Why Are They Like That?

The Susceptibility of Male Gamers to Far-Right Indoctrination

This essay was originally written for the course CRIT*308: Globalization, Youth, and Pop Culture taught by Osei Alleyne, PhD at The University of the Arts.

Table of Contents:

  • Who Are Gamers?
  • The Enemy at the Gates
  • Attraction to Far-Right Groups
    • How Gamers Fall to Far-Right Influence
    • Why the Far-Right Recruits Gamers Specifically
    • What Effect This Has On Gamers and Larger Society
  • Glossary
  • Bibliography

Who Are Gamers?

Digital gaming has been growing exponentially in recent years. Video games are turning up in the living rooms and on the computers and smart phones of an increasingly diverse group of media consumers (Bangeman). Gaming has even given rise to its own vibrant subculture with its own specialized vocabulary and its own complex social structures and hierarchies (Hebdige). Gamers are often viewed as media-savvy tastemakers, early adopters who can be studied by corporations looking to predict which franchises will become mainstream hits, and they are also courted as a niche market in their own right (Jenkins, Convergence Culture 23).

(Condis 1)

Why is the Far-Right interested in recruiting gamers specifically? How do gamers fall to its influence? And finally, what effect does this have on gaming subculture and even larger society?

Figure 1 (Duggan, Demographics of Video Game Players and Self-Described “Gamers”).

To at least partially answer these questions, I am looking at male gamers ages 18-29 in the USA. 77% of this group plays games, and 33% of young American men call themselves gamers (Duggan, Who plays video games and identifies as a “gamer”). 48% of gamers self-identify as conservative, but neither political party is more popular than the other; both Republicans and Democrats make up 38% of gamers. Video game players are more politically engaged than the average American (Entertainment Software Association), likely because of the online communities they’ve formed where they can discuss not only games but politics as well with strangers they wouldn’t have encountered in “real” life.

In this paper, I am looking specifically at core gamers. Condis’ analysis of Ernest Cline’s ludic novel Ready Player One—advertised as “the apex of a tradition of texts that serve as the foundations of gamer culture” (Condis 4)—as an “encyclopaedic account” of this subcultural identity provides an strong example of core gaming culture.

Firstly, Cline’s novel provides a canon of games (as well as films, TV shows, and other pop cultural artefacts) that he and other members of the core community view as “foundational”; familiarity with these texts gives the gamer social capital—without it, they risk being gatekept. From my personal observation, two of the most highly-regarded texts are Dark Souls and The Matrix, the latter of which has had a great effect on North American culture, from memes (Valadar917) to social movements (Lin 87). In addition to these revered works, the most popular core games include League of Legends, PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS, and Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 (Newzoo), which are all MMO shooting games.

Secondly, “knowledge of a canon is just as much about the . . . correct reading practice as it is about the selection of the correct texts,” (Condis 10) and the correct reading practice is to identify with the texts of the canon, not to criticize them. Even before Tropes Vs Women in Video Games moved from Kickstarter to YouTube, gamers began to harass its creator, Anita Sarkeesian—doxxing her, spreading lies, and threatening violence—because she had dared to suggest examining video games from a feminist lens. Similarly, there was backlash when it was announced that Zendaya and Candice Patton were playing Mary Jane in Spider-Man: Homecoming and Iris West Allen in CW’s The Flash respectively, because both characters were red-headed white women and both actresses are Black.

Returning to Cline, his canon consists of almost exclusively of white men—only one author is not “of European descent” (10), and the only work by women is The Matrix, which was made before the Wachowski Sisters came out as transgender. In the novel, characters are forbidden from reinterpreting the texts; the only correct way to consume this canon focusing on white men is through “a performance of white masculinity” (12). According to Ready Player One, being anything but a white man is “incompatible with . . . what a hardcore gamer is” (14), and if those deviating from this standard would “hide their difference, then they might become well-regarded members of the community.” (15)

The Enemy at the Gates

It makes sense that men think gaming is primarily, if not exclusively, for them—early game studios were mostly male, because there were more men in computer sciences than women. In the 70s, games were designed for (and popular with) everyone, split only by whether they were designed for home consoles or meant to be played in arcades. However, in the early 90s, after the game industry crash of the 80s, games and their advertisements became heavily gendered; it was financially safer to focus on one demographic at the expense of all the others, and that demographic was male (Lien).

“When one is used to being catered to, and then suddenly other people are being catered to as well, it feels like you’ve lost something, even though you actually haven’t. So privilege absolutely plays into this, both male privilege and white privilege.” (Booth) Many core gamers feel that they live in a zero-sum game, and that catering to “other people” is ruining video games. “They [men] talk about it like it’s the last bastion of masculinity. Like, ‘These feminazis have taken everything from us, now they are coming for our games.'” (Sarkeesian) Gamers complain about political correctness forcing diversity in games, saying it’s been “shoehorned” in and lacks authenticity (Moog), even when it’s based in history (Tamburro) (Adams). I assume that one explanation for this is because, firstly, the American education system has a myopic focus on white men and their accomplishments, and secondly, this myopia is normalized in pop culture to the point of propaganda—compare First Man with Hidden Figures, two films focusing on NASA’s early years. The latter highlights the Black women that made the necessary calculations to reach the Moon, while the former makes no mention of them, despite coming out two years after the other, focusing instead on Neil Armstrong’s stoicism.

Men defend their exclusionary canon with “Games are fantasy so being realistic is unnecessary” and “Some games are realistic, and that includes politically incorrect things”, responding to criticism with “If you don’t like a game, don’t buy it” or “Make your own PC games” (Islands). When people do make their own diverse games, core gamers still complain, saying the games—whether they are indie or AAA—are “racially motivated” and have “a shallow message”. Diversity, to core gamers, “[pushes] an agenda against a certain group of people . . . the alt-right ‘white males'” (Moog).

This mentality—that catering to anyone other than straight white men results in cultural degeneracy—is not exclusive to games. In April of 2000, conservative George Will “condemned egalitarianism and redefined diversity and freedom into their opposites” (similarly to how gamers believe “PCness ruins creative freedom” (Islands) by forcing developers to bow to SJWs’ fancies instead of allowing them to pursue their own interests) on a panel sponsored by the Princeton University Center for Human Values. He finished his talk by saying “if no man is a hero to his valet—that is not because no man is a hero—but because all valets are valets” (Kintz 345). His colleague, George Gilder, also “joins neoconservative political economy to a theocratic belief in natural law . . . to assert the natural, intrinsic nature of gender and racial hierarchies” (Kintz 333), warning that “The central error of materialism is to subordinate a higher level of creative activity to a lower one” (Gilder 13).

Attraction to Far-Right Groups

In the global expansion of cyberspace, the complex mixture of high technology and U.S. cultural politics has made white supremacy paradoxically both more powerful and more invisible.

(Kintz 333)

On platforms such as Xbox Live, where gamers play online together and use voice chats to communicate, individuals subconsciously use linguistic profiling to “speculate on the racial background of another person. Based on how they sound, they experience constant harassment, verbal abuse, and racism” (Gray). 57% of players of all ages and genders report being bullied in an online game—57% of those were subjected to hate speech, 47% received threats, 38% were hacked, and 37% had been doxxed (Ditch the Label). One major reason for why the numbers are so high is simply because they’re allowed to be—platforms suspending or permanently banning players that use slurs, introducing a positive-reinforcement “Honor” system, and/or allowing gamers to avoid random assignment to multiplayer games have all shown to greatly reduce toxicity (Castello).

Some gamers, though, defend their usage of slurs, saying that “gay” and “fag” are perfectly acceptable synonyms for “stupid” as they were used without malice. They claim that, because they are used so often online without discriminatory intention, the language has evolved to something harmless, refusing to take hegemonic culture and extant power imbalances into account (Alexander). One gamer, though, puts it very differently:

[W]ith today’s matchmaking, there’s no time think up a truly cutting insult. You’ve got maybe half an hour, tops, with any given player to think up a burn that really hits their core. After that, you’ll never see them again. With that knowledge in hand, where does the aspiring pro have left to turn? The nuclear option. Racial slurs and sexist stereotypes are go-to, near guaranteed means of pissing someone off. Granted, there’s a great amount of real racism and sexism behind it, but first and foremost those words are immediately inflammatory.

(Griffehpoo)

It is here that we can begin to answer the questions we posed at the beginning.

How Gamers Fall to Far-Right Influence

One reason has to do with the two groups sharing a common platform: Discord. It was designed to “bring people together around gaming” and has a userbase of over 150 million with communities that “run on distinct, free servers” that require invitation, allowing users a comfortable amount of privacy. Discord’s Community Guidelines “specifically prohibit harassment, threatening messages, or calls to violence” but does not read users’ messages or actively moderate servers; it claims to investigate and “take immediate appropriate action against any reported ToS violation by a server or user”, yet it is the place where neo-Nazis and white supremacists do most of their organizing, socializing, and recruiting. Far-Right groups have servers dedicated around memes or gaming; the spaces oriented to non-initiates tend to come with caveats like “(satire, don’t get triggered)” and they “blur juvenile-seeming, semi-ironic meme making with outright racism”, appealing to gamers “who are mostly hoping to find an abasing joke or chat about violent video games safely without fear of offending someone.” (Glaser) Once the far-right extremists sense they’ve “got their hooks in” the outsiders, “they start sending propaganda, links to other sites, or they start talking about these old kind of racist anti-Semitic tropes.” (Kamenetz)

Why the Far-Right Recruits Gamers Specifically

Far-right extremists look for “what young men [are] angry about and how they could leverage that to bring about a broad-based social movement” (Kamenetz). When Steve Bannon became a part of World of Warcraft, he found a world “‘populated by millions of intense young men’ who . . . were ‘smart, focused, relatively wealthy, and highly motivated by issues that mattered to them.'” He focused specifically on attracting their interest in his website Breitbart, and hired Milo Yiannopoulos, known for his #GamerGate articles, to “whip up disaffected gamers.” (Swearingen).

“With 2014’s Gamergate, Breitbart seized the opportunity to harness the pre-existing ignorance and anger among disaffected young white dudes” and by 2016, the website was “effectively running” Trump’s campaign (Lees), using manipulative language and oftentimes misrepresenting facts to better support Breitbart’s message. Eventually, the #GamerGate conversation shifted from “ethics in journalism” to “Cultural Marxism” in politics—how it and feminism would destroy western civilization. “A common theme began to emerge: that White men were being systematically oppressed by dangerous left-wing forces, and that mainstream conservatives, through their ‘weak’ response to multiculturalism, had ‘sold them out.'” (Neiwert 8)

These discussions, along with “elements not only from White nationalists and supremacists of all stripes, but also misogynist anti-feminists, certain ‘neo-reactionary’ activists who regard democratic rule as a threat to civilization, as well as some right-wing anarchist elements” led to the creation of the Alt Right, a title coined by Richard Spencer, its de facto leader.

The Alt Right defined itself by its “cultural agility”, using memes, many of which tap into pop culture, to immediately communicate its ideas. They “describe the conversion to their point of view as getting ‘red-pilled,’ after the red pill in . . . The Matrix that enables Keanu Reeves to see reality”, comparing it to the power of their ideology to “cut through the lies” of SJWs and so on. (8, 9)

“The Alt-Right is a ‘mass movement’ in the truest sense of the word, a type of mass-movement that could only exist on the Internet,” . . . By virtue of its spreading online presence, and the genuinely extremist nature of the ideology it promoted, the Alt Right  . . . had become a massive mechanism for the online radicalization of mostly young White Americans.

(9)

What Effect This Has on Gamers and Larger Society

Far-right groups are changing to fit the times, becoming more insidious, recruiting more broadly and spending less time and resources, and successfully orchestrating harmful campaigns against those they label as their enemies.

How can we resist them—not just in gaming culture but on the rest of the internet as well? How can we rehabilitate far-right extremists’ beliefs, showing that life doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game where white men always come on top? And finally, how can we create a strong enough community to discourage them from recruiting from amongst gamers at all?


Glossary

  • #GamerGate
    • An online movement that was supposedly about exposing ethical lapses in gaming journalism but which was actually a harassment campaign orchestrated by users on 4chan (Johnston), 8
  • AAA (triple-A)
    • A game produced and distributed by a mid-size or major publisher, often with a very high budget—the video game equivalent to a blockbuster. Because of how expensive it is and how long it takes to make one such game, they tend to stay away from controversial statements such as criticizing hegemonic culture, and usually are not very diverse., 6
  • Core
    • gamers
      • Those who play core games, 3
    • games
      • Action/Adventure, Fighting, Flight, MMO, Racing, Real-Time Strategy, Shooter, or Sport (The NPD Group, Inc), 3
  • Dark Souls
    • Critically acclaimed action role-playing game—considered to be one of the best video games ever released. It is known for being a brutally difficult game., 3
  • Indie
    • A game made by a small, independent company, often without the financial assistance of a publisher. Indies tend to be shorter, more experimental, daring, featuring more diverse characters or making strong political statements., 5
  • Ludic
    • Of, relating to, or characterized by play. A design strategy motivated by how fun it is (ludology VS narratology in game design). A novel that is read for fun., 3
  • MMO
    • Massively Multiplayer Online (game), 3
  • PC
    • politically correct, political correctness, 5
  • SJW
    • SJW Social Justice Warrior. During #GamerGate, the term became an insult meaning someone who overreacts to perceived wrongs, love being outraged, and seeks the oppression of cisgender heterosexual white men., 6

Bibliography

Booth, Paul. “Why are gaming’s toxic men so enraged?” Gaming’s toxic men, explained. Colin Campbell. Polygon, 25 July 2018.

Brown, Anna. Younger men play video games, but so do a diverse group of other Americans. 11 September 2017. 10 December 2018. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/09/11/younger-men-play-video-games-but-so-do-a-diverse-group-of-other-americans/

Condis, Megan Amber. “Playing the Game of Literature: Ready Player One, the Ludic Novel, and the Geeky “Canon” of White Masculinity.” Journal of Modern Literature 39.2 (2016): 1-19.

Duggan, Maeve. Demographics of Video Game Players and Self-Described “Gamers”. 18 December 2015. December 2018. https://www.marketingcharts.com/digital-63827

—. Who plays video games and identifies as a “gamer”. 15 December 2015. December 2018. http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/12/15/who-plays-video-games-and-identifies-as-a-gamer/

Entertainment Software Association. “Essential Facts About Gamers and Politics.” 2015. http://www.theesa.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/Essential-Facts-About-Gamer-Politics.pdf

Gilder, George. “The Materialist Superstition.” The Intercollegiate Review (1996): 6-14.

Islands, Destini. Dissecting the problems with political correctness arguments in gaming. 28 9 2015. November 2018. https://www.gameskinny.com/09fz3/dissecting-the-problems-with-political-correctness-arguments-in-gaming

Kintz, Linda. “Performing Virtual Whiteness: The Psychic Fantasy of Globalization.” Comparative Literature 53.4 (2001): 333-353.

Lien, Tracey. No girls allowed. 2 December 2013. November 2018. https://www.polygon.com/features/2013/12/2/5143856/no-girls-allowed

Lin, Jie Liang. “Antifeminism Online.” Digital Environments. Transcript Verlag, 2017.

Moog. Political Correctness: Why is this a thing in our games? 10 August 2017. November 2018. http://www.gamersheroes.com/features/political-correctness-why-is-this-a-thing-in-our-games-editorial/

Newzoo. Most Popular Core PC Games October 2018. October 2018. November 2018. https://newzoo.com/insights/rankings/top-20-core-pc-games/

Sarkeesian, Anita. “Why are gaming’s toxic men so enraged?” Gaming’s toxic men, explained. Colin Campbell. Polygon, 25 July 2018.

Tamburro, Paul. Battlefield 1’s Black Protagonists Bring Out The Racists. 3 October 2016. December 2018. https://www.mandatory.com/culture/1131893-battlefield-1s-black-protagonists-bring-racists

The NPD Group, Inc. 37 Percent Of U.S. Population Age 9 and Older Currently Plays PC Games. 9 September 2014. November 2018. https://www.npd.com/wps/portal/npd/us/news/press-releases/37-percent-of-us-population-age-9-and-older-currently-plays-pc-games/

Valadar917. Matrix Morpheus. 2012. December 2018. https://knowyourmeme.com/memes/matrix-morpheus

Published by Art By Nooka

Game designer, writer, and illustrator

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