Greater fusion with gaming culture predicts heightened narcissism, psychopathy, hostile sexism, and racism

People who experience identity fusion with the online gaming community tend to have heightened levels of antisocial personality traits and hostile attitudes, according to new research published in Frontiers in Communication.

Identity fusion is a psychological concept that refers to the merging of one’s personal identity with that of a group. This can lead to a range of behaviors, from feeling strongly defensive of the group’s reputation to being willing to make sacrifices for it. Identity fusion has been studied in relation to a wide variety of groups, from sports teams to religions, and it is thought to play an important role in group cohesion and loyalty.

Previous research has indicated that online video gaming communities might be particularly conducive to identity fusion. The authors of the new research were interested in whether this identity fusion could help explain extremism among a subset of gamers.

“In 2019, I read in a report put out by the Anti-Defamation League that 1 in 4 game players reported being exposed to white supremacist ideology while within a digital gaming space,” said Rachel Kowert, the research director at Take This and corresponding author of the new research. “That number seemed so incredibly high!”

“Seeing such a high number literally stopped me in my tracks – I was really shocked to see the number be so high. That set me on a new trajectory within my own research to uncover why this kind of behavior was so found to be prevalent within games.”

The researchers used Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (Mturk) platform to recruit two samples of American video gamers, which included 598 participants in total. The gamers completed a variety of validated psychological assessments, along with a measure of identity fusion with gaming culture.

Fusion with gaming culture was positively associated with the willingness to fight for gaming culture. In other words, people who agreed with statements such as “I make gaming culture strong” were more likely to also agree with statements such as “I would fight someone insulting or making fun of gaming culture.”

Fusion with gaming culture was also associated with heightened narcissism, psychopathy, hostile sexism, extrinsic racism, and recent aggressive behaviors. This was true even after controlling for most played game genre, years playing games, weekly play time, gender, right-wing identity, and white nationalist identity.

The researchers also uncovered some moderating variables. In particular, heightened loneliness and insecure attachment styles strengthened the association between fusion with gaming culture and the willingness to fight for gaming culture.

The findings provide evidence that “identification with so-called ‘toxic gamer cultures’ is a vulnerability that can be uniquely leveraged by extremists for radicalization and recruitment,” Kowert told PsyPost. “This is not to say that all people who play games will be radicalized. Rather, the social culture of digital games are uniquely vulnerable to this kind of behavior.”

The results provide insight into gamers in general. But the researchers were interested in whether the link between identity fusion and extremism would be especially strong in certain gaming communities. For their third study, they recruited a sample of 315 participants who play Call of Duty and 330 participants who play Minecraft. While Call of Duty is known for its highly competitive nature, Minecraft is considered a more easygoing gaming experience.

Kowert and her colleagues found that the links between fusion with gaming culture and antisocial tendencies were stronger among Call of Duty players compared to Minecraft players.

“I was surprised to find such a stark difference between Call of Duty and Minecraft players once identity fusion was taken into consideration,” she told PsyPost. “While I had long hypothesized that the social environment was a more significant influence on behavior, this work provides the first steps in empirically demonstrating that when it comes to anti-social (e.g., racism, sexism, etc.) outcomes.”

One caveat to note is the correlational nature of the findings. It is possible that fusion with gaming culture leads to heightened levels of narcissism, psychopathy, sexism, and other traits. But it is also possible that the relationship runs in the opposite direction.

“There are a lot of questions to still be addressed,” Kowert said. “For instance, we discuss the differences between Call of Duty and Minecraft players in relation to the different levels of social toxicity of their respective communities alone. However, it is possible that game mechanics (competitive versus cooperative) and game content (visually realistic, first person shooter with political undertones verses visually unrealistic, sandbox game) have some impact. We are planning on digging deeper into these differences in future work.”

“It is important to understand that digital games are wonderful places that have more positive things than negative things to offer across the board,” Kowert added. “However, I think it is important that we have conversations about the negative societal repercussions we are seeing come from these spaces because if we do not start having the conversations about how games are being leveraged in negative ways we will never have the opportunity to start conversations about solutions.”

The study, “Not just a game: Identity fusion and extremism in gaming cultures“, was authored by Rachel Kowert, Alexi Martel, and William B. Swann.

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