Scaremongering about gaming is a common cliche – but a new study suggests that our fears might not be completely unfounded
Attention all gamers: we’ve got some good news and some bad news. First off, a new study by the American Medical Association has shown that children who play video games show “enhanced cognitive performance” compared with their non-gaming counterparts. (Maybe all those weeks you’ve sunk into Fortnite will pay off!) But now for the bad news… there might be some less desirable side effects to your newfound cognitive superpowers.
Last week, a separate study from the University of Texas at Austin found unique links between gaming and sexism, racism and extremist ideologies. While this may not be news to anyone who’s heard the voice chat in an online game of Call of Duty, the study does trace a concerning overspill into real-world behaviour. This lends credibility to the existing idea that certain gaming communities help extremists to radicalise young people.
Typically, this issue has been primarily discussed in relation to young men, running adjacent to the gendered violence that runs rife within incel culture (though the UT Austin study examined a fairly even split of genders, reflecting the broad demographics of the gaming industry). More specifically, the study examines a psychological phenomenon known as “identity fusion” – in which individual members of a group experience a “visceral” sense of oneness with that group – in relation to gaming.
Across three studies, UT Austin shows that fusion with gaming culture is “uniquely predictive of a host of socially pernicious outcomes, including racism, sexism, and endorsement of extreme behaviours”. Unsurprisingly, it also suggests that personality attributes such as insecure attachment and loneliness amplify support for extremist behaviour when combined with fusion with gaming culture.
Questions that were asked during these three studies explored the level of gamers’ identity fusion, their willingness to fight or die for gaming culture, and the presence of Dark Triad personality traits (narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy). Hinting at the overflow into real life, researchers also gauged gamers’ identification with right-wing ideologies, white nationalism, and sexism, belief in QAnon, and recent aggressive behaviours.
The conclusion? Gaming culture is uniquely associated with “several markers of extremism”, including the willingness to fight for gaming culture, Dark Triad personality traits, sexism, racism, and aggressive behaviour – even with variables such as gender and pre-existing political beliefs taken into account.
It’s not all bad news, though. While Call of Duty had few redeeming features, another game surveyed for the study, Minecraft (AKA the pixel-art home of luxury fashion brands and hyperpop raves), showed some positive social outcomes alongside the bad, such as online bonding and relatedness with fellow players.
The UT Austin study concludes that the psychological mechanisms that help extremist ideologies breed among gamers remain unclear, though future research will help to pin them down and develop necessary safeguards. This is particularly important in light of the American Medical Association study, which shows gaming’s positive impact on a range of cognitive processes, including memory, response inhibition, attention, and visual processing. If gaming can help future generations become smarter, that’s great. It would also be nice if they didn’t all turn into sexist, aggressive little racists.