The Politics of Gamers:
Does What You Play Reflect What You Believe?
Sitting in the multiplayer lobby for the real-time strategy game “Wargame”, you can’t help but be struck by the attention developers Eugen put into creating the atmosphere of a Cold-war era command room. Corded phones, teletype faxes, and a low hum of military activity give the player the feeling they’re in the pages of a Tom Clancy novel; immersed in a fictional conflict between the Soviet Union and United States in the late 1980s. The ambiance of Wargame captures perfectly the paranoia, tension and xenophobia that characterized that decades-long conflict – qualities which also, unfortunately, seem to be reflected in its playerbase.
Scrolling through the 80s-themed public chat quickly feels like browsing the minutes of a John Birch Society convention, complete with ALL CAPS debate on the merits of nuking China and spirited discussions on Obama’s secret Communist agenda. It’s not unusual to see a player’s army named after an SS division, a conservative politician, or in one notable case, the My Lai massacre. In Wargame, a brand of politics significantly to the right of Reagan seems to be everywhere – and this from people who were mostly infants when the Cold War ended.
It’s easy to dismiss this behavior as “trolling”, the catch-all phrase used for intentionally provocative online behavior, but it also raises an interesting question: do gamers choose genres where titles generally reflect their political beliefs? Can we, for example, determine a noticeable difference in opinion between players who indulge in patriotic fantasies like Call of Duty versus their roleplaying counterparts in Skyrim? In an industry repeatedly scarred by accusations of promoting violence, there’s an understandable desire to pretend that games are apolitical – but every story has a moral, and most players are intelligent enough to (consciously or unconsciously) detect the biases of their creators. So we decided to put these theories to the test.
We began our survey by borrowing heavily from The Political Compass, a questionnaire designed to measure respondent’s political views along both progressive/conservative and authoritarian/libertarian axes. We further tweaked or eliminated questions that are effectively “solved” for under-30s: pot legalization, religion in politics, and the morality of gay marriage may provide fodder for talking heads on cable news, but for tech-savvy youth they are only slightly more divisive than asking whether America should have a monarchy. Having picked our questions and set up the survey, we distributed it amongst what we hoped would be representative communities across the internet. Within 24 hours we received 671 responses – the results, to say the least, were surprising.
As the above graphic shows, the vast majority of gamers who responded to us have progressive political views, even with the “solved” questions excluded. An even larger majority come out strongly against authoritarian policies. With the exception of simulation players, there seems to be little interest in authoritarian politics at all, with only around 10% of respondents scoring above the neutral “0”. There is, however, a significantly divide along the progressive/conservative axis between two major genres groups, whose communities contain substantially different ideologies.
In total, the three most conservative genres are first person shooters, fighting, and sports – in fact, players from these three genres account for more than half of all responses to the right of center. The most progressive were roleplaying gamers and the two varieties of strategy gaming, turn-based and real-time. These three progressive genres also accounted for the largest number of total responses.
Libertarian sentiments are widespread across the gaming community, with only simulation and sports scoring above the neutral “0” mark. The modest support for authoritarian policies shown by simulation players is an interesting exception that invites speculation, though the relatively small pool of simulation responses might be skewed by a few dozen particularly zealous micro-managers. In total, 89% of the player base was more libertarian than authoritarian.
As we delve into the details it becomes apparent that the strongest contrast in values center on a small number of questions. For example, players who identified first person shooters as their primary genre are significantly more likely than other gamers to back military intervention in defiance of international law – more than three times as likely as their RPG counterparts.
Also divisive was the statement: “Taxpayers should not be expected to prop up any theatres or museums that cannot survive on a commercial basis.” RPG players came out strongly in favor of state-support for these kind of institutions, almost 24% above the average of the other gaming genres. The highest response for ending support came from players who enjoy fighting games.
The last and, perhaps most unusual exception to our survey came in the form of strong support by simulation players for physically disciplining a child. Simulations tend to attract older players, many of whom are probably parents, but age alone seems an improbable indicator for such a strong difference of opinion.
Unsurprisingly for a tech-savvy audience, the least divisive statement was “Individual privacy is increasingly threatened by both government and corporate surveillance.” Over 90% of respondents responded in the affirmative, with a whopping 54% indicating that they felt “strongly” on the issue.
Before rushing to conclusions, it’s important to note the limitations of the study. Authoritarian politics may have a much stronger correlation to age than to playing simulations, and our numbers could simply reflect that. We must also acknowledge the widespread difficulty that gamers face when trying to choose which genre they most strongly identify with – it’s a rare breed of player who doesn’t sample from across the spectrum. Nonetheless, the responses raise interesting questions and deserve to be examined in further detail.
In the end, we’re left with a chicken-and-egg conundrum: do gamers flock to genres that reflect their views, or do we begin to believe the media we consume? The frequent and bogus claim that gaming incites either violence has widely been repudiated, but it may be true that, just as a powerful book or movie may change someone’s perspective, a compelling game might achieve the same effect – for better or for worse.