The Latest Frontier In Radicalization: Gaming
Jared Shurin is Strategy Director at M&C Saatchi’s Social Impact Practice and a member of the Extremism and Gaming Research Network.
The power and reach of gaming have only risen in significance over the last few years, and thankfully governments, institutions, and other PVE (Preventing Violent Extremism) practitioner spaces have started to recognize and act on this.
In the UK alone, the gaming industry contributed over £5 billion to the economy in 2019. (By contrast, the much-discussed fishing industry contributed £543m in the same year.) Accelerated by the pandemic, global videogame revenue reached almost $180 billion in 2020, dwarfing the global film and music industries.
Beyond the games themselves, gaming-adjacent platforms are massive and influential social networks in their own right. Steam (120m estimated monthly users), XBOX Live (100m), and Discord (150m) have huge reach, while the streaming service Twitch has 30m daily users, viewing over one trillion minutes of gaming content in 2020 alone.
According to Ofcom’s latest media use and attitudes report, young people in Britain are now more likely to go online through a games console than a desktop computer. 86% of 12-15s play video games, for an average of almost 90 minutes each day. This time also excludes the many hours participating in gaming communities, learning tips from videos and playthroughs, or watching gaming influencers. Watching gaming content is more popular than viewing other forms of vlogger or influencer and is an activity more common for teens than streaming films or watching sports online.
Gaming is also a critical factor in young people’s social identity. Research by Pew showed that over half (54%) of teen gamers play games with friends they only know online, and a similar number (52%) play online with people they don’t know at all. 36% say they made a new friend while playing games, and 78% say it builds stronger connections with their existing friends.
As well as creating social connections, games have other proven benefits. They teach problem solving, teamwork and confidence, and some studies even show positive mental health benefits. The booming industry has created opportunities for jobs and entrepreneurship; the rise in esports has given voice to a new generation of role models and influencers. Games have fast become an art form, using creative storytelling to build empathy, tell powerful stories, and push for positive social change.
From faith to football, music to mommy-bloggers, no community has yet proven immune to infiltration by extremism. Gaming – like every other pastime and subculture that has come before it – has its dark side. There are well-documented cases of hate crime, bullying, and, as we now know, extremism. The Extremism and Gaming Research Network has highlighted how violent extremist groups have used gaming to promote their ideology, spread divisive narratives, and recruit individuals to their cause. With the much-heralded ‘metaverse’ on the horizon, the future of the internet will be even more immersive. Gaming is a forerunner, or test case, for how we tackle extremism in complex spaces with blurred on- and off-line borders.
How practitioners respond is a matter of understanding the individuals within the gaming ecosystem, and the many complex influences that are playing out upon them. One simple model breaks these influences down into categories of infrastructure, community, and culture.
The infrastructure is the ‘physical’ (or digital) environment and its content. In this case, the individuals will be influenced by games themselves, the platforms they play on, the shops or retailers they buy from, the spaces they use to meet. Community is the actors encountered within the space. Gamers will be influenced by who they are playing with or against; who they watch, read, admire or loathe. Culture is by how people behave within the space. Individuals will be influenced by the social norms of their environment: the codes and cues, in-jokes and memes; the specialist jargon and slang. Cultural influences can also include music and fashion; even food and drink – all the habits and rituals.
Broken down this way, the extremism risks within the gaming ecosystem become clearer. Within the infrastructure, for example, one challenge is that these spaces are difficult to moderate. Or, if there is oversight, it has been designed with other risks in mind (copyright theft, for example). 71% of teenage boys, for example, play online with a voice connection active – something virtually impossible to moderate for bullying, hate speech, or abuse. As the pastime has scaled, platforms’ deficiencies in providing moderation or oversight have been exposed. Steam, for example, was devised as a retail platform. It has now grown to 150m million monthly users, who visit the platform to discuss games and find other people to play with. It has become a de facto social media network, but one without the in-built safety or moderation features. As a result, researchers have found it disturbingly easy to find extremist groups operating and recruiting openly on the platform.
Within every community, there are also invariably predatory actors. The same social benefits provided by gaming can also be turned against it. It is easier to connect with strangers and to befriend new people. Although a net positive, this ease of connection can also be used by unscrupulous, criminal, or extremist actors.
PewDiePie, for example, is the world’s largest YouTube influencer. With over one hundred million followers, he got his start in gaming, and that’s still the heartland for his following and his content. His ‘edgy’ humor has repeatedly crossed the line into hate speech, including paying on Fiverr to carry a ‘Death to All Jews’ sign, giving a Nazi salute, using racist language, recommending far-right channels, and even wearing far-right fashion. PewDiePie is not a violent extremist. However, he shows the power of role models to influence their community and to promote an ideology (intentionally or not). Notably, when challenged based on his behavior, his fanbase – which skews very young – only becomes more loyal, even to the point of conspiracy. The community polarizes: defending its own against outsiders.
Extremist groups have also used gaming to create a socializing space, where individuals can meet and engage on common topics, be that Call of Duty or the Great Replacement. In the past, radical right groups connected in the back room of a local pub, limited by both geography and visibility. With the digital space removing these limitations, the ability to engage new recruits and maintain existing members is vastly increased, and the shared interest in gaming provides a common bond and a platform for engagement.
Nor are all cultural influences necessarily positive – especially as they may arise organically, in an unmoderated space, or guided by malign actors. Negative norms are possible, based on exclusion, normalizing hate speech, or encouraging misogyny. A sub-culture that is out of synch with mainstream society can create friction and a sense of exclusion. It can lead to a polarized sense of ‘us vs them.’
Again as shown by PewDiePie, humor that might be deemed acceptable within a sub-culture can bring it into conflict with the greater society, increasing that sense of difference and polarization. Similarly, the GamerGate movement, both a precursor of and model for modern digital extremist tactics, was based around constructing an exclusionary identity of what it means to be a ‘gamer,’ and whipping its members into frenzy based on a perceived threat.
One of the most successful positive cultural movements has been the Child’s Play charity, created by gaming influencers, and directed at passionate gamers. Founded on the premise that “gamers are good people,” it reinforces a collective gamer identity based on being problem solvers and generous community guardians. Child’s Play has since raised almost $45m for causes chosen by the gaming community, running from children’s hospitals to domestic violence shelters. It is, in many senses, the reverse of the equally ‘successful’ GamerGate, which built on the same concept of a marginalized identity, however, Child’s Play directs its energy towards more positive outcomes.
There’s no question that extremist actors have spotted the opportunities within the gaming environment. Countering their activity, and preventing it from spreading further, relies not only on gaining meaningful insight into gamers’ environment, but also having the ability to influence it for the better. Success in gaming, as in any other context, relies on being able to operate authentically: understanding the influences already at play, and leveraging them to create the positive impact required.