*s of the world (* the computer geek ‘friend’ I wound up in a fight with over the rumour I was gay) pretty much have their life scripts written fro them from an early age, and the so-called advantages they are given are like a millstone around their necks. They have no choice but to be who their opportunities helped them to become.

    Whereas, I, who had relatively little advantage (for someone born and bred in Canada), have had a great deal more flexibility in who I could grow into being (writer, artist, musician, designer). The lack of direction has often felt like a curse, but I don’t think I’d be the same person, or nearly as exceptional (for lack of a better word) if I had been directed to one specific career path as early on as these so-called priviledged kids.

    So I guess it’s all really down to whether you’re happy with the results, and if you’re not, what are you doing to change your situation? If all you can do is point the finger and say ‘I can’t because…’, you’re absolving yourself of responsibility for your own life.

    Now, I say that knowing I’m a white male North American, and that doors open more easily for me than they do for you, based solely on the fact that I look ‘normal’… or you know, relatively normal. you’ve seen my photos. I’m a bit of a freak in real life. But beards and hair can be trimmed or shaved to an acceptable look. I’ll never be mistaken for an Israeli or a Nigerian, and thus will not be subjected to the kinds of conscious and unconscious prejudice that women and visible minorities are subjected to in this country.

    That said, what priviledge I had growing up was relatively minor, and there have been plenty of doors closed in my face, too. Fortunately, I’ve rarely had a door closed in my face that I really wanted to go through in the first place, and those that I am determined to walk through remain open to me, as near as I can tell (though my age is beginning to work against me).

    So while I won’t begrudge anyone the right to call fowl when subjected to gross ignorance, as in the case of people who assume that computer science is dominated by males due to some genetic gender predisposition, I don’t like the attitude that there’s something inherently unfair about being raised in an environment more conducive to certain career paths than others. Unlike some liberal types, I’ve never really bought into the whole idea that every precious little snowflake has the creator-ordained right to become absolutely anything they wish. I think you can enter any field you like, at any age you wish, and rise to any position you are deemed fit to occupy within that field. However, expect it to be harder for you to advance than the kid who has been breathing the shit since s/he was in diapers. Get over it. What did you expect? A medal for effort? If effort was a salable commodity, I’d be in much better financial shape than I am now. It’s not effort that gets rewarded; it’s results, and that kid who was learning to code before they could speak in full sentences probably has an innate understanding of the technology that I’ve only been approximating through sheer force of will. I can get better, yes, and if the kid is lazy, I can even surpass them. However, I don’t see any point in complaining that they had it better than me, and that’s the only reason they’re ahead of me on the pay scale.

    Think of it this way: the priviledged kid of today is tomorrow’s very nervous project manager, hoping they won’t get canned before they’ve made a name for themselves, because if the project ends and their contract doesn’t get picked up somewhere else, they’re going to have a harder time than I am finding work outside of the field they’ve been aimed at all of their lives. To my way of thinking, that’s not as cool as it first seems. Take away my computer, and I have to go back to drawing and writing and writing music by hand. But guess what? That’s how I started, so I have that ability. Not so bad when you think about it objectively.

    My point is, argue for your limitations, and sure enough, they’re yours. It’s a lesson in life I’m constantly having to relearn myself.

  7. Apologies for the hostility, Anonymous. I was a) surly because I hadn’t had my coffee yet, and b) vaguely irritated by your anonymity since I prefer my online visitors to give me some clue as to their identity, even if it’s only a screen name. (It’s common courtesy, really.) I don’t know who you are or why you’re here, so I wind up assuming more negativity on your part than I would assume otherwise. Thanks for telling me a little bit about your background, though. It helps clarify your position to me somewhat.

    Lee: thanks for your perspective, as always. I agree, hard work will always be a major part of the equation, no matter what you’re born with. I’m willing to believe there’s an element of natural talent and calling as well. Still, I don’t think pointing out societal privilege is sour grapes. I see it more as critique. :)

  8. rathnid says:

    This reminds me very much of the conversation between Randy Waterhouse and his girlfriend Charlene (and her peers) in the novel “Cryptonomicon”. The table discussion disintegrates into a hostile criticism of Randy as a techno-elitist who had massive privileges – which he was too elite to even notice – in order to become as advanced as he was as a network specialist.

    My personal spin is that the real elitism involved here is in imposing the assumption that people who are raised without a certain level of computer skills are somehow at a disadvantage. Our ethnocentric tendencies make us “feel sorry” for people who are “technologically disadvantaged”. A person who takes out a micro-loan in a so-called “third-world” country in order to start a basket-making business, who does all of her bookkeeping on paper, has improved her life and probably doesn’t spend a lot of her time worrying that she’s not able to create indie computer games.

    A person born into a so-called “technologically advanced” (study channel-flaking in stone projectile points for alternative advanced technologies to see where the “so-called” status might come from) society may also have bi-polar depression or something else going on that would make her life perhaps even more challenging or “disadvantaged” than someone not born into the supposedly “elitist” situation. Add to that the fact that our daily lives include such things as trying to merge onto a freeway at 80 mph and somehow stay alive, determine where the closest “ubermart” store is, then choose one of 24 different brands of toothpaste – we deal with a dizzying array of info/choices every day. Every life has its own ups and downs and context has everything to do with it.

    I think it safe to say that anyone who has enough of a background into the techno-underpinnings of indie game programming to desire pursuing it (and to resent your techno-background and call you an elitist)probably has her own elitist underpinnings that even allows her to conceive of any value inherent in the concept.

    There, I’ve reached semantic satiation with all of this and now believe that I’m just dreaming all of this and will now switch to the all Emily Deschanel Lucid Dreaming Channel.

  9. Jennief says:

    Found you from a link from geekfeminist. After I read the first two paragraphs of the article on there, I sent an email to my parents that bought an Apple ][e when they first came out to thank them for giving me opportunities I didn’t even realize not many others had at that age.

    Only recently, as I have done some significant navel gazing, (and reading some of the tech women blogs) have I understood how lucky I was. Would I have eventually fallen into the career I have today? No idea. Was my upbringing “privileged”? yup.

    Thanks for putting into words better the thoughts that I was having. :)

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