Video games and the culture surrounding them are legitimate forces in millennial political debate. And yet, the uninitiated seem unaware of the culture war raging at YouTube and Twitch. 

Like movies, video games are an art form and the largest have budgets rivaling Hollywood's blockbusters. And they've birthed an active, passionate following that's framing the political debate for tens of millions of young Americans.

Every so often, this gamer culture spills into the mainstream news. "Gamergate" blew up in 2014 when online commenters attacked female gamers for calling out sexism and harassment in their ranks. It happened again Thursday in Wichita, Kansas, when a SWAT team shot and killed 28-year-old Andrew Finch, who was sitting in his home.

Finch was a victim of "swatting" one of the uglier sides of the massive online universe that is video game culture. An anonymous caller had told police that there was a hostage situation at Finch's residence. That's how swatting works.

Swatting functions as a form of entertainment for the bigger trolls within the video game world.

Independent online reviewers can make serious cash on YouTube. Many streamers broadcast game play in real-time at another site, Twitch. It didn't take long for someone to realize that a simple phone call could bring police crashing through the gamer's door while the throngs viewing the Twitch stream watch. 

But the political debates raging within the gaming community extends well beyond sadistic trolls endangering people's lives for their own entertainment. Freedom of speech, sexism, consumer rights and fair use: These are just a few of the issues addressed daily in the YouTube gaming ecosystem. Many of these wholly independent channels reach as many eyeballs as the nation's largest major newspapers.

YouTuber John Bain, known by his gaming handle Totalbiscuit, owns and operates a YouTube empire with 2.3 million subscribers. Bain, a British lawyer living in the U.S., is known for waging war with large gaming corporations over anti-consumer business practices. 

Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw is well known for his criticism of games wrapping American exceptionalism in patriotism and saber rattling. His critiques of the Call of Duty series, and its random "burly white dudes" shooting various factions of "brown" people are things of legend. Croshaw's employer, The Escapist, has more than a million subscribers and Croshaw's weekly videos regularly top 400,000 views. 

YouTuber James Stanton goes by the pseudonym Jim Sterling, a pompous tongue-in-cheek persona rooted in self-worship. Sterling's 624,000 subscribers are fed a weekly dose of pro-consumer criticism of game publishers, rife with F-bombs. Sterling is one of those so-called "SJWs," a pejorative aimed at "social justice warriors," progressives who celebrate diversity and other liberal ideals showing up in video games. For example, in 2015, Sterling lauded Bethesda mega-game Fallout 4 for permitting players to form polyamorous romantic relationships with other characters, regardless of sex or gender. 

"Look, I'm not a monogamous guy, nor am I a straight one, either," Sterling said. "And in a world where relationships are almost universally presented in media as being strictly being two folks -- preferably of the opposite sex -- it's a really big f***ing deal to me to see a game where gender and established relationships status are not immutable roles that lock us into place." 

YouTubers such as Rags and The Rageaholic are the angry ying to Sterling's yang. Rags, a reviewer with 270,000 subscribers, blasts "SJWs" like Sterling. This faction generally hates politics -- at least those with which they disagree -- thrown into their games. They went ape when a female character showed up in the newest Call of Duty, which was set in World War II. The Rageaholic goes even further. Just recently, he lectured his 116,000 subscribers about the need for a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico.

Gaming culture has become the lens through which millions of Americans now approach the political questions of our time. It's a thriving ecosystem that exists solely online and avoids the scrutiny, attention and respect it deserves.

Jon Alexander is editorial page editor at the Quad-City Times. He can be reached at jalexander@qctimes.com

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Editorial Page Editor

Editorial Page Editor, Quad-City Times