7 min read

Opinion: After Christchurch - What we owe our game communities

Katherine Cross takes a look at the recent white supremacist terrorist attack in New Zealand, and unpacks what game developers must do to keep extremist views from taking hold in their games' communities.

The enormity of the tragedy in New Zealand -- a terrorist attack perpetrated by a white supremacist and Islamophobe -- touched so many people around the world. My Muslim students, as well as several friends and colleagues who include Muslim Aussies and Kiwis that have contributed mightily to both nations' video game scene, were shattered and fearful about what comes next.

My own grief, severe as it was, was a mere echo of those who were ringing across the Tasman or the Pacific to learn whether their loved ones were swept up in the catastrophe, one that saw 0.1 percent of New Zealand’s Muslim population slaughtered at a stroke.

Already, necessarily painful discussions have begun about the role played by social media sites in amplifying, organizing, and radicalizing voices like the terrorist’s, up to and including facilitating the proliferation of his livestream of the attack, which some commentators likened to a “first person shooter” perspective of the slaughter. The comparison was, unfortunately, apt.

The response from some was as wearisome as it was predictable. In the UK Daily Mail’s quest to absolve the extreme right of any responsibility for the Christchurch terrorist attack, the perpetrator was framed as a bullied loner who lost himself to violent video games. Such framings, though bereft of conscience, are familiar. It has been the excuse employed by countless malefactors in nerd-dom and fan communities, likening the shared nerd experience of childhood bullying to any criticism levelled at their adulthood hobbies -- even when such critiques come from other hobbyists who also suffered as children.

Such framings are also familiar for their willingness to blame anything but ideology for the attack. One need only look to the Columbine High School mass shooting, which became the archetypal American school shooting for a whole generation and was perpetrated by young men with Nazi sympathies who chose Hitler’s birthday for their crime. Instead of dwelling on that fact, everything else under the sun was blamed in the onslaught of then-novel 24 hour rolling news coverage: Marilyn Manson, neglectful parenting, school bullying, and, of course, violent video games. For the moment, at least, the Daily Mail’s attempt to resurrect these narratives has been met with stentorian condemnation from all quarters -- even if some Australian politicians, eager to take the spotlight off their own Islamophobic policies and rhetoric, are still trying to make fetch happen.

But that does not mean that the gaming industry is absolved of the need for any internal conversation.

Last year, Kotaku’s Luke Winkie reported on the long-running internal struggle of Pardox Interactive to deal with the fact that its signature Crusader Kings series has attracted a lot of angry young white men who want to actually bring back The Crusades. This included a slew of racist mods, only a few of which were banned. As to the rest, well:

“The makers of these games are aware of the issues but have so far exercised a fairly light touch, partially as a matter of resources and partially as a strategic way to avoid giving extra attention to the worst in their community.

Hearts of Iron 4 game director Dan Lind told me that in 99 out of 100 cases, Paradox won't squash out mods for objectionable content.”

Among the most popular (in very relative terms: it was downloaded fewer than 10,000 times as of Kotaku’s report) is one whose name echoes a meme beloved of white nationalists in nerd spaces: Deus Vult, Latin for “God wills it.”

It became a chant at the Charlottesville white supremacist rally, which culminated in another terrorist attack. The meme also appeared in the Christchurch shooter’s manifesto; while the turgid screed is filled with trollish misdirection, too many people mistake that sort of thing for the insincerity it pantomimes rather than mere insouciance.

Given what he actually did, it’s not unreasonable to cite his use of a racist Crusader meme beloved of a few particularly bigoted gamers as exemplifying his actual beliefs. The use of irony in the manifesto should be treated with analytic caution, but the text is a testimony to his convictions, as surely as the many references he painted on his gun.

We do not yet know what his current relationship to game communities was, but we know he chose to post his manifesto to 8chan, the same hotbed of extremism and child porn that recently attracted attention because THQ Nordic held an AMA there -- for edginess’ sake, presumably (shoutout to Mark). The site became a hotbed of GamerGate organizing when the harassment campaign was banished from 4chan, and was a source for the white nationalist activist Milo Yiannopoulos’ Breitbart editorials.

One might wish to quibble and say that this is no more an indictment than the terrorist posting to Twitter or Facebook, but the tenor of his post to 8chan was one of speaking to a friendly audience, to “his people.” The intent was clearly different, a fond farewell to his fellow travellers (or what passes for fondness in communities steeped in fear of our better angels).

THQ Nordic’s decision to host an AMA in this cesspit was patently irresponsible back in February; in the aftermath of Christchurch we’ve received a terrible reminder of why we should be absolutely frightened that any gaming studio would want to court such people.

Speaking to Kotaku, Hearts of Iron 4 game director Dan Lind told Luke Winkie that “a zero-tolerance approach makes martyrs in a community that has shown itself very able to mobilize petty grievances and overwhelm the conversation.” Be that as it may, we’ve had too many examples of how containment fails as community-moderation. Whether it’s Reddit’s toxic subreddits leaking out onto the rest of the internet, or Crusader Kings memes appearing in the rants of white supremacist terrorists, it’s clear that this approach isn’t working.

The game community did not create this problem, nor will a tougher approach in gaming spaces alone solve it. But that’s no reason not to take responsibility for what we can do to address this problem. I would rather a zero tolerance moderation approach make internet “martyrs” of angry men who are pissed about their inability to use other peoples’ platforms to spread hate than I would such people making actual martyrs out of three year olds in a house of worship.

Any day of the week.


Even now there are people arguing similar things about the attention given to the Christchurch terrorist’s manifesto, that it gives him what he wants, that he sought to fuel “the culture wars,” cause division and so forth. Thus we must pretend he was merely an apolitical “madman.” Such people rarely address the bigotry that causes actual division and actually claims lives, however.

Ignoring these bigots is not the same as marginalizing them, and it is the latter which must be done by robbing them and their kin of platforms that allow their propaganda to spread without rebuttal.

But merely citing their agitprop as evidence to illustrate that these people are of a certain ilk before applying social sanction in response? That’s hardly the same thing. Ignoring them is passive; marginalizing them is active.

The ban button is not all powerful, but it is your way of saying “hate doesn’t belong here.” Even if it simply goes somewhere else, we’re out of excuses for hosting it in the world of gaming.

Katherine Cross is a Ph.D. student at the University of Washington who researches anti-social behavior online, and a gaming critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications.

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