This article contains references to sexual assault, death, white supremacy, and mass shootings.
After the January 6 riot at the US Capitol, social media exploded with false “photographed evidence” of anarchist movement Antifa’s role as the insurrection’s main instigators, with conservative lawmakers like Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) joining in the baseless suggestions. Twitter, for one, flooded with disinformation, such as one tweet that associated QAnon conspiracy theorist Jake Angeli to Antifa, and garnered thousands of retweets and likes in the span of hours. Pro-Trump supporters and fact-checking dissenters alike clashed in the comment sections, debating the legitimacy of these fabricated, viral claims. One photo in particular stood out from the others: a zoomed-in shot of a man with a tattoo on his left hand, to which Twitter user @rising_serpent asked their 82,000 followers, “What symbol is that?”
Pro-Trump accounts flocked to the comment section, one tweet specifically claiming: “Antifa. I knew it.” Another person tweeted information about the hammer and sickle communist symbol, which they associated with the tattoo’s arches and diametric spike, and by association, far-left ideology like Antifa.
A reverse image search would tell a person otherwise of the symbol’s true origins: not some rallying anarchist war cry, but the Outsider’s Mark from the video game franchise Dishonored. Naturally, Dishonored fans were quick to fact-check, responding with screenshots of the video game and similar tattoos on other people. And the conversation, for the most part, ended there.
But the conversation should have gone beyond simple fact-checking. It failed to cover that a video gamer—a dedicated fan, per the tattoo—breached the Capitol alongside other Trump supporters. For those observant of particular niche pockets of gaming culture, it should be no surprise. A Capitol rioter’s tattoo and gamer identity cannot be ignored because they should reveal to us the hateful, violent ideologies that toxic video game culture incites.
The Outsider’s Mark’s presence at the US Capitol riot is not the first time toxic gaming culture has made a cameo in a mainstream demonstration of violence. In 2014, Gamergate fueled controversy via tumultuous online disputes about the harassment of female and genderqueer gamers and journalistic ethics in the male-dominated industry. Gamergate began with the targeted death and rape threats sent to game developer Zoe Quinn, whose then-boyfriend Eron Gjoni accused Quinn of cheating on him with Nathan Grayson, a journalist for game website Kotaku. Rumors of Quinn’s alleged affair circulated, whispering they had seduced Grayson to increase and influence positive coverage of their video game Depression Quest, and eventually Quinn was doxxed online, forcing them to flee their home. Gamergate continued with the harassment of Anita Sarkeesian, whose feminist criticisms of the oversexualization of female video game characters were met with misogynistic insults and, like Quinn, death threats.
Gamergate reached a more mainstream audience through a Breitbart article titled “Feminist Bullies Tearing the Video Game Apart.” Author Milo Yiannopoulos criticized journalists for tapping into political activism in their game reviews, then dismissed death threats as hysteria and overblown attention-seeking strategy. In particular, Yiannopoulos argued that the violence women in the media face is, in fact, “baseless.” In his line of thought, death threats are made out of casual spite by bored internet trolls and, in reality, no one is endangered by these so-called harmless words. Yiannopoulos’s article paved a new trajectory for Gamergaters on platforms such as 4chan that would leverage distaste against minority gamers, particularly progressive women, through now-mainstream slogans, like “Snowflake,” “Social Justice Warrior,” and “Feminazi.” Gamergate attacks, needless to say, led both gamers and non-gamers alike to view the video game industry and community as unwelcoming, violent environments—not exactly the image any industry wishes to project.
Gamergate’s powerful influence lied not only in its hateful language, but also in the movement’s ability to disguise Gamergate as a herald of liberal values to ultimately harass minorities—a tactic also used by right-wing politicians in their populist rhetoric. Former president Trump, for instance, utilizes a phrase employed time and time again since the 1980s: “Drain the Swamp,” an anti-establishment slogan that promises to counter a rigged lobbyist and electoral system. Still, lobbyists continued to thrive under the Trump Administration, the New York Times reporting that “eight [lobbyists and operatives with ties to lobbying firms] have been paid a total of nearly $120 million through their firms to influence the United States government from the beginning of 2017, as Mr. Trump prepared to take office, to the end of March.”
At first glance, Yiannopoulos’s Breitbart argument imitates left-leaning ideology: he calls for a reform in gaming journalism, one that returns to fans’ honest reviews of video games without corrupt deals between journalists and developers behind the curtain. It’s an agreeable call; after all, advocacy for an ethical press gains the trust of potential game purchasers, who use unbiased reviews to inform their buying decisions. But arguments like Yiannopoulos’ are a trap set all too often and all too well. They lead people to unintentionally creep into violent rhetorical fallacies without opening meaningful discussions over gender, race, class, and general socio-politics. People like Quinn are dismissed as hysterical, hyperbolic attention-seekers, while their doxing, death threats, and false cheating allegations are left improperly addressed. Yiannopoulos himself ends his article with a dismissal of Gamergaters and a gendered shaming of Zoe Quinn: “the politicised bloggers who previously influenced the opinions of millions [of gamers] have voluntarily given up their authority to rabid, single-issue campaigners who silence criticism and sleep with journalists, peers and even their own bosses, as Zoe Quinn did, to get ahead.”
Trump himself has cited the world of video games as inspiration for political violence—in 2019, he condemned “racism, bigotry, and white supremacy” after shootings in Texas and Ohio. His speech has since aged poorly, but he did remark about the Internet, social media, and violent video games having roles in the radicalization of Americans, particularly youth. While the contribution of video games to violent youth behavior remains highly disputed, with Harvard Medical School commenting that research of violence in video games “relies on measures to assess aggression that don't correlate with real-world violence,” Trump is not entirely incorrect when he points fingers at social media and accuses Internet platforms of being perpetrators of political violence.
Take 8kun is a social media platform where people often share racist, extremist, and anti-Semitic posts via user-created message boards. Before the attack on the Christchurch mosques in 2019, the gunman had taken to 8kun (known then as 8chan). Within a whopping seventy-four pages, he jokes with white supremacist ideals, then flaunts sarcastically, “Spyro the dragon 3 taught me ethno-nationalism” and “Fortnite trained me to be a killer and to floss on the corpses of my enemies.” He later live-streamed his massacre while spewing dark meme manifestos. He weaponized video game memes to evoke images of execution, mass genocide, and manslaughter and cited popular games and figures within the industry, names we’ve grown familiar with, gamer or not. In the livestream of the shooting, he yelled a well-known Internet meme: “Remember, lads, subscribe to PewDiePie!” (PewDiePie is the online persona of popular YouTuber and gamer Felix Kjellberg, who has been criticized for his usage of Nazi imagery in the past.)
The Christchurch gunman is not alone in corrupting memes to fit an extremist agenda: Internet gamer trolls, incels, and “edgelords” have proliferated across the Internet for “the memes.” Texas Tech professor of communication Megan Condis explains, “Virtual worlds are spaces that have always been marketed to us as the place where you could have an adventure, a place where you could act out some of your more taboo fantasies, whether it may be violent fantasies or sexualized fantasies or even just, like, impossible fantasies… So coming into those spaces and saying, ‘The way that you behave in these fantasy worlds has to be considerate; you have to be aware of racial politics and gender politics in those spaces’ — there’s a lot of pushback against that.”
Gaming platforms have become the epicenter of a tension between the fantasy and a “harsher” reality: through Internet platforms, extremists have found a path to realize violent desires that were previously channeled solely through video game action, only to be “restricted” by modern politics that dictate what is allowed on such channels. While most people simply share passions, jokes, and fun theories about video games in the majority of gaming culture, there lurks a sinister resentment against the divide between the virtual and the real within a niche extremist community. Radicalized people take that personally.
It’s a simple dynamic to comprehend. A reality check tapping into a video game world is an invasion of a gamer’s “own space,” an entitled political rhetoric that cultivates a populist ideology: What are they doing in my world? Why should real-life rules apply within the magic circle of my video game fantasy? For white supremacists, it’s an easily translatable mindset: What are those immigrants doing in my white America? Why are those deep-state politicians attempting to overthrow my election? Such conflation of the taboo fantasy with the real world has bubbled over before, when white supremacists used gaming chat app Discord to plot the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally in 2017.
Not all parts of violent gaming culture reach the magnitude of Gamergate, the Christchurch shooting, or the Charlottesville rally. However, the threatening rhetoric that has become all but normalized in the extremist gaming community clearly fosters a radical ideology that espouses hateful, and naturally harmful, narratives. The frightening bit? Anyone who has logged onto an online game has probably seen this in some shape or form: maybe someone in the popular Mafia game Among Us typed “Hitler was right!” in the chat box, or another nicknamed themselves the N-word in a Minecraft server (using, perhaps, numbers instead of the letter “E” to avoid ban).
Hateful rhetoric has even contaminated popular video game platform Steam. The Anti-Defamation League reported the identification of nearly two hundred unique Steam accounts that propagated Nazi and white supremacist beliefs, including SS bolts, swastikas, terms such as “Gas the Jew,” the white supremacist numerical code “1488,” or perversions of extremist symbol Pepe the Frog. While that is a mere fraction of the millions of Steam accounts, hate speech proliferates in myriad ways on the platform. Searching “white power” returns over three thousand profiles. Entering “Nazi” in the Steam community page returns over twenty-one thousand results. Such vehicles of dark video game “memes” can desensitize, brainwash, and eventually, convert. After all, white supremacist humor is built on such bigoted imagery; it is easy to discover that same subculture within the video game community. In the glorification of historical killers and racists and accumulated frustration toward modern feminism, young players can be exposed casually to alt-right propagations, with enthusiastic imitators later escorted into the hateful world.
This brings us back to the Capitol riots of January 6, 2021, in which one of these gamers found his way into the Capitol, exposing his Outsider’s Mark tattoo in the process. He may be the only identified gamer physically in the Capitol, but he sure wasn’t the only one who wished to metastasize white supremacist ideology that day. In a bold move, streaming platform Twitch removed the “PogChamp” emote, which was modeled after game personality Ryan “Gootecks” Gutierrez, from their servers. Gutierrez had earlier described Ashli Babbitt, who died in the insurrection, a “#MAGAMartyr,” and encouraged his followers to watch Babbitt’s death, potentially exposing his fans to triggering content. With two members of a toxic, dangerous gamer culture at the forefront of an insurrection, it is difficult to ignore the association between a darker side of the video game community with white supremacy. It takes more than just the removal of someone’s meme face off a platform to properly confront a disconcerting problem the gaming community faces every day.
The video game community, for the most part, can be a meaningful and creative way to express one’s hobby; there is a reason many gamers stream their latest Hades run, buy Pokémon merch at game conventions, and post fanart of Zero Suit Samus. Nevertheless, gamers should first acknowledge that some parts of gaming culture have normalized hateful rhetoric that can easily bleed into a dangerous political game, then condemn and combat its proliferation and contagion. Perhaps video games themselves don’t cause real life violence, but a dangerous cancer has grown on the side of an otherwise fun and collaborative community: don’t look the other way when you see it next.
Alina Kim is a third year at The College studying Political Science, History, and Media Arts and Design.
The first image featured in this article is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommerical 2.0 Generic License. No changes were made to the original image, which was taken by Blink O'fanaye and can be found here.