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Understanding Attitudes to Extremism in Gaming Communities

Understanding Attitudes to Extremism in Gaming Communities
17th February 2022 Sam Andrews
In Insights

In our previous GNET Insight we looked at how quantitative measures can help us understand the prevalence of extreme language in videogaming forums, using a dataset of Reddit.com posts from videogaming subreddits. Contrary to current speculation, we found that extreme language is not something which haunts mainstream gaming spaces. However, some gaming spaces did contain a high count of extreme language. These spaces were unique compared to other gaming spaces. The subreddit /r/KotakuInAction, for instance, contains a high amount of extreme language and is uniquely extreme when compared to the more mainstream subreddit /r/VideoGames and the subreddit for the videogame Hearts of Iron IV, /r/HOI4.

However, the nature and context of certain terms still needs to be established. As noted in the previous Insight, extremists are creative in their use of language and will quickly move on and adopt new terminology when their extremism is unmasked. This allows them to communicate with one another in public with ‘dog whistle’ phrases and words. Additionally, the Internet is notoriously a place where sarcasm is both rife and dry. Alongside this some users may discuss extremist words critically, giving false positives. This all makes it difficult to establish whether the presence of extreme language is reflective of genuine extremist sentiment, sarcasm and irony, or critical discussion.

This Insight uses a qualitative methodology to do just that. Using the same dataset as the previous Insight, comments from the three videogame subreddits are analysed in context. Alongside analysing the comments, we also use the upvote score as an indicator for how popular comments are on each subreddit. On Reddit.com, each post and comment can be upvoted or downvoted by users. The net score for this is displayed on the post – highly upvoted comments reflect popularity, and highly downvoted comments unpopularity. While this system works across all subreddits, it is not normalised, as so comments on highly subscribed subreddits are likely to have a greater range in the upvote score. Smaller subreddits would see a smaller range in scores. Therefore, the scores for posts can only be understood in the context of the subreddit in which they appear, rather than being immediately comparable. However, we can and do use these to compare relative popularity of sentiment within and between subreddits.

In this Insight, each subreddit is analysed separately, using the lexicon from the previous Insight as a guide, before a brief overall discussion.  For more information, see the previous GNET Insight.

Subreddit: /r/videogames

The subreddit /r/VideoGames is a mainstream videogaming discussion board. Our previous Insight found that there was little extreme language used here, although some extreme terms did appear within the dataset. For instance, comments with the homophobic slur faggot were uniquely common in the /r/VideoGames dataset. Exploring the context in which this term appears reveals that most occurrences can be attributed to a single user who was later banned from the site. A typical post reads

This site is full of faggot SJW virtue signalling cucks without a goddamn soul or original idea.  Go cry at the new star wars trailer you fucking raging faggot. You disgust me.

Notably none of the posts by this user – or by any other user using this slur – gained a net upvote score of more than 2, which does not indicate popularity. While this is higher than the mean upvote score in the /r/VideoGames dataset (subreddit mean: 1, max: 79, min: -39) it does not indicate general acceptance of this sentiment.

Boobs is also a term that appears uniquely common in this subreddit, possibly indicating sexist language. This word clustered mostly around discussions of sex and gender in videogames. Discussions mostly focused on whether videogame characters with large breasts were an indicator of sexism within videogaming culture. Most posters argued that it was not. Rather, gamers seemed to like ‘big-boobed’ characters because “everyone likes breasts. One poster who tried to argue that video games are there to mostly please men and, therefore, overtly sexualised their female characters received a net upvote score of -2, indicating an unpopular position.

Discussions of ‘social justice warriors’ (SJW’s) on the subreddit typically led to a diversity of views. While some users were critical of progressive values and better representation of women, LGBT+ and minorities, most discounted the explanation that videogames were being negatively affected by this. One user scored -1 for writing not just video games or any sort of artistic media sjw or snowflakes ruin this sort of stuff for people. Another scored -7 for a similar sentiment. While there were several comments that highlighted displeasure with progressive values in video games, the majority were critical of the idea that SJW’s were destroying videogaming. Most users who posted such comments scored higher than those who claimed that SJW’s were ruining gaming. Some posts pointed out that discussions around representation and ethics in videogaming long precluded the current furore:

What I’m saying is there are any number of things in games that have always existed that do everything you’ve complained about. Things that have nothing to do with inclusion or sjw’s

Most discussions in the subreddit including extreme words from the lexicon played out similarly. Several comments critical of Black Lives Matter, of accusations of racism within gaming culture, and criticising the use of the term Incel received negative scores. While some comments were critical of users discussing racism and sexism, arguing that politics should be kept out of video games, most comments recognised that there were issues of racism and sexism that needed to be addressed in some corners of the gaming community; those that did generally scored relatively high.

This supports the notion that mainstream videogaming forums do not appear to be places where racism, sexism and other far-right attitudes run rampant. Instead, while they do exist in these spaces, they are routinely challenged by other users and generally do not represent the majority opinion. An exception to this is in relation to women’s bodies. While most users welcomed women’s representation in videogames, there was resistance to the notion that developers should promote realistic body standards or should be critical of the ‘male gaze’ that leads to the creation of big-breasted and highly sexualised characters.

Subreddit: /r/KotakuInAction

The subreddit /r/KotakuInAction is a space dedicated to the GamerGate movement, which looks to counter the appearance of progressive values in videogaming. It has been considered as a place where far-right attitudes linger alongside male-supremacist and anti-Feminist sentiment.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the subreddit replete with uncritical use of slurs, sexualised terms, and anti-Feminist, male-supremacist language. What the qualitative analysis reveals is that this language is perhaps more extreme than indicated by the quantitative analysis. Much of this language also has commonalities with language use across the far-right.

The below post with an upvote score of 86 illustrates this. This score is far above the average score for posts in this dataset (subreddit mean: 5.5, max: 906, min: -235):

The IDpol faggots are the people who wrote this.

They have the gal to do wakanda salute on their show while whining about [Richard] spencer lol.

Its pure irony.honk honk.

While the denigration of progressive movements is routine, the phrase ‘honk honk’ illustrates an association with White nationalist movements via the clown world meme. Other posts showed similar sentiments, including support for Donald Trump and other far-right political positions.

Posters on this subreddit also appear to believe that any criticism of gaming culture, sexism in video games, or of the subreddit itself, is propaganda or a smear. In particular a number of comments posit that feminists – and in particular, Anita Sarkeesian of Tropes vs. Women in Videogames – manipulate or blackmail games developers by threatening to smear them with bad press if they did not adopt progressive or ‘SJW values’. These feminists are supposedly the ‘fun police’ that are ruining videogaming. Conversely to the /r/VideoGames subreddit, users in this subreddit are routinely downvoted for being critical of the idea that racism or sexism might be a problem in videogames.

While Incel ideologies are present on the board, comments are mainly critical of the term – many considered the term to be a put-down and a way to further demonise men. One comment, which received an upvote score of 34, states that

As a general rule, anyone who unironically uses the terms “incel” or “alt-right”, are probably hatemongers themselves. These terms were popularized to demonize and attack groups they don’t agree with.

However, many users utilised the term ‘redpill’ to describe their journey towards anti-Feminism and in general, a movement towards a ‘correct’ way of understanding the world. This includes the idea that women are driven by sex and are hypergamous, a core Incel belief. Talking about progressive politics and women, one user wrote:

The only cure I’ve observed is sex. I’m serious. I’ve come across several examples of women becoming less woke or even unwoke so they can get with unwoke masculine men (upvote score: 1)

One user talked about the ‘redpill’ in relation to radicalising his girlfriend and mother, to the point where they now share neo-Nazi memes. Contrary to /r/VideoGames, /r/KotakuInAction is clearly a space where gaming and far-right ideology meet and thrive. While this is not a mainstream space, it is concerning that the subreddit is trafficking in neo-Nazi, White nationalist, male-supremacist and sexist ideologies.

Subreddit: /r/HOI4 

Hearts of Iron IV is a popular grand strategy game that allows a player to pick any country and lead them through World War II, likely resulting in outcomes different to history. Some research has noted that this game is popular with neo-Nazis who enjoy playing Nazi Germany and leading them to victory; for this reason, there are concerns that the forums and chat sites might be populated with extremist speech.

While the game itself is historical and political, a qualitative analysis of the data from the /r/HOI4 subreddit reveals that most of the users are distinctly apolitical. Most users are critical of others who try to bring any politics into discussion. One user who was making a mocking post about feminists and anti-fascism was criticised and told that their views were irrelevant. Another user mocked anti-Fascists by alluding to their belief that hanging Nazi war criminals was unjust. Replies noted that Fascists were hanged after WWII, and that this is not a matter of politics, but rather history. The politics of Roosevelt are discussed in a similar way – users accept that he held racist views but insist that he cannot be judged by modern standards.

Several comments also discussed Jews and the Holocaust. While most of the comments did not contain hateful language, a minority espoused beliefs that Nazi Germany should have won WWII, or that Jews secretly rule the world. Such comments universally scored poorly, indicating that the subreddit users rejected them. One user who stated that the future they wanted was Nazi Germany ruling the world, was downvoted to -10 (subreddit mean: 6.5, max: 2673, min: -357).  This is a typical response in the dataset.

While the subreddit itself was not a bastion of hateful language, users did warn others about the prevalence of hateful language in online multiplayer games, as well as neo-Nazi propaganda being present in the in-game chat. One noted that potential players should

be aware the multiplayer games are overwhelmingly full of trolls, even more so than games like Heroes of the Storm or Team Fortress 2.

You WILL be called “faggot”, “nigger”, “kike”, and every other kind of slur you can imagine under the sun. You will hear endless trollish comments about deporting Mexicans, Donald Trump, killing black people, anti-semitic rants, and so much more. I do not understand why the HoI4 MP community is overwhelmingly so damn toxic and terrible, I feel like a more cerebral game such as this would attract more mature players while the toxics would wind up playing something like League of Legends, but it’s just not the case. There is a lot of toxicity in this MP community. (upvote score: 1)

Several users also complained about the difficulty in weeding out ‘ironic’ pro-Nazi comments. Despite the moderators of the subreddit being apparently active in trying to exclude genuine far-right users, several comment threads demonstrated that this was a problem, with users misunderstanding sarcastic comments about Nazi politics.

Discussion

This qualitative analysis strengthens some of the findings from the previous Insight and adds nuance to others. It is clear here that /r/KotakuInAction is an extreme subreddit – in fact, it is more extreme and aligned with far-right ideas than previously expected. However, the mainstream /r/VideoGames is a place where such ideas are challenged. While users of this space still balked at the idea of lessening the objectification of women in videogames, in general racist, sexist and anti-progressive views were challenged. This challenges the idea that gaming spaces are vulnerable to extremism.  If anything, these spaces challenge and address those ideas when they exist. Finally, the data from /r/HOI4 indicates that even if a gaming community rejects and moderates extreme speech, that speech can find other ways to present itself. While users of /r/HOI4 rejected pro-Nazi views and hateful speech, many users lamented that they were unable to moderate that speech when it appeared in game. As with many other online spaces, diversity appears to be the rule in gaming spaces, meaning that many of the challenges that exist across the Internet in relation to extremism are no different here.