By Tomás Francisco Martínez
For many of us, the lockdown was an opportunity to indulge in leisure activities that we may have long been putting off because of our daily responsibilities: binge-watching Netflix and finishing whole seasons (or the entire series!); attaining a new prestige level at Call of Duty; or finally reading that dusty book you bought years ago, you name it. Perhaps unsurprisingly, gaming reached an all-time peak, with thriving online communities in places like YouTube, Reddit, and Discord, as well as other, darker corners like 8Chan.
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Yet with gaming’s striking rise in popularity, a bigger, more worrying trend seemed to accompany it: extremist discourse and propaganda, which actively targets young players for recruitment via online games and forums. To put it bluntly, through your countless hours playing League of Legends, World of Warcraft, Fortnite – insert your favourite game here – it is quite likely that you have interacted with a player who shares inappropriate comments and remarks of a xenophobic, misogynistic, and even overtly racist nature. Although this could easily be played down as humour or “trolling”, there is no small chance that the person behind the screen is using jokes (or ‘Lulz’) as bait – often in order to lure the unsuspecting into more serious extremist forums.
Videogames have been blamed for numerous attacks for many years. More recently, even Donald Trump did so back in 2018 after a deadly school shooting in Florida. But is there any truth behind these charges? Or is this just another ‘moral panic’, or a way for politicians to avoid responsibility? According to experts in the fields of perception, cognition and moral judgments processes, violent First-Person Shooters (FPS) – like Call of Duty and Battlefield – can lead to a habituation and desensitization of violence. This can reduce empathy through the use of mechanisms of moral disengagement. One constructive response here is in setting clear boundaries in the story between the enemy (described as ruthless and heinous in nature), and the player (empowered to use violence in order to prevent greater evil). Moreover, violent games are places to find angry young men, who often hold reactionary views.
But are there any trends? Some have been identified, although these mainly have to do with misogyny and anti-feminism, with the subscribers of these ideologies being called Incels. Other studies have highlighted social rejection and general discontent with social trends such as migration and anti-minority discrimination. Lack of parental oversight and little to no age restrictions do not help. Add social isolation, loneliness and pandemic home-schooling to the mix, and you have a perfect storm.
Radical right groups know they have a large potential audience online, and they want to tap into them by taking advantage of grievances. This is surely helped by the false notion that the internet is free of consequences because it is not “real life”. This can lead online communication to become a hostile space, where people think they can express themselves in any way they choose. This has led to numerous uncensored forums full of hatred, where trolling or “shitposting” culture is the norm.
“Gamergate” was characterized by having overt sexism and misogyny. In this “macho” context, however, radical right groups follow a clear strategy to present their ideology to young people, in a way that is likable and feels authentic. They take elements from these cool, popular games and insert them into non-game contexts seamlessly – termed ‘gamification’. For example, in 2014 an ISIS recruiter named Junaid Hussain, who was on the lookout for new members, tweeted “You can sit at home playing Call of Duty or you can come here and respond to the real call of duty… the choice is yours.” Some extremist forums have even established a “radicalization meter”, in which members can earn points by doing activities such as disrupting adversaries’ campaigns or connecting with like-minded individuals.
The neo-Nazi group Daily Stormer even developed a mod of the game Doom 2, in which the player has to shoot communists and Jews in order to stop so-called “white genocide”. Online radicalization expert Linda Schlegel concludes that video games and gamification in this context are an integral part of online propaganda, radicalization, and the desensitization process. For example, several attackers have shared the events on a gamified manner: livestream. In Christchurch and Halle, shooters were recording first-person while at the same time commenting with their peers on the “high body count” they have “achieved”, making it a social and interactive experience as if it were streaming on Twitch.
This proves once again that terrorists are not alone. While gamification is not new, it has become widely used – not least due to its effectiveness at increasing engagement. Gamification may take place in a bottom-up or top-down manner; driven by radicalised individuals, such as the livestreaming of attacks, or by extremist organisations incorporating gamified elements into their communication tools and strategies.
Final level: offline consequences
Even though online forums are perceived as posing little to no risk by many law enforcement agencies, young people who fall down this rabbit hole can, in fact, end up committing a terrorist attack. This is true for the perpetrator of the mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, a 21 year old who was active on 8chan, like other shooters. This trend was already identified in 2014, when Eliott Rodger “withdrew from class work into World of Warcraft, the online interactive video game that had become his obsession”. Rodger went on to kill six people in California after posting a “farewell video” prior to his terrorist attack.
Through gaming, then, radical right groups have managed to seduce vulnerable youths and strengthen their numbers. Literally billions of people play video games; yet this industry receives far less attention than other cultural influences, such as the movies or music. To date, most national judicial systems have failed to fully understand the potentially-destructive relation between online activity and real-life violence. Consequently, fewer measures are taken, reinforcing the belief that online spaces are, once again, deemed lawless. Sara Khan, until recently Britain’s lead commissioner for countering extremism, affirmed that the far right was “actively and deliberately radicalising the UK’s children”.
When thinking about a solution, it is important to note that nothing is going to fully eliminate online youth radicalisation. Yet it is possible to impede it. Authorities must make a concerted effort to raise public awareness and set out pragmatic policies in today’s ever-changing environment. Likewise, civil society must put greater pressure on gaming companies and platforms to increase moderation. Parents and caregivers, too, need to better understand the key emotional drivers that lead to radicalisation and how to act accordingly.
To conclude, a sensible quote from Theodor Adorno, a German thinker and leading member of the Frankfurt School last century: “One of the most crucial aspects of how to resist is to warn the potential followers of right-wing extremism about its own consequences, to convey to them that this politics will inevitably lead to its own followers to their doom too and that this doom was part of it from the outset.”
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