Is it time for video games to have their own civil rights movement?


This term I am taking a course on the US Civil Rights Movement (1954-1968) and I couldn’t help but connect the movement with Consalvo’s paper on toxic gamer culture. In particular, it was how Consalvo explained rage against female gamers as an illustration of “patriarchal privilege attempting to (re)assert its position” and that the basis of this rage stems not just from sexism, but from “fears about the changing nature of the game.”

After the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, Jim Crow laws and horrific violent acts were used by Southern whites to keep their position of authority over black Americans. Similar to male video gamers, white Southerners feared that their “patriarchal privilege” would be taken away from them if integration occurred. In both cases, fear of a changing culture and an overturning of power spurred violence against the “intrusive outsider.”


In class, it was said that having the username “GayPride90” was “asking for it” in terms of receiving derogatory insults while playing Halo. No one asks for their gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, or ethnicity to be used as the basis for discrimination. No one asks for discrimination period, so can we please throw out “asking for it” as a valid explanation?

A few classmates said they believed vocal bigoted video gamers were few in number and not representative of overall video game culture. If this is true, then why hasn’t the majority used peer pressure to regulate those players’ behaviors? Another individual in class said that we should recognize the existing difference between social reality and our ideal society. Just because this difference exists does not mean that nothing can be done; if anything it should motivate us even more so to push for equality in both the virtual world and the real one.  

The Civil Rights Movement challenged established social norms just as gay and female players challenge the male dominated world of video games. It was a struggle, even now it is still a struggle, but it illustrates that cultures can change. Many factors can be used to combat the hate against the “other” including legislation, individuals, groups, and scholars, but the hate and rage of toxic gamer culture needs to be confronted in order for it to end. I do not know what the best method is to curb hatred in videogames, but I do know that doing nothing helps no one.


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7 Responses to Is it time for video games to have their own civil rights movement?

  1. knystrom2013 says:

    BPR #3

    I think this was a very interesting question to talk about, and it brings up interesting points like this one. To clarify what I think others were trying to say in the class, it wasn’t so much that GayPride90 was “asking for it” or deserved it, it was that people should be aware of the gamer climate they are entering and know that their username is something they can choose, unlike their ethnicity or sexual preference. They are obviously free to choose whatever name they want, and the blame for discrimination against them is completely on the attackers, but at the same time, they could just as easily choose a different name and still feel like themselves online and probably be accepted as well.

    Some other interesting ideas popped into my head during class today as well. We talked about Halo in class, which is very much an audio-based communicative game like most first person shooters online. How would we perceive these hateful interactions with a game that communicated just through text? The environment becomes completely different, especially racially and sexually, where not being able to hear that your opponent is a woman or has an accent makes a huge difference in perception. Or what about going even further with games like Dark Souls, games that only have character gestures and basic, pre-selected messages that users engrave in the ground anonymously and are seen by a random subset of players? Direct communication is impossible except by avatar behavior in the game, and this is something that has always interested me. How has communication developed in games like that, and alternatively, has hate really spread in those games? To have audio, or even more intimate, video chatting within games certainly functions very close to our world today. People join the hate group so that they can be in the dominant group, or because they really have those hatreds within them. I wonder how much of it is trolling behavior, even though it is hurtful, and it would be interesting to survey these abusers in real life to see if they harbor these hatreds in day-to-day life.

    As for the call to action for standing up for people online, I am sadly doubtful that it will happen. Anonymity lets people say some horrible things, and when you can abuse someone within the comfort of your own home, it can turn average people into haters. The civil rights movement presumably was able to happen because it was very real, and race was a thing you could see in people, in person, right next to them. In the cyberworld, there are just gamertags and a game, a game people claim as their own turf. And because the gaming world is one where 10-year olds can have as much power as adults, it is doubtful that we will see any significant change within the world unless our cultures drastically shift to adapt to that.

    • cstabile says:

      So hopeless! I think that change is possible — saw it happen on a realm in World of Warcraft. I’d like to see more research on the role of audio, because I think you raise some intriguing points in your second paragraph. It’s one thing to read and respond to text (and game admins can monitor it better), but it’s impossible to track audio. And I wonder if audio in some way enables some of the worst behaviors? Wonder if there’s research out there on this.

  2. cstabile says:

    But change does happen in virtual environments! Take World of Warcraft, for example. A guild that was openly recruiting lgtbq members was told that according to the EULA, they couldn’t recruit in that way, because (so the thinking went), it would just result in trolling and trouble. What Blizzard was saying was tantamount to what M. was criticizing in class: don’t challenge oppressive environments because if you do, you’ll get what’s coming to you. I hate to state it so baldly, but the idea that players — many of them kids — are being asked to adapt to toxic gamer cultures rather than asking those cultures to transform themselves is totally depressing to me.

    But back to my example. The guild decided to organize and sue Blizzard; they won the case; and now the server where the guild was located is among the queerest-friendly realms in the game — a place where homophobic language is not tolerated and where you can have whatever kind of queer-signifying avatar name you want.

    So there is change and there are ways to make it happen without litigation!

  3. vishesh2013 says:

    Blog Post Response #1:

    Your blog post brings up a key issue from our discussion on Tuesday – we really need to find ways to curb the hateful and downright vitriolic social interactions that occur in many video games! Your post, in part, helped me to formulate my last blog post, where I propose a few potential strategies to combat such inexcusable behavior in games. Feel free to check it out, it’d be nice to have a discussion on it!

    Back to your post, though. I agree with your point completely that no one is “asking” for discrimination by utilizing a gamertag such as “GayPride90.” However, I would also echo Kyle’s point above that given the harsh climate of many social video games, there is an unfortunate expectation of receiving hateful and bigoted speech from others for choosing such a gamertag. To be clear, by no means do I think it is the fault of the player choosing a gamertag such as “GayPride90,” I’m simply saying that the environment in which that player enters is likely filled with individuals who would pounce on the chance to slander and put him/her down, for reasons discussed by Consalvo and Nakamura.

    I think you raise an interesting question when you ask why, if such bigoted video gamers are few in number, the majority of video gamers do not regulate this vocal minority’s behavior. I might propose an explanation for this, but I’m sure there are other, perhaps more valid ones. It could be that many video gamers may decide simply not to play with these hateful gamers, either by joining different games or abandoning a particular game altogether. This leads to another question, which we raised in class last Tuesday: why would the majority of gamers simply leave the game and not call out others on their behavior? There are probably several good answers to this, one of which is that these gamers play games not to get into discussions of social issues, but to play a game, which drives them simply to find a more friendly cohort to engage with.

    Yet, in the end, the issue still stands. It is, as Prof. Stabile says, quite depressing that people are forced to play ball in the caustic online video game culture and that nothing tangible is being done to change the culture itself. What we need now, I think, are real, tenable solutions to this problem. I’d be more than interested to hear your thoughts on this – or those of anyone else for that matter!


    • cstabile says:

      Thanks for this, V. I think that you’re right — that a lot of people just don’t play these games or they do what Ed and RJ suggested about Halo — they just mute the sound so they don’t have to listen to this. Be interesting to think about the demographics of those who are using headsets in FPS games where there are hostile climates. Maybe the games should just ban them.

  4. mmartini2013 says:

    Blog Post Response #1

    Thanks for your thoughts everyone. In terms of answering the repeated question of why toxic gaming culture is allowed to exist I thought I would draw on psychology in order to give a potential explanation that is more uplifting then the thought that everyone is apathetic and unconcerned with supporting the rights of their fellow gamers.

    Humans are social creatures, males and females, and we work hard to maintain our social standing. If as K. suggests, gamers keep quiet when discrimination occurs because they want to remain a part of the dominant group then it is social fear that mutes their voices. Similarly, this need to belong could be driving others to silence toxic gamers’ voices via the mute audio button as it allows individuals to avoid confrontation.

    Social fear motivates us to conform to a group because failing to conform is often punished. Non-conformists, which frankly can be anyone at any point in their lives, be it in a game or at school or work, may be ostracized by their peers for not “fitting in,” and the result is horrible (Check out the “To This Day” spoken word poem video by Shane Koyczan that addresses bullying: Very few people want to be ostracized and hence the motivation to avoid this punishment is strong. Yet despite the prevalence and power of conformity in everyday life, its role in influencing behavior is often underestimated.

    The link above is to a video on social psychologist Solomon Asch’s line test experiment (1955). Participants gave obviously wrong answers in response to a line matching task because they either believed the group was correct and that they were missing something or because they did not want to go against the group.

    In group games, where players are reliant on others to achieve a given task, the conditions for eliciting conformity are high as are the punishments for non-conformity. No one wants to be the sole person who calls the toxic gamer out because he or she would then be seen as disrupting the group and could subsequently be punished.

    Also working in the toxic gamer’s favor is pluralistic ignorance where people will act according to perceived social norms, but privately believe the opposite. These perceived group norms however are often the result of not the majority, but of a very loud minority, aka the obnoxious hate filled toxic gamer.

    Asch’s study demonstrates that one way to significantly reduce conformity and potentially reduce toxic gaming is to have a within-group partner who supports your views. So the next time “GayPride90” goes online and is harassed, two people need to tag-team and tell the toxic gamer that their behavior is not okay.

    Social fear is a strong motivator, but if it is truly the vocal minority driving the toxicity of games then speaking out will make a difference in terms of driving down pluralistic ignorance and conformity as gamers will come to realize that it is not just them who privately believe that everyone should be treated with respect.

  5. cstabile says:

    This is a fantastic explanation. But some people do fight back by themselves in MMOs, although I totally agree that it makes it easier to resist conformity if you have a partner. I love the idea of tag-teaming, but I’d also like to know what makes those solo players resist.

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