Delving into The Privilege of Play

April 25, 2023

Aaron Trammell, in his new book The Privilege of Play, digs up the early roots of exclusion in gaming, exploring how the history of white masculinity in hobby gaming created systemic barriers to inclusivity.

Aaron Trammell holding a copy of his book.

Aaron Trammell is a self-described “geek” — and has been since the 1980s. But recently, as an associate professor of informatics in UC Irvine’s Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS), Trammell has been further investigating the roots of that identity, delving into the history of geek culture. On the heels of Repairing Play: A Black Phenomenology, a book he published in February that recenters the BIPOC narrative in definitions of play, he has now published The Privilege of Play: A History of Hobby Games, Race, and Geek Culture.

His research took him back to the days of model railroads in the early 20th century, established by and for white male communities of hobbyists. These “secret playgrounds of white men” grew into privileged networks of support for both personal and professional ambitions. As these communities became more mainstream through the tech and gaming industries, Trammell outlines how the legacy of exclusion persisted. However, he also talks about how today’s more diverse generation of geeks can break the cycle, maintaining novel creativity while fostering greater inclusivity.

What motivated you to write this book?
This book is really personal for me because I’ve always been a little bit of a geek or a nerd — that’s why I research games. It was important to me to think about all of the ways that I fit in growing up, and all of the ways that I didn’t. That personal place is what motivated me to do this historical research on the deep history of “geek identity.”

Like a lot of kids in the ’80s and ’90s, I was a geek and I was friends with a lot of other dorks. But the thing that is interesting and confusing is that, at least where I grew up, geek culture was a very white phenomena. I found my identity through that culture, but at the same time, there’s also a lot of social exclusion that happens within the representation and the culture itself that I just took for granted. So trying to understand the experience of being a geek for the many other BIPOC people just like me was a real motivating factor for this book.

Where did your research take you?
I started looking into all these historical stories, and it was just fascinating. The first chapter starts with model railroads at the beginning of the 20th century, and I learned about how model railroads rolled out alongside electricity. They were basically the “killer app” for anybody who brought electricity into their home. How do you show off this cool new thing to your friend beyond showing them your light switch? By having a fully motorized model railroad!

Then you get these communities, mainly of white boys and their fathers, who were really excited about model railroads, and a whole fan culture developed around them. There was even fan fiction about what you can do with the model railroads and how to keep them away from your wife. In one magazine, called Model Railroader, there’s a story of a guy and his son and how they would endeavor to build model railroads into all the houses in the neighborhood, getting other neighborhood boys involved and saying things like, “Don’t tell your mom that we’re doing this.” It’s a really interesting story that completely correlates with the same kinds of people who then would bring these practices into the games they play, asserting, “This is a boys-only club.”

And this further correlates with the kinds of games that people play today, where you have game players on the internet who police the spaces they play in through racial slurs and gender putdowns.

You also found this in war games you studied, correct?
There’s another chapter in the book that goes over a war game company called Avalon Hill, one of the biggest companies ever to make war games. They designed games like Axis and Allies, Diplomacy, Civilization, and tons of other games.

I went through an archive of all their magazines and started looking at the covers, and a lot of them bordered on almost Nazi-like propaganda, glamorizing Nazi figures. One cover even asked, “Who really started World War II?”

Going through this, you start to see how some parts of the community fostered white supremacist ideas. Of course, a cover prominently featuring a glamor shot of Hitler, or one that was questioning the origins of World War II, would make Jewish kids and BIPOC a bit concerned about participating in a community that played these games. By reading my book, you can see how all these modes of policing correlate with game design over the course of the 20th century. I would add that these design sensibilities inform the infrastructure of digital games today.

And what about the connection between leisure interests and professional ambitions?
Although there are examples over time of women and people of color being included in geek culture, overwhelmingly, it has been a homogeneously white male space. When you start to look at famous geeks and why they succeeded, it’s because of the networks that these people were embedded in.

Bill Gates, for example, is a very famous geek, and he was part of this larger network of computing and gaming hobbyists who were predominantly white and male. Within that network, they traded professional secrets, skills and connections. It was a bountiful network that primarily benefited the white men who participated in it. I wouldn’t say that this was the only reason he was successful, but I would say that this “network of privilege” was a big part of it. There is a tremendous wealth of knowledge and resources in these white male networks, and they perpetuated throughout the 20th century, allowing geeks to thrive and become the leaders of industry that we have today.

So this limited leadership in game development?
Exactly. It perpetuates a sort of monoculture within who is developing games and technology. Even more insidiously, it perpetuates the norms of what that culture is. Because even when you have BIPOC folks working in the tech or “geek culture” sector, they’ve already assimilated to the white male norms of geek culture in order to get by. And who could blame them? But this is what systemically has driven the norms of today’s tech culture; it almost always happens without people even realizing it. The games we play, our hobbies, are absolutely correlated with the networks of privilege that we inhabit. Yet we take for granted the white male values that constitute these networks.

You also get people in the gaming community who will say, “I don’t want politics in my games.” They can play a game that’s a reenactment of Gettysburg, where one player represents the Union and the other plays the Confederates, and that’s not seen as politics. But if someone says, “I don’t want to play the Confederacy,” that’s seen as political. So the book really tries to dive into that aspect of hobbyists and geek culture.

Who is your target audience, and what do you hope they get from reading this book?
I’d say that the target audience is anybody who’s interested in hobby games and the story of geek culture. In that regard, the target audience is really broad. I hope a lot of people read this book.

I want the book to help people see how play is a privileged activity, and how it always has been. To have the time and energy to play, you have to have the means to provide that free time for yourself, which means that it’s always been an activity that’s been easier and more accessible to wealthy people, to white people, and to men.

Recognizing that play itself is a privilege helps us understand how our society has produced these homogenous cultures around play. Because play itself is a privilege, it leads to privilege. My main goal is for people to see how things like the whiteness and masculinity of hobbies, of the tech industry, and of gaming overall are systemic issues that have developed over the course of a century. I want people to see that this is systemic, but I also want them to see how people are fighting back.

How does this tie in with today’s geek culture?
The last chapter of the book is really about the regime change in geek culture that’s happening today. There is an old guard of hobbyists that strongly share a number of white masculine values, crashing up against a new generation of geeks that’s really socially active, excited, and trying to push for greater representation and a more inclusive game culture.

But the really interesting thing is that as we have this new group of geeks coming in and renovating the hobby game space, we are losing some things from this old community that are still valuable. This older community published a lot of games themselves without much corporate oversight, and so they took more risks as designers. That’s the sort of thing that I don’t want to lose sight of because it’s valuable … even if it came along with a lot of baggage that the new community is doing its best to get rid of. It’s a really active and interesting space, where we have a community that’s negotiating and working things out amongst themselves.

I’m optimistic about the future for hobby games because of the timing of everything. Gaming has always been a cottage industry, and only now is it starting to get to a place where there’s big money involved. These conversations about privilege and power are happening at an earlier point in the industry’s development than in other similar media industries, such as film. I hope this means that the people in charge will develop a social conscience moving forward. Right now, they have an opportunity to create a gaming space that could be something really, really great.

You can read an excerpt of the book online.

Shani Murray