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White supremacists are trying to recruit American teens through video games

A scholar of gaming culture on what went wrong with “gamer” culture — and why white nationalists see gamers as potential allies.

DreamHack Atlanta 2018
A person at the gaming festival DreamHack Atlanta in 2018.
Chris Thelen/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

A rot has quietly spread among video gamers — a reactionary political culture from which outright white supremacist groups have begun recruiting America’s men and boys.

In 2014, a group of self-described gamers viciously harassed feminist game developers and cultural critics, regularly threatening one of these women’s public appearances. This so-called “Gamergate” movement caught the attention of Megan Condis, a professor of communication at Texas Tech. Condis is both an avid gamer and a professional student of gaming culture, and wanted to understand the attitudes fueling Gamergate itself.

In her research since then, she’s found that the misogyny of Gamergaters is part of a much bigger reactionary tendency among a certain subset of men and boys who play video games, an ideologically charged “gamer” identity that centers a stereotyped white male nerd as the “authentic” gamer. This kind of gamer reacts angrily to individuals who they think threaten their “safe space,” as Condis cheekily termed it — a kind of attitude that has white supremacists see as signaling openness to their even darker worldview.

“Recruiters go to where targets are, staging seemingly casual conversations about issues of race and identity in spaces where lots of disaffected, vulnerable adolescent white males tend to hang out,” Condis writes in a March New York Times op-ed. “Those who exhibit curiosity about white nationalist talking points or express frustration with the alt-right’s ideological opponents such as feminists, anti-racism activists and ‘social justice warriors’ are then escorted through a funnel of increasingly racist rhetoric designed to normalize the presence of white supremacist ideology and paraphernalia through the use of edgy humor and memes.”

It’s not clear how many white supremacists are recruiting in gaming spaces, but the overall spread of reactionary attitudes in the gamer community is an undoubtedly big deal, given the cultural clout of the video game industry. Last year, the video game Fortnite brought in $400 million more in revenue than the world’s highest grossing movie, Avengers: Infinity Warand nearly doubled that of the second most popular movie, Black Panther.

Despite its significant role in our economy and society, the culture of gaming receives considerably less mainstream media and intellectual scrutiny than film, television, and other more traditional cultural products. That seems like a serious oversight, and I reached out to Condis to provide a little bit more perspective. We delved deeper into what’s wrong with (parts of) gamer culture, how white supremacists recruit there, and what, if anything, can be done to fix it.

What follows is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Zack Beauchamp

It seems like there’s a particular kind of man who is disproportionately likely to embrace the “gamer” label — someone who is uncomfortable about broader social trends, what I would call social progress.

What is it about video games, the overall culture of gaming, that makes people like that gravitate toward those spaces — or is it that the culture of gaming is one that encourages people to think like that?

Megan Condis

One of the things that is wild about video games is that if you actually look at the demographics, it’s not the case that video games are overwhelmingly white or overwhelmingly male in terms of people who are buying and playing games.

The Entertainment Software Association always publishes their stats, and it’s pretty much 50-50 between what percentage of the population of men and women play games. The percentage of the population of whites and the percentage of the populations of blacks and Hispanics who report themselves as playing games are about the same. So it’s not really a fact that all gamers are straight, adolescent, white men with neck beards who live in their mothers’ basements. The stereotype is not accurate.

But the stereotype is powerful because it’s the image that the cultural imagination kicks out when we say “gamer.”

If you look at what a gamer is, if they’re a character in a movie or on a television show like The Big Bang Theory, it’s the stereotypical image of the straight white male. A lot of people who do resemble that stereotype and who do feel as though they aren’t accepted in other areas of culture — maybe they aren’t particularly popular at school, or maybe they don’t feel like they kind of resonate with other things that are considered popular in culture — I think a lot of them have grabbed on to that stereotype.

“Well, this is the one space that is reserved for people like me, for people who aren’t the jocks and who aren’t the prom kings and who maybe feel a little bit left behind by the rest of the popular culture,” they think. It’s ironic because comic book movies and science fiction and Star Wars are the popular culture now. We geeks won! We should be celebrating.

But instead, it becomes, well, we’re so used to geekiness and fandom and being a gamer as being this niche position that we kind of keep redefining who really counts as a gamer and what really counts as a game. We keep redefining it to make it stay niche.

It’s not everyone who plays video games who feels this way. But there are definitely a subset of people for whom video games are a tool that they use to define their identity, and then when you have that space kind of being pried open and people saying, “Let’s get more different kinds of people in these games, let’s get more different kinds of voices contributing to the culture,” then that starts to become scary.

I’ve filled my whole identity around the idea that this is the only place that can accept me. So if now if this place isn’t going to accept me, then where am I going to go? I think that’s where white supremacists or alt-right folks come in and they say, “Well, you have to go deeper. You have to go further into being insular and like ‘this space, we definitely won’t be letting in anyone different.’”

Zack Beauchamp

It’s as if there’s this divergence between gamer culture and mainstream culture during a certain period of time, at least openly.

In the past 20 years, in the West broadly construed, it became less and less acceptable to use ethnic slurs openly, to use derogatory terms for LGBT people, to casually insult someone by calling them “retarded.” But at the same time that stuff was becoming more taboo publicly, in politics or an office or other social settings, it was normalized in some gaming settings. You log on to World of Warcraft and people would be throwing insults like that everywhere, including really charged ones like the n-word. How did gaming become, in a twisted sense, countercultural?

Megan Condis

So there’s this idea that the internet is a place where because it’s not a physical environment, then it is a consequence-free environment and it is an — ironically, I’m going to use the term “safe space” — where you can be a heightened version of yourself. Because it’s not a real-world space where people conduct real-world business, then it is somehow consequence-free. It’s only words or it’s only images on the screen.

When it comes to things like social media or like those types of communication where the personas that we’re presenting more or less resemble our real-world persona, it doesn’t really make sense to make a distinction between real and virtual anymore. Of course, the person you are on Facebook or the person you are on Instagram isn’t exactly the same as the person you are in real life — but there’s some resemblance.

But videos games and virtual worlds are spaces that have always been marketed to us as the place where you could have an adventure, a place where you could act out some of your more taboo fantasies, whether it may be violent fantasies or sexualized fantasies or even just, like, impossible fantasies — like, I want to be an astronaut or I want to be a dragon slayer.

So coming into those spaces and saying, “The way that you behave in these fantasy worlds has to be considerate; you have to be aware of racial politics and gender politics in those spaces” — there’s a lot of pushback against that. I think that’s where a lot of the resistance to PC culture or the belief that “feminist criticism is going to ruin video games” comes from. It’s this idea that they will no longer be spaces where you can enact these off-the-wall fantasies if they become spaces where we have to think of them as just as real as the real world or as Instagram or Facebook or what have you.

Zack Beauchamp

Your work takes this a step further. You’ve noted that far-right political factions and outright white nationalists are actively taking advantage of these dynamics to radicalize young men and recruit them to their cause.

Megan Condis

People went through and looked at some of this — researchers who have gone in and looked at the IRC chats of people who are planning harassment campaigns and stuff like that. There’s a book about Steve Bannon that discusses him realizing that gamers could be so dogged and persistent in pursuit of their kind of demands as consumers. There was a quote of him remarking, “You can activate that army. They come in through Gamergate or whatever and then get turned on to politics and Trump.”

And then, lo and behold, Gamergate happens. You start to see coverage on Breitbart media of Gamergate, and I started to see mentions of Gamergate in explicitly white supremacist spaces. The white supremacist online journal Radix published an article about how Gamergate should be this moment where young men, millennial men realize that feminism has this great power of this broader culture and that this is their opportunity to kind of rise up and push back against that. Not just in their own space, the video games, but in the broader space.

So that’s how I got interested in it, was just sort of seeing an instance of what we have maybe in video game culture come to expect as the normal amounts of trolling that you’re just going to encounter on the internet that no one can do anything about. We saw it kind of explode into this coordinated thing, and then we started seeing, “Oh, well, this coordination maybe is coming some from the culture, and maybe it’s coming some from outside the culture.”

In white supremacist groups, there are people who have noticed that this discontent that exists among a certain sector of gamers — this sense that this is the space that I could go to be an unapologetic white male and not to worry about politics or about whatever is going on in my regular life — when they sensed that discontent with the presence of women and people of color in that space, they realized that that would be a story. That it would be easy to then latch onto and to say you’re right, women and people of color are homing in on your space and they’re doing it in a broader space too.

They’re not just taking your games away. Maybe they’re taking your country away or they’re taking your right to freedom of expression away. If this population is receptive to that narrative of video games, then maybe they would be receptive to that narrative in a kind of broader political context.

Zack Beauchamp

It almost seems like there’s two sets of problems.

There’s the obvious one of someone going from Stormfront or the Daily Stormer or whatever insert-your-own-alt-right community, and actively trying to recruit people in various different games. That’s one kind of problem.

And then there’s the other kind of problem, which is the way this is more subtly conditioning pushing young people — young men, really — in a reactionary direction in a way they wouldn’t otherwise go to. It affects their overall political outlook and makes them less tolerant of diversity, more hostile to programs designed to alleviate historical and structural discrimination and stuff like that.

Megan Condis

I play League of Legends, so that’s going to be my example. Probably once every six or seven games, you’ll see someone whose username is something racially or gendered or sexually inappropriate or whatever, or someone who spams in chat and is like, “Hitler was right,” or whatever. And the question is how often is that a person who is just hoping that someone’s going to respond so that they can jump into private chat and be like, “Come check out my neo-Nazi forum,” and then how many of them are just people who are being edgy and memeing or whatever, right?

I guess what I think is really important is the way video game culture has evolved over time, both from the bottom up — like the way gamers themselves kind of imagine who they are and what their communities look like and what their values are — but also from the top down, like the way the industry itself has decided that they don’t often want to be super hands-on. We have [the digital game store] Steam saying they don’t want to curate their storefront or we have Discord having a neo-Nazi presence until it got pointed out and they were kind of shamed into taking it down.

Let’s say Storefront closes down tomorrow and there were no more explicit recruiters in that space. My research is about figuring whether they aren’t needed anymore, that they’ve done enough seeding of these memes so that the community is just reproducing it. Part of what I study is what is it about the environment and the history of the creation of virtual platforms that makes some platforms more okay for this type of rhetoric and less okay for other types of rhetorics.

Their ultimate wet dream goal would be to create an environment where they didn’t have to send any recruiters in. Where the background noise was just so full of Nazi imagery and rhetoric that it could become a machine that generates curiosity and that causes people to go seek them out without them having to go into the space and try to find interested people.

Zack Beauchamp

Do the companies who own these platforms need to do something about this? it doesn’t seem like it’d be feasible to content moderate in-game chats in any meaningful sense, given that so many are between individual players or small groups.

Megan Condis

Discord is a platform that marketed itself as chat for gamers. They got called out for allowing these neo-Nazis to flourish on your platform, and then they went through and did a purge.

But there’s no solution that’s going to be like, “We developed an artificial intelligence algorithm that can detect neo-Nazis and can figure out what their new code words, what’s the new Pepe the Frog going to be, and we’re going to figure that out and that’s going to continually update.” It’s always going to be a process of whack-a-mole; there’s never going to be, like, “We solved white supremacy online!”

But I feel like what’s really important about having this discussion is it creates a public awareness that puts pressure on companies to at least step into the conversation and say we do have a role to play. Maybe if the role they have to play is we just have to hire some people and pay content moderators to weigh in and try to nuke these things as they come up, or maybe the role that they have to play is they have to go be publicly outspoken and say white supremacists aren’t welcome on Steam, or whatever.

These are huge studios, akin to Hollywood movie studios. We need to expect more out of the industry and saying your industry makes billions of dollars a year, you have the resources to hire some human moderators or you have the resources to set up a page where people can go if they want to have more information about reporting whatever type of content. We need to treat it like it’s a cultural industry and pay attention to it accordingly.

That sounds maybe self-serving because I study video games, so of course I’m like, “Everyone should pay attention to it!” But I also think it’s just big enough now. And it’s strange, because you’ll ask people how many people do you think play Fortnite, and they’ll say, “Oh, my kids play it, and I know it’s popular,” but they don’t understand that Fortnite makes billions of dollars. Sometimes, I think the people don’t get the scope of it.

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