Megan Condis: From Fortnite to Alt-Right!

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Dear Commons Community,

As anyone who has children or grandchildren know that the game, Fortnite, is extremely popular.  My fourteen-year old grandson Michael taught me this game over the Christmas holidays while he was visiting from Seattle.  It is very engaging, maybe addictive but I could see how it would appeal to a young teenager.   Megan Condis, an assistant professor of game studies at Texas Tech University and the author of Gaming Masculinity: Trolls, Fake Geeks, and the Gendered Battle for Online Culture, has  an op-ed in today’s New York Times, raising a concern that  “it [Fortnite] plays a special role as a vector for spreading the messages of white supremacist ideology that lead to violence.”  Her point is not the violence of the game per se but the fact that white supremacists troll these types of game sites to recruit individuals usually white males to their ideology.  She presents an important issue and one especially relevant to our times.   Below is the entire op-ed.  I have not played Fortnite or any other game since my grandson went back to Seattle but I probably will have a conversation with Michael when I see him later in May.


New York Times

From Fortnite to Alt-Right

There’s a reason video games are such fertile ground for white nationalist recruitment.

By Megan Condis

Ms. Condis is an assistant professor of game studies and a gamer.

March 27, 2019

Let’s get one thing out of the way: No, the shooter who live-streamed himself killing 50 worshipers in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, this month was not being serious when he wrote that “Spyro the Dragon 3 taught me ethno-nationalism” and “Fortnite trained me to be a killer.”

Rather, with this statement, the killer was ridiculing a trope that has circulated in the media increasingly since the Columbine killings in 1999: that video games are capable of brainwashing vulnerable teenagers and turning them into violent sociopaths. Some media outlets have described this section of the manifesto in particular as “trolling” or as “bait” — and it is both of those things, certainly.

And yet as a scholar who studies video game culture, I do want to talk about gaming. Because I think it plays a special role as a vector for spreading the messages of white supremacist ideology that lead to violence. And I think it’s a conversation that we can have without taking the bait — because this is not about the content of the games themselves but about the way the culture that surrounds gaming provides particularly fertile soil for sowing the seeds of resentment that grow into hate.

Modern internet-based recruitment efforts are designed around the creation of a frictionless pipeline that slowly inoculates potential converts to hate — like putting a bunch of would-be Pepe the Frogs in a slowly boiling pot.

Rather than waiting for targets to find them, recruiters go to where targets are, staging seemingly casual conversations about issues of race and identity in spaces where lots of disaffected, vulnerable adolescent white males tend to hang out. Those who exhibit curiosity about white nationalist talking points or express frustration with the alt-right’s ideological opponents such as feminists, anti-racism activists and “social justice warriors” are then escorted through a funnel of increasingly racist rhetoric designed to normalize the presence of white supremacist ideology and paraphernalia through the use of edgy humor and memes.

Of course, video games aren’t the only places online where these conversations are taking place. Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are also common culprits.

But video games in particular make for an ideal recruiting venue. Why? Because they come equipped with an easy-to-understand narrative of the unwelcome “invasion” of “our spaces” that, in the right hands, can readily be expanded beyond the world of gaming.

Surveys show that in the United States, gaming is not dominated by people of one race or gender. But the stereotype of the hard-core gamer as a geeky, adolescent, straight, white male still persists within our culture — and white nationalist recruiters are great at exploiting it.

As events like the 2014 harassment campaign #GamerGate amply demonstrated, to some members of the gaming community, the increased visibility of people of color, women and L.G.B.T.Q. people in gaming circles is seen less as an expansion and more as a hostile takeover. White supremacist recruiters have recognized this feeling of resentment bubbling up and pounced, seeking out gamers who fit the stereotype. They tell those gamers that they really do represent the rightful majority within their community and that all others are either opportunistic fakers only pretending to be into games or intruders trying to ruin everything fun and unique about gaming culture with their insidious political correctness.

Planting the seeds of this narrative is the first step toward cultivating an “us versus them” mentality. According to Christian Picciolini, a former white supremacist recruiter and a co-founder of the nonprofit organization Life After Hate, this type of rhetoric can help create a politics of entitlement and resentment organized around race. So, if a young white man can be convinced that gaming “belongs” to him and that it is on the verge of being taken away, he might be more easily persuaded to accept similarly structured arguments about, say, the dangers of allowing nonwhite immigrants to take over the country under the noses of “real” Americans.

In posts in the “Gaming” section of the explicitly white nationalist message board Stormfront, participants debate among themselves about which mainstream game releases are the most amenable to white power ideology. They exchange links to servers on free chat platforms like Discord for “whites only” and to groups dedicated to white nationalism on Steam, an online gaming store. (In the wake of scathing news coverage, Steam and Discord have made efforts to try to get rid of this content.)

People with this type of ideology have also taken to creating white supremacist games of their own, either by creating explicitly neo-Nazi-themed modifications of popular titles like Doom, Counter-Strike and Stellaris or developing their own indie titles. A few standouts in the indie category include titles like Ethnic Cleansing, which allows gamers to play as a skinhead or a Klansman while participating in a “race war,” and Muslim Massacre: The Game of Modern Religious Genocide, which encouraged players to “take control of the American hero and wipe out the Muslim race.”

So if we know gaming culture is being exploited by white supremacist recruiters, where do we go from here? It can be tempting to write off video games as toxic hotbeds of hate, too tainted for the uninitiated to engage with. But this would be exactly what extremists like the New Zealand shooter want.

Despite the enormous popularity and profitability of the video game industry, gaming culture still operates in the shadows. Most media pay almost no attention to it, even though the global market for video games is currently larger than those for movies and music combined.

This inattention signals that gaming is a special place, outside the mainstream, that could indeed, with enough outright hostility, be made to “belong” to a particular group.

But this signaling is compounded, because our unwillingness to pay attention to this influential medium means that the video game industry has next to no incentive to take responsibility for the social spaces that it fosters. Our failure to take games seriously provides the companies in the games industry an excuse not to invest the time, effort and money that would be required to moderate their communities properly.

There will always be dark corners of the internet for neo-Nazis to hide in and recruit from. There will always be those who claim that gaming isn’t for everyone. But we can insist that the companies that control gaming spaces recognize that this community comes with extremism dangers and that gaming is large enough that these companies need to behave as responsible actors. We can only help to reshape and reform these communities from within. And if we turn away, we risk abandoning one of the world’s largest entertainment and communication machines to those who would use it for evil ends.


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