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GamerGate: A Culture War for People Who Don't Play Video Games

Richard Ellis/Getty

Last month, the Florida chapter of the Society for Professional Journalists hosted an afternoon panel about GamerGate, the yearlong campaign either about ethics in game journalism or the harassment of women in the tech industry, depending on whom you ask. Since the campaign was launched by a young software developer who published a 9,000 word blog post smearing his ex-girlfriend—a post which led to a mob of harassment and accusations that she had slept with a games journalist for favorable reviews of her game (she hadn’t)—most people, including Wikipedia and almost all media outlets, are not sympathetic to the “actually it’s about ethics” framing. 

That camp, composed largely of people who spend their time posting on niche forums, like Reddit’s KotakuInAction, chose a telling group to represent them at SPJ’s afternoon panel: Christina Hoff-Sommers, an author and scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who’s critical of modern feminism; Milo Yiannopolous, a writer at Breitbart with a history of unflattering comments about gamers and a poor record of journalistic ethics, who most recently accused Black Lives Matter activist Shaun King of lying about his race to get a scholarship (he wasn't); and Cathy Young, a contributing editor at the libertarian magazine, Reason. Notably, none of them are gamers or game journalists.

Though GamerGate is nearly incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t been following it closely, it’s unusual in that it captured the attention of people who have nothing all to do with video games when it’s ostensibly preoccupied with whether certain online blogs have properly disclosed their writers’ ties to indie game developers. A recent post at Breitbart, however, helps to explain GamerGate’s appeal: It’s an accessible front for a new kind of culture warrior to push back against the perceived authoritarianism of the social-justice left.

Allum Bokhari, the author of the post and a panelist earlier in the SPJ event, calls this new movement “cultural libertarianism,” and he describes it as in opposition to “cultural authoritarians” who argue “that ‘problematic’ media can lead to racism and misogyny,” a view with “little scientific evidence to support it.” Instead, cultural libertarians support unrestrained free speech, what Bokhari calls “total artistic and intellectual freedom.” Just as economic libertarians believe that an unregulated market is an unmitigated good, so too do cultural libertarians believe that free speech can do no harm. Of course, they’re completely wrong.

There’s much to object to in this view, not least in its fundamental premise: that there’s little to no evidence that media promoting sexism or racism can be harmful. To support his statement, Bokhari cites a single longitudinal study that shows no correlation between playing video games and sexism. The study is fundamentally flawed, however, because the researchers defined sexism by the answers to only three questions: should men make decisions in the family, should women do the chores, and should men be leaders.

To get an expert’s perspective on the study, I spoke on the phone with Karen Dill-Shackleford, a social psychologist and researcher in media psychology at Fielding Graduate University, and we discussed that study, along with other relevant research. 

“If you wanted to know who's sexist, would you just want to know the answer to those three questions?” Dill-Shackleford asked me. “That’s my bottom line on the study. Don’t trust me, ask yourself: Is that what you think sexism is?” That any researcher has captured the entirety of sexism in a single scale, let alone one that’s three questions long, strains belief. 

“It's not that I don't want what they’re saying to be true,” she went on. “I’d love it actually, if any content in games was just seen as strictly fantasy and never played into people’s attitudes. But that’s just not true.” 

There hasn’t been much research on sexism and video games, but what studies there are don’t flatter gamers. Earlier this summer, one such study examined men who played Halo 3, a competitive first-person shooter game. The experimenters competed as either men or women—made apparent to the other players through audio recordings of a man or a woman played during the game—and found that players were quiet and submissive when losing to the male-voiced experimenters but hostile and angry when losing to the female-voiced ones. Another study in 2012 asked men what kind of video games they played and measured their level of benevolent sexism—i.e., how likely they were to hold to rigid gender roles or protective and patronizing attitudes toward women. The more the men played sexist games, the higher their level of benevolent sexism. 

While this research is suggestive, it’s not direct evidence that video games impact sexist beliefs. “We like to do experiments,” Dill-Shackleford told me, “because the premise is that it shows cause and effect.” Here, the experiments are the most compelling.

“I designed a study where I either exposed people to sexualized video game characters or professional women,” Dill-Shackleford said, referencing this 2008 paper. “Then everybody was exposed to a true story about a woman who was sexually harassed in college, and I asked them all sorts of questions, like ‘Do you really think it’s the guys fault?’ ‘How would you punish him?’ ‘Is it her fault?’” Dill-Shackleford continued. “For the women, it didn't matter. Their answers were the same. For the men, it made a huge difference. Being exposed to these demeaning sexualized images of women made them think that sexual harassment was less of a problem, more of the women’s fault, and not something you need to punish a lot.”

Other research is equally troubling. One study from 2009 had some college students play as Lara Croft from Tomb Raider, but some played while Croft wore a ripped and revealing nightgown while the others played a version of the game where Croft wore a concealing winter coat. Compared to students who played no game at all, the students playing the character dressed in revealing clothing rated women’s cognitive abilities as inferior to men’s. Even more, women who played the sexualized character felt less confidence in their abilities than women who played in the coat. Another study from 2010 asked some gamers to play a sexualized video game and others to play The Sims. Students who played the game objectifying women were significantly more likely to report that they would sexually harass someone by trading sexual favors to advance the career of a subordinate.

Similar results hold for all sorts of prejudices and across all media types1. “I’ve done parallel studies with African American men being portrayed as street criminals versus progressive strong men with a lot of character,” Dill-Shackleford told me, describing a 2012 study on how the portrayal of black men in video games affects college students. “If I show them a white candidate versus a black candidate with the same credentials, people who saw images of street criminals are more likely to say they’d vote for the white candidate. But if I show them progressive images of Martin Luther King and Barack Obama, they say they’re more likely to vote for the black candidate,” said Dill-Shackleford.

“Fictional media helps us simulate social interactions, so when we see bad stories about LGBTQ people or black people or women, then we take those seriously as social information,” Dill-Shackleford told me, “even though we know they’re fictional. It’s not that we uncritically watch them; we just take them as social information.” 

This might seem like a lot of effort to simply show that Breitbart is wrong about science, but Bokhari’s post has garnered support from even respected academics like Jonathan Haidt, an NYU social psychologist and one of the authors of the recent Atlantic cover story on how “the new political correctness is ruining education.” In that piece, Haidt and his co-author Greg Lukianoff write, “morality binds and blinds,” meaning that moral concerns are used to express group allegiance while they limit the evidence we consider. Haidt and Lukianoff, however, do seemingly little to consider what sacred values might bind and blind them, and how that might affect their read of campus culture. Someone primarily concerned with free speech may see policies differently than someone whose concerns are broader.

Social psychologists describe sacred values as anything we’re unwilling to compromise on. And for the cultural libertarian, if any value is sacred, it’s freedom of speech—which is why it’s not surprising that these libertarians see authoritarianism in social norms that discourage harmful speech, or, in the same vein, that Lukianoff and Haidt recommend universities “officially and strongly discourage trigger warnings.” But taken from another perspective, trigger warnings and political correctness aren’t about stymieing free speech, but instead about ensuring equal protection of vulnerable communities.

Consider: Women are disproportionately more likely than men to experience rape or attempted rape by the time they finish college; that PTSD is more than twice as likely to affect female survivors of sexual assault as male survivors; and that a PTSD flashback in the middle of class is a considerable barrier to education. Discussions of sexual violence, therefore, may hinder learning for a not-insignificant proportion of women in a way that it might not for men. That such an educational barrier be minimized follows naturally; a modest first step might be to provide students a warning that sexual violence will be discussed2. While it’s true that not all topics may warrant a trigger warning—Haidt cites one student who complained that a discussion of cancer should have included one—a fair debate on the topic ought to include the most compelling examples alongside the most trivial. (It’s telling that trigger warnings have spread not at the imposition of nannying professors but at the burgeoning requests of students.) 

I don’t doubt that there’s a culture war happening, but it’s not a conflict between libertarians and authoritarians or freedom and coddling, as Haidt and Breitbart supporters seem to think. Instead, I see a fundamental clash of sacred values: between a camp who places highest value on free expression on one hand, and a group who values equal protection of the marginalized on the other. This is what happens when the First Amendment crashes against the Fourteenth; conflicts between such sacred values are notoriously difficult to resolve. 

In 1982, a game called Custer’s Revenge was released for the Atari. Players took on the role of a crudely rendered cowboy—naked and sporting a pixelated erection—dodging arrows in order to have sex with a bound and naked Native American woman on the other end of the screen. Its undertones of rape are heavy and undeniable. Andrea Dworkin, an influential feminist from the ’70s and ’80s, said that the game “generated many gang rapes of Native American women,” but I think she went a bit too far.

There isn’t quite so straight a line between the media we consume and how we act, and it takes more than one Atari game to create a rapist. That’s not to say, however, that the media we consume is harmless, or that it doesn’t have an impact on our attitudes or behavior. “It’s not that I think all games are sexist, or that all people who play games are bad, or that playing any video game will make you sexist. That’s all silly,” Dill-Shackleford told me.   

As an undergraduate, I was in a seminar with the psychologist Paul Bloom. A lot of that class has stuck with me, but one statement carried more weight than any other—partly because it's helped me foster some humility as a researcher interested in how we change our minds, and partly because it's gotten me to think about the power of media. He told us that shows like “Will and Grace” probably did more for gay rights than any philosophical or moral argument. “There's some reason to believe that shows like ‘The Cosby Show’ radically changed American attitudes towards African-Americans, while shows like ‘Will and Grace’ and ‘Modern Family’ changed American attitudes towards gay men and women,” Bloom said in a TED Talk that echoed the lecture we’d gotten in class. “I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that the major catalyst in America for moral change has been a situation comedy.”

If we recognize how much good media can do, then we also have to recognize the capacity it has to harm—and that’s a capability we need to take seriously. There’s nothing authoritarian about respect.

  1. Counter-stereotypical images can be powerful, but it’s possible to go too far in the opposite direction; reinforcing any kind of stereotype can do harm. A 2013 study showed that exposure to positive stereotypes—that black Americans are better at sports, for example—ironically makes negative stereotypes more believable, as well.

  2. Haidt and Lukianoff argue that trigger warnings are actually counterproductive, but seem unusually certain of that given what we know about the effects of trigger warnings (which is nothing). As the American Psychological Association wrote last year: “There's no research yet on trigger warnings in the psychological literature, so psychologists don't know what effect they might have.”