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Did Competitive Video Games Create the ‘Bernie Bros’?

Bernie Sanders's most controversial supporters might well be acting like they are because of video games.

Bernie Sanders and a couple of dudes, who we're not calling "Bernie Bros." Photo from 2014, via Bernie Sanders's official website

By now, every pundit has found some way to blame the internet, particularly the toxic forum culture that spawned the alt-right, for the rise of Donald Trump. And that's fine; there's certainly an element of truth to that.

But what about the "Bernie Bro," that overly assertive supporter of senator Bernie Sanders? Whence this new breed, similar to but far more voluble than the progressive-leaning "Obama Boys" of 2008? Is social media savvy the only explanation for Sanders's surprising success?


"There has to be a correlation between support for Sanders and competitive gaming culture," says Kyle Pinkos, a graphic designer at the University of Texas at Arlington. "I've played tens thousands of hours of games, thousands of hours just devoted to Warcraft, and there are so many things a regular player of video games begins to take for granted."

Pinkos, who urged me to consider this claim, is right on the money: gamers have certain expectations of the games that they play. Understanding these expectations, then, may also shed light on some aspects of thinking shared by the so-called "Bernie Bros." Players, for example, expect these games to have a certain degree of balance, with even a difficult game like Dark Souls III being difficult in a clear and comprehensible way.

They demand sensible, functional game mechanics—which is why a hopelessly broken game like Big Rigs: Over the Road Racing is no game at all. And in games where the players must choose among many possible characters, such as DOTA 2 or Super Smash Bros., each character, when played by someone of average ability, must stand some halfway decent chance of beating the other characters. In other words, most players demand a certain degree of fairness and a "level playing field" from their games.

This is all well and good. These characteristics have always been applicable to competitive gameplay, and to competitive sports generally (hence the assertions of many athletes in the US that the "need to win" helped overcome segregation in pro and college athletics). The major difference today, and possibly one of the main reasons that Sanders is drawing considerable support from the under-35 set, is that far more people play video games than ever played soccer, baseball, football, and the like.


Of course, for those of us who play these games, that's not up for debate. But every few months, some glossy magazine runs a thinkpiece about how "gamer culture" is going mainstream. Well, sure, absolutely: hundreds of millions of people play video games, and a certain degree of overlap with phenomena like the "Bernie Bros" makes perfect sense.

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"One of the effects of a lifetime spent playing video games—and I certainly count myself among the ranks of the people who have—is that you begin to see yourself as the level 1 hero in your own game." So says Ben Labe, a PhD candidate in economics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "And when you begin to perceive the world in this way, it's far easier to see when other people are playing the very same game, only they're using 'cheat codes,' 'God mode,' or some such thing. The tendency, as when playing poorly-designed games, is to get justifiably angry because circumstances are not fair, and to begin to support policies to remedy this."

Anger is indeed a hallmark of the "Bernie Bros," who troll disfavored commentators and other political opponents with precisely the same ferocity that they display during video games gone awry, such as when a "broken" character, usually newly introduced to the game, enables a less skilled opponent to register a decisive victory.

"Yes, absolutely, I'll get mad under those circumstances," says Nathan Zimmerman, a software designer and a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania. "I would get angry the same way I would if I were playing chess, and have settled on an undeniable path to victory, only to learn that the mechanics of the games have suddenly changed. In a situation where victory is dependent on my own efforts, or the efforts of my team, what can I do but experience anger when I realize that conditions have been altered to ensure I can't win? Anger in such a situation isn't necessarily problematic; righteous indignation has always been a part of progressive struggles."


This anger, justifiable or not, has been used against the "Bernie Bros." Their most vociferous spokesmen have been highlighted as examples of how the new harder left, like gaming culture itself, can strike outsiders as misogynistic and exclusionist. All of us are familiar with holier-than-thou gamers who speak ex cathedra about how their defeats, sometimes at our hands, were accidents of game design—evidence of flaws that, once fixed, will set everything aright. You know what I'm talking about: they dig deep in the "well, actually" and say things such as, "Well, actually, if Earth Spirits weren't totally OP, you guys never would have won."

And this is both the great opportunity and looming tragedy of a world weaned on video games: quite often, the sorest losers among us are correct. They have played long enough, and often enough, to see the cracks in the system. Even if they were merely above average in the grand scheme of things—talented "scrubs," in gaming parlance—they recognize what they are up against and where their designers have let them down. But in their haste to speak truth to power, in the same way that they might shout their opprobrium on Steam forums, they risk coming across as boorish to types who prefer their games and their politics a good deal more casual.

"Yes, I've played League of Legends," says Morgan Stout, an undergraduate nursing major at Abilene Christian University. "I usually play support, but at times the chat gets so toxic that I ask myself why would I want to be subjected to more of that. It's not nice, and it's definitely not welcoming, even if the game itself can be fun."

Dunkey, the YouTube gaming celebrity who shot to stardom on the strength of his comical League videos, offers a cautionary tale. Although he occasionally succeeded at demonstrating problems with that MOBA, he was eventually banned from it in dramatic fashion. In a final video about the game, far from sticking around to improve League from within, he merely outlined its many problems and bid adieu to it.

The fate of the "Bernie Bros," who have offered a far more penetrating and important critique, remains to be determined.

Follow Oliver Lee Bateman on Twitter.