A new study suggests that a person who strongly identifies as a "gamer” is more likely to be prone to “extreme behaviors” like racism, sexism, and defending their community at any cost.
While toxicity and radicalization have long been known as issues afflicting some parts of the video game community, the mechanisms of how this occurs aren't fully understood. The new research suggests that a key part of understanding is knowing how strongly the “gamer” identity pervades a person’s life.
"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,” Rachel Kowert, the research director at Take This, a nonprofit that provides mental health information to the gaming industry and one of the paper's authors, told VICE News. “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."
It should be noted that this is only referring to a small, toxic portion of the gaming community, which numbers in the billions, as many positive communities and elements exist within gaming culture. That said, some extremists, especially those in the far-right, use gaming communities as a recruitment ground. Research has found that places like Steam and Discord are popular areas for white supremacists. It’s a problem that the industry hasn’t necessarily wanted to grapple with, but that’s slowly changing, and some game companies are now calling out misogyny.
Even the term “gamer” has been disputed within the community, with the term frequently being used for toxic gatekeeping. For some, a “gamer” is someone who plays on PCs; for others, it’s only people who play competitive multiplayer games, or if you play on easy mode, you're not a gamer, and so on and so forth. The term can be exclusive for many and has been a hot-button issue in the community as of late.
For the three studies the researchers conducted for the paper, they allowed the respondents to define themselves as gamers and didn’t offer an operational definition. The research was conducted by Kowert; Bill Swann, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin; and Alexi Martel, a psychology Ph.D. student, for the academic journal Frontiers in Communication. Each of the three studies surveyed hundreds of people who played video games and analyzed the gamers’ beliefs. Kowert said that to understand the research, you need to understand the concept known as “identity fusion.” They define this as when an identity is almost the defining trait of a personality, something that pervades all aspects of a person’s life.
"We have individual identities and social identities. 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,” said Kowert. “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 behaviors."
Kowert used the example of someone who was in the military for years and that 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 susceptible to “extreme pro-group behavior.”
There is a subset of gamers who turn to video games for the community they may lack elsewhere in their life, and they form strong bonds within the subculture. In the paper, the authors dub this a “double-edged sword” as finding a community could be a positive thing for the gamer but it could also introduce them to toxicity and hateful speech. In the worst-case scenario, this may lead some to “be lured into embracing extremist beliefs that lead them down the path to radicalization.”
Some in the industry are attempting to address the issue of toxic behavior and extremism in gaming communities. Games have also been used as effective counter-violent extremism tools as well, particularly through the use of bespoke ”serious” games in educational settings. Decount, a well-known game in this genre, walks players through the radicalization journey of ISIS and far-right extremists.
Like every large community, gamers aren’t a monolith, so the study's authors decided to look at the difference between two popular gaming communities—Call of Duty and Minecraft. The paper found that anti-social behavior like racism and misogyny correlated stronger with fans of the Call of Duty series.
“So this can vary across communities depending on what kind of people that you are spending a lot of your time with,” said Kowert. “I don't think it's necessarily about content but about the community in which you're being immersed.”
The authors are quick to caution people from reading too heavily into this and more research is necessary. The effects of gaming have long been a hot topic issue, and often sensationalized by cable news and politicians looking to scare parents. Kowert told VICE News she always worries that her research will be taken out of context and used to attack the community. Kowert is 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."