POLITICS
03/08/2018 14:17 EST | Updated 03/08/2018 14:17 EST

Steam, Your Kids' Favorite Video Game App, Has A Big Nazi Problem

It's not the games you should worry about. It's the social platform that allows hate to thrive.

A sample of the thousands of groups available to gamers on Steam, one of the world's most popular gaming apps.

The Northern Virginia teen accused of shooting his girlfriend’s parents dead in December after they confronted him over his extremist views had previously found a safe haven on Steam, one of the world’s most popular gaming apps.

Nicholas Giampa’s profile page on Steam depicts him as an unabashed neo-Nazi, with an SS symbol and the quote, “National Socialism will prevail” featured front and center:

Steam

But Giampa’s self-proclaimed Nazism wasn’t a problem — or even particularly rare — on Steam, which boasts 65 million monthly active users. Giampa, who owned hundreds of games, had more than 300 friends on the app, including some who also boasted of extreme views. 

HuffPost identified thousands of accounts and user groups on Steam in which users claim to be Nazis, defend school shooters, and spout racist and violent bile. Plenty of these users are likely trolls, posting extreme claims they may not actually believe to get a rise out of people. But actual Nazis also brag of using humor and trolling to confuse the unindoctrinated about whether they’re joking. And some young men, including Giampa, seem to have taken all of it deadly seriously.

President Donald Trump, who was due to meet with top video game executives Thursday to discuss the violence in their products, has suggested that the games themselves lead to real-world violence. There’s no good scientific evidence that’s true. And Trump’s critique misses a huge part of the gaming world: social platforms like Steam, where young men like Giampa can not only play games, but also meet and chat with Nazis in a largely unmonitored environment. 

So what if the problem isn’t the games themselves, but the Nazis who are playing them?

What Steam Is

Steam, which is owned by Valve Corporation, is as popular among PC and Mac gamers as Netflix is among those with TVs, boasting a community of 125 million. Think of it as a combination of Amazon Prime, Facebook, Slack and Reddit that allows you to chat, make friends, join groups, and buy and play games in one social and commercial hub. And while Steam doesn’t release demographic numbers, the Pew Research Center notes that 72 percent of teens ― and 84 percent of teen boys ― play video games.

If you ― or your children ― decide not to engage with anyone on the platform, and just buy and download the video games you want to play, you won’t see the site’s underbelly. But dig just below the surface, and you’ll find recommendations pointing you toward “dank memes for faggots”; community groups titled “KILL ALL THE JEWS” or “How to shoot up a school”; and user profiles praising school shooters like Nikolas Cruz, who allegedly killed 17 people at a Florida high school in February.

A basic search in the groups tab for words and phrases like “Nazis” or “Jews” or “school shooting” will bring up thousands of results. Valve has taken a lackadaisical approach to dealing with it.

Steam groups with neo-Nazi names.
Steam groups with names that seem to promote school shootings.

Many of these groups have few subscribers, signaling that they were set up merely to get a reaction and not necessarily to engage with others over a topic. Other groups attract dozens or hundreds of members ― and some of their members aren’t kidding around.

Giampa was one prominent user until his arrest in December. At the time, HuffPost identified a Twitter account tied to Giampa, which painted a picture of a kid who adored Adolf Hitler, hated transgender people and called for a “white revolution.”

So it followed on his Steam profile, which is linked to Giampa’s email account and which hasn’t been taken down. His arrest sent shockwaves through the various online communities he frequented. In the comments on his Steam profile, his friends mourned the loss of their compatriot.

“I’m just worried what’s coming back,” one user said. “Jail tends to screw.”

“Rip Rob [part of Giampa’s display name, Silent Rob SS] you are to crazy broh,” another said.

Most 'Nazis' on Steam are just right-wingers that are being satirical. Mindcrime, an online friend of Nicholas Giampa

What’s interesting about Giampa’s online presence ― and the Steam community as a whole ― is that the Nazi symbolism and other hate speech don’t appear to faze anybody. It’s too rampant, too normalized. HuffPost spoke to a Steam user who described himself as one of Giampa’s online friends. Mindcrime, who asked to be identified only by his Steam ID, said Giampa was known as a standup gamer who never signaled that his politics would translate into real-world violence.

“His political views may have been very far-right-winged, but honestly he was a good kid,” said Mindcrime. “Never knew the guy [in real life] but we talked often online and [the shooting] devastated the group chat. Me and a few people talked [on his profile page] when we learned he was gone forever.”

Most Steam users assume that people with profiles like Giampa’s are just trolling, Mindcrime said. The hate speech and repeated references to troll symbols ― like Pepe the Frog or Kekistan, a fake country born of an online meme whose flag resembles the Nazi war flag ― arose in darker parts of the internet, like the website 4chan, where many also think of it all as a joke.

“Most ‘Nazis’ on Steam are just right-wingers that are being satirical,” Mindcrime said. “Most of them browse /pol/, which was a political satire board on 4chan to begin with.”

But not every user thinks it’s all a joke, and for leaders in the white nationalist movement, vague messaging is a tactic. HuffPost’s Ashley Feinberg unearthed a “style guide” for writers at The Daily Stormer ― a prominent white supremacist site ― which purposefully tiptoes around its own extremist vernacular so that nobody can tell if it’s joking or not.

Hundreds of Steam users changed their name to Nikolas Cruz after the school shooting in Florida.

And it only takes one user following through on the rhetoric to have deadly results. Video taken during the white nationalist rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year shows a young man taking off his shirt when confronted about his views and saying, “I’m not really white power man, I just came here for the fun.” There were others at the rallies who didn’t seem to understand the gravity of marching alongside Nazis and other far-right groups. But at least one man who stood with them, white supremacist Alex Fields, took the message to its inevitable, violent extreme. He now stands accused of mowing down a group of protesters in his car and killing a woman.

Fields is 20 years old. Giampa is 17. Cruz is 19. They were young and impressionable when they were radicalized, and all three of them latched onto extremist rhetoric as they crossed into adulthood.

It Isn’t About The Games

Trump’s campaign against video games takes the easy — and scientifically unsupported — path of blaming them for gun violence. But as the Entertainment Software Association notes, “video games are plainly not the issue: entertainment is distributed and consumed globally, but the U.S. has an exponentially higher level of gun violence than any other nation.”

Hateful communities like those on Steam and other social media platforms rarely take center stage in conversations about video games and violence. And the platforms’ overlords stay relatively silent.

Valve hasn’t responded to reporters’ questions about its Nazi problem for months, including those posed by HuffPost for this story. It has occasionally shut down racist and violent posts by users after news organizations like Vice and the Center for Investigative Reporting exposed them. But without actively enforcing its policy against threats, harassment and political threads, Valve is playing a veritable game of whack-a-mole.

Communities of neo-Nazis and white supremacists also crop up on Twitter, Facebook and Reddit, among other well-known social hubs. But those platforms have all faced social pressure — sometimes significant — to shut down the worst of the worst. Steam has flown under the radar. Should it?