Explaining the Roots of Gamer Rage

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Whether you think Gamergate really is about ethics in gaming journalism or, as I have argued, a response to discomfort with feminism and progressivism in gaming, one interesting subplot has revolved around the perceived mistreatment of those who play video games at the hands of the media. Talk to most Gamergate proponents these days, and before long, they’ll bring up a dozen or so “anti-gamer” articles, which they say were published nearly simultaneously in late August — some argue that this was an act of collusion between different journalistic outlets, in fact, designed to strike at the heart of the gamer identity. This claim (which falls apart pretty quickly upon closer inspection) has fueled a lot of Gamergate anger.

But regardless of whether this anger is warranted, the outcry poses some interesting questions: What does gamer even mean as an identity, and how is it changing? And why is this idea of the gamer identity being under attack stoking such rage? To learn more about these and other related issues, Science of Us spoke with Diana Leonard, a psychology professor at Lewis and Clark College whose work focuses, in part, on the effects and influences of group membership. 

We’re hearing a lot about “gamer identity” from pro-Gamergate folks. Obviously there are millions of people who play video games and are neutral on or opposed to the movement, but in this particular instance, what is “gamer identity” referring to?
If you close your eyes and imagine the prototypical gamer, you may be picturing a young, nerdy, heterosexual, white, American male. If so, how did you come by that image? Maybe it’s a factual summative picture of all the gamers you know. Or maybe it’s your subjective sense of what the heart of the “gamer” category is. Either way, this image is as heavily influenced by media representations as it is by our own lived experiences.

The students in my senior thesis course brought up a particularly relevant illustration of this last point: harassment of women in multiplayer games. If most women and girls who talk on the chats get shouted down, you end up with a skewed sense of who you’re playing with. You hear only men, so where have these supposed women gamers been all this time? Well, they are there, but with the mike off. You can’t recognize their skill or participation, and thus challenge your stereotypes because you have successfully cultivated an environment free from people who disconfirm these stereotypes.

But this question of who gets to be a gamer is the exact question that is at stake, isn’t it? Group identity is a tricky thing — because it can offer us so much psychologically, we are often very protective of what it means to be a group member. For example, we may be critical of people who deviate from the group image in part because the “deviant” group member’s actions or attributes threaten the group’s core meaning. (This is called the Black Sheep Effect, and is demonstrated in work by Jose Marques, Vincent Yzerbyt, and others.) These “strange” group members call the boundaries of the group into question! This can feel very threatening, triggering lowered self-esteem and punishing behavior — especially in people for whom the group is really meaningful.

One thing I have trouble fully understanding is why gamers and not other groups might take such vehement umbrage to this sort of perceived slight. People write articles attacking hobbies all the time — jazz is stupid, white-boy indie-rock is dumb, football is barbaric, and so on. These groups don’t tend to respond the way gamers have. Any idea why that is?
The lay theory about why “Gamergaters” are so upset seems to be that it stems from a sense of collective victimization by male gamers for years of “paying their dues” as geeks shunned by the mainstream.

If this is in fact the cause, a sense of group victimization can promote intergroup conflict in a couple different ways. First, it can be aversive to feel that new group members — that is, the people playing and making games who don’t fit the old stereotype — are free riders who are reaping benefits without paying the costs incurred by the “original” members of the group. Evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar argues that tracking “cheaters” like these is so important [because] it helps to explain the evolution of language as a feature of human behavior — so that we could gossip about free-riding group members.

Second, Jennifer Richeson and Maureen Craig have shown that feeling disadvantaged can sometimes promote antipathy for another disadvantaged group. Often, we think of shared experiences of disadvantage as a bond that unifies minority groups. This is true to a point. What Richeson and Craig have shown is that this doesn’t work as well across identity dimensions. For example, they found that ethnic-minority-group members (in this case, Blacks and Latinos) expressed more negative attitudes towards gays and lesbians when discrimination about their own group was made salient.

So, circling back to Gamergate, the victimization some male gamers felt in the past may allow them to feel commonalities with women (“We’ve all suffered! I get your struggle!”), but for many, it may backfire and make hostility towards women more likely. Why does this occur? Maybe because the idea that women have suffered due to pervasive sexism threatens some male gamers’ feeling that their experience of suffering has been meaningful and dire. Whether any of this has an effect in this specific case is an empirical question.

To what extent is any identity made more salient by a sense of oppression, real or imagined? What’s kind of interesting here is both pro-GG and anti-GG folks use the language of exclusion and oppression fairly frequently.
In Whistling Vivaldi, Claude Steele recalls that he first realized he was black when he could only use the (segregated) local pool on Wednesdays because of his race. Steele’s points here draw on work by identity-development scholar William Cross, who argues that “encounters” with exclusion and oppression can transform a non-racialized person’s identity. For example, in his work, these “encounters” are the catalyst in the acquisition of black identity. For gamers on either side of the debate, experiences of marginalization because of the gamer category may have prompted the importance of this identity in the first place.

A lot of pro-GG folks seem to be under the impression that they’re being attacked as misogynistic or hateful simply for playing video games, when even the more vociferous of the anti-“gamer” articles aren’t quite saying that. Any sense of what is leading the group to come to this conclusion?
It’s possible that factors of identity threat and group-emotion norms are making a vociferous response more likely. When a person feels his or her identity has been threatened, this can lower the threshold for seeing an ambiguous remark or action as devaluing that identity. We can become vigilant for cues that the identity is under attack, which can take a physical and mental toll. Additionally, in my own research, I have found that thinking your group is angry can cause you to see ambiguous remarks and actions as more severe, more likely due to bias. This can in turn lead group members to be more interested in engaging in action to protect the group. Some gamers may have interpreted the emotional tone of the ingroup as angry, and this may have played a part in their response to the ensuing coverage.

So why is there such a gap between what Gamergate claims to be about and what a lot of people, myself included, are seeing?
Since the norms in our culture have become much more egalitarian, seeing oneself as sexist can be very aversive. So there is a psychological phenomenon such that when people can attribute a prejudiced response to some other non-prejudiced factor, discrimination is more likely. For some, the seemingly gender-irrelevant factor of journalistic ethics can explain away a strong emotional reaction that may signal something unpalatable about the self, e.g., “I am uncomfortable with increasing gender diversity in this context. Maybe I am even having sexist thoughts and responses. But I’m not sexist! How can this be?”

It’s a moral loophole so sneaky that someone might not be consciously aware that they have even exploited it. I know that this can be tough to think about, like we have a hidden brain that is up to all kinds of nefarious things without our consent. Unfortunately, my colleagues in social psychology have demonstrated time and again that the implicit, uncontrolled aspects of mental life have some pretty big consequences when it comes to the way we think about groups. Although I’m not saying this is what every Gamergate advocate is experiencing, it could be at play.

Anything else you’d like to add?
A bit of disclosure about myself: I am a feminist and a gamer who has conducted experimental research on themes of identity, group conflict, and intergroup reconciliation, as well as some work on group dynamics in Live Action Role Play. (I am also a LARPer myself.) All of these identities come to bear when I think and write about Gamergate and issues of inclusion in gaming.

This interview has been condensed and edited.