Games don’t kill, but hate fuels gamer culture
By BRIANNA WU | Special to The Washington Post | Published: August 9, 2019
I was 22 when politicians started blaming video games for mass shootings. In 1999, I was running my first tech start-up and learning the Unreal Engine, the tool that would define my career as a game developer, when news of the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., ground all work to a standstill. We gathered around our tiny television. Network news helicopters hovered over the school, and we watched from a bird’s-eye view as students fled to safety, police charged the building and bodies were carried out.
In the aftermath, many pointed to the video games the killers played, Doom and Quake. A segment on CBS’s “60 Minutes” asked, “Are Video Games Turning Kids Into Killers?” “What kind of values are we promoting when a child can walk into a store and find video games where you win based on how many people you can kill or how many places you can blow up?” asked then-first lady Hillary Clinton. Then-Sen. Jeff Sessions took to the floor of the Senate to warn that such games “cause people to be killed.”
Twenty years later, Columbine doesn’t even rank among the 10 worst mass shootings, and yet, after two mass shootings in one weekend this month in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, politicians reached for the old scapegoat. President Donald Trump decried “the gruesome and grisly video games that are now commonplace.” Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden agreed that games were at least partially to blame: “It is not healthy to have these games teaching kids the dispassionate notion that you can shoot somebody and just blow their brains out.”
One small problem with that: We’ve been studying this issue for more than 20 years, and there have been no scientific findings showing that violent video games cause people to commit violent acts. A 2015 meta-analysis of 170 separate studies, conducted by the American Psychological Association, found no statistically significant relationship between these games and criminal violence or delinquency.
But deeper in the report, another finding points to a real and urgent problem: toxic gaming culture. The APA noted that research showed a connection between violent video games and increased aggression, as well as “decreases in prosocial behavior, empathy and sensitivity to aggression.” Anyone who has spent any time playing online shooters, and has gotten bombarded by venomous taunts over voice chat, knows this to be true. The issue isn’t that games themselves induce violence — we know they don’t — but that the gamer community has provided a gathering place for some furious, hateful individuals and encouraged their worst tendencies. Though the gaming world is huge and diverse, and full of smart and wonderful players, it is also thronged by misogynists and racists who feel free to advocate harm against anyone who’s not like them, whether during gameplay or on Discord, Reddit and YouTube.
Why are so many gamers angry and isolated? I often ask myself this question, because game developers are generally friendly and social people, as are the journalists who cover us. Yet our industry’s corrosive ideas about manhood and power bleed into too many of the products we ship. We’ve told one kind of player that they are the center of the universe, and we’ve catered to their every whim for 30 years. 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. But rather than change with the times, some revanchist players feel like their culture is being stolen — a sense of aggrieved resentment that will seem familiar to anyone who’s watched a Trump rally.
You can see all of this in our virtual worlds. In the Western action game Red Dead Online, for example, black players have reported being called the n-word by other gamers, their virtual avatars being hanged from cliffs in mock lynchings. One player has even built a YouTube following by recording taboo scenarios that he claims viewers want him to “test,” like whether it’s possible to feed a feminist character to an alligator. (It is.)
That ugliness can also be found at our major professional conferences. At a recent Electronic Entertainment Expo, one keynote featured an onstage rape joke: While demoing the game Killer Instinct, a male player beat up a female player, while saying, “Just let it happen. It will be over soon,” and, “Wow, you like those,” while she replied, “No, I don’t like this.”
From the earliest days of multiplayer online gaming, the industry’s biggest companies have made it a policy to ignore troubling behavior on their platforms. For example, in 2007, a gay player of Halo 3 changed his username to “xxx GayBoy xxx” on Xbox Live and received an onslaught of slurs and violent threats. After his recording of this experience went viral, Microsoft ramped up enforcement of the rules of conduct on its nascent multiplayer service. In response to reports of harassment, moderators would review clips of the gameplay and permanently ban the offenders. By 2013, though, fearing that these policies were limiting games’ consumer appeal, Microsoft drastically cut back on moderation, automating much of the oversight and moving to a far more lenient “reputation” system in which “trash-talking” players were grouped together in matches.
Today, from comment sections to tournament play, basement-level standards of behavior have become the norm. Many gamers believe that any standards of decency constitute censorship. That culture, in which “jokes” about or straight-up advocacy of hatred became free-speech virtues, gave rise to Gamergate, an organized effort in 2014 to force women, including me, to leave the game industry by threatening them with rape and murder. What seemed then like a bizarre but one-off subculture war has had lasting repercussions. Steve Bannon, for instance, soon targeted gamers as a natural new audience for alt-right thought: “You can activate that army. They come in through Gamergate or whatever and then get turned onto politics and Trump.”
And as its participants sought out a forum where they could express their most vile ideas, Gamergate brought a whole new community to the message board 8chan. While presenting itself as a bastion of free speech, 8chan has facilitated serious crimes, including hosting child pornography and spreading cyberweapons for denial-of-service attacks. It was also where white-supremacist manifestos were posted before the shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, and Poway, Calif., and where users rooted for the New Zealand body count to soar, calling it a new “high score.” Now, El Paso appears to be the third mass shooting announced on the site this year. For years, people lobbied 8chan’s online security provider, Cloudflare, to stop working with the extremist site. Only after the El Paso and Dayton killings did it finally relent.
I say this as an engineer: We are profoundly bad at asking ourselves how the things we build could be misused. Facebook, Twitter and Reddit have all had to scramble after the fact to address harassment on their platforms. Meanwhile, on YouTube, hate speech has performed terrifyingly well in an algorithm that places user engagement above all other factors. As a result, the platform has increasingly been linked to the radicalization of young people, who spend shocking amounts of time on the site.
I love video games dearly. Growing up as a queer child in Mississippi, I got my Nintendo in 1985, and I’ve been lost in this world ever since. When I was scared because my church said people like me were going to burn in hell, Final Fantasy, Dragon Warrior and Super Mario offered a lifeboat.
But somewhere along the way, the culture of video games became deeply broken, reflecting the broader fractures in our country. It’s a culture that presents cynicism as wisdom, and apathy as a virtue, and the self-righteous mob as the best way to get justice. Video games do not create mass killers, but they invite people with terrible ideas, including white supremacy, to congregate. If we want to save the world, combating this is where we press start.
Brianna Wu is a Democratic candidate for Congress in Massachusetts’s 8th District and a software engineer.