How Hate Speech & Video Games Created the Alt-Right

In 2005, Steve Bannon got Goldman Sachs to invest $60 million in a World of Warcraft Chinese gold farming company. 1 Bannon eventually took control of the gold farming company, Internet Gaming Entertainment. Even though IGE flopped, Bannon said that these gamers were the pre-cursor to the alt-right. “These guys, these rootless white males, had monster power… It was the pre-Reddit.”

In our previous two essays, we’ve looked at how video game communities develop hate speech as an intimidation tool and how online communities normalize hate speech so that it’s “no big deal”. This week, we’re looking at how those two ideas, when combined, created the Alt-Right.

Using Our Channels

For those who aren’t familiar with Reddit, the site is composed of several communities called “subreddits”. If you want to know about the newest changes in League of Legends, you can go to reddit.com/r/LeagueofLegends. If you want recommendations for video games, you can go to /r/GamingSugestions. Since you need to create a username to post on Reddit, people tend to be more polite than on 4chan, and each board has several moderators, so they are more heavily policed. Still, that doesn’t make the website, as a whole, a safe place for oppressed people.

Because Reddit has so many forums, it has often become a breeding ground for hate speech. The problem became so bad that, in 2015, Reddit hired Ellen Pao as interim-CEO, a woman known for a famous gender discrimination case against a former employer. Reddit hoped that Pao could bring more gender diversity to the site.2 Shortly after she started, Pao banned five popular subreddits dedicated to hate speech, such as the fat-shaming board /r/FatPeopleHate, the anti-trans board /r/TransF*gs, and the incredibly racist /r/ShitN******Say.3 As a response, hate-filled fans of those boards filled Reddit with hundreds of posts calling Pao a Nazi.4 Shortly after that, Pao resigned.

What eventually happened at Reddit was that the hate-mongers learned how to follow the “letter of the law” by not actively spreading hate speech on Reddit. Instead, they gathered under the politically charged subreddit dedicated to the then-unlikely presidential campaign of Donald J. Trump, /r/The_Donald. While there, they learned how to embed their hate into the same fears being spread by hardcore conservatives: fear of censorship, losing a “white culture”, and “feminazis”.5 But even users of /r/The_Donald still have to abide by the rules of Reddit. In order to discuss things that would break the rules, users of /r/The_Donald gathered under a common server in the popular voice chat app Discord.

Voice chat applications, such as TeamSpeak or Ventrilo, allow gamers to talk with one another while playing a game. So if three or four friends are playing Counter-Strike, they can talk to each other without having to hear everyone else on the same team. One of the more popular voic chat applications, Discord, doesn’t require additional software; users can run the chat rooms in a web browser. Because of this ease of use, it became the defacto method for hate groups to “privately” communicate.

Just like Steve Bannon foresaw, it’s easy to manipulate the fears of large swaths of white males. Even though video games are played by people of all skin colors, genders, sexualities, and cultural backgrounds, the stereotype that keeps getting perpetuated by the mainstream media is that video game players are pasty, sexless boys with a case of arrested development. It makes sense, then, that theAlt-Right would meet in a video game chat client.

Ethics as Harassment

As we’ve already alluded, hate speech starts out as intimidation. Then it becomes a part of the collective language. Once the ideas embedded in that hate speech becomes accepted by the community, then the language no longer serves its purpose; in order to recruit more people to their side, hate groups need coded language and “dog whistles” so that they don’t scare off the mainstream. In the world of video games, nothing embodies that more than GamerGate.

Depending on who you ask, “GamerGate” refers to a movement to promote ethics in journalism or to harass females online. The details are easily available online, but the hashtag #GamerGate started at the same time as two incidents: 1) a media critic created a KickStarter campaign for feminist tropes in games,6 and 2) an upset boy blogged about how his ex-girlfriend, an indie game developer, slept with a journalist who positively reviewed her game.7 These women (along with others) became the target of anonymous death threats and the public broadcasting of their home addresses, aka “doxing”. At this point, it doesn’t really matter whether you believe GamerGate was about ethics or misogyny: the movement was used by a lot of people to threaten and intimidate women.

How Language Reinforces the Norm

Originally, this article came out after popular YouTube star Felix Kjellberg used the “n-word” and made a half-hearted apology. Many people returned with the argument that this is just how gamers talk, that hate speech is embedded in our culture and that doesn’t mean that we’re racist, just that we use racist language. It’s the same argument we looked at two weeks ago, that hate speech is simply used as intimidation.

During a discussion on the WayPoint Radio podcast, Rob Zacny talks about how you can’t separate racist language from its original intention:

“This idea that, ‘Well, that’s just how things are online; that’s just the culture we’ve got there…’ The thing I don’t think people are cognizant enough of, or they don’t own enough, is that, yeah: maybe some people are just talking shit to fit in online. But the people that have popularized those words in online spaces do have an agenda. Public performances of racism are about seeking complicity. It is about silencing other groups. The internet didn’t just happen to break down that way. It was a cultivated space to desensitize people to those words, but then also introduce an implicit racism in a lot of online discourse. So then this idea that, ‘Oh, that’s just how we talk online.’ Yeah, that’s a carefully crafted environment in a lot of ways by repeated Shibboleths put out there by various forms of racists.” 8

Waypoint’s Editor-in-Chief, Austin Walker, responded:

“It makes those spaces impenetrable for marginalized groups. It is a signal that says, ‘You are not welcome here as you are. If you want to be welcome here, then you need to play along.’ Those things happen, from top to bottom, in culture. This is like me in high school being told I’m ‘one of the good ones” by the pitcher of the high school baseball team, right? And, okay: if I get upset about this, I have to leave this party where I have other friends because he’s higher on the hierarchical totem pole. It is the same thing that happens when black folks go on TV and have to code switch and be in a very specific ‘Talking Head Mode’ and move through that space in a way that’s like, ‘I need to appeal to this audience.’ The system of insides and outsides is constructed, not only through material things, like access to wealth and opportunity, but through this rhetorical system of gating.” 9

Did Gamers Create the Alt-Right?

It’s hard to say whether or not video game players are solely responsible for the Alt-Right and the rise of white supremacist rhetoric. But there is no doubt that their communities have been used, sometimes even curated, to promote hateful ideologies. Steve Bannon saw this in 2005 when he began getting into the Chinese gold farm market and it still holds today. This is why it is up to us, as video game players and “gamers”, to make concerted efforts to move away from this mindset. We must call attention to toxic communities within video game spaces and demand game developers and website administrators to help curate a mindset that doesn’t tolerate hate speech. As Zacny and Walker have said, it’s no coincidence that video games are more tolerant of hate speech than other communites; this was a concerted effort by racists, sexists, and homophobes to keep these communities unsafe for non-whites, women, and LGBTQ+ people.

In the first part of this essay, I had planned on highlighting a positive gaming community within each essay. After the first week, I couldn’t find any that I felt deserved the attention. Last week, I had planned on mentioning NeoGAF, since they’ve been around for a long time, members of the gaming press have active accounts there, and it’s heavily moderated. I then found out that they were involved in a child pornography scandal a couple years ago, which means that I probably don’t want to be siding with them (especially since I’ve never been a part of their community and wouldn’t be speaking from experience.) However, we always have an opportunity to create a positive community, even if it’s amongst your peers and family.

Moving forward, be mindful of how your language effects your thought processes and the processes of others. And if you have a community you’d like to highlight for being positive and inclusive, please leave a comment below!

featured image author unknown, found on article “From Gold Farming To Gamergate, The Gaming Ties Of Donald Trump’s White House” on Kotaku by Nathan Grayson

  1. Snider, Mike. “Steve Bannon learned to harness troll army from ‘World of Warcraft’”. (18 Jul 2017). USA Today. Retrieved on 9 Sep 2017
  2. Rooney, Ben. “How Ellen Pao hires for diversity at Reddit”. (6 APR 2015). CNN. Retrieved on 8 Sep 2017
  3. Dewey, Caitlin. “These are the 5 subreddits Reddit banned under its game-changing anti-harassment policy — and why it banned them”. (10 JUN 2015). The Washington Post. Retrieved on 9 Sep 2017
  4. Hathaway, Jay. “Redditors Stage Insane Nazi-Themed Protest After Admins Kill Abuse Site”. (11 JUN 2015). Gawker. Retrieved on 9 Sep 2017.
  5. Menegus, Byran. “Reddit Is Tearing Itself Apart”. Gizmodo. Retrieved on 9 Sep 2017.
  6. O’Leary, Amy. (01 AUG 2012). “In Virtual Play, Sex Harassment Is All Too Real”.The New York Times. Retrieved on 09 SEP 2017.
  7. Kaplan, Sarah. (12 SEP 2014). “With #GamerGate, the video-game industry’s growing pains go viral”. The Washington Post. Retrieved on 09 SEP 2017.
  8. Walker, Austin, et al.(11 SEP 2017). “Episode 95: So, PewDiePie Said the N-Word”. Waypoint Radio. VICE Media. Retrieved on 26 SEP 2017. Transcribed from the audio by Bronson O’Quinn, punctuation added for emphasis.
  9. Walker, Austin, et al.(11 SEP 2017). “Episode 95: So, PewDiePie Said the N-Word”. Waypoint Radio. VICE Media. Retrieved on 26 SEP 2017. Transcribed from the audio by Bronson O’Quinn, punctuation added for emphasis.

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