As an industry, video games generated almost $20 billion in revenue during 2018, according to SuperData. Microsoft reported more than two billion gamers around the world – from beginners to expert eSport gamers – and the trend is only going to grow in the future.
To meet future needs and to match this industry increase, the College of Media & Communication at Texas Tech University has been leading a push to broaden the Video Game curriculum and its research. Megan Condis, Ph.D., assistant professor of communication studies, is one of the faculty members who have come to campus to do just that.
For many people who play video games, part of the fun is to develop an avatar, an identity that may (or may not) match their real-life characteristics, and in video game culture, people will name-drop certain games as their personal identity to signify their gender choice. For example, identifying yourself with a specific video game (for example, “DOOM” or “Call of Duty”) can mark you as masculine, whereas namedropping games such as “Bayonetta” or “Tomb Raider” might identify you as being feminine.
According to Condis, gamers may not always have access to a customizable avatar in some of the online spaces they frequent, so the users may be forced to employ different tools like text, memes, and pop culture references to build their own persona. These individual avatars can then be read as either masculine or feminine by the people with whom they're interacting.
“My dissertation project [my first book] was about the way that people perform their gender in online spaces – particularly when you don't have access to your actual body. In that situation, you can't just flex on people and be like, ‘look how manly I am,'” she said.
“These [avatars] are the markers of a masculine or feminine experience, similar to how a little kid might play with GI Joe as a way of demonstrating masculinity or play with Barbies to “prove” that you're a girl.”
When she first started at Texas Tech University, Condis was finishing up her research on the topic of digital identity. During her first semester here, there were national reports of mass shooters in the U.S. who had also namechecked video games in their manifestos. It was this idea that led Condis onto her next topic of research.
“We looked into it and found that some people who were writing almost exclusively for white supremacist outlets (like The American Renaissance or The Daily Stormer – basically a Neo-Nazi newspaper) were also starting to use video games as a recruitment tool,” Condis said.
After further investigation, she realized that some of the white supremacy organizations had now recognized that video game culture was widely accepted and admired in young people, and, wanting to help grow their own numbers, the groups were now focused on using that “video game prowess” to promote their own groups.
According to Condis, this recruiting approach is similar to the strategies used by earlier radical groups who utilized punk rock to recruit young people in the ‘80s and early ‘90s.
“Skinheads, combat boots, punk rock music and leather jackets, right?” said Condis. “It's bizarre that, in 2019, the kind of cultural outsider group are gamers, so it's like the polar opposite of the ‘rough and tumble, fight in the streets' skinheads. It's kind of geeky, kind of quieter, but it's still this subculture that is associated with not being in the mainstream, not being the popular kids.”
Studying the process of how people identify themselves in digital spaces had inadvertently led her to what she's researching now: questionable organizations employing the similar tactics of digital identity to gain backdoor access into new subcultures for promotional purposes and possible recruitment.
“My research has transitioned from how communities organize themselves – how gamers used the tools that were available to them to disclose their identity online – to now being about how groups who are interested in trying to organize people and direct them to certain political ends while also figuring out how to best use those tools,” Condis said.
“And they're using them deliberately, as opposed to using them creatively, and just trying to figure out how to express themselves online.”
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