Linda Schlegel, academic and founding member of the Extremism and Gaming Research Network (EGRN) explores the link between gaming and radicalisation.
When the right-wing extremist perpetrator opened fire in a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2019, he did not only mark the beginning of a series of livestreamed terrorist attacks across the globe, but fundamentally influenced the discourse on digital extremism.
Unintentionally, he drew attention to an issue that had rarely received attention previously: The potential exploitation of gaming spaces and elements of gaming culture by extremist actors.
Since the Christchurch attack, the questions of how and why extremists are seeking to use gaming in their propaganda efforts and whether gaming may lead some individuals ‘into the rabbit hole’ of radicalisation, has taken centre stage in discussions on online extremism.
Policymakers, researchers, counter-extremism practitioners, international organisations, and tech companies are increasingly concerned about the potential nexus between gaming and extremism and difficult debates on how to address this issue have ensued.
Types of extremists’ exploitation of gaming
The EU Commission’s Radicalisation Awareness Network has developed a typology to classify six distinct ways, in which both right-wing and jihadist extremist actors have sought to employ video games, gaming spaces, and gaming-related content in their propaganda efforts:
- The production of bespoke video games: Both right-wing and jihadist extremists have produced a range of bespoke video games, in which they relay their ideological beliefs to players. The Identitarians, for instance, produced a video game, in which players need to navigate through ‘Antifa zones’ to save Europe from the alleged cultural homogenisation planned by the political elite, and the so-called Islamic State sought to indoctrinate young children with an alphabet game delivered through a mobile app.
- The modification of existing video games: Because the production of video games is expensive and requires a considerable amount of technical and creative (game design) skills, multiple extremist actors have produced modifications (‘mods’) of existing games to allow players to experience their ideology through a game. For instance, mods recreating the Christchurch attack have appeared in various games, including The Sims. Sandbox games such as Minecraft or Roblox could be especially appealing to extremists due to the freedom they afford players in creating new worlds and in customising their gaming experience.
- The use of in-game communication features: There is evidence that extremists seek to exploit in-game communication features such as voice or text-based chats within video games to communicate both with each other and with players potentially susceptible to propaganda and radicalisation. Although in-game communication features are incredibly difficult to research and, consequently, knowledge on extremist activities in these spaces is largely anecdotal, there is growing concern over the potential abuse of in-game chats by extremist recruiters to groom vulnerable players and minors.
- The use of gaming (-adjacent) platforms: Extremists have established a presence on and used gaming (-adjacent) platforms such as Twitch, DLive, Odysee, Discord, and Steam for various purposes, including the spread of (livestreamed) propaganda, internal communication, planning of events such as the Unite the Right rally, and even attack preparation. Each platform is used in unique ways, as recent reports by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and the Anti-Defamation League show.
- The appropriation of gaming cultural references: Extremists have incorporated references to video games such as Call of Duty, gaming language such as ‘respawn’, and the visual style of first-person shooter games in their propaganda material. The so-called Islamic State in particular has employed references to popular video games such as Call of Duty and has appropriated the visual aesthetics of first-person shooter games to benefit from the popularity of and familiarity with gaming culture in their (often young) target audiences.
- Gamification: Gamification describes the transfer of game design elements such as points, leaderboards, quests/missions, badges etc to non-game contexts. Extremists have sought to gamify digital spaces, e.g. by introducing rankings and quests in their Discord servers or by turning their WhatsApp group into a role-play game, to increase the appeal of their communication spaces and motivate members to take certain actions by rewarding them with virtual points or badges.
Lack of research into gaming and radicalisation
Although extremists seem to exploit gaming in various ways, research on the potential nexus of gaming and extremism has been limited. The Extremism and Gaming Research Network complains about the ‘sparse’ academic engagement on this issue and the crucial knowledge gaps in delineating the scope, prevalence, and implications of this exploitation.
It has only been three years since the Christchurch attack – a mere blink of an eye for academic research discourses – and not enough insights have been accumulated to answer some of the most important questions surrounding gaming and extremism.
For instance, it remains unclear whether the use of gaming-related content or gaming spaces is successful in influencing trajectories of digital radicalisation processes. It is well-known that mere exposure to propaganda is not enough to prompt radicalisation and it is unlikely that gaming content will be an exception to this rule.
While extremists obviously seek to exploit video games and the broader gaming ecosystem, we do not know why they do so, if they are successful in reaching their goals, and who (if anyone) might be susceptible to this type of propaganda. Therefore, no causal connection can be established between gaming and radicalisation and there is no evidence to suggest that gamers are inherently at risk of radicalising.
Positive ways forward to stop radicalisation
Consequently, any form of panic or doom-mongering about gaming and extremism is misguided. While it is essential to learn more about how extremist actors seek to exploit gaming, it is just as important to emphasise and build upon the positive aspects of video games and related content such as community building and prosocial behaviour.
In fact, counter-extremism practitioners have begun to explore the possibilities of using video games, gaming (-adjacent) platforms, and gaming-related content in their efforts against extremism. This is crucial in contesting the extremists’ influence in these digital spaces and exert a positive influence on the discourse in video games and on gaming (-adjacent) platforms. Not taking such counteractions would allow a small minority of extremists to dictate the tone in gaming spaces.
However, just like the research on this issue, using gaming-related elements in projects to prevent and counter extremism is still in its infancy and counter-extremism practitioners struggle to adapt their projects to the characteristics of gaming spaces.
To react appropriately to extremists’ use of gaming culture and actions in gaming spaces, counter-extremism practitioners will need support from game designers, game developers, programmers, and tech companies to produce counter-content that can match the quality and quantity of extremist propaganda.
If the production of gaming-related content against extremism fails, extremists will have an easier time to continue their exploitation of gaming culture – with so far unknown consequences. Therefore, while examining the rabbit hole of gaming and extremism is crucial, we are well advised to pursue positive interventions against extremists in gaming spaces simultaneously.
About the author
Linda Schlegel is a PhD student at the Goethe University Frankfurt, Germany, and an Associate Fellow at both modus | zad Centre For Applied Research On Deradicalisation and the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF). She is a founding member of the Extremism and Gaming Research Network (EGRN) and has written on the intersection between gaming and extremism for the Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN), the Global Network on Extremism and Technology (GNET), and multiple academic journals.