When Evil Choices in Gaming Spill Into the Real World

Game design has an internet troll problem

Photo: mikkelwilliam/Getty Images

InIn 2010, Firaxis launched Civilization V for Mac and PC. The strategy game asks players to cultivate a civilization from the Stone Age to the present day, conquering the world through diplomatic, cultural, scientific, or military means.

At the heart of this game is a type of escapism that allows us to briefly believe we have control over the entire world. The diversity of play styles permitted in games like Civ V allows us to model society however we wish to. We are the voices that lead humanity to supremacy.

And so it should surprise no one that the open-ended nature of a lot of strategy games creates breeding grounds for supremacists and trolls.

CCiv V was tremendously successful when it came out. It sold over 8 million copies and continues to enjoy a solid fan base, even though a sequel, Civ VI, hit stores in 2016. I am one such fan. I have logged hundreds of hours playing it.

The chief appeal of the vanilla game was about the accumulation and implementation of power. The question “What do you spend the most time doing in Civ?” was posted recently on the Civ V discussion board on the gaming platform Steam, and the top answers were “war” and “nuking people and making plans to nuke people.”

This power fantasy plays an important role in many games, but something of note in Civ V is the morally ambiguous approach taken in allowing players to construct their own realities. Players are not only allowed to conquer the world under the command of George Washington or Indonesia’s Gajah Mada, but the game also lets you go into battle with more problematic leaders like Jefferson Davis as he leads the Confederacy to victory against the Union.

On July 9, 2013, Civ V released its second major expansion pack, dubbed Brave New World after the Aldous Huxley book of the same name. The expansion tweaked the gameplay significantly, and one small addition was a scenario called The American Civil War. The expansion allowed players to fight either on behalf of the Union or the Confederacy to change or affirm the outcome of the Civil War.

Like all Civ V playthroughs, there is no morality on whether individual decisions are right or wrong. If you win as the Confederacy — a side fighting to preserve the institution of slavery — this is the only thing the game will tell you: “The world has been convulsed by war. Many great and powerful civilizations have fallen, but you have survived — and emerged victorious! The world will long remember your glorious triumph!”

The American Civil War scenario in ‘Civilization V’

At the time of release, neither The American Civil War nor the second scenario, the Scramble for Africa, which allowed players to recreate the European colonization of Africa, garnered controversy. If you look at the sparse reporting on these updates, game journalists restrained their commentary to the technical aspects of their playthroughs.

Game reviewers have only recently begun to examine the morality of games, a blind spot that has historically created intellectual safe spaces for “alt-right” or white-nationalist trolls with severe consequences.

InIn 2014, the gaming community was shaken by Gamergate, which was a harassment campaign that targeted several prominent female game makers and critics. The toxicity of the community has only intensified since then as a small percentage of gamers have become radicalized by online communities.

An infamous example of this phenomenon is gaming vlogger PewDiePie, whose “edgy” memes and humor have been used to push users to more extreme content. It’s not uncommon for gamers like PewDiePie to recommend anti-Semitic or racist YouTubers to their followers. Since YouTube’s algorithm likes to suggest similar content, this can create a ripple effect that pushes some viewers to the most extreme parts of the platform.

The public’s awareness of this issue grew after the March 2019 New Zealand Mosque shooting, when the perpetrator shouted “subscribe to PewDiePie” shortly before killing 51 people. The meme referenced was a subscription competition between PewDiePie and the Bollywood channel T-Series.

Since then, journalists have written hundreds upon hundreds of editorials about why gaming culture is so susceptible to radicalization. The YouTube channel Innuendo Studios has a video in its series, “Alt-Right Playbook,” about how the “alt-right” likes to take over affinity groups to get more members. The desire for recruitment is undoubtedly a factor. Still, gaming culture’s moral acceptance of, or at the very least ambivalence to, white supremacy is also a reason why gamers (and not, say, knitters) are so ripe for radicalization.

If you peruse the mod section for Civ V, then you will quickly come across fan mods that allow you to play some of history’s worst dictators, ranging from North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il to Nazi Germany’s Adolf Hitler. Some of these mods’ fans are just doing so for the act of escapism, but it doesn’t take long to find actual white supremacists engaged in direct recruitment.

On the first page of the discussion forum for the Adolf Hitler mod, I found a user named “The Entrenched Soldier” asking another user to research the movie The Greatest Story Never Told. This movie is a piece of white supremacist propaganda by film producer Dennis Wise that tries to spin Hitler’s actions in a positive light.

Source: Steam discussion page

The truth is that Steam has had a Nazi problem for a while. Reporters have long noted the prevalence of white supremacists on the site. In one infamous example, a Steam user named Nicholas Giampa used the site’s lax regulation to disseminate his radical opinions online. He would later go on to kill his girlfriend’s parents for criticizing his white supremacist views. As HuffPost writer Andy Campbell wrote in 2018: “What’s interesting about Giampa’s online presence ― and the Steam community as a whole ― is that the Nazi symbolism and other hate speech don’t appear to faze anybody. It’s too rampant, too normalized.”

Valve has quietly worked to delete the most obvious white supremacist accounts on its site. If you go on Steam now and search keywords like “Nazi,” you aren’t going to get as many hits for white supremacist groups as you would have in 2018. Problematic fan mods are still there, though. The same can be said for games such as the Blitzkrieg DLC for the game series Order of Battle or the card game Hearts of Iron, which place the user in command of Nazi forces.

When it comes to publishing games, Valve has maintained a “censorship-free” stance since 2018. The company only removes games on a case-by-case basis when they get too much attention in the press, are deemed illegal, or are overtly pornographic. This policy means that as long as white supremacists aren’t too vocal about their stated goals, then they can still play games that allow them to recreate their race-based power fantasies of Hitler conquering the world or Jefferson Davis vanquishing the Union.

The refusal of platforms such as Steam to judge the morality of games exposes gamers, a portion of whom are younger and male, to literal Nazis. It’s a moral hazard that extends beyond historical simulators alone.

Unfortunately, white supremacy isn’t limited solely to recreations of World War II. The ability to role-play as an awful, xenophobic person or empire is quite common pretty much across the board. In the past, I’ve written about the extensive amount of slavery in the MMORPG Eve Online, but consider also the game Stellaris.

Stellaris is a Civ V-esque game where a player can spread their civilization across the universe through cultural, diplomatic, or military means. I am a huge fan of this game, and I will be the first to admit that one of its greatest strengths is that it permits for a diversity of play styles; players have the ability to build Dyson spheres, create robot armies, and explore the galaxy.

The problem with the gaming community is that we are so used to letting players cosplay as awful people that we have trouble telling the difference between people who are joking, “half-joking,” and deadly serious.

Sadly, players also have the option to rule a slaver’s empire. The game allows player civilizations to capture foreign populations, force them into slavery, neuter them, process their bodies for food or energy, or exterminate them outright.

Half the appeal of many games is allowing players to role-play as maniacally evil people. The original Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic, for example, had players giddy with the prospect of being a Sith lord. The game allowed players to execute innocent bystanders, sell the cure for a plague to a crime syndicate, and order your Wookiee companion to kill their best friend, Mission. One user remarked about that last quest: “I felt like an epic d-bag after I [killed Mission] the first time. Then I did thrice more, and I just laughed.”

Some players are undoubtedly into playing games like this for the raw power fantasy, but others have an appeal rooted in white supremacist impulses. As Reddit user The9thMan99 jokingly remarked about Stellaris in the eu4 (Europa Universalis IV) subreddit:

Stellaris is the superior Hitler simulator. Yes, in [Hearts of Iron] you literally can play as Hitler, but you don’t get to do any hitlery stuff, only go to war. In Stellaris you have a detailed control panel too [sic] choose how you want to hitler your inferior races … you can literally choose a population to be enslaved and turned into food or worked to death.

This particular user claims to have been joking, but it doesn’t take long to find a user on one of these forums apologizing or massaging Hitler’s atrocities. For example, in the Stellaris Steam discussion board devoted to the hypothetical question “What’s the best way to make the third reich? user Jimib4158 posted a lengthy defense of the genocidal leader.

“As someone really into miltary [sic] history, and of Jewish roots, i would surprisingly say you may be a little too hard on the Nazis, while they certainly were NOT the good guys, they were a product of their time.”

Eventually, someone enters the feed who isn’t joking and has genocidal desires that are more than hypothetical. The problem with the gaming community is that we are so used to letting players cosplay as awful people that we have trouble telling the difference between people who are joking, “half-joking,” and deadly serious.

The perceived neutrality of these games allows white supremacists to interact with users who enjoy these games for non-race-related reasons. These “regular gamers” come to reenact a power fantasy divorced from white supremacy and get exposed to communities that — in-between Twitch recommendations on “resource optimizations and build styles” — talk about how “Hitler was maybe misunderstood.”

FFor decades now in politics and the press, we’ve debated over whether or not video games cause violence. This talking point is used by conservative and liberal defenders alike who blame the violence in video games and other forms of media as a cause for things such as shootings. President Donald Trump pressed this claim after the Parkland shooting and made it again during the summer of 2019.

There is no compelling evidence that playing video games causes players to pick up a gun and start shooting people. It does no one any favors to advance this claim.

Media, though, does have a more diffused effect on the consumer. There is some evidence, for example, that a viewer’s higher exposure to positive portrayals in the media of marginalized groups such as gay people and racial minorities leads to more accepting views. We may intellectually know that these people aren’t real, but that doesn’t stop our lizard brains from connecting with them (see “parasocial relationships”).

This effect of representation is why media representation groups such as GLAAD exist. The characters we see in our media will potentially go on to affect how we perceive people in the real world.

Video games are not divorced from this equation, and historically, they have been awful at representation. The ability for the player to control an avatar, however, makes gamers a more integral part of the narrative. We’re living that experience, but at the same time, the simulated nature of that experience is ever-present and, in some cases, challenging to take seriously. A study from the University of Illinois, for example, found that when players were allowed to adjust their characters in the soccer game FIFA, they defaulted to racial stereotypes and perpetuated racism.

This complicated status makes it possible for even the most well-intentioned portrayals in video games to permit players to perpetuate racist views and beliefs. Lisa Nakamura, director of the Digital Studies Institute at the University of Michigan, told NPR that a white player experiencing racism while playing a video game “does not actually improve the suffering of other people who he’s aligning himself with, because he still is benefiting from his whiteness in other parts of his life.”

There’s a balancing act in games between instilling empathy and permitting unhealthy voyeurism. There are plenty of white men masquerading as half-naked women in-game, but that doesn’t mean it’s making them less sexist. The way player choices are constructed does matter, and as we have seen, when you don’t put enough thought into player outcomes, your game can become an outlet (and recruitment tool) for white supremacists.

Some members of the gaming community prioritize player choice over player empathy and understanding. They’re allowing their players to role-play as the Third Reich, win the Civil War for the Confederacy, and enslave the galaxy for funsies.

Players have the right to be dicks in video games, and that’s being exploited by white supremacists. It allows for an outlet of expression that, while not necessarily homicidal, can enable members of the “alt-right” to make crossroads with gamers “hypothetically” reconstructing the Third Reich in space. This type of play style exposes a minority of gamers to radicalization, and we need to ask if these types of narratives are necessary for players to have fun.

This criticism is not a call to ban all depictions of slavery, violence, and objectification in video games. There have been games such as Undertale that deconstruct the concept of player violence by permitting said violence in their gameplay.

Neither should we label all gamers white supremacists. This claim would be wildly untrue. It would also do a disservice to all the amazing gamers and fandoms that mobilize for benevolent causes and charities (see Hbomberguy’s charity Twitch stream as an example).

We should, though, start to be more critical of in-game behaviors. We are long past the days of an entire game involving a pixelated figure saving a princess. Modern video games tell complicated, in-depth stories that can give any movie a run for its money. These games should be scrutinized beyond whether or not they’re merely fun to play. Narratives that glorify awful characters and points of view should be judged for their impact.

Along the way, this type of gaming criticism might just help us fight some real-life Nazis.

I write about pop culture and politics. Follow me on Twitter: https://twitter.com/opinionsalexhas Write for me: https://medium.com/after-the-storm

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