The revolution isn’t happening yet. Way more people need to be radicalized before capitalism can be dismantled. There are many lenses through which people can build solidarity and organize; the workplace, housing, healthcare, etc., but one potential area of praxis where the left is playing catch-up is in video gaming.
Right before we published this article, Mike Watson, author of the upcoming book Can the Left Learn to Meme?: Adorno, Video Gaming, and Stranger Things, wrote a great essay about how right-wing strategist Steve Bannon has tapped into the “hordes of gamers online” as a “great amorphous mass ripe for shaping into his political mould.”
To further explore this issue, we analyzed Facebook user data for people that like almost 80 different video games, consoles and game genres, in an attempt to understand how gaming can be linked with class, gender and politics.
Why gamer politics matter
According to an American Time Use Survey from 2016, the average American spends about 15 minutes a day playing games, and the average gamer spends over two hours a day playing games.
It’s a common form of escape from the hellworld that we inhabit and a way for people to build community, whether in Twitch chats, Call of Duty lobbies, or a Facebook comment thread for Clash of Kings.
Gaming is also a lens through which many young people are indoctrinated into some of their first political, social and economic struggles, and where many others can be radicalized to the right or left. Someone who might have been kind of sheltered and apolitical about real-life politics can easily get exposed to elements of their gaming sub-communities being really mad about women being in Battlefield multiplayer, being really mad about a lesbian being on the cover of Overwatch, being really mad about black women on the cover of Far Cry, or being really excited about being able to torture feminists in Red Dead Redemption 2. They can also learn some harsh lessons about capitalism via issues like microtransactions and loot boxes, DLC, copyright law, labor issues, and crunch. Thanks to reactionary-friendly algorithms, getting sucked into a couple of right-wing gaming grievances is a short ramp to being indoctrinated into an online vortex where Ben Shapiro and Steven Crowder have all the answers.
How we collected the data
We used a tool called Facebook Audience Insights, which helps advertisers show you micro-targeted content and sell you shit. It’s the place where shirts like “I’m a vegan biker Scorpio grandma who WON’T apologize for listening to John Cougar Mellencamp” get generated. It’s also the psychographic breeding ground for companies like Cambridge Analytica, who combined Facebook’s data with privately-bought email lists and financial data to stroke the deepest, darkest fears and prejudices of likely conservative voters in 2016.
Facebook collects a ton of data about its users: provided voluntarily by the users, based on user activity and clicks, data that it purchases from third-party companies (possibly apps that listen to your conversations through your phone), and data uploaded by companies about their customers.
If you’re a Facebook user, you can see some of the data that Facebook has collected about you here.
There are lots of examples in everyone’s data where Facebook is overextending itself and tagging you as a lover of “Josh Groban,” for example, even if you accidentally clicked an ad in 2015. But on the aggregate, the platform works; they sold over $33B in ads in 2018, and generally, if someone engages with content about a certain topic, they’re statistically more likely to be interested in it, buy products related to it, and identify with it than the average person who does not.
In this case, we used Facebook Audience Insights to fuel a sociological experiment. You can see how it works below: you enter things that Facebook has identified as “Interests” and it spits out a breakdown of the gender, age distribution, political affinity, most common occupations, location, and lots of other information about that interest group.
We then entered all of the data we collected into a spreadsheet, which patrons can access. Some more info about the data:
- To be tagged as “interested” in a certain topic, Facebook users must have, at some point, watched a video on it, liked a post about it, engaged in comments about it, messaged other users about it, or liked a page or joined a group related to it
- Facebook’s political spectrum ranges from Very Conservative, to Conservative, Moderate, Liberal and Very Liberal, based on what kinds of pages and content users engage with.
- About 3/4 of the total 225M American Facebook users are tagged with a political affinity.
- About half of the total 35M “Very Liberal” American Facebook users are tagged as African American. About half of the total 37.5M African American Facebook users are tagged as “Very Liberal.”
- The number of people who are not on Facebook is considerable and ever-growing, but it is not known if they skew in one direction or another politically. We are making an assumption in this analysis that just because not everyone is on Facebook, the remaining sample of people who are on Facebook is proportionally representative of the general population that likes a certain game.
- The data we collected isn’t necessarily prescriptive, but it is useful in context to itself. Just because 40% of people interested in Battlefield on Facebook are tagged as “Very Conservative” or “Conservative” doesn’t mean that that’s the exact percentage, but the fact that it’s higher than any other game, genre or console we looked at, it’s a significant outlier. We’re mostly focusing on outliers in this article.
- Once we collected the data, we showed it to a number of people who comment on games, gaming culture and politics online: Mari and Stacy from YouTube’s Geek Remix, YouTuber Peter Coffin, writer Peter Frase, games writer and academic Will Partin, Trevor Strunk from the No Cartridge Podcast, writer/music artist Liz Ryerson, Jonathan Gibbs from the This QPOC Life podcast, Innuendo Studios‘ Ian Danskin, Steven Bonnell II/Destiny from Twitch, YouTuber Curio and Chris Sanders from YouTube’s Nerd Motivation.
- We plan on doing deeper dives on different aspects of the data, including genre-specific breakdowns of different game communities and race, gender, LGBTQ+ identity and employment status. We try to interview and platform as many independent creators as possible in our work. If you like this article and want more, throw us a buck on Patreon!
1. People Who Play Games’ Demographics are Indistinguishable from the General Population
The total number of people on Facebook who have a political affinity is 182M. Of those 182M, 130M have engaged with video game content enough to be tagged as interested in that topic.
Although “gamer” as an identity is loaded with lots of baggage and assumptions, the general group of people who are interested in games or play games is virtually indistinguishable from the general population.
That will changes drastically as we dive into the specific fandoms of different kinds of PC, Xbox, Playstation and Nintendo games; although the general group of people into “video games” as a whole skews female, it’s mostly males who are driving the conversations and engagement on Facebook when it comes to specific games and genres.
Although the general group of people into “video games” as a whole skews female, it’s mostly males who are driving the conversations and engagement on Facebook when it comes to specific games and genres
Steven Bonnell II, known on Twitch as “Destiny,” said there’s a level of skepticism warranted for how casually someone can be tagged as “interested” in a topic on Facebook without really engaging with the subject matter deeply.
“It would be interesting to take a look at Reddit,” he said. “If you’re subscribed to a subreddit, your engagement is going to be a lot higher than being on Facebook and liking a game. If you’re reading every post on the subreddit, it would be very interesting to get the data on those people.”
Chris Sanders, the creator of the YouTube channel Nerd Motivation, says he’s “honestly not surprised” by the assertion that gamers are about as conservative as the general population.
“In my experience, the average gamer is more liberal than you’d think,” he says. “In the last years, I’ve only gotten made fun of or had people dropping n-bombs twice. The communities I’m in have gotten a lot better, and I’ve been able to make more friends playing games than I ever have in my life.”
2. Game-Specific Communities are Overwhelmingly Less Conservative than the Average Population
We collected data on 78 specific gaming sub-communities; 76 were less conservative politically than the control group of the general population. The two that were above the rest of the pack: fans of the Battlefield series and Team Fortress 2. Their fanbases came in at 39% and 37% conservative respectively, above the average of 35% for all users on Facebook.
Trevor Strunk, the host of No Cartridge, said the data provided context to the controversy over female playable characters in Battlefield 5.
“In this case, it’s probably not a fully manufactured outrage, you’re looking at a fanbase that’s not happy about progressive causes,” he said. “They might be more used to more conservative spaces in gaming.”
In their May coverage of the controversy, Polygon characterized the people speaking out online as a “small but vitriolic cross-section of fans.” While Very Conservative and Conservative fans might only make up less than half of the fan-base, they still make up a greater percentage of fans than any game, genre or console group we looked at for this article.
3. Very Conservative Gamers Are Unified Behind Alt-Right Leaders; Very Liberal Gamers Are Less Focused (Except About Bernie)
Part of the data we collected for the 78 different game-specific, genre and console communities was on the most-liked pages by the “Very Conservative” and “Very Liberal” members of each group.
Here’s an example of what that looks like for “Very Liberal” Facebook users who expressed an interest in the Diablo series:
Across the 78 communities, we counted the number of times different pages were in the top 10 “most-liked” to see if there were any trends:
“Very Conservative” gamers within these communities have very focused commonalities of liking Ben Shapiro, the NRA, Steven Crowder, George W Bush, Tomi Lahren, Mitt Romney and Milo Yiannopolis. (Facebook is not showing Donald Trump in its data for some reason).
“Very Liberal” gamers within these communities range between the show “The Boondocks,” entertainers like Mike Epps, Taraji P. Henson, Boosie Badazz, Gucci Mane, and Bill Nye the Science Guy, with Bernie Sanders sneaking in toward the end.
Peter Frase, a writer on the editorial board of Jacobin, said it’s not surprising that “relatively affluent white cis dudes have right wing politics.”
“I spent a significant amount of time in the games media space, and we really don’t have good reasons to think that gamers have some particularly unique right wing politics,” he said. “I don’t think it’s that much more pronounced in the audience for any other media.”
Leftist YouTuber Peter Coffin said it makes sense that gaming’s right is more unified than the left.
“They’ve more clearly painted the enemy,” they said. “The left kind of regards everyone else on the left that doesn’t agree with each other as the enemy. The crap I get from the right is predictable and manageable. The crap I get from left wing people is shocking and strange. It comes from people who ostensibly have left wing beliefs, but are engaging in so many different ways.”
Jonathan Gibbs, the host of This QPOC Life, said the left is “all over the place in what they care about.”
“It shows in the data, but, there are a lot more of us in gaming,” he said. “There could be more people yelling down racist bullshit, but the left is too quiet. We’re like a silent majority, and don’t come to the defense of other people. It’s a divided mentality; we all believe that we’re progressive, but don’t care about trans people because we’re not trans, we don’t care about black boys getting arrested disproportionately. There are so many communities that don’t look out for each other on the left.”
“The right has cleaned up their house,” Gibbs added. “They’ve organized, they’re getting things done, and they’re unifying their voices together to be loud despite their number.”
Coffin said that in their experience, the online gaming left is experiencing sectarianism, where people believe “their dead white man is the right great dead white man.”
“From my experience, if you say something vaguely disparaging about the USSR, if you say something that includes imposing beliefs in some way, you get another sector,” they said. “They spend a lot of their time on things that other people have said, and they perpetuate a very fragmented view of what the left actually is. There’s an emphasis on purity that’s not present on the right at all.”
How can the left exceed what the right has accomplished in the gaming sphere? Frase suggested that for one, future political leaders could be masters at Twitch and other forms of streaming video.
“I was talking to someone last night about AOC and her mastery of Instagram Live as a way of communicating with people,” he said. “I hope we have candidates who can hang out and play and conduct a town hall forum on Twitch. This is part of our new media environment, and it’s important that leaders understand it organically.”
“If you think about a way a Twitch streamer develops a feeling of connection and intimacy with an audience, it clearly has political implications,” he added. “The way the interactions work with chat and stuff, it has a different texture to it. There’s a political applicability to what makes a successful twitch streamer.”
Two promising figures of the left have recently talked on Twitter about playing or streaming games:
Current status: dusting off my League account, which hasn’t been touched since the campaign started 😂👾
Bronze V, here we come
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) October 14, 2018
Alright, I'll try out the twitch stream idea at some point. Probably gonna be Kerbal Space Program or the remastered Crash Bandicoot games.
— Lee J. Carter (@carterforva) December 1, 2018
Two likely presidential candidates have also gone on the Washington Post’s Twitch channel, fielding questions from Dave Weigel and a live chat: Maryland Congressman John Delaney and New Jersey Senator Corey Booker (Delaney repeatedly kept ignoring the Puyo Tetris gameplay so he could focus on talking about common-sense bipartisan solutions).
As we wrote in our previous article that spotlighted 15 Leftist Twitch and YouTube Creators, individuals are also fighting back against the right by using gaming platforms and topics as a gateway into talking about leftist politics.
Contrapoints gets it:
Gamer YouTube is where boys that age get their political ideas (explains a lot doesn't it). So while I never would have guessed it would be of vital importance to have a YouTube leftist who talks about video games, it turns out to be of vital importance.
— Natalie Wynn 🦋 (@ContraPoints) December 10, 2018
4. Centrists Love Open World Games and Morality Systems
Moving to the center, Facebook has a political classification for people who are tagged as having “moderate” political views. Here are the top eleven games and genres we looked at that had the highest percentages of Moderate players.
The #1 thing that struck us, and some of the commenters, is the number of open world, exploration and role-playing games that have some element of morality.
Peter Coffin said, “if there’s a morality system, you can always prove that you made the right choice. The morality choices reflect a pragmatism that makes so much sense with a politically moderate position.”
Trevor from No Cartridge even called Mass Effect a “neoliberal fantasy.”
“You get these playthroughs where you can have perfectability in the game,” he said. “I can make moral choices, I can stand up for the downtrodden and still get the “good” ending.”
Mari from Geek Remix said that open world games can provide a window for moderates into what it’s like to be either a libertarian or a leftist.
“The Renegade way is usually, ‘me first, you second.” she said. “I like to play an asshole in games, and I like to think I’m not an asshole in real life. I think Mass Effect can be very libertarian if you want to play a Renegade.”
5. Liberal Gamers Like Cuphead a Lot More than Conservative Ones…
In late August of 2017, a video was posted online of a gaming journalist from Venturebeat playing the platformer Cuphead… poorly. The game is pretty hard. It sparked an outrage.
William Turton from The Outline did a good job summarizing the reaction to the video: it was viewed hundreds of thousands of times, and commented on thousands of times with people suggesting “it would be appropriate for Takahashi to kill himself,” sparking a mini-Gamergate of targeted harassment and right-wing grievance politics, based around the idea that SJW gaming journalists are more interested in critiquing games and talking about identity than the actual mechanics of them.
“The suspicion of the press is back, the menacing tweets are back; the sanctimonious rhetoric — “it’s about ethics in games journalism!” — used to justify what is essentially cyberbullying is back. Takahashi’s inability to play Cuphead shows that the emperor (games journalists) have no clothes (the ability to play games), which is an indictment of the empire (games journalism and also the mainstream media as a whole),” Turton wrote.
The leftist gaming YouTuber Curio said that the controversy was “a very deliberate manufactured outrage around Cuphead,” citing Shaun’s video titled “Cuphead: The Fake Outrage.”
“Shaun broke it down in fantastic detail,” Curio said. “It was all started by a very small number of tweets by just a couple of people. They claimed over and over that the SJWs were calling Cuphead racist and ableist… they whipped right-wing people up into a frenzy about this, making it seem like the “real fans” of Cuphead were defending it from SJWs. It’s kind of hilarious to see it had so few conservative fans.”
In our analysis, Cuphead had the 3rd-least conservative playerbase of all the games and genres we looked at. Under 9% of the Facebook users who were interested in it were tagged as “very conservative” or “conservative.”
Trevor from No Cartridge says that the controversy around Cuphead, where there appeared to be a disproportionately large number of conservative fans voicing their opinion online, reflects a scary scenario for game developers.
“I know that devs worry about review bombs if they say such and such character is gay,” he said. “There’s a fear of backlash, because X group on Reddit found it and signal-boosted it. They can find ways to amplify themselves. It’s not hard to find 20,000 reactionary people who can review-bomb, or 2,000 people with money on Steam to review-bomb.
6. “Very Liberal Gamers” Love Sports, Sonic, Fighting Games and Life is Strange
Like we said in the intro, being “Very Liberal” on Facebook means that the user has a 50% chance of being tagged as African-American, which deserves an article in and of itself. Here are the top nine games and genres that were engaged with the most by “Very Liberal” gamers.
Will Partin, a gaming writer and doctorate assistant at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said there’s a link between class and race among younger people that can be a proxy for their politics.
“Most of the games on the top for “Very Liberal” are predominantly played on consoles,” he said. “This is an argument made when discussing the diversity of e-sports… fighting games are the most diverse, and there’s strong tradition of in-person competition. In virtually all of the literature of intercultural communication, the more time you spend around people unlike yourself, the more okay you become with them. It puts a huge premium on in-person interaction… certainly in DOTA, players are not going to have that same experience.
Partin added that e-sports played by individuals (like fighting and sports games) narrativize the “person and not the team.”
“There’s an interesting comparison that can be made between team sports and more individual ones,” he said. “An openly gay player in team sports can often downplay their identity and put it in the “neutral” space of, “I’m just playing a tank.” Sonic Fox (recently named the Best eSports Player at The Game Awards) is the exact opposite. ‘Yeah I’m gay, and I’m going to beat your ass at this game, I’m going to mix your shit. The actual in-game mechanics and dynamics have a significant effect on the social world built around it.”
SonicFox wins Best eSports Player at #TheGameAwards "As you guys may or may not know, I'm also super gay! Shout out to my #LGBTQ+ friends that've always helped me through life…I'm gay, black, a furry, pretty much everything a Republican hates…" https://t.co/R6cOC7zN8v #LGBT pic.twitter.com/ye9HlBkUX4
— LGBT+ News (@mondokoosh) December 8, 2018
Jonathan Gibbs from This QPOC Life said in his brief stint in the New York City fighting game community, he overheard incidents of homophobia, but ended up becoming friends with one of perpetrators.
“I’ve gone to a couple of events where certain language was used,” he said. “They don’t know who’s around there is gay, but people were calling other people faggots. I ended up becoming friends with the person who said that at the first event, but I’m always going to remember that. It can be a toxic environment.”
Trever Strunk said that at 2018’s Combo Breaker fighting game tournament, white men were in the minority.
“The makeup there is incredibly diverse,” he said. “There were also many more women that one would’ve thought. It was far and away the most cosmopolitan gaming convention I’ve seen. The dominance of Korean and Japanese players in most fighting games is also a big thing.”
Peter Coffin added that in the case of the Madden franchise/NFL and NBA 2k franchise/NBA, there’s been a conflation in the last couple of years with left-leaning politics. The cover of NBA 2k19 , for example, had the word “equality” on it.
“I wouldn’t say that someone like Lebron is a hardcore leftist,” Coffin said. “But he’s spent a bunch of money making actual public schools instead of charter schools.”
7. The Top 15 Games Among “All Liberals” on Facebook
This section combines both the “Very Liberal” and “Liberal” groupings on Facebook.
Jonathan Gibbs from the QPOC podcast has hosted panels at Flame Con and PAX East on the subject of queer gaming and fighting online bullying.
“The #1 fandom I see coming to those panels has been lovers of Overwatch, Kingdom Hearts and Final Fantasy.”
Mari From Geek Remix said that Blizzard’s commitment to having diverse characters has earned Overwatch’s spot on this list.
“The Overwatch fandom is a great example of where most of the fans say that more diversity is awesome,” she said. “Then there are loudmouth people, who are a minority, saying, ‘Tracer’s GAY???’ They made a huge stink about it but it didn’t matter.”
8. The Top 15 Popular Games Among “All Conservative” Gamers on Facebook
Earlier in the article, we shared that the Battlefield series and Team Fortress 2 have the highest concentrations of “Very Conservative” fans on Facebook; this section combines the “Very Conservative” and “Conservative” groupings.
We stuck almost exclusively to games that are on console and PC and more tied to the traditional gamer identity, but we did check out “Tile-Matching games” as a category, which skews more towards mobile and people who don’t identify as gamers but play games for hours a day. Tile Matching games skew 34% conservative, but for reasons that deserve to be broken down further in another article, there have not been right-wing Gamergate or grievance-style politics campaigns mounted around the shared identity of tile-matching gamers.
Artist and games writer Liz Ryerson attributed this split to the cultural image of a gamer, which still has an outsider status.
“There’s that cultural image, where if you’re a ‘gamer’, people think your brain is inherently broken,” she said. “I think that has made it easier to exploit that kind of resentment, especially with games that are heavily marketed to a particular kind of guy. Anyone that grew up in these communities know there’s something regressive, that there are certain attitudes that are easy to radicalize and take advantage of with the ‘gamer’ identity.”
9. The 10 Most Masculine Game Communities (by Percentage)
Trevor from No Cartridge said that Rainbow Six: Siege’s multi-culturalism is “off the charts.”
“I’ve been playing R6 a lot lately, and you can have operatives from any country with any gender,” he said. “A white man from Europe, but also a bald black woman who’s also a riot police officer. But you’re also playing paramilitary people… so it’s very conservative and liberal at the same time. And very masculine.”
Mary from Geek Remix said it’s not surprising that Red Dead Redemption is so high on this list.
“From my perspective, my experience with Rockstar games is that they always have these weird female characters who exist to be yelled at,” she said. “On YouTube you can see RDR videos like ‘I shot the feminist,’ ‘How to Kill Every Prostitute.’ Maybe they don’t mean to make the game like that, but there’s something about the company culture that must be translating into the community. Even if they add in the occasional cool female character, I just have this weird feeling about playing it.”
“I’m surprised and not surprised to see Kerbal so high at number one,” said Liz Ryerson. “I think there is a thing to be said about the science/STEM engineering mindset.”
10. The Most Feminine Game Communities by Volume and Percentage
We looked at game communities on Facebook with the most women two different ways: by the total number of women interested in the games, and by the percentage of women. Here’s the first:
The 10 Most Feminine Game Communities by Percentage
Among the big three consoles and PC, the Nintendo Switch has the highest percentage of women, although the total number of women playing Xbox, Playstation and PC is larger for each.
“Nintendo has done a good job of branding itself without too much gender bias,” says Curio.
Mari from Geek Remix pointed out that even though Call of Duty’s percentage of female gamers is relatively small, it still makes up almost a million people.
“If you want to play video games, and all of your friends who play video games are dudes, then you’re going to end up playing Call of Duty,” she said.
Ian Danskin, known on YouTube as Innuendo Studios, said that a community feedback loop can occur when games have a small majority of men in their audience.
“This is what happens in the Smash community, your data says 80/20, and it’s more like 70/30, in terms of men to women, but at tournaments, you end up with 99.5% men,” he said. “That small majority of men, once you create a space that’s that ratio, it becomes more and more alienating for women to be there. It stops reflecting who’s playing that game, and starts to reflect who’s in that community.”