A new study has suggested that people who strongly view themselves as ‘gamers’ as part of their personal identity are more likely to be prone to extreme behaviours such as racism and misogyny.
That’s according to ‘Identity fusion and extremism in gaming cultures’, a research paper by Take This, a mental health advocacy organization with a focus on the game industry. Toxicity has long been known to exist within some parts of the video game community, and this research seeks to understand how this occurs.
The research explores the potential role of ‘identity fusion’ in toxic sections of gaming communities. Identity fusion is described as “a deep, visceral sense of alignment” with a group or cause that strongly pervades an individual’s personal life, to the point where it compels people to enact pro-group behaviours even when it is personally costly to do so.
Speaking to Vice, one of the authors of the study, Dr. Rachel Kowert, emphasised that its findings refer to this smaller, toxic portion of the gaming community who show signs of ‘gamer’ culture taking over their personal identities, and that there’s no suggestion that the wider populace of players is extreme.
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It’s important to note that, according to the research, identity fusion is not unique to gaming and has been studied in a variety of other groups including members of the military and competitive sports, and found to align with both pro-social behaviour, such as a willingness to help others, as well as anti-social outcomes such as hostility and aggression.
However, Take This’s research suggests that gaming spaces may be particularly conducive to identity fusion, due to the belief that shared experiences are effective in facilitating it, especially when the experiences are challenging and engaging.
“We have individual identities and social identities,” Kower explained. “So I am Rachel, I am a female, and I’m a gamer. I love The Witcher. These are my social identities and are separate.
“Identity fusion is when the social identity, the individual identity, fuses together and you can’t tear them apart…. The way in which fusion is shown to develop makes them more susceptible to more extreme behaviours.”
The researcher went on to use the example of a military veteran whose work identity leaks into all aspects of their life, until there’s not much difference between “Doug the soldier” and “Doug the father.” Those who have gone through this identity fusion are said to be susceptible to “extreme pro-group behaviour.”
The research was comprised of three studies which surveyed hundreds of people who played video games, and analysed their beliefs such as whether they related to right-wing authoritarianism or the alt-right movement, or their views on women and minorities.
The studies then attempted to correlate identify fusion by asking questions such as whether they believed they “make gaming culture strong”, and how willing they would be to “fight someone” for “making fun of gaming culture”.
One of the studies suggested that three individual-difference variables (loneliness, avoidant attachment, anxious attachment) also interacted with fusion with gaming culture.
Referring to the community and social interaction offered by gaming, but also the existence of some toxic behaviours, the research calls game communities “a double-edged sword” for vulnerable people.
The third and final study examined individual communities, and found that anti-social behaviour more strongly correlated with a competitive game in Call of Duty compared to a more cooperative game in Minecraft.
“When the gamer identity is very core to who you are as a person, that seems to reflect what we call toxic gamer culture, tends to reflect more exclusion than inclusion—so things like racism and sexism and misogyny,” Kowert told Vice. “All these things that we know exist in gaming spaces seem to be internalized by those who very closely identify as being part of that community.”
The study concludes by acknowledging some limitations, such as only surveying American players and not exploring wider game genres or outside spaces, such as Discord and Twitch.
Kowert said she did not want her research to be used to attack the broader gaming community, as it’s clear she’s “not saying that all games are bad or all gamers are extremists.”
“I think that games are wonderful places that have more positive things to offer than negative things across the board,” she said. “I think it’s important that we have the conversation that games are being leveraged in this way, because we’re not having that conversation, and therefore we can’t mitigate it if we don’t have the conversation.”