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Gamers are the Easy—But Wrong—Target After Mass Violence

The recent shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, have resurrected old panic over violence in video games. President Trump, among others, used language linking games to mass shootings and other violence. Such links have long ago been disproven and, fortunately, most people kept their heads and pushed back against these nonsensical claims. But despite this, a more subtle narrative has developed. Is gamer culture itself toxic, catering to misogynists, racists and angry, mostly white, males?

As the moral panic over violent content ebbs, I’ve witnessed a wave of comments either disparaging gamers as a group, or insinuating that while certain types of games might not directly cause violent individuals, they do cultivate negative attitudes, such as sexism, militarism or white supremacy. From an empirical standpoint, such claims tend to be long on anecdote and speculation and short on hard data.

The latest such argument comes from Brianna Wu in the Washington Post, where she argues that gamer culture is inherently angry, racist and sexist, and “encourages hate.”

Ms. Wu is a highly respected video game developer, activist, and aspiring politician (she is running for Congress in 2020). She, along with several other women, was also subjected to an astounding and horrific harassment campaign in 2014 related to what has become known—perhaps mistakenly—as “Gamergate.” Wu’s opinions, then, are understandable. I wish to be clear that I have nothing but respect for Wu’s ideas, even where they differ from my own, and deplore the treatment she and others received for expressing them.

But I disagree with her portrayal of the gaming community. Certainly, to put it bluntly, there are some asshole gamers. But I worry Wu makes a classic mistake that is frowned upon in all other arenas: using generalizations based on the bad behavior of a few to build stereotypical and prejudicial representations of the larger community.

Let’s start with a basic premise: Many people behave badly, and women are more likely to be the target of sexual harassment and gender-based aggression than men. Of course, this has been true for all of human history, and most of our past has been far more violent than today. But are gamer communities particularly prone to noxious, aggressive behavior?

Women’s reported experience provides one lens on this issue. A 2014 study from the Pew Research Center found that online harassment was a common experience for both men and women across internet platforms (i.e., online gaming, social media, comments sections, discussion sites, etc.) and that harassment was far more common on social media sites than in online gaming. Yes, women reported more harassment, particularly of a sexual nature, but there is a surprising parity in the numbers. Overall, seven percent of women reported being sexually harassed online, and nine percent reported being stalked, with the prevalence for men being four and six percent, respectively. For young women, 25 percent reported sexual harassment. Respondents did consider online gaming less welcoming to women than other online formats, although, interestingly, men were more likely to hold this opinion than women.

From the numbers, one can reasonably conclude that people of all stripes in all online arenas are behaving badly, and that harassment and bullying is nothing unique to gaming communities. Online platforms such as Twitter have become notorious for the harassment of women, and digital communities populated by everyone from young adult fiction writers to breastfeeding mothers experience problems with bullying and aggression.

It’s particularly unfortunate that Wu’s comments came on the heals of two mass shootings, and therefore might reinforce the false belief that gamers are particularly prone to being the perpetrators of violence. Surely, some mass violence involves gamers, but most does not. When members of other communities are involved in mass violence, we rightfully are cautioned not to reflexively blame the community as a whole, and gaming should get the same treatment.

The fact is, much of the current narrative about gamers, and even the Gamergate controversy, is remarkably devoid of good data. Though Wu and others were exposed to unspeakable harassment, it’s not clear who perpetrated it. Gamers? Online trolls? Men, women, whites, minorities, Russian bots? It isn’t clear. The Gamergate movement began as a critique of gamer journalism, one I think is fair. But as the initial debate over journalism exploded into doxxing and death threats directed toward female activists, journalists and developers, the narrative became confused. Arguably, it could be that, as the debate raged, it attracted trolls from all quarters who were then assumed to be gamers themselves. It is not clear what percentage of harassers were “representatives” of the gaming community, and exactly zero peer-reviewed academic studies have explored the issue.

The only available data on Gamergate thus far comes from Brad Glasgow, whose survey of verified Gamergate supporters suggests they do not fit into the alt-right, straight white male stereotype. In fact, according to the survey, Gamergate supporters include a fair number of women, ethnic minorities, and people of differing genders and sexual orientations, and even tend to lean left in terms of social and political beliefs. Yet, we need more peer reviewed, quantitative research.

In her essay, Wu, relies on a 2015 American Psychological Association report on violent games that links them to aggression and decreased empathy. However, she fails to note that this report has been controversial. A 2019 analysis by myself and numerous colleagues found that the APA’s report misrepresented the science, exaggerating the evidence for aggression and empathy which, in fact, has always been inconsistent at best. This task force report shouldn’t be used to support anything other than the fact that professional guild policy statements can be wildly inaccurate.

I also worry that Wu doesn’t acknowledge the evolution of gaming since 2014. She states: “Consider the default video game protagonist: white, male and with a gun in hand as the solution to every problem. Meanwhile, in games from Smash TV to Super Mario, the default female character functions as a reward at the end of the adventure. Now that players are becoming more diverse, these tropes feel dated.” So do these complaints. In fact, we’ve seen an increasing number of strong female characters and non-white characters in commercial games. That’s not to say there’s still not room for improvement, but Wu’s comments reflect the common advocacy trap of sticking to a doom-and-gloom narrative and failing to acknowledge progress.

As for the future of gaming, I think if we can see past our differences, there are several reasonable steps we should take to continue positive change.

  • First, for those who commit criminal acts of harassment, clear consequences should follow. In the case of the harassment of Ms. Wu and others in 2014, law enforcement missed an opportunity. The investigation of harassment ultimately focused on a small number of men who were serial offenders.  Unfortunately, none were held accountable. My observation is that deterrence tends to be most effective in reducing crime. Thus, death threats, rape threats, swatting, and other serious acts of harassment, should be met with better legal enforcements.
  • We must model the behaviors we want to see, and also note where others have crossed the line from reasonable criticism into harassment or bullying. This means we all have to work to restrain our impulses toward angry showboating online and find ways to encourage others to do the same. Sure, gentle reasoning doesn’t always win the day, but neither does abuse.
  • We need to stop stereotyping others. Prejudicially portraying the gaming community as encouraging hatred only sets another polarizing line when we need fewer of these. Wu asks, “Why are so many gamers angry and isolated?” And yet available evidence suggests this is a faulty premise.
  • We must also maintain the growth of new strong female protagonists. And the game industry should continue to look for ways to encourage women and girls to not only fall in love with games, but participate in their creation at all levels of the industry.
  • We must remember that free expression is absolute. If we want to protect games against censorship—and we should—then we must extend those protections to those who disparage games. That means we must stand up for the rights of industry critics and defend their speech, whether we like their views or not.

With a community effort and appropriate legal deterrents for the worst offenders, I believe we can continue to move the gaming community forward. Only when we feel free to criticize and debate the issues of a community that, like any other, is populated by exemplary representatives, deeply flawed trolls and every kind of person in between, can we fully realize gaming community’s potential, and thrive and grow together.

 

Christopher J. Ferguson is a professor of psychology at Stetson University in Florida. He is author of Moral Combat: Why the War on Violent Video Games is Wrong and the Renaissance mystery novel Suicide KingsHis forthcoming book How Madness Shaped History will be out in January 2020You can follow him on Twitter @CJFerguson1111

Comments

  1. Gaming is a symptom, not a cause.

    All games make progress a virtually inevitable consequence of time investment, which for the disenfranchised, is a welcome alternative to other places where they can invest their time.

  2. Same issue as Mothers Against Dungeons and Dragons.

    Mentally ill individual is struggling to cope with undiagnosed issues. Mentally ill individual attempts escapism as a form of self-medication. The self-medication is an insufficient coping mechanism, ill individual commits suicide. Ill individual’s mother creates M.A.D.D., and attacks her child’s coping mechanism, perhaps revealing where the depression came from in the first place. Incidentally depriving a large number of people who need that level of escapism of one of their channels- to me, cruel and capricious and actually deserving of sympathy and empathy.

    Video games are the same- until Arkadian. She was just trying to make a name for herself and was ignorant of the financial and social scope of what she was targeting.

    Or, video games allow an outlet for aggressive impulses. People, overwhelmingly but not exclusively male people, need such an outlet especially during the period their aggression hormones are most peaked. For some, it’s not enough.

    In other words, mass shooters eat food, too. Let’s criminalize farmers. They’re mistaking correlation for cause.

  3. Twitter is far more responsible for cranking out rage bots who have a grievance with society than computer games. That should be obvious to anyone who has been on Twitter, the last few years. When are we going to start talking about regulating social media?

  4. I’ve never even heard of her outside of the political activism she engages in on social media, nor have I ever heard of any of the “games” she has allegedly made, and I’ve been playing computer games since the 1980s. 1970s if you count arcade games and pinball machines. That assertion right there seems like a fraudulent claim, to me, and therefore I discontinued my reading of the article at that point, and will now discontinue my participation in this discussion.

  5. Liberals are utopians. Utopians believe all problems are collectively solvable because all problems are collective in origin. In order to hold true to this belief they must reject individual responsibility. So after mass shootings the culprits are always guns, violent video games, movies ect. The culprit is never the individual who refuses to conform to societal norms or is mentally incapable of conforming to societal norms. If the ills of society are caused by recalcitrant individuals, then collective solutions are of little value.

  6. Yay, another Trojan horse article.

    Oh good, a social engineering project which completely disregards dissent on the existence of the problems it is meant to solve – problems presumed to be solvable through non-authoritarian social engineering in the first place. I noticed the steps the author mentions are “reasonable steps” because “reasonable” is the weasel word of the day in my skeptics dictionary. (Yesterday, it was the word “positive”.)

    “See past our differences”? He writes this trite platitude while de facto ignoring one side. If there aren’t any problems with the video gaming industry, there is nothing to solve. Social engineering is used to derange an environment to be more pleasurable to the fancies of ideologues. Ideologues never consider if it’s in fact their fancies that need to be reevaluated, or consider if satisfying their fancies causes more or bigger problems, or care if their fancies conflict with the fancies of others.

    Among the vague demands the author presumes to be better for everyone because he dismisses dissent altogether, he just throws in this cringey gem whose relevance to his thesis is questionable…

    Thank you male feminist stereotype. Without socially engineering the interests of gamers to be different, we would never be able to stop all the shootings that you admit are not caused by video games.

    Maybe women are fine the way they are. Feminist Superman does not need to save Lois from doing what she already does. Question: does feminist Superman ever ask Lois if she’s fine the way she is before he swoops in? Answer: only if he knows her answer is “no”.

    (The fact he usually swoops in with a very dusty pack of unopened condoms is quite telling in of itself.)

    By the way, notice he says we should have more “strong female protagonists” not just “female protagonists”. Beside the feminist signaling, why is the former more preferable than the latter? In fact, why “protagonists”? Why shouldn’t we have more female antagonists? They are far more underrepresented. (Who am I kidding. We all know why he wants them to be protagonists.)

    Before that irrelevant virtue signal, he notes…

    This entire paragraph is just shameless public cunnilingus, revealing nothing more than the fact the author wacks off to photos of Brianna Wu and is a terrible writer.

    He conveniently ignores the common Gamergate complaint that many on the other side were mercilessly harassed, but nobody gave a crap because the other side didn’t have deep connections to gaming journalism like Wu had. She had media power and wielded it without remorse. The other side didn’t have this.

    Sherlock, when one side has deep, public, well-known connections to gaming media and journalism, you might want to question the narrative that media promulgates.

    Perhaps there’s nothing wrong with video games, gamers in general, or the industry. Perhaps there’s something wrong with how you perceive them.

    Thank you for reminding us how stereotypically ideological and out-of-touch psychology professors are, but I suggest you stick to socially engineering the APA’s guidelines on how to deal with men. Your ideology is befitting there.

  7. Here’s a question, though. What’s the difference between an individual problem and a collective problem a liberal doesn’t want to see or address?

    Not trying to poke at liberals so much as something that I have seen. One of the things we keep hearing from right and center, and some liberals who are called alt-right because, well, they disagree with the orthodoxy, is that there is a lack of purpose for young men in society. I see this in the classroom a fair bit. Boys not adopting good habits and growing into men, but instead spending a lot of time gaming and playing pickup games, or hanging out with a bad crowd.

    So, if one postulates that a sense of collective guilt is being forced onto young men by early education, and continues to increase as they get older, well what response makes sense?

    Inner city boys may find purpose in gangs, in menial work which offers no advancement, while others may go the role of gunman, meth maker in the backwoods, criminal, debauched party boy…

    If this is a problem caused by the left, then they will not want to see it. This is why Jordan Peterson’s solution of lifting up the individual is so well received by many, because it is a response to this problem.

  8. Could it be that encouraging young boys to become responsible men or preferably gentlemen, is considered toxic and harmful to society as a whole? Failure to hold young boys to high demanding standards, produces perpetual adolescents. If society wants children to become adults, the children must know what is expected. Children must be permitted to fail. There is nothing inherently wrong with gaming but gaming as a way of life is childish and immature. Children will not become adults unless adults teach children how. Even today young shooters are not held accountable. There is no scorn or derision for their antisocial conduct. Rather the culprit is unkind classmates, video games, movies, ect… Contemptible behavior deserves contempt even when committed by children.

  9. Speaking as a scientist, this is why you run the experiment multiple times, approach it multiple ways, and thus gather a body of evidence. We are still working on it, but please don’t treat the science with scorn. You’ll become a progressive talking head, and nobody wants that. Such a waste of a mind…

  10. Interestingly enough, the US Army recently realized that what this generation of young soldiers needed was the same thing that my generation of soldier needed… discipline and teamwork. After sever years of trying a softer approach, geared towards the more “sensitive” millennials the Army realized that the soldiers were ill prepared, badly disciplined and lacked motivation. So they chose to return to the stricter version of basic, focusing on breaking you down and building you up again. They returned to emphasis on physical fitness, teamwork and basic combat skills, while emphasizing honor and discipline and responsibility. Guess what, it was a success. Society needs to return to the idea that it is okay to be a responsible male. That honor and duty are good things, not patriarchal constructs. American Football, rugby, wrestling, hockey, basketball, soccer etc teach (mostly) males the importance of teamwork, of competition, of winning and losing with dignity while allowing allowing adolescent males a positive way to take out their aggression in a constructive way. Coaches become role models. I still, at 43, refer to my high school football coach as “Coach”. He hasn’t coached me in 26 years, hasn’t coached in over a decade. Organized sports are valuable, but even playground sports are important. Playing football at recess with my friends in grade school taught me to deal with my shortcomings and that life isn’t always fair. It also helped me, an undiagnosed high functioning Autistic, to deal with my shyness, anger and anxiety. It made me feel part of the crowd, and to accept myself for myself. It also taught me to work harder, to improve. And it kept me physically active.

  11. It does, until you try to tell it to someone progressive, in response to an inane non-scientific rant. Then they suddenly feel ‘uncomfortable’ and ‘lectured’ and think that because you’re a ‘white, cis-gendered male you shouldn’t be allowed to speak.’ At which point I was wondering why my jaw hurt, until I realized that I was grinding my teeth.

    Then I realized that I was the only person good with the technique they were trying to do, and that they weren’t handy. So I left as requested. Never a toxic male around when you need one, eh?

  12. Not only is Wu not a highly respected developer, “she” was born a man. Since I don’t want to call Wu he, she or zhe I will use my preferred pronoun of Doofus. Doofus only developed one game, the piss poor Revolution 60. The heroines are big boobed women. She and Zoe Quinn claimed harassment from male gamers, but the more credible claim is that they manufactured hate mail and sent it to themselves. Quinn is an actual woman. It was alleged she slept with several game reviewers to give her super lousy game, Depression Quest, a rave review. This is probably true once you read up on it. Thus, she claimed harassment to save face, and Wu jumped on the bandwagon.

  13. I particularly liked @BrainFireBob 's comment. The idea of Gaming as a form of escapism was insightful. So for previous generations a love of books, to the exclusion of friends, would have been problematic- or indeed D & D- although the latter might well have been responsible for hysteria about cults.

    A far more likely solution is that as a species we have been steadily moving away from circumstances to which we are extraordinarily well-adapted. And this would, of course include, all the sociocentric systems that we have had in place as stabilisers, since the year dot- including, but not limited to, fathers as parents, and the formation of single sex peer groups for the purposes of surviving the dreaded teens.

    Most of these boys are alone, socially. Over 90% have been father deprived systemically, in some way. They have been told in schools that capitalism is bad, it’s destroying the planet and our only hope is some incredibly inept and corrupt government bureaucracy with a track record of irredeemable and unremitting failure- which, of course, was also responsible for the school system that they loathed so much. Finally having succeeded in scrubbing themselves of any trace of modest success (see also toxic masculinity), they have discovered much to their chagrin that not only does society hate male losers, but also that the male hero archetype that they had always been told was to be despised, actually ends up getting ALL the girls. Is it any wonder they end up angry, medicated and depressed?

    And in a world where they are suffering personally, it’s easy to see how they end up thinking that the distorted, availability heuristic, dystopian world that the media likes to portray for the purposes of advocating widespread political and societal upheaval is true- well and truly believed by these tragic, horrendously misinformed chumps. It’s the linking of personal suffering- a quintessence of isolation and alienation- transfused with the deceitful conceit of the world as fundamentally unfair capitalist regime populated with the oppressed, that makes these awful acts not just permissible, but desirable. Shame on you- feminism, schools and liberal media- for turning these impressionable young boys, into monsters as men.

  14. Well, we’ve already tried banning alcohol, haven’t we?

    I was speaking to your point that individuals commit crime/do dumb things, and that we should hold individuals responsible and stop there. I am simply saying that holding individuals responsible for their actions is necessary, but there are circumstances where that may be insufficient, and a more systematic solution needs to be sought.

    For instance, 2 Max 8s fell out of sky for what boiled down to pilot error. Do we just say 4 pilots screwed up, and move on? The 5 month and counting world wide grounding isn’t merely because 2 flight crews made mistakes. It’s because there was a system issue in how flight controls were designed, such that a system solution to rectify the underlying problem is required.

    Or look at drug prosecutions. I don’t think you get very far catching street level crooks selling dime bags. You might get a little farther taking down the kingpin, or the supplier. It’s literally about identifying the root of the problem, and addressing that. That to me just seems like a fairly pragmatic way to be, and anything but utopian.

    If addressing the “collective” or “system” issue is “liberal” and/or “utopian”, does that mean NOT doing so is conservative? Cuz then that’s “let’s leave MCAS as is and find us a coupla better pilots” and “let’s throw every last dealer” in jail…the latter of which I think has already been tried…

  15. It’s inherent risk.

    I’m guessing you and I are going to disagree on this, but analogously, I find engaging in sexual intercourse, even using the best birth control methods, still has a fundamental risk of pregnancy. Or purchasing a lottery ticket has a risk of winning.

    People don’t directly aspire to be drunk drivers who kill, but some do aspire to be the cool kid who can “hold their liquor” and still function; this inherently includes the risk of killing someone if they attempt to drive. That’s a choice, and I find that we as a society are way too quick to remove all consequences, instead of helping those who want to overcome prior bad choices. We blame everything except the poor choice. If someone systemically makes bad choices, they need to learn and if they won’t learn shouldn’t be bailed out until they are ready. That’s the difference between helping and enabling.

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