When respected and admired professionals in the gaming industry promote tolerance and introduce their audience to different ideas about gender and sexuality, their young gaming fans will follow suit, becoming more tolerant of others.
That's the conclusion of new research, published this week, which reveals the true nature of an online videogame community. It shows that such communities are not all full of misogyny and homophobia, as implied by some commentary on #Gamergate – a controversial protest over ethics in videogame journalism that quickly escalated into misogynistic attacks against prominent women in the industry.
Dr Amanda Potts, a researcher at the ESRC Centre for Corpus Approaches to Social Science (CASS) based at Lancaster University, analysed the language used by a particular popular video game community that has grown up around the videogame Minecraft – a game which is like a virtual version of Lego where people can build fantasy worlds. The community is based around a network of popular YouTube channels, where professional gamers upload videos of their characters exploring the Minecraft world. Subscribers to the channel, 50 per cent of whom are aged between 13 to 24, and 85 per cent of whom are male, can then follow the videos and comment on them.
Previous research has found that communities like this tend to assume that the majority of users are male and heterosexual, with community members using language that supports traditional stereotypes where relationships are strictly between men and women, where males are macho hunter/gatherers, and females are homemakers. However, Dr Potts found that in this particular community many of the videos depicted male characters as sharing a 'bromance', with lots of homosexual innuendos and puns being used to suggest that the characters were in a sexual or romantic relationship. Dr Potts found that where users had been exposed to these different ideas surrounding sexuality, they were less likely to use homophobic language themselves, and were more likely to censure others who did.
"In videogame forums, there is sometimes an expectation that community members share certain qualities (like being straight and male) and agree upon quite narrow conceptions of identity," says Dr Amanda Potts. "I found that when popular channel producers uploaded gaming videos that depicted unexpected relationships between men, viewers and subscribers of the channel became more accepting and tolerant. What you ended up with was a community that self-policed against homophobia."
Online gaming communities have often hit the headlines for the wrong reasons lately, as #Gamergate, a protest ostensibly about ethics in videogame journalism, boiled over and led to prominent women in the gaming industry being hurled with misogynistic abuse. Two female game developers were forced to flee their homes in fear after receiving rape and death threats. According to Dr Amanda Potts, her study suggests that it is up to video producers and professionals to lead the way in promoting inclusiveness in games.
"When powerful people, in this case the video producers who are revered by their young fans, use language that promotes tolerance and inclusiveness, there is a trickledown effect where young people begin to avoid homophobic language themselves.
"If game producers don’t take the lead in working against harassment, then it is much harder for communities to organise themselves positively and powerfully. Not creating and promoting an inclusive environment as a producer leads to a lack of inclusiveness in fandom."