Gamifying Extremism: Playing for Hate

With approximately 2.7 billion gamers worldwide, video game platforms have proven to be an ideal and ever-expanding arena for recruitment, finance, radicalisation, and the perfect vehicle to spread extremist ideologies, particularly among younger users. This has forced policymakers and academics to not underestimate the multiplying power of gaming platforms for incitement and recruitment and to pay closer attention to video games and gaming communities as they become a key medium for online radicalisation.

The trend of radicalisation in the world of gaming has alarmed experts. There has been growing anxiety that the video gaming industry is being misused, and that many extremist and terrorist organisations have started developing their own video games and gaming forums that are serving as effective propaganda platforms to youths.

According to the Anti-Defamation League, 23% of gamers are involved in conversations about white supremacist ideology, and 9% are involved in debates about Holocaust denial. Further investigations revealed that some virtual organisations on Steam – the largest and most prominent gaming platform – were distinctly pro-Nazi and white nationalist. Steam is one of the top-grossing digital gaming content platforms worldwide and has approximately 120 million active users.

According to a Bellingcat analysis of hacked Discord chats, some white nationalists were radicalised as a result of their engagement on Discord. According to the Institute of Strategic Dialogue, a think tank specialising in far-right movements, and which published a comprehensive report on gaming communities active on Discord, of particular concern was the age at which young gamers were coming into contact with extremists – with the average age being 15 years old. Additionally, researchers have recently spotted anti-Semitism, racism, and homophobia on chat platforms such as DLive and Odysee, where people stream and debate about games and then shift the conversation to private Telegram channels.

Tech Against Terrorism researchers discovered that some gaming platforms were allowing users to experience the roleplay of Anders Behring Breivik’s 2011 attack on the Norwegian island of Utoya, the 2019 mosque shootings in Christchurch, and the 2019 mass shooting in El Paso, Texas. Some gaming companies, particularly those known for their in-game violence, have taken a harder approach to banning players accused of incitement. Call of Duty, a popular first-person shooter that has amassed a following of over 100 million players, stated that “the actions we have taken to confront racist behaviour include banning players for racist and hate-oriented names, implementing new technology and making it easier for players to report offensive in-game behaviour.”

Researchers have examined how right-wing extremists have reinterpreted the famous role-playing video game The Elder Scrolls IV: Skyrim to fit their racist ideologies. Despite no explicit racist messaging in the game, members of the Stormfront white-nationalist forum formulated their own extremist interpretations of it, “identifying with one of the games’ races, the Nords, and identifying another, the Elves, as [Jewish].” As such, while games can incorporate explicit messages, through gameplay and characters, the interactive nature of games allows extremists to creatively manipulate how players experience a certain game. Indeed, the Institute of Strategic Dialogue report also concluded that there was “limited evidence that gaming played a role in serious strategies to radicalise and recruit new individuals on the platform. Instead, gaming was primarily referenced in cultural terms, being used by members of these servers to find common ground.”

Video games allow players to express themselves freely by crafting their own uncensored messages. According to Patrik Hermansson of Hope Not Hate, “Young people have found a low-cost outlet to appear extreme and get disproportionate influence and fear in other members. It doesn’t matter if it’s a 13-year-old or a 30-year-old.” Hermansson added, “It’s easy to dismiss as posturing but these kids do damage, they run far-right campaigns, they produce propaganda and they radicalise other kids.”

Studies have shown that video games and gaming platforms do harbour extremist ideologies and that those groups use video games to fund their ideologies and socialise within their own ranks. Nonetheless, the interactive nature of gaming means that it is unlikely that passively received messages are ignored. Players may rather creatively imagine their meaning after engaging in the game. In light of this, tech companies and production houses should not merely read the transmitted ideological messages found within games, but also investigate and monitor how those games interact with players and the gaming community as a whole.