Mind the Gap: What We Do and Don’t Know About Gaming and Radicalization

Gaming and its potential (mis-)use by extremist actors is the new hot topic in radicalization and extremism studies. After the 2019 right-wing extremist attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, and subsequent attacks in El Paso and Halle were livestreamed in the fashion of a ‘Let’s Play’ video of a first-person shooter game, researchers, policymakers, and actors working on preventing and/or countering (violent) extremism (P/CVE) have begun to afford more attention to gaming and its potential use by extremist actors. The three years since the Christchurch attack have seen a stark increase in interest on the issue of gaming and extremism – a trend that is still continuing. However, despite this increase in attention, how and why gaming, gaming content, and gaming related spaces are used by extremist actors and how prevalent the issue is, remains opaque. Considerable research will be necessary before a final verdict on a potential nexus between gaming and extremism can be reached. Therefore, when speaking about gaming and extremism, everyone should mind the gaps of knowledge and be careful in jumping to conclusions without having obtained the required evidence.

According to the Radicalization Awareness Network, extremist actors seem to utilize gaming-related content and spaces in six ways:

  • Production of bespoke videogames: Since the early 2000s, various extremist and fringe organizations have produced and published bespoke videogames. This includes both far-right and right-wing actors as well as jihadist groups. While drawing attention to themselves and possibly radicalize some individuals may have been part of the reason to produce bespoke games, these games often also catered to those who are already sympathetic to a group’s views.
  • Modification of existing (popular) videogames: Because the production of bespoke videogames is expensive and requires extensive knowledge in game design, modifications (‘mods’) of existing videogames are a more feasible and therefore popular alternative. Such modifications allow, for instance, to recreate the Holocaust or play the Christchurch attack in popular games.
  • The use of in-game communication: Extremists are also believed to use in-game communication channels such as chats or other networking features. Possibly they do so with the aim of grooming users, encouraging them to join other communication channels established by their group (such as Telegram channels), or to fly under the radar of authorities as real-time in-game chat communication is notoriously difficult to monitor and moderate.
  • Presence on gaming-related platforms: Gaming-related platforms such as Discord, Twitch, DLive, Steam, and others have been used by extremist actors in various ways, including internal communication, planning of events and assaults, livestreaming of attacks and propaganda, vetting new group members, and fundraising. It is assumed that these platforms are used both for strategic and organic reasons. Strategically, a presence on such platforms, which draw millions of users to their site daily, makes sense to reach the largest possible audience. The options for private communication channels (e.g. private Discord servers) and difficulties in policing, for instance, livestreamed content and real-time communication, add to the strategic appeal of these spaces. However, it is likely that some radicalized individuals also organically inhabit gaming-related platforms – either because they have used them prior to their radicalization, or because they like videogames, or because they enjoy the type of atmosphere and digital community in (parts of) these spaces.
  • Embedding gaming cultural references in propaganda: Gaming cultural references have been used in propaganda for years. For instance, jihadist organizations such as the so-called Islamic State have not only produced propaganda videos mimicking the visual style of first-person shooter games, but have made explicit reference to popular games such as Call of Duty on images published on social media. The goal is to exploit the popcultural appeal of videogames when addressing young audiences, who are not only familiar with such references but who may be drawn to the ‘coolness’ of popular videogaming content.
  • Gamification: Gamification is defined as “the use of game design elements in non-game contexts” and refers to the transfer of game components such as points, rankings, quests, guilds or badges into contexts traditionally not regarded as spaces of play. Gamification has been used by extremist actors in various contexts, including, for instance, a ‘radicalization progress bar’ in jihadist forums, the organization of ‘trolling raids’ in far-right Discord servers, attempts to build an app imitating Pokémon Go’s radar to connect like-minded ‘patriotic’ individuals, or the ‘achievements’ detailed in the manifestos of right-wing extremist perpetrators. 

However, despite these findings, much remains unknown about gaming and extremism. So far, most insights on this issue have been based on anecdotal evidence or small pilot studies. Both the scope and the prevalence of extremists’ use of games, gaming content, and gaming spaces remains opaque. In addition, it is unclear why extremists are populating gaming spaces: Are these spaces merely another digital space like Instagram or is there something unique about gaming that is appealing to these actors? Whether gaming content in propaganda can have any impact on radicalization is another area, in which much more research is necessary before any judgment can be made with an acceptable degree of certainty. 

Another question that warrants more attention is how P/CVE actors can utilize gaming spaces, gaming content, or videogames as such to prevent the actions of extremist actors. Gaming can and should be used to make a positive impact and P/CVE actors have various options, including the production of their own videogames, being present on gaming-related platforms, livestreaming, gamifying their content, or using game references in their public awareness campaigns. However, we know even less about the promises, opportunities, and challenges of gaming and P/CVE than we know about gaming and extremism. Again, much more research is necessary to adequately judge the issue.

Therefore, it is not an exaggeration to say that the attention the topic of gaming and extremism has received is disproportional to the current evidence base. We need to be aware and to mind the gap in our understanding of how gaming and extremism might interlink. New initiatives such as the Extremism and Gaming Research Network aim to contribute to closing these gaps, but we are not there yet. Consequently, while gaming and extremism will likely remain a key issue, it’s relative importance in comparison to other areas of concern should not be overstated until further evidence collection allows for a more accurate judgment of the implications of extremists’ use of gaming spaces and content discussed above.

[Photo by Monika Baechler / Pixabay]

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