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White Supremacy Is Metastasizing — In Video Games 

In this Oct. 6, 2018, photo Henry Hailey, 10, plays  Fortnite in the early morning hours  in the basement of his Chicago home. (Martha Irvine/AP)
In this Oct. 6, 2018, photo Henry Hailey, 10, plays Fortnite in the early morning hours in the basement of his Chicago home. (Martha Irvine/AP)

As the father of a teenager, I understand the gravitational pull of Fortnite, “the biggest game on the planet." It’s why Megan Condis, a game studies scholar at Texas Tech, has cost me sleep. She says video game culture has become infested with white supremacists trawling for converts.

Casually chatting up young male players about race, alt-right types probe for “those who exhibit curiosity about white nationalist talking points,” she writes. Players who swallow the bait “are then escorted through a funnel of increasingly racist rhetoric designed to normalize” white supremacy. (Condis so unnerved me that I spoke to my son about what he hears while playing Fortnite, warning him to be alert for miscreants poisoning what should be a safe and fun recreation.)

The predicate for this online racism was online misogyny. Condis cites #Gamergate, a male gaming bunch who dissed, harassed and threatened women daring to trespass on their boys’ preserve.

In this March 31, 2017 file photo, video game players compete against one another in an e-sports tournament  in Atlantic City, N.J. (Wayne Parry/AP)
In this March 31, 2017 file photo, video game players compete against one another in an e-sports tournament  in Atlantic City, N.J. (Wayne Parry/AP)

High-tech hate has teamed up with a resurgence of old-fashioned and violent bigotry. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reports at least 50 murders last year by right-wing extremists, the most since the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. Meanwhile, University of North Texas researchers found increased hate crimes in counties that hosted Donald Trump's campaign rallies in 2016 — not conclusive proof that Trump’s combustible rhetoric was responsible, but suggestive that it might have been kerosene on racial fires. The president’s words — “very fine people on both sides” of the racist/anti-racism divide — certainly aren’t a fire hose dousing the flames.

This outburst of hate, online and off, demands action from both gaming companies and the government.

It’s not as if white power’s effort to factory-engineer acolytes online operates in secret. Condis notes, for example, that Stormfront, the racist Internet hate site, has a gaming section in which participants discuss which games might be most useful in spreading their ideology.

Or take League of Legends, a battle game that Condis plays. “Once every six or seven games,” she tells Vox, “you’ll see someone whose username is something racially or gendered or sexually inappropriate … or someone who spams in chat and is like, ‘Hitler was right’ or whatever.” Some simply are trying to be “edgy,” Condis says, but if you express agreement with their statement, some may seek to reel you in to their movement.

High-tech hate has teamed up with a resurgence of old-fashioned and violent bigotry.

Don’t mistake this for academic musings divorced from the real world: Discord, a free app gamers use to chat privately with each other, was used to organize the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville. Condis approvingly notes that Discord and others have been shamed by negative news coverage into purging racist content. Ultimately, though, she says the burden is on online companies — to pay for the content moderators necessary to delete venomous material, and to aggressively disavow their games and sites as supremacist-friendly.

The Anti-Defamation League agrees, noting that it partners with tech companies seeking to scrub hate from their platforms. The ADL also calls for stiffer laws against domestic terrorism, which brings us to one such effort, and the history supporting its approach.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and others drafted the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act, empowering the federal government to conduct intel-gathering on supremacists and neo-Nazis and create annual reports on the threat. The historically minded see a parallel in 1871 legislation forming a congressional committee to investigate the then rampaging Ku Klux Klan.

The committee’s damning, anti-Klan revelations enabled President Ulysses S. Grant to suspend habeas corpus in Klan-infested states and drop U.S. troops and marshals on the KKK like an anvil. History remembers Grant as one of our worst presidents, but crushing the Klan for two generations was his one unvarnished triumph.

Our current president is giving Grant a run for his money in the worst-ever department, and no more so than in the race-relations category. Meanwhile, white power oozes into the games our children play, states ponder designating such games as official high school sports and hate crimes trail candidate rallies like ducklings following their mother. We need Durbin’s legislation, and more responsible oversight by tech makers and game designers.

“Fortnite trained me to be a killer,” the New Zealand mosque mass murderer proclaimed, in what Condis assures us was a comment both insincere and inaccurate. Metastasizing racism, over computers and in our streets, is anything but.

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Rich Barlow Cognoscenti contributor
Rich Barlow writes for BU Today, Boston University's news website.

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