In the shocked aftermath of the Columbine school shooting, the American government took a long, hard look at the lax gun control laws that had allowed the massacre to take place. Then they took an equally long, hard look at how much of their re-election funds were bankrolled by the NRA and gun manufacturers. As a result, it was quietly decided that it was probably the fault of violent video games instead. Since then, video games became something of a recurring villain for the morality police, as the old standby of ‘heavy metal promotes Satanism!’ began to look a little hoary in the bright light of the 21st century. Whilst the exact nature of the existential threat posed by video games to ‘the youth’ has shifted repeatedly over the last 21 years between anything from violence and sexual situations to creating addictive tendencies in pre-teens. Recently however gamers have been increasingly conflated with the alt-right, with juggernauts such as Fortnite are accused of serving as recruiting grounds for white nationalists. Has the increasingly online world of video games opened up as a new front in the culture war or is this just the same old moral panic in an up-to-date guise?
The gaming community had its cultural watershed moment in 2014 with what was called the Gamergate scandal (the -gate suffix being perhaps the most abused in the English language). Gaming journalism had built up a reputation for being extremely susceptible to corporate pressure. Terrible games made by industry heavy hitters like Activision or EA would (and indeed still do) score inexplicably positive reviews from gaming sites due to fears that a genuinely negative review would see the angry publisher cut off their access to future previews or purchasing advertisements. Those who paid attention to this kind of thing had been growing steadily more frustrated for years and a reckoning was deemed inevitable. When the tension finally boiled over however, it spun out in an unexpected direction.
In 2013 an independent game designer named Zoe Quinn had released a free game called Depression Quest. Depression Quest isn’t a “game,” in the way we traditionally conceive of it: It’s more a story or a piece of interactive art which, as it unfolds, tells the story of a young adult’s depression. The game attracted both criticism from those who found it pretentious and rave reviews from critics who appreciated its bold approach to game design. It was later revealed by one of Quinn’s ex-boyfriends that she had had an affair with one of these game journalists and he accused her of trading sex for positive reviews (his employer the gaming website Kotaku has totally refuted this accusation). This led to an explosion of online rage, that swiftly moved away from the original complaints over video game review practices into savage anti-feminist attacks that spread beyond Quinn to women and progressives even tangentially involved in the industry. Accusations were made that the close relationships between journalists and developers demonstrated a conspiracy among reviewers to focus on progressive social issues rather than gameplay and that ‘gamer identity’ was under threat from what is now commonly referred to as ‘cultural Marxism’. Future luminaries of the nascent alt-right like Milo Yiannapolous first came to the global stage by cheerleading Gamergate, many under the auspices of future Trump Svengali Steve Bannon, the then editor-in-chief of right-wing news site Breitbart. Hundreds of incidents of death threats, rape threats, and doxing (the public leaking of private information like home addresses or phone numbers) took place for months with the overwhelming majority of those threatened being women.
In the howling storm of Gamergate there were no clear leaders and countless bad actors who were less interested in ‘ethics in gaming journalism’ than the savage repression of attempts at increasing racial, ethnic, and gender diversity in society. It was the first real glimpse of the hate-spewing maelstrom that would consume the online discourse and see the election of Donald Trump. Naturally because it was ‘just’ about gaming it was almost universally ignored, and any lessons that might have been taken about the rising spectre of the alt-right were ignored until it was far too late. As far as gaming goes the smoking battle lines remain drawn, with many online communities of gamers such as reddit or 4chan are still hyper-fixated on not allowing identity politics to influence video games. Games which feature ethnic minority or women protagonists will frequently be victims to waves of online attacks and derision for making a ‘political’ statement, whilst no issue is taken with recent historical first-person shooters such as Call Of Duty that allow you to play as a Nazi officer. Indeed, long established series like Wolfenstein which have featured Nazis as the villains since the ’90s have seen recent entries accused of being ‘political’ for taking such a bold stance as “Nazis are bad”.
The cliché about gaming is that it’s exclusively for socially deficient teenage boys. As ‘social deficient teenage boy’ is just a kinder way of saying ‘incel’ (short for ‘involuntary celibate’, a subculture of men who resent women for not sleeping with them and frequently lean to the far-right), it does make gamers sound like they’re prime targets for the alt-right. Gamergate itself was only ever the bubbling-over of a regressive cultural climate that has been building since the mid-1980s, when women were squeezed out of computer science roles (after having been integral to the original development of coding), and thanks to the wake of the 1983 crash that nearly collapsed the industry. Video games rebranded themselves as toys sold almost exclusively to boys, having originally been sold (and with significant success) as products for both genders. As those boys grew up in a hobby that was still niche but blossoming, they were hawked regressive teen fantasies by companies that became largely homogeneous themselves.
However, taking a closer look at the statistics, there has been a sea change in gaming’s demographics. Male pastime figures recorded by the Interactive Software Federation of Europe in 2012 broke down the gender divide in gamers as being as little as 10 percent, with 45% women vs 55% men. With such a large proportion of women gamers, the industry is slowly pulling itself out of the quagmire of its own deleterious past. Significant proportions of gamers are afraid of industry changes being imposed from above, but the changes are coming from within instead. Gaming does have a problem with an extremely vocal minority espousing Alt- and Far-Right ideals, but the changing demographics point to a future where gaming might finally grow up.