Gaming and the Alt-Right

Are gaming communities hooking kids into far-right movements?

Posted Aug 18, 2020

Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, the United States went through a period of Satan Panic. Many people worried that Satanic cults were on the rise, seeking to recruit vulnerable young people via popular culture, particularly heavy metal and Dungeons and Dragons. Most of these concerns were promoted by a powerful Christian conservative movement, though they certainly entered the mainstream, such as the earnest 60 Minutes episode linking Dungeons and Dragons to suicide and murder. 

Did Satanists really try to recruit children via popular culture in the '80s? It’s a big world, so perhaps a few did try, though most of the heavy metal bands that employed dark images did so for theatrics, not theocracy. 

Fast forward to today, and we’re seeing a revival of the “recruit your kids for dark purposes” fears, albeit this time coming often from the left. In this case, the concern is that the “alt-right” is attempting to recruit teens, presumably into Nazi or white supremacist groups. The fear is that the alt-right is using online gaming platforms to lure vulnerable youth with their messages of hate.

As with the Satanists of the '80s, we can ask in a big world is it plausible that some alt-right groups are attempting to recruit kids online? I’d say it’s likely, although it’s unclear whether actual Nazis or white supremacists are particularly numerous (most actual white supremacist rallies appear to be a poor showing of sad saps to me). Of course, it’s reasonable to conclude that even a few individuals may more easily recruit online than using the technology available in the' 80s or early '90s. But is there any evidence such efforts are effective?

At least for the moment, the short answer appears to be no. Or at least this is a concern built largely on hyperbole and only weakly on data. One study suggested that YouTube content might subtly nudge viewers toward more radicalized content, and I think it’s fair to look at the algorithms of social media platforms. However, there’s less evidence that such content is particularly effective in changing the attitudes of users, particularly in the gaming community. 

What data we have suggests that, if anything, gaming communities tend to skew toward the political left, even among supporters of the Gamergate movement. Trying to characterize Gamergate in a way that everyone will agree on is a losing proposition. It began as an indictment of conflicts of interest in gaming journalism but came to be associated with harassment of women in gaming communities. However, whether this harassment was committed by gamers, actual Gamergate supporters, a handful of online mega-trolls, Russian bots, or some combination of the above remains largely unknown. Gamergate supporters are often assumed to be the most right-wing of gamers, but available evidence suggests even they are more left-wing than the general US populace on most social issues. 

From a search I conducted in the literature, there appear to be few if any actual empirical studies to connect gaming, gaming culture, or Gamergate to the alt-right. There are think pieces that certainly make this assumption, but little by way of actual evidence. Put simply, these beliefs are too often being advanced in the absence of falsifiable hypotheses and research data. 

The issue appears to be less that gaming communities (including Gamergate) are particularly alt-right and more that alt-right gamers are particularly loud and obnoxious (or even toxic and harassing). This can cause people to falsely correlate gaming with the alt-right. Those people then employ confirmation bias, essentially looking for further evidence to support their views and ignoring or even becoming angry at evidence that challenges those views.

Media-based, moral panics coming from the left aren’t unheard of (some radical feminists joined with Christian conservatives in worrying over the impact of pornography on violence toward women, though research to date largely hasn’t supported such concerns). However, we tend to see more moral panics come from the right. What’s changed appears to be a general abrogation of free speech on the far left and a renewed interest in policing the morality of entertainment. This has resulted in everything from the half-serious condemnation of Paw Patrol, removal of a mud-mask scene from Golden Girls, and the ironic return of a moral panic over Dungeons and Dragons and whether evil “races” such as orcs or goblins might promote racism in real life (there’s no evidence currently that it does). 

I’d argue that much of this new moral panic originates within academia itself, particularly the somewhat chaotic combination of fields lumped under media and game studies. Portraying such a field as a consistent whole would be erroneous as media studies scholars come from a variety of traditions, united solely by their interest in media and games. Such an umbrella includes everyone from hard empiricists conducting experiments through more classic humanities scholars whose work is similar to literary criticism. This diversity can be a strength, but it can also cause controversy and create the misimpression that scholarly statements of real-life facts based on anecdote or literary analysis are equivalent to those based on falsifiable hypotheses backed by data.

To be clear, my concern here is not in distinguishing between quantitative and qualitative research…indeed, I feel both can produce reliable information using open science principles with testable hypotheses and clear guidelines for how hypotheses might be falsified. After all, history, which typically isn’t quantified, has guidelines for historicity to increase the reliability and objectivity of historical analyses. By contrast, quantitative data has often failed as a reliable source of information, particularly when conducted in haphazard ways. There’s little reason, even coming from multiple disciplines, that media scholarship couldn’t focus clearly on falsifiable hypotheses and an attempt at objectivity. However, I am concerned that, too often, media studies degenerates into the reification of personal belief and moral agendas under a guise of pseudo-scholarship, wherein statements of fact (“gaming communities are toxic,” or “gaming is associated with the alt-right”) are promulgated in the absence of reliable data. Granted, this is far from unique to this field. 

These errors, whether occurring within academia or games journalism, are exacerbated, I feel, by an overreliance on two things. First, Cultivation Theory, which states that human attitudes are shaped by exposure to media. Cultivation Theory is intuitively appealing, but even where I myself thought it should clearly apply, it can be maddeningly difficult to find evidence to support it. 

The second is the intrusion of Critical Theories into gaming scholarship, with their tendency to problematize everything. As the saying goes, if all one has is a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail. Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay have an excellent and important analysis of the Critical Theories that highlights the Manichaean and often outright anti-science nature of the Critical approach. Such theories arguably have led to some aspects of media studies (both in academia and journalism) to begin to sound like fun police, with a knee-jerk tendency to find problematic elements in just about anything.

I worry this tendency becomes exhausting to most of the general populace and distracts from pressing issues needing change such as actual policing and criminal justice reform and addressing disparities in education. If, as data suggests, gamers on average tend to be socially liberal but are constantly stereotyped as alt-right, media scholars and journalists may find themselves more effective in alienating allies and unwinding consensuses for change than they are at building them. 

Few things are absolutely dichotomous, of course. There may be some examples from media or technology that are truly beyond the pale, or even outright dangerous (the online spread of QAnon, for instance). However, the Overton window for acceptable art should be kept broad, including that which is subversive to both left and right values. This is particularly true when, as is too often the case, advocacy moves toward de facto censorship or restrictions in availability. There’s a difference between advocating for new, more enlightened forms of art (which I have done myself particularly related to portrayals of women in games) and advocating for the destruction of art we don’t like. And claims to fact, even coming from scholars, should be heavily scrutinized and tied to clear, reliable, empirical data. 

For some reason, despite our awareness of moral panics, we return to them again and again. This suggests they occupy some fundamental place in human culture, possibly involving issues of control, morality, power, status, and aggression. They are resistant to data, compromise, and moderation. And they can come at us from both the right and left.   

Ultimately, current narratives from the far left over games or Dungeons and Dragons look a lot like the Satan panics from the '80s and '90s. In both cases, extreme claims of harm were promulgated based on very little data. Both movements were couched in the language of moral concern. Both movements pressured media producers to comply with restrictions in order to avoid bad press. In both cases, a minority of extreme views exerted outsized influence (the main difference being that the Twitter age makes this even more amplified than before). Both cases are, effectively, anti-free speech. Only time will tell if the new puritanism from the left takes permanent hold or gradually diminishes as freedom of art and expression regain their footing.