From Kathy Griffin’s “beheading” of the president to the Donald Trump-themed production of Julius Ceasar, Trump derangement syndrome is escalating. In tech journalism, this converges with an older progressive panic: GamerGate.
The controversy over political correctness and journalistic bias in video games is now almost three years old. Yet like a trauma victim, left-wing journalists can’t seem to shake off their dark memories of the experience, which has now grown to demonic, all-powerful proportions in their minds.
Yes, it’s true: a growing number of leftists now accuse gamers of laying the groundwork for the election of Donald Trump. The most recent is an article in CNET, which argues – with sparse evidence – that the gamers who opposed the politically correct takeover of their hobby in 2014 became the “alt-right” of 2016.
“What began as a backlash to a debate about how video games portray women led to an internet culture that ultimately helped sweep Donald Trump into office,” says CNET.
They aren’t alone. Le Monde, France’s most respected national newspaper, also argued that the “trolling and harassment enthusiasts” of GamerGate played a role in the election of Donald Trump. Leftists on social media have repeated similar claims.
*Yes* I believe Gamergate is one of the worst things ever to happen. It enabled Trump, which put the entire world in immediate danger.
— Zinnia Jones (@ZJemptv) June 6, 2017
There was certainly a parallel in the way the media covered both GamerGate and the pro-Trump movement. Tech journalists portrayed gamers opposed to journalistic bias and political correctness as misogynists and bigots, just as political pundits portrayed Trump supporters as racist “deplorables.”
Journalists mostly ignored incidents of trolling and harassment against GamerGaters, while presenting the feminist provocateurs and censorship advocates who opposed the movement as innocent victims of online abuse. Journalists ignored (or even defended) open acts of violence against Trump supporters while complaining that critics of Trump were being trolled on the internet.
The leftists drawing a link between the Trump movement and GamerGate don’t focus on this, of course. Their argument is that because there was online trolling in the GamerGate controversy, and because there was also online trolling during the election campaign, GamerGate helped elect Trump. It’s not far off from the 4chan posters who claim “meme magic” swings elections; without much evidence, “internet culture” is assigned a pivotal role in national politics.
It is true that GamerGate led to thousands of previously left-leaning gamers becoming disillusioned with both the media (which called them all sexist, bigoted trolls) and left-wing activists (who were agitating for political correctness in videogames). Gamers’ faith in mainstream and left-wing journalism dropped precipitously, while their trust in right-wing and libertarian media saw a modest increase. In the 2014 midterms, some voted Republican for the first time ever.
On the face of it, there is nothing to suggest that this played any role in the election of Donald Trump. He won his election by appealing to a very specific demographic: disaffected blue-collar workers in the rust belt, with promises of a fairer deal on trade and an end to Democrat-led efforts to undermine the energy industries. That’s why he triumphed in Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.
To show that GamerGate had an impact on the election, we must show that it had an impact in those states, on those voters. And everything seen during the election suggests that it was Trump’s message on trade, not a controversy over video games, that got those voters to the polls.
But perhaps this is underselling the influence of video games, which are, according to Pew, enjoyed by half of all Americans. The same Pew study found that 10 percent of Americans identify as “gamers” — these were the people who propelled GamerGate into a national controversy.
To really pin down whether GamerGate helped elect Trump, we must show an overlap between this hardcore “gamer” demographic and the economically disadvantaged voters who propelled him to victory in the rust belt. Does such an overlap exist?
It comes down to spare time, and what modern Americans do with it. According to a study cited by The Economist earlier this year, increased leisure time enjoyed by unemployed, uneducated white males is increasingly filled by gaming.
In making the link between gaming and work, the economists—Mark Aguiar, Mark Bils, Kerwin Charles and Erik Hurst—point to compelling data. From 2000 and 2015, the employment rate for men in their 20s without a college education dropped ten percentage points, from 82% to 72%. Such men often live at their parents’ homes and tend not to marry at the same rate as their peers. They, do, on the other hand, play video games. For each hour less the group spent in work, time spent at leisure activities rose about an hour, and 75% of the increased leisure time was accounted for by gaming. Over the same period games became far more graphically and narratively complex, more social and, relative to other luxury items, more affordable.
Unemployed young men without a college education, in other words, are a demographic particularly likely to fill their (substantial) leisure hours with video games. It makes a lot of sense: if you have no job and limited educational prospects, video games offer a compelling alternative to boredom.
Unemployment, maleness, and the lack of a college degree don’t just predict whether you’ll be a gamer, though: they also predict whether you voted for Trump. Youth doesn’t: Hillary edged Trump by a considerable margin in the 18-24 and 25-29 age brackets.
Among GamerGate supporters, unemployment is also above-average. A survey of the movement carried out by games journalist Brad Glasgow shows that respondents were unemployed in far greater percentages than the national U.S. averages for their age brackets.
— Brad Glasgow (@Brad_Glasgow) June 17, 2016
We already know that GamerGate pushed voters to the right: previously left-leaning gamers became massively disillusioned with both the political left and the mainstream media. If the data above is correct, the controversy was also of particular interest to a demographic that was key to Trump’s victory. Given the razor-thin margins of the president’s victory in some states, that’s pretty staggering to think about.
None of this suggests that politically correct attacks on video games in the years leading up to GamerGate were anywhere near as influential to Trump’s core supporters as trade, immigration, and other hot-button campaign issues. However, video games are a part of culture, and culture was important to Trump voters: fears of “cultural displacement” were cited as a major concern by Trump supporters in post-election surveys, and Trump’s war on political correctness was cited as one of his most appealing qualities in election polling.
When considering the range of factors that turned economically disadvantaged white men out to the polls to elect Trump, the attempts by the left to bring political correctness to their favourite hobby can’t be entirely discounted. Nor can the obvious signs of culture war: one of the sparks that lit the fuse of GamerGate was an article by a left-wing columnist that branded gamers – specifically young, male gamers – as “angry young men,” “wailing hyper-consumers” and “childish internet-arguers.” The article also called for the very “gamer” identity to be killed off — a brazen cry for cultural displacement.
It’s worth noting that many of Trump’s most ardent online supporters cite GamerGate as a key “red-pilling” moment for them, when they either abandoned the left, or abandoned political apathy. In a recent thread on 4chan entitled “Why can’t us liberals catch a break?” the first response, “you fucked with video games,” generated a wave of agreement from other posters:
“Yep, you fucked with my hobbies and escapism”
“I wouldn’t have taken an interest in anti-SJW shit if it wasn’t for the huge shitstorm of GamerGate”
“I wouldn’t have given a shit about politics if it wasn’t for GG.”
Many other replies were posted (some too offensive to repost here – it’s 4chan, after all), in a similar vein. These are just anecdotes, of course, but when paired with the data above, the mythology of GamerGate as a major political turning point of our age acquires some grounding in reality.
The left may be right about GamerGate, for the wrong reasons. If the controversy had any impact on the election, it wasn’t because it unlocked some dark beast of internet trolling culture and meme-magic that propelled Trump to victory. The internet has always been uncivil, and “meme magic” didn’t do much for Ron Paul.
No, if GamerGate had an impact, it’s because video games are (or were) the most important hobby for a generation of disaffected, disillusioned male voters with little to no prospects in the economy. Having seemingly denied them a future, the established political order then tried to impose its values on games, their one avenue of escape from an increasingly grim world.
That kind of unnecessary cruelty against an already-downtrodden demographic generates more than mere disagreement – it generates motivation that is easily converted into relentless political activism.
As one poster on 4chan put it: “I’ll hate you and fight leftist causes the rest of life because of this.”