Why It’s Tough to Discuss Social Justice Issues With Video Game Fans


A guest post by Mike Leaño

2012 was a watershed year in video games. This was a time when discussions about diversity and gender inclusion became more prominent in the industry as more video game websites feature articles about social justice and equality.

Remember the Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series by feminist Anita Sarkeesian? That happened in 2012; so did the controversy surrounding the Tomb Raider reboot’s sexual assault scene; so did EA’s stand against the Defense of Marriage Act.

Our favorite medium is maturing, and it is a good thing, especially when you hear about heartbreaking stories of misogyny, homophobia, and many other forms of discrimination.

Vigorous gamer pushback

But amidst any sort of change, there is resistance, which comes in several forms. The usual response is a flood of angry comments; but in video games, the pushback seems a bit more vigorous.

Don’t believe me? Consider reading the blog Not in the Kitchen Anymore, which documents a female gamer’s experiences in online multiplayer. There are also many game-related horror stories about death threats, DDoS attacks, and many more appalling acts, made in the name of the status quo.

So why are many people vehemently resisting calls for diversity, gender inclusion, and civility online? Why do they staunchly stick to their views? Can’t they see that others get hurt by these actions? Can’t these harassers be more considerate and open their minds to reason?

Unfortunately, no. As noble as our aims may be, discussions and calls for social justice usually won’t work when made in the context of video games. Here are some of the biggest reasons why:

Video games is escapism

As defined by Oxford Dictionary, escapism is: “the tendency to seek distraction and relief from unpleasant realities, especially by seeking entertainment or engaging in fantasy.” As we all know, video games is a form of escapism, and this extends into discussions about video games.

Because of this, you should expect a certain level of resistance among gamers once you introduce unpleasant real-world problems like sexism, discrimination, and harassment in video games, which bursts the proverbial escapism bubble that the medium provides.

Many social justice articles are inflammatory

Whether it was the intent or not, many articles that discuss issues related to social justice–or its absence–are provocative, leading to strong and mostly negative reactions from the audience of predominantly male gamers. Here are a couple of examples:

  • In the article titled “Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is”, author John Scalzi likened the lives of straight, white men to the easiest difficulty setting in video games.
  • Samantha Allen, a feminist games writer, accused Nintendo of being bigoted for not allowing same-sex relationships in Tomodachi Life, a life simulation game for the 3DS. Some possibly inflammatory quotes include:

“Behind all the corporate jargon and flowery public-relations language lies hatred, pure and simple.”

“The beating, bigoted heart of Nintendo’s statement is this: Nintendo does not care about its lesbian, gay and bisexual audience.”

It’s understandable that some resort to using strong words in opinion pieces, particularly when talking about despicable acts of intolerance. However, you can’t help but wonder about the motivation behind such articles. Are these social justice advocates really after change, or were they just trolling for clicks?

Here’s the thing: agitating your readers is not an effective way to persuade them to see things your way.

Social science evidence

Let’s go over some social science evidence to back that up.

  • The Affect Heuristic Notice how people disregard facts when making up their mind about something? That’s the Affect Heuristic kicking in. It’s a mental shortcut where we instinctively process information by using our feelings and experiences, allowing us to decide quickly. The Affect Heuristic is a fancy way of saying “going with your gut.”Take note that the Affect Heuristic isn’t some sort of defect in how some people think; it’s how our brains work. This means facts won’t really mean much, even when presenting perfectly logical arguments.
  • Self-Affirmation Social psychologist Claude Steele’s theory of self-affirmation posits that we regard ourselves as good and virtuous. If that view is threatened, we will deny, rationalise, or even distort our own reality to protect our self-integrity.It gets more interesting: according to studies (like the one mentioned here), people are actually more likely to change their minds if they feel good about themselves in another aspect. If people are made to feel bad about themselves, then expect heavy resistance. Sound familiar?
  • Cultural Cognition Here’s another theory that makes “discussions” impossible: cultural cognition is our tendency to form opinions that adhere to the values of groups that we relate with most. If we’re presented with evidence or opinion that challenges our beliefs, we reject it.Curiously, as we feel more threatened with certain evidence or opinion that goes against our shared values, we become even more uncompromising and united against it.
  • Online disinhibition effect Penny Arcade’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory doesn’t explain why agitating your audience doesn’t work, but it shows us why people can be trolls. Apparently, the more polite term is “online disinhibition effect”, which was coined in an article by psychologist John Suler.As suggested by the theory, normal people become insufferable when they think their actions online have no actual consequences. Thus, they say hateful and bigoted things that they would never dare say in front of another person in real life.

Don’t provoke your audience

So given the information we’ve seen today, does this mean we shouldn’t talk about equality, tolerance, and diversity in video games? Heavens no. By all means, we should! It’s still a great way to inform others that we should be more careful with how we act online.

The takeaway here is that if you plan to write about social justice in the context of video games, you should check your motivation first. If you really want to fight prejudice, persuade people, and foster change, then don’t provoke your audience.

Because you know, if you insist on pissing your readers off, you’re really just trolling for clicks and page views. This may not be as reprehensible as bigotry, but it’s slimy and hypocritical nonetheless.

Many claim that they just want to start “discussions”, but you should already know by now these inevitably turn out: either side posts facts, links, ad hominem attacks, and both end up feeling more strongly about their opinions. In the end, neither is convinced. Their days are probably ruined too.

It’s unfortunate that social justice discussions and video games currently don’t mix, but they don’t always have to be like this. I still believe that gamers can eventually be more civil to each other online and look past whatever arbitrary category that divides us right now. This will take work though, and perhaps more deliberation with what we write and say.


Mike is a freelance writer and aspiring evil genius. If you enjoyed Mike’s post, you can visit his website Console Gamer for more gaming-related stuff. You can also stalk follow Console Gamer at Twitter, Google+, and Facebook.

  • Yuuuuup. The problem I have is that a lot of the people on the right side are there for the exact wrong reasons and only make things worse. I am a massive advocate for diversity across all forms of media, but I often find myself combating people spreading misinformation and meaningless discord in the name of “social justice” (which is an incredibly childish-sounding term….do you even humanism, internet?).

    For example, “Men’s rights” trolls have made a sport out of posing as feminist bloggers and posting the stupidest things they can just to see how many women will agree with them on principle so they can link it to their boards and mock how dumb feminists are. And sadly, it works. Agreeing with something that is wrong just because it makes you feel better about your own race/gender/whatever is the core of all bigotry. Logic has nothing to do with this stuff and in my experience no amount of psychology, philosophy, or even common sense can make a dent. It may be time to accept that our entire race is doomed.

    • Vonter

      Like Nintendoom?

      Anyways, the thing is that inclusion is a risk, big companies don’t wanna takes risks, small companies take risk, smaller companies should take the risks. It doesn’t sound fair but that’s what will likely happen. Ubisoft also tried to brush the issue with a lack of time/money for FarCry 4 and AC Unity. But it’s obvious it wasn’t there intention from the beginning, since I suppose not many women buy their games.

      However I’m of the idea that you can’t force gender or equality politics to a product, the product has to reflect that from the root, because as several examples have shown, just gender bending a formula doesn’t add to it. But when you want to promote choices and being inclusive you are flawed for not going all the way in.

      Anyway is something the media still can’t grasp, and I suppose it’s just a matter of trying/experimenting more, since it seems conventions are hard to put down.

      • I’d say the bigger companies can freakin’ afford it, especially if they are going to ram a new title from the same series down our throats every year. And considering that almost half of all gamer are female I’d say at this point it may be a risk not to include more playable female characters. Yeah, ladies play different kinds of games, but it’s also possible that that’s only because some game genres habitually exclude them.

        I agree that you can’t rightly force an artist to make their art your way so I would recommend more women get involved in the industry creatively where they can and kick that door down. But for a game based around multiplayer like Assassin’s Creed: Unity to not be bothered with making a female character model is pretty lame. And making a statement basically saying it’s because they didn’t feel like it is just embarrassing.

        • Vonter

          Also a key problem is that to entertainment creators there is only one type of female lead, the good looking one. Despite the focus on white male characters, several games include male characters with different body types, especially the fantasy games with the dwarve, elf, warrior, orc etc. I’ve yet to see a game that includes a female character than isn’t attractive, although I think you can cheat to that notion in games with customizable characters. It was also eye raising how even in games like The Last of Us the women don’t look that worn out as the men.

          • Yeah, that’s just pure exploitation. We menfolk have a chemical thing in our brains that makes us immediately wanna attach ourselves to attractive females. So if a movie, game, comic, or whatever wants us to pay to see it, it’s almost always going to choose a pretty girl over an ugly or plain one. There are exceptions, but not a ton of them. Fact is, we like to look at pretty things and when investing millions, they’d rather not leave it up to chance so they go with the safe choice.

  • Jennifer Davison

    Eh, a lot of this article seems to just be tone policing.

    For anyone who doesn’t know what that is, it’s an argument people use quite often when talking about social justice in an attempt to derail and trivialise a person’s argument. Basically like ‘we’d listen to what you have to say if you said it in a more pleasant tone’. geekfeminism (.) wikia (.) .com/wiki/Tone_argument says it better but yeah, especially this bit:

    “Here’s the thing: agitating your readers is not an effective way to persuade them to see things your way.”

    All you’re saying is ‘maybe if (for example) women were a little sweeter with their wording, game dev’s would care more. That’s not cool though, because you’re undermining the JUSTIFIED frustration that marginalised groups have with the media. You have to understand that representation in video games isn’t JUST about video games it’s about the fact that historically, certain groups in society have been deemed less important for no real reason and the media helps to enforce the status quo that these specific groups aren’t worthy of acknowledgement/

    Also, the ‘video games is escapism’ argument is really naff considering one can only escape from social justice issues if they’re a privileged member of society. I mean, if you’re a straight white male, then yes, when you’re playing video games you can let your brain switch off and you can enjoy the game without thinking about real world issues. But if you are, for example, a queer woman, when you load up game after game where all of the playable characters are straight white males, you can’t help but be saddened by your lack of representation and you can’t help but think about the reasons why people like you aren’t represented. So you do, even if you don’t WANT to, think about social justice issues, if you’re not in the video game industry’s main demo. If you’re not in the category that game dev’s (etc) cater to, then you don’t have the luxury of video games as escapism, and it’s crap to try and defend one group of people’s enjoyment of video games at the cost of another groups.

    • David R

      I think the point Mike is getting at — and I could be wrong — is that a lot of those pieces look not just for problems, but for villains. They don’t want to understand and persuade so much as they want to win. It’s an understandable instinct, and sometimes a fine line to draw, but the win-at-all-costs approach can also backfire by deepening whatever particular chasm is trying to be crossed.

      To me, the examples he specifically cited tend towards sacrificing clarity or nuance for the sake of a quotable headline or emotional argument. There’s a difference between that sort of argumentation (one that oversimplifies or villainizes or what have you) and simply taking an aggressive, angry, or sarcastic tone. Which I don’t think anybody here is really arguing against.

    • Gregg Braddoch

      “Basically like ‘we’d listen to what you have to say if you said it in a more pleasant tone’.”

      LOL. Gee, nobody would have thought being decent to people who haven’t personally wronged you was a good idea.

      Nobody is saying you have to speak in a certain way, they are pointing out that people are more receptive to genuine, polite reasoning than inflammatory trolling.

    • SouthOhioGipper

      How about the simple argument that white men don’t want to spend their money on preachy, overly moralistic video games? I hate being preached at. Period. Be it a church pastor or.social justice activist. You don’t have a right to preach morality of any kind to me and I certainly won’t pay for the.privilege.

  • goseebananafish

    A society’s moral greatness can be measured by how well they treat their video game characters.

    • Vonter

      Several of these points could be applied to the movie industry as well. I mean, there are also very few transcendent female leads in that market as well. [In comparison to how long it has existed].

  • Merc Ekitz

    ”social justice” has proven itself to be uneeded in video games. all of it.

  • Merc Ekitz

    ..Its not ”our” games meaning sjw politics’s. you want ”change” – your free to make your own video games. but that does not ever translate over to censoring/ dissolving/ or politics message injecting of a repeat nature. guns, breasts, nudity violence etc even diverse representation as there has been is art and not up to sjws to change. except in your games, which no one really wants to play. that’s just the honest truth.

    And no darling, its also hard female gamers that say/would say this to you.