By Mike Charla
White supremacists’ ability to metastasize across the internet is not a new skill. Early in the internet’s infancy, we bore witness to the proliferation of virtual hate by way of white supremacist websites, ranging from “news” outlets to “white only” dating sites, that popped up with regularity during the early ‘90s. While not every site was successful, organizations like Stormfront, founded in 1996, were able to find their footing by creating online forums that allowed the organization to expand its network and to proactively recruit new members. Fast-forward a decade and we saw the popularization of social media, and watched as white supremacists flooded social networking platforms with colorful memes, hateful Facebook groups, and provocative online personalities.[i] Now we are seeing evidence pointing to video-games, and the online spaces that video-gamers occupy, as locales for white supremacists’ recruitment.
For those familiar with video game culture, it might not come as a surprise that white supremacists are recruiting in traditional “gaming” spaces. Although the gaming community is diversifying as video games become more mainstream, the core community is still viewed as being young, white, and male. There have been several widely covered controversies like Gamergate, when “Gamers” sent death threats to female reporters critiquing the industry, that have resulted in a popular narrative that gamers are angry misogynists. Additionally, there have been reports showing a high incident rate of abuse targeting minorities, particularly among men under 30, within online multiplayer games. Given this context, it is not difficult to conclude why white supremacists have singled out the gaming community as place to recruit new members.
Like many online platforms, video games are a fantastic way to connect with people from all over the world. The largest titles in the industry – games like Call of Duty, World of Warcraft, CSGO, and Fortnite – are online multiplayer games that rely on player to player interactions, often between complete strangers. As such, many people have been able to use video games to form meaningful friendships with people across the world; however, white supremacists are using the interactive aspect of video games to locate and recruit members who otherwise would have never been exposed to white supremacist views.
The processes white supremacists use to recruit gamers is simple and revolves around creating a sense of friendship and companionship. According to Christian Picciolini, a reformed right-wing extremist, white supremacists will initially identify potential recruits by dropping derogatory slurs or racial epithets during in-game chats in order to gauge an individual’s reaction. If an individual is not discouraged or off-put by the language, the recruiter may take this as a sign to begin recruiting a fellow player. The interactions will appear benign at the start. To someone on the outside, like a parent, the interactions will look like two people playing a game, having a laugh, or maybe offering life advice to one another. But these relationships can quickly devolve into something more sinister. Picciolini explains that a recruiter will not actively send propaganda or invite someone to a white supremacist chat room until that recruiter has a good grip on them. These interactions are the most dangerous when the potential recruit does not have other positive relationships to fall back on. If this is the case, then it can be difficult for someone to turn away from even the most toxic of relationships.
In addition to in-game interactions, white supremacists have been using other platforms that gamers frequent in order to spread their views. Recent research by Data Society has shown that gamers visit forum sites, like Reddit and 4chan, at much higher rates than internet users who do not play video games. The correlation between gamers and forum sites seems to be corroborated by the high number of video game companies that maintain popular Reddit pages, which they use to directly engage with their users. Unfortunately, the trend does not appear to have gone unnoticed by white supremacists either. Hateful content and rhetoric are frustratingly common on forum communities tailored towards gamers. One prominent example of this was the Reddit page r/GamersRiseUp. The discussion page, which amassed hundreds of thousands of followers, was originally tailored to fringe and dark humor; however, by the time the page was removed in March 2020, it was almost entirely filled with anti-Black, anti-Semitic, and anti-LGBTQ+ memes and content. . The discussion page, which amassed hundreds of thousands of followers, was originally tailored to fringe and dark humor; however, by the time the page was removed in March 2020, it was almost entirely filled with anti-Black, anti-Semitic, and anti-LGBTQ+ memes and content.
The permeation of white supremacy in the video game community is frightening. There are millions of American gamers, from every age group and walk of life, who could be the next potential target for a white supremacist’s hate or recruitment. These revelations are serious, but they should not be cause for panic, nor should they prevent people from enjoying their favorite past-time. Companies associated with the gaming community such as PSN, XBOXLIVE, and REDDIT, have been taking measures to create policies that moderate their services for hateful content. Of course, these companies’ policies are still a work in progress, evident by the months of community activism and complaints that took place before Reddit removed r/GamersRiseUp from its site, but they have been making meaningful strides over the last two or three years. In the end, the best prescription for protecting oneself against white supremacists in the world of video games is much the same as it is for any other online activity: be careful of who you talk to, be careful of what links you follow, be careful to report any hate that you might come across, and, parents, be careful to monitor your children’s online habits and interactions. The video game community can be an amazing place, but it does not come without its perils, so make sure that you stay safe while you are having fun.
[i] Conway, Maura, Ryan Scrivens, and Logan Macnair. Report. International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, 2019. Accessed April 29, 2020. doi:10.2307/resrep19623.