Video games have been blamed for many societal ills that actually have nothing to do with them. Still, it is undeniable that certain online gaming communities not only allow toxic behaviors, but actually encourage radicalization. Understanding how and why some gamers are likely to fall down this path is important – and researchers believe that one potential mechanism has been unveiled.
It is called "Identity Fusion", a psychological concept where members of a group experience a visceral connection to the group as a single entity. When this happens, people begin to place pro-group behaviors and needs as more important than their own. This might lead to performing acts that are actually detrimental to themselves, such as being willing to be hurt or even die for the group.
The study found that this concept can partially explain behavior seen in certain gaming communities. Researchers looked at three related aspects of this concept. Those that strongly identified as a gamer were more likely to fight and die for "gaming" culture and were more likely to exhibit traits associated with narcissism and psychopathy. They also were more likely to show hostile sexism and extrinsic racism, as well as recent aggressive behaviors. This was independent of political affiliation.
The third goes in a slightly different direction, wondering if different communities of self-identified gamers experience identity fusion. The researchers compared players of Minecraft and players of Call of Duty. They found that while identity fusion was seen in both, extreme behaviors were more likely to be found in Call of Duty gamers.
“We suggest that examining the impact of games through the lens of identity fusion provides insight into the role of identity in the propagation of extremist ideologies, radicalization, recruitment, and mobilization. Further documentation of the role of identity in extremism will not only contribute to a theoretical understanding of the processes underlying gaming but also pave the way for the development of safeguards designed to discourage toxicity in gaming spaces,” the authors wrote in the paper.
The researchers stress the limitations of the study: It only included people in the United States, and it can’t be used to predict offline behavior, including offline recruitment by extremists. They also stress that just comparing Minecraft with Call of Duty, while informative, doesn’t provide major insights into what makes the two communities different. More comparisons between similar and different games might provide more insights.
The work is published in the journal Frontiers in Communication.