The radicalisation challenge on gaming and gaming-adjacent platforms

As one of the fastest growing entertainment sectors in the world, online video gaming has garnered far more attention of late – both positive and negative. In light of the exploitation of gaming and gaming-adjacent platforms by (violent) extremist actors
and the gamification of violent extremism, there continues to be increasing concerns over threats of radicalisation via video
gaming, especially the targeting of young gamers. Across the European Union, albeit globally as well, policymakers have grappled with a new set of counterterrorism and extremism challengesgaming presents.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, online gaming surged globally – as people isolated and spent more time at home, lacking socialisation opportunities, they turned to the online space to fill the void. Online gaming and gaming-adjacent platforms (e.g., Twitch, Discord, Steam,
DLive, etc., designed to complement games/gaming platforms) became a lifeline for many. Due to their interactive nature, for instance the ability to chat with other gamers while playing, it rapidly evolved as an important vehicle for socialising. And in a community of over 3 billion gamers worldwide, it should come as no surprise that extremist actors and ideologies appear in gaming spaces and seek to exploit its popularity and attractiveness.

Attacks with Links to Gaming

If you look around the world at recent violent right-wing extremist attacks, nearly all of them have, to various degrees, a link to online gaming. In many cases, they exemplify a new category of violent right-wing extremist. Individuals falling under this category are often young self-radicalised men who envelop themselves in violent right wing extremist YouTube videos, conspiracy narratives, and violent video games, among other things. The attacks of Christchurch (New Zealand), Halle (Germany), Bærum (Norway), and those of El Paso, Poway, and Buffalo (USA) highlighted the threats of the gamification of violent extremism and terrorism – meaning the “use of game design elements in non-game context”. These attacks were livestreamed on social media and gaming platforms to emulate a first-person shooter game. All perpetrators of these attacks match the category profile mentioned above. Less obvious are other violent right-wing extremist attacks and their links to gaming. Looking at Bratislava, the October 2022 attacker was a Slovak young man, who although did not gamify his attack nor seemed to spend much time gaming, consumed content on gaming-adjacent sites like Reddit, 4chan, 8chan, etc. In the wake of his attack, gamified rhetoric about the attack/er appeared on 4chan and 4kun forums. Language about “high scores”, “leaderboards”, and “achievements”, including criticism for “not killing enough people” demonstrated gamified narratives and effects of gaming on assailants and other users.

Socialisation Leading to Radicalisation

Gaming and gaming-adjacent platforms, with their in-game chat function, interactive nature between players, and popular culture appeal and references, are inherently social spaces. Gaming chat spaces in particular are where socialisation processes, pop-culture references and propaganda blossom. It is where gamers form their community – they’re often closeknit groups and although it’s an online community, they tend to closely resemble real-world experiences. While socialisation and community building are generally positive, when you have toxic gaming communities and those espousing extremist ideologies, socialisation turns into a potential radicalisation tool.

Think about entering a gaming space with an immersive chat environment, you form connectivity with your group during gameplay and gradually become bonded through shared interactive experiences online – overtime that opens you up to hearing new ideas among your group. When those ideas come from your gameplay community – people you feel attached and bonded to – you may become more vulnerable to their ideas. Over time users may become desensitised to extreme ideas or normalise it; potentially even willing to adopt these ideas themselves. Inherently this socialisation process can act as a catalyst for radicalisation. It relates to the off-platforming problem as well. Say an extremist recruiter in a gameplay group uses the in-gamer chat to make a hateful, racist, sexist, or otherwise radical comment, observing the reactions from players, he can identify those with positive reactions to it, message them directly and continue the chat, building a relationship on those ideas. Given that gaming and gaming-adjacent platforms, such as Discord and Twitch, are not completely anonymised, the recruiter may direct them to more secure, end-to-end encrypted messaging sites, such as Telegram or Signal – a space where extremist narratives roam more freely and radicalisation booms.

Other Content Challenges and Youth

Numerous cases evidenced gaming and -adjacent platforms being used by extremist groups to communicate, lure in new recruits, provide off-platform links, organise, etc. From the white supremacist Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, USA, in August 2017 organised on Discord, to the Feuerkrieg Division – a right-wing neo-Nazi online network allegedly set up by a 13-year-old Estonian boy – utilisation of gaming platforms like Roblox and Discord to connect and off-link young gamers to Telegram channels to communicate, share propaganda and neoNazi imagery, with like-minded people from different countries took place.

Although not all gamers are young, the potential radicalisation of children and young people under 18 is of serious concern. Young gamers tend to be more at risk of being targeted and vulnerable to exploitation for a myriad of reasons – for instance, struggling with identity or a sense of belonging, trouble socialising in reallife, less awareness of malign actors or the harms of radical ideologies, etc. Given that gaming platforms offer the opportunity to present extremist content and ideas through pop-culture methods – e.g., the production of bespoke games, using popular memes, images, and videos, speaking in youth slang – it can draw in more youngsters and normalise radical narratives. It highlights the necessity to increase digital literacy and awareness of extremism in gaming spaces among the younger generation.

Other Security Concerns

The recent leak of classified US intelligence documents on Discord reiterated the socialisation and communication power of gaming spaces. It was in his gameplay group and chat server that the 21-year-old young man working in the Air National Guard released hundreds of top-secret documents. The gameplay group and Discord server was described as a close-knit group of gamers, most far younger than the 21-year-old. Why he released hundreds of classified documents? It is alleged that he wanted to teach the younger gamers in his group about the “real world”, to open their eyes, look out for them, keep them informed – though some also allege it was to gain clout among his gaming group.

What this case, and other game-associated intelligence leaks like War Thunder – a realistic military-themed game – highlights are the powerful social bonds built through shared gamer identities and in-group dynamics created in community-driven online gaming spaces. This socialisation element in today’s interactive gaming environment is thus a major catalyst. Although there are many positive aspects to gaming, including the opportunity to join communities of like-minded people and forge friendships, socialisation can also offer opportunites for radicalisation and exposure to violent extremist content and ideas, including potential recruitment into violent extremism.

Emerging technologies and increasing immersive and interactive online spaces like gaming present new challenges for radicalisation and extremism. It further convolutes the offline and online radicalisation dichotomy. The bottom line is that  the misuse and exploitation of gaming and gaming-adjacent platforms for violent extremist purposes is a more relevant topic than ever before – especially bearing in mind the emergence of the Metaverse. Recent efforts to increase evidence-based research has served a vital role in gaining a better understanding of the space, threats and risks, and prevention efforts. However, the paramount importance of continuing research on the gaming and extremism nexus cannot be understated.

Petra Regeni is a Research and Project Officer in the Terrorism and Conflict group at RUSI Europe, based in Brussels, and a RAN Policy Support expert.

This article is part of the RAN Spotlight series (June 2023) looking at the nexus between gaming and extremism. 

Image Credit: Freepik

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