Video games are an important part of our generation’s culture and are lauded as a pastime and medium for creative expression. However, video games and gaming culture can extend to the extremes and present themselves in violent and antisocial ways, two aspects of far-right strategy.
Indeed, the far-right has weaponized video games and gaming culture as a vessel for recruitment and propaganda, and, as such, our country needs greater platform moderation.
Right-wing groups have a long history of using video games to introduce people to their ideology and invite them into extremist circles. A notable example is the 2002 “Ethnic Cleansing” game in which a first-person shooter, dressed either as a Nazi skinhead or Ku Klux Klan member, killed “subhuman” characters — usually Black or Latinx people. The game was created and marketed by the neo-Nazi group National Alliance and its subset, Resistance Records, a record label. According to the chairman of the National Alliance, the game sold thousands of copies and mostly reached white teenage boys as the result of the National Alliance’s multimedia marketing strategy.
Video games like “Ethnic Cleansing” do not necessarily exist to convert regular people to neo-Nazism but rather to emphasize and legitimize messages players might already believe in or be familiar with. The repetitive nature of gunning down someone considered “subhuman” validates white supremacists’ racist convictions that BIPOC individuals are lesser than. While more mainstream violent video games have not been found to increase violent behavior in players, the context of the violence in the games can decrease players’ empathy and increase antisocial tendencies, indicators of extremist behavior.
The violent outcomes of games are bad enough when games are limited to the screen. But unfortunately, there is a striking similarity in the setup of white supremacist games and a string of right-wing terrorist attacks in the last 10 years. One notable example is the monstruous mass shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March 2019, when a white supremacist murdered 51 people at two mosques. The shooter livestreamed his hateful acts on Facebook, filming with a GoPro camera and giving his viewers a experience similar to first-person, violent video games. Following the attack, a slew of copycat terrorist attacks occured in Poway, Calif.; El Paso, Texas; and Norway. Additionally, New Zealand banned a video game created to mimic the Christchurch attack.
These terrorist attacks are often coupled with conspiratorial thinking and rhetoric, a trend that is also mirrored in some segments of the gamer community. A salient example is the Gamergate incident of 2014 and 2015, when members of the gamer community systematically bullied, abused and doxxed feminist gamers and journalists under the guise of a conversation about journalism ethics. Some gamers propagated the conspiracy theory that games produced by women were receiving positive press coverage because the makers were sleeping with journalists. At first, much of the harassment happened on the online imageboard 4chan, used by many for its limited moderation. But eventually, the vitriol reached a level high enough that the 4chan administrator decided to ban Gamergate, initiating an exodus toward 8chan, another online imageboard known for its even weaker content moderation.
At the time, many dismissed the controversy as an example of online trolling — certainly vile but generally isolated from reality and mainstream internet culture. The underplaying of Gamergate in the media led to a lack of serious analysis of its underlying causes and didn’t allow leaders to recognize the dangers of virtual mobs.
This dearth of knowledge left the world unprepared to address the level of online hate and conspiracism that has led to a slew of terrorist attacks such as the El Paso shooting and the Jan. 6 insurrection. Also unsurprising is that the conspiracy cult QAnon finds much of its success on unregulated imageboards like 8chan/8kun. Playing off the gamer culture that thrives on these platforms, QAnon is in many ways an alternate reality game, a type of game that requires players to use their own reality as a backdrop to the game’s challenges and goals.
The narrative that QAnon uses to keep followers engaged also reflects the often black-and-white video game storylines. There are bad guys, and there are good guys, and the conflict they engage in takes on an epic, biblical tone, such when they refer to enemies as “satanic.” These attitudes have led to the radicalization of millions of Americans, and some have taken it upon themselves to execute offline actions, either by derailing a train, blocking the Hoover Dam or storming the Capitol. QAnon’s design is rooted in gamification and centers personal action, making the conspiracy cult that much more dangerous.
Many young people at Georgetown University and across our generation have grown up playing video games, and it remains an activity that is imbued with creativity, ingenuity and innovation. But we must also consider how a relatively mainstream medium has been hijacked and weaponized to serve the needs of a violent far-right. The next step in fighting radical conspiracy thinking is to raise awareness about the links between the far-right and video games and pressure online platforms to boot the far-right gamers that are organizing on their platforms.
Lea Marchl is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. Combatting Conspiracies appears online every other Friday.