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.


  1. Nick Verboon June 13, 2014
    • Vonter June 15, 2014
      • Nick Verboon June 15, 2014
        • Vonter June 15, 2014
          • Nick Verboon June 16, 2014
  2. Jennifer Davison June 13, 2014
    • David R June 13, 2014
    • Gregg Braddoch August 28, 2014
    • SouthOhioGipper September 14, 2014
  3. goseebananafish June 13, 2014
    • Vonter June 16, 2014
  4. Merc Ekitz July 28, 2015
  5. Merc Ekitz July 28, 2015

Add Comment