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Gamergate comes to the classroom

Students used to be blank slates — now they arrive with agendas

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It was the phones that tipped off Bo Ruberg.

Ruberg, a UC Irvine assistant professor in the department of informatics, was teaching “Games & Society.” It was November 2017, and the course was a required class taught to 260 students, the majority of which are typically male freshmen. Ruberg kept a strict no-screens policy in their classes — an easy enough ask to keep students from texting or scrolling through Instagram when they should be paying attention. But this was different: a dozen or so people holding up their phones, recording their lecture on gender without even the effort of hiding it. The class felt strangely fuller. Ruberg paused, reminded students of the policy, and assumed they would put them away. They kept their cameras trained on Ruberg. 

On a hunch, Ruberg asked their TAs for a head count. The final number? Eleven extra bodies. The intruders had made that part easy, at least. They took the day’s pop quiz under fake names along with everyone else. Ruberg’s experience was unnerving for many reasons, but above all, one thing was clear: this was a coordinated effort.

In the five years following Gamergate, sites like YouTube, Reddit, and Twitter shifted the power dynamics between student and teacher. The harassment-campaign-turned-online-culture-war paved the way for how abusers coordinate and systematically target victims. Online harassment has moved from the web and into real life. Marginalized figures have always known harassment existed in digital spaces, but Gamergate honed these tactics and pushed them into mainstream awareness. New York Times writer Charlie Warzel sums it up succinctly: “Gamergate’s DNA is everywhere on the internet … its most powerful legacy is as proof of concept of how to wage a post-truth information war.”

“You develop this self-preservation intuition”

Now educators face new challenges: teaching responsibly, while also safeguarding themselves from the very kids they hope to help. “You develop this self-preservation intuition,” Ruberg tells The Verge. “You have to know what’s happening so that you know how to protect yourself.” As misinformation and hate continues to radicalize young people online, teachers are also grappling with helping their students unlearn incorrect, dangerous information. “It has made a lot of us teachers more cautious,” they say. “We want to challenge our students to explore new ways of thinking, to see the cultural meaning and power of video games, but we’re understandably anxious and even scared about the possible results.”

Ruberg’s teaching focuses largely on the intersection of technology and society with an eye on games. Part of the pushback, Ruberg believes, is because game dev students are resistant to the idea that cultural issues should have an impact on what some consider a very technical job. For some of the most problematic kids, however, the root cause is far worse. “These students have been radicalized,” they say. 

After the gender lecture, Ruberg and their three TAs spent the next few days patrolling local campus Reddit communities for the material. To Ruberg and their TAs’ collective relief, nothing ever appeared — in their opinion, because there was nothing salacious: women in games have a hard time, and masculinity is constructed through gaming. But the experience left a mark on Ruberg, who says they’ve become more hesitant to include material about gender, sexuality, and race on their syllabuses. They’ve become wary, in some ways, of their students. 

“I’m watching out for potential problems,” Ruberg says. “It makes me sad to say that, because I truly love teaching undergraduates, but it’s [hard] to tell when you’re teaching a student who is open to new perspectives and when you’re teaching someone who has the potential to do harm.”

The internet as a whole opens up impressionable kids to toxic beliefs, whether it’s forum culture or online multiplayer. Radicalization is an ongoing problem on platforms like YouTube, where viewers can easily tumble down rabbit holes of far-right content thanks to the platform’s algorithm. If there were any lessons to be learned from Gamergate — from how to recognize bad faith actors or steps on how to protect yourself, to failings in law enforcement or therapy focused on the internet — the education system doesn’t seem to have fully grasped these concepts. 

“Suddenly everyone who watches Jordan Peterson videos thinks they know what postmodernism is”

Steve Wilcox teaches game design and development at Wilfrid Laurier University. Several months ago, he spoke to the president of his union about how they were preparing to tackle topics like ideological radicalization and misinformation. His takeaway? “I do not think that we are really prepared.”

How we talk about these issues now, he adds, is often in the context of freedom of speech and expression. “The argument is that conservatives are being discriminated against, and people with these otherwise odious views about society and race and gender,” he says. “That fails to recognize that society is already kind of deplatforming people — women, people of color, and trans speakers, or people marginalized in society — despite the fact that our society is already predisposed to being prejudiced toward them in the first place.”

It’s a problem that goes beyond just topics specific to the gaming industry, extending to topics like feminism, politics, or philosophy. “Suddenly everyone who watches Jordan Peterson videos thinks they know what postmodernism is,” says Emma Vossen, a post doctoral fellow with a PhD in gender and games. These problems with students are not about disagreements or debates. It’s not even about kids acting out, but rather harassers in the classroom who have tapped into social media as a powerful weapon. Many educators can’t grasp that, says Vossen.

“This is about students who could potentially access this hate movement that’s circling around you and use it against you,” she says. “This is about being afraid to give bad marks to students because they might go to their favorite YouTuber with a little bit of personal information about you that could be used to dox you.” Every word you say can be taken out of context, twisted, and used against you. 

“Education has no idea how to deal with this problem,” Vossen says. “And I think it’s only going to get worse.

“Education has no idea how to deal with this problem”

The issue is not only with teacher safety, but points to a greater crisis in how the education system must fundamentally rethink how to instruct students. “How much of our classroom time do we dedicate to, rather teaching and learning, but unlearning?” Wilcox says. “Helping people unlearn the biases and prejudices that essentially that they’ve learned from the internet, all the way up to the age of 18, or whenever they enroll in university.” 

The conventional model has always been to treat students as a sort of blank slate, using education and information to inform them and teach from point zero. The combination of Gamergate hubs like subreddit KotakuInAction and unchecked alt-right personalities preaching harmful ideologies have changed that. An educator’s job is no longer just about teaching, but helping students unlearn false or even harmful information they’ve picked up from the internet. 

Deradicalization is the common question on educators’ minds, but some say steps need to be taken preemptively. It’s easier to circumvent poisonous thinking rather than scramble to find an antidote after the fact. “The issue is that they have a preconceived way of interpreting information, which then shapes how they interpret that data,” says Wilcox. You can’t just combat bigotry with stats or hard facts; you have to address the larger social and cultural factors that make them an issue in the first place. “If we started teaching students the basics of feminism at a very young age,” Wilcox says, “they would have a far better appreciation for how different perspectives will lead to different outcomes, and how the distribution of power and privilege in society can influence who gets to speak in the first place.” 

Even at its worst, the educators The Verge spoke to believe change is possible. These are still young people they’re teaching, who deserve the chance to learn and grow. “The behavior and games culture is this sort of microcosm of behavioral and larger culture,” Vossen says. “Gamers are not inherently sexist. Gamers are not inherently racist.” But much of the issue as an educator comes from the battle with what she calls living in an anti-intellectual time. “People will say [education is] brainwashing,” she says. Figures like Peterson or Lindsay Sheperd will pose human rights discussions as one with two sides, rather than accepting that all people deserve basic rights. To combat this, Vossen will play leftist videos in her class from channels like Innuendo Studios. “I think that sadly, at the end of the day, we can’t actually change anyone’s mind,” Vossen says. “But we can present alternative options.”

Wilcox says that the overwhelmingly masculine, anti-political, anti-education tone common to some spaces in games already dissuades marginalized groups from entering the profession in the first place. It’s a vicious cycle, in which the same hostile ideologies that make it difficult for other voices to enter the field continue to feed into each other and gatekeep. The problem ahead is a fickle one that requires a larger look at bias in culture and, more broadly, society. 

“[That culture] is kind of already there, regardless of whether someone uses the talking points in my classroom,” Wilcox says. 

Correction, 4:25PM ET: A previous version of this article misstated the videos that Vossen plays in her classroom.