After an August 3rd shooting at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas, the retailer decided to remove any signage or advertisements for some video games featuring violence or firearms. The announcement soon became a meme, with Twitter users expressing consternation that, once again, games would be the scapegoat for another mass shooting.
The idea that gun violence and violent games have any causal link has been debunked several times. (In fact, popular new game releases lead to less crime.) Yet almost every time there’s a high-profile shooting in the U.S., the theory resurfaces wrapped in moral panic. Games, we hear, are radicalizing young white males and driving them to violence.
But while this connection may be baseless, it’s important not to let these arguments obscure a related concern: the free, almost anarchical environment surrounding games—in particular chats, forums, and chans—where one can just use an avatar and an online handle to say or do pretty much anything. This virtually lawless environment patrolled by radicals can and has spilled over into real life, with real and sometimes fatal consequences.
The world of gaming is extremely toxic. In the (in)famous Brazilian trolls who invade chats of countless games with HUEHUEHUEs and in those who enjoy attacking less skilled players or beginners in any online game, we see a reflex of toxic masculinity. There’s a far more relevant relationship between toxic masculinity and mass shootings where games are just the tip of the iceberg, almost collateral damage.
The most visible and widely discussed form of online toxicity sees casts women as the victims of angry white men. But for as often as women are the targets of misogynists online, the fact is that the universe of games can be toxic to almost everyone.
There are limits to the degree of policing possible within game chat, forums, and boards. “Games in general, but especially those that operate as ‘massive online multiplayer,’ are naturally gregarious and produce niches of socialization. Chats are the vehicle, mainly, of this socialization,” said Alexandro Neundorf, professor of history at the Pontifical Catholic University of Paraná.
A specialist in studies of culture and identity and the use of games in teaching, Nuendorf explained that those who play games construct collective identities in the virtual world, through chats and forums. Gamers end up building these identities—an amalgam of the relationships they maintain offline and online—through contacts with other people and other gamers. The collective identity manifests through behaviors, ways of acting or thinking shared between players.
Nuendorf also said that “we must consider some more aspects that are related to the connection between the nature of electronic games and the virtualization of life, that is, the feeling of anonymity and security; the feeling of evasion; the system of rewards; the emulation of life in a controlled and safe environment; the immersion; the feeling of omnipotence, of competence, of adequacy.”
If, on the one hand, anonymity “can be an important factor for the development of a sense of security,” explained Neundorf, on the other hand, it also serves as a way of empowering potential bullies to act without worrying about the consequences.
Most of the analyses of online misogyny focus on how some men believe that games belong to them. These studies posit that misogynists view women as incapable of succeeding on their own merits, and often note that many games have few female characters and that those that exist are extremely sexualized.
However, there are serious problems of toxicity in various spaces linked to online gaming for a much wider group of players. People of color and other minorities are commonly targets of hatred in online games. LGBTQ individuals are targets of hatred. Even those who are starting out and do not yet have the skill necessary to be a great player are sometimes targets of hatred, as are those who don’t join in on the mob.
As Christian Dunker, psychoanalyst and Professor at the Institute of Psychology at the University of São Paulo, discusses in his book Democracy at Risk?, even if the mass is anonymous, the different members of the group can recognise each other through the way they behave. In other words, the different players of an online game will behave in a more or less homogenous way and be able to recognize each other as part of such a group based on how, for instance, they bully and harass potential victims.
According to a survey conducted by the Anti-Defamation League with more than 1,000 gamers of all backgrounds in the United States, 74 percent of respondents said that they have been victims of some type of harassment while participating in an online match, and 65 percent have experienced some form of severe harassment, which includes physical threats or stalking.
The problem, therefore, turns out to be much bigger than misogyny alone. These toxic behaviors are linked together by a form of tribalism, a sense of belonging to a group that requires or even obliges its members to act in a uniform manner—even when those actions are to spread racism, misogyny, or homophobia.
To a larger extent, the debate gravitates around toxic masculinity, a problem that is real but often misunderstood. People assume the concept is about blaming men, but we must keep in mind that men are often victims of toxic masculinity, too. So is society as a whole.
Men who don’t reflect mainstream ideals of masculinity have to deal with a lot while growing up—especially at a time when the very idea of masculinity becomes confused with behaviours considered toxic.
In some cases, this toxicity manifests itself as a violent reaction to the loss of privileges considered “natural” to men. As more women assume prominent positions, become more educated, and occupy spaces that were previously almost exclusively male, the greater the reaction from those who feel lost, harmed, even betrayed. These are men who believe that their social status, and their roles as providers and as heads of families, are threatened by social change.
In response, an army of angry white men are feeding into the alt-right. Some have taken to describing themselves as “incels,” individuals who feel like victims of the system and of successful women who don’t care about them. The incel community is not exclusively white or even defined by its whiteness, yet it does share some significant values with white supremacist movements, chiefly in the myth that an outgroup of men, whether based on race or social status, is “stealing” women from the ingroup and making their lives harder.
We’re simultaneously experiencing a radical change of the social paradigm in regards to race, in which racial minorities are beginning to gain more space within gaming culture, creating even more tension.
In response to these cultural shifts, we’re witnessing a backlash against identitarian movements that try to criminalize any and all male behaviour, treating them as abusive and denying any space for dialog. Angela Nagle discusses this issue in her 2017 book Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right.
Nagle highlights so-called “Tumblr liberalism,” a left-wing movement based on callout and cancel culture and the idea that people’s feelings are more important than freedom of speech. Members of this community are referred to—sometimes derisively, sometimes proudly—as “social justice warriors.” In Nagle’s view, the movement developed on Tumblr, on social media, and even in certain parts of academia (notably gender studies departments), before it spread to mass media and became mainstream. This strain of leftist thinking has become one of the most frequent targets of the growing alt-right movement.
The key to understanding this new reality is frustration. Incels think that a woman should serve them and submit. They feel entitled to a girlfriend, but they believe they are unable to get one through their own efforts. The xenophobic discourse of the extreme right also gains followers through a similar rationale: The foreigner will steal your place, take your wife, destroy your values and traditions. White nationalism is a refuge for these frustrated young men.
Dunker describes how these men seek out “new communities, networks of support, friendship, solidarity and cooperativity gathered around platforms, communities and digital influencers, [therefore] a new system of recognition, symbolic hierarchy and authority [has emerged].”
Also, as in every process of construction and expression of identities there is also in the gaming universe the “formalization of an alterity, of an Other that escapes from that circumscription and that acts on the margins as an unwanted presence, that is, of those who do not fit a certain pattern or profile,” Neundorf explained. In other words, the gaming environment creates a type of safe space for those who don’t feel they fit into society, creating a new world to be explored and shaped by them.
This profile, Neundorf said, “is the result of a procedural construction, which happens since the formulation of the game, its experimentation in alpha and beta versions, its dissemination, its marketing.”
In other words, “the marketing of games can work as a filter for the construction of this profile. As in other products, the games can also be predominantly aimed at a male audience, for example.”
It is possible, Neundorf said, to establish as a hypothesis that “the environment of games is determinant for the expression of prejudiced ideas and attitudes. Mainly sexist and xenophobic. But not only that: the environment also enhances and amplifies these attitudes.”
Exemplifying the herd effect, players participating in a certain gaming community can react as a group, all in the same way, even if there is no planning or direction. “There is also a group’s affirmation effect in the face of otherness or that which represents a threat, and this is particularly notable in the participation of women in games mostly disputed by men, or xenophobia against Latino players in certain games whose servers are located in Europe or the U.S.,” he said.
If there were no online games, those seeking ways to express themselves without any societal constraints would find other ways to spread hate—and it doesn’t mean we should demand the end of any one service. The internet cannot be blamed or censored for the existence of platforms that radicalize young people, nor can games.
However, by design, some social media websites, like Facebook, “discourage broad debate and encourages them to closed groups, letting the bubbles distill hatred among themselves, far from the public eye,” explained Sérgio Tavares Filho, PhD in Digital Culture at the University of Jyväskylä.
“One needs to understand that Facebook and other social media platforms were not designed to discuss with whom we disagree. We thought that the atomic bomb or security cameras were the threat, but these were not technologies that affected the population in an ideological way. It is cynical and superficial hedonism (where no complex problem is understood) that is threatening us today,” he said.
The promising digital democracy, with its millions of new participants, “suffered a severe blow when the institutions with the power to influence symbolic meaning, that is, those that take care of the word and conflict, such as the press, judiciary, artists, and intellectuals, suffered considerable destabilization in terms of their financial independence and their social reputation,” Dunker explains. The internet has, for instance, altered the representation of science and the way in which institutional knowledge is distributed. According to Dunker, this “leads to the temptation to consider… other ideas,” legitimizing the search for alternative explanations of reality, alternative explanations of the human condition.
Angry white men find in online games a space where they can have control, stand out, and be themselves. This space can serve as a representation of what they think they are or are entitled to and have been denied by an increasingly “politically correct” world. And, in chats and other spaces linked to this gamer universe, they can express themselves freely, express their hatred without shame, and even “take revenge” on those they believe are responsible for their problems in the real world—and those who now try to harm them even in the virtual world, their space by right.
That some of those disaffected young men are shooting people in public places, spreading hate online, and recruiting yet more individuals like them to their ranks presents a real social problem.
Even though games are something of a refuge for these angry white men, society bears blame for our shared incapacity to recognize and support those who have become radicalized and our inability to deal with the underlying problem before it finds fertile ground to spread online. If hate indeed develops and spreads through games, the same can be said about any social media platform—or, despite the obvious differences in reach, about books, magazines, or even in-person social groups.
Isolated young whites, unable to have lasting or honest relationships with other people—especially women—are easy to spot in schools and in work environments, even at home by their families. And it is in these spaces that guidance and deradicalization work is needed.
In the midst of the culture wars in which we live nowadays, a movement that assumes the most extreme position only contributes to the other side doing the same in an infinite feedback loop in which the real victims end up displaced and silenced. In his latest book, Identity, Francis Fukuyama points to the fact that left-wing identity politics is now fuelling a backlash of right-wing identity politics, and incels and gun violence are a significant product of this backlash.
In the end, having an avatar holding a gun in a violent game does not make anyone a murderer, but conversations with radicals in the chats of such games or in other spaces reserved for gamers can have real consequences—and the virtual nonexistence of spaces where one can have an honest discussion of what’s going on and how to deal with the problem doesn’t help anyone.
In a way, the idea held by many of these young men that they were left behind is real—but not in the way or for the reasons they believe. Toxic masculinity is a serious problem perpetuated by a violent, fractured, and balkanized culture that is unable to look at itself in the mirror. This is something society as a whole must confront and discuss together.
It may seem counterintuitive that the answer to our current situation is to be found in communities, since part of the problem is the online communities formed by disaffected young men. But it’s possible for the same principles to develop healthy environments based on dialogue and learning, composed of individuals from different social spectrums. For instance, LGBTQ folks are finding and forging a new community within indie games. The idea is to support a community that goes beyond online spaces, one that plays a role in our home, school, and work environments—the different spaces where social relations take place (or should take place).
To tackle the problem that incels and alt-right represent, a broad social effort is needed so that those who feel marginalized and left out are welcomed and their grievances heard, while those who truly are marginalized must have the capacity and space to strengthen their communities and, therefore, themselves.
A young and angry white man will not start shooting randomly because he played a violent video game, but he can do so if radicalized in chats and other game-related spaces—unregulated and unsupervised, feeling left behind and alone, while society quietly does nothing and remains incapable of reading the signs at home or in school.
To effectively tackle the problem, first we must understand it. This means to understand not only how the radicalization process takes place, but also why. Games are not the issue, but the environment surrounding them is one factor. The real problem is the lack of accountability and control, but, above all else, it’s the fact that society is atomized, that people are growing lonelier and more isolated and finding fewer spaces to express themselves and to relate to other human beings in a meaningful way. To ignore this issue is unhealthy and unsafe—both for those isolated individuals and for the rest of us.
Freelance journalist published by Al Jazeera, World Politics Review, Foreign Policy, PRI, The Washington Post and The Brazilian Report. PhD in human rights from the University of Deusto (Basque Country).