How extremists and terrorists exploit games: Video Games Industry Memo, 11/01/2024
I speak to a leading conflict researcher about how bad actors abuse games (and what we can do to stop them)
Galen-Englund Lamphere of the Extremism and Gaming Research Network explains how video games can be abused for violence and terror
Unity and Twitch add to the wave of industry lay-offs
WW1 simulation game War Hospital leads another thin week for releases
It’s a heavy VGIM this week, so I thought I’d share some good news before we get down to business.
I’m delighted to say that I’ll be hosting and curating London Developer Conference on Thursday 11th April as part of London Games Festival.
I’ll be working with the team at Roucan to help put on a day of talks and panels about the industry that’ll serve London’s fantastic game development community.
Video Games Industry Memo will also be a partner for the event, the first time we’ve brokered such a deal since the newsletter started last October.
I will be contacting some of you to see if we can get you to share your stories and experiences at the event, which conveniently happens to be the same day as the BAFTA Games Awards.
If you’d like to get in touch to pitch an idea for a talk, or to find out more about the event, contact me at email@example.com. You can also find out more about the conference - including ticket information - here.
With that done, let’s now turn to the tricky topic of the day: extremism in video games.
The big read - How extremists and terrorists exploit games
At the beginning of every year, when I’m sketching out what lies ahead for me, I take roughly an hour or so to look back and determine whether there are any interesting video game anniversaries to keep an eye out for.
At the start of 2024, I spotted some fun landmarks to revisit later in the year. Donkey Kong Country, for example, celebrates its 20th birthday, while Amazon’s purchase of Twitch and Meta’s acquisition of Oculus both occurred a decade ago.
However, something else happened ten years ago that scarred the industry and negatively impacted the world around it in the process: Gamergate.
The misogynistic online harassment campaign rocked the sector, with thousands of trolls harassing, doxxing and sending death threats to women working in the games industry under trumped up - and utterly false - concerns about ‘ethics’ in video games journalism.
And though the initial campaign subsided, its toxic legacy lives on. As Vox summarised in 2020, Gamergate wasn’t just fueled by extremists online; it fueled online extremism for years afterwards.
The writer Talia Levin described it as a “public test of weapons” for trolls, providing a playbook for other extremist groups to both share their ideologies and recruit new members. It has also been credited by political strategist Steve Bannon as providing him with an “army” that both delivered Donald Trump to the White House and opened up space for the emergence of the alt-right - and with it the far right - into mainstream politics.
Gamergate remains a stain on the industry’s legacy that the industry still hasn’t fully come to terms with. But a lot has changed in ten years. The games industry has transformed and so, unfortunately, have the tactics used by extremists and terrorists to abuse the medium for their own end.
How then are extremists groups attempting to turn interest and engagement with games into something far worse? What does that look like in practice? And what role should the industry play in addressing the challenges emerging to prevent another Gamergate from happening?
I spoke to Galen Lamphere-Englund, the Co-Founder and Convener of the Extremism and Gaming Research Network (EGRN), to find out.
Introducing the EGRN
Unlike some people who express concerns about games, Galen’s interest in the medium has a simple explanation; he really likes them.
“I've been a gamer my entire life,” Galen explains. “I played, oh, probably most games under the sun about 15 years ago. More recently, I've been a bit more selective in what I play but I adore games.”
Galen also recognises the power and potential of games as a force for social good. As a self-described lapsed “elder” within the World of Warcraft community, he describes games as “a wonderful opportunity to bring people together.”
His perspective, however, isn’t that of an industry insider or a player alone. Alongside his enthusiasm for games, Galen is a world leading conflict researcher with extensive experience and interest in the crossover between violent extremism and tech.
“I've been doing work around violent conflict in the human rights space for about 15 years,” he said. “I started out working in research on community resilience and genocide prosecution in Bosnia, and since then I've moved across the sector to figure out how do we stop cycles of societal violence before they begin.“
Galen’s work has seen him explore the dynamics driving that forward in more than 30 countries, working in partnership with UN agencies, governments, think-tanks and counter-terrorism teams to help play his part in achieving a more peaceful world.
It was during the pandemic when Galen’s professional and personal interests collided. With the world broadly locked down and shut indoors in an effort to stop the spread of the virus, people increasingly turned to games for entertainment and relief. Unfortunately, Galen saw that extremists turned to them as an outlet as well.
“I had started to see a lot of the more toxic attributes of gamer subcultures - the latent misogyny, the racism that's always been present in different subcommunities - become a lot more overt and significantly more weaponized during the lockdown period of Covid,” he outlined.
This became particularly obvious when using a Twitch competitor called Liv where “you could go from one click of an innocuous StarCraft session to someone putting out some of the most vitriolic hatred about far right ideologies.”
Galen was worried that games were becoming an increasingly prominent pipeline for radicalisation. As a result, he contacted colleagues who work on extremism and terror issues around the world to see if they were seeing the same thing.
They were. So alongside Dr Jessica White, a Senior Research Fellow in the Terrorism and Conflict Group at the Royal United Services Institute, Galen convened the EGRN in 2021 to bring together members from the worlds of policy, law enforcement, industry and academia to understand the issue and tackle it head on.
Understanding the issue
The raison d’etre of EGRN is to help improve understanding of how extremism finds its way into video games.
So the first question I asked Galen was a simple one: why is this happening? His answer is one that the video games industry and its players understand more effectively than the wider world tends to.
Games are particularly powerful social spaces and, as a result, they’re a useful place to build relationships - for better and for worse.
“They're [games] social environments and they have social ecosystems around them that involve intense interpersonal relationship building that has a quantitatively and qualitatively stronger aspect of relationship building than what you see in traditional social media systems,” Galen said.
“The act of playing together, the act of gaming together, the act of joining guilds and creating the intense interpersonal relationships that emerge inside of video games actually allows for different layers of identity building.”
For most players, the identity building is benign. Play strengthens a part of your personal identity, while creating gentle ingroup dynamics amongst your friends - the squad mentality you share when you drop into a round of a game - and an “outgroup” presence that reinforces what you stand for.
However, this dynamic can also be subverted by extremists as a way to recruit new members. And this is exactly what they seek to do within the games space.
In terms of how they do it, Galen credits EGRN member Linda Schlegel, a Postdoctoral Researcher at Goethe University who is part of the network, with a useful distinction between the strategic and organic intent of extremists using games.
On the strategic side, bad actors measure up how they can use games within their wider recruitment strategies to reach the people they want to radicalise.
While members of ISIS or the American far-right may have significantly different values, groups within each category have identified that the content of games, the communication channels that supports play and the audience who enjoy games - which still includes significant numbers of 16-24 year old men prone to radicalisation - makes it a strategicially useful channel for influence.
And on the organic side, which Galen describes as “more worrisome in a lot of ways”, extremists can adopt a less strategic approach by simply finding spaces in or around games where hateful language - such as racism or misogyny - is being shared comparatively freely to identify people who could share their extreme world view.
“While those forms of speech might be deeply stigmatized elsewhere, they're rife both in game chat and across gaming related forums. So that forms a fertile ecosystem for potential extremist groups to tap into,” Galen explains. He identifies Gamergate as ‘epitomising’ this challenge.
And while some may dismiss the idea that a misogynistic comment is anything more than a throwaway remark, Galen explains that through his work in 10 different countries exploring radicalisation “that support for misogyny correlates almost always with support for violent extremism” - a powerful explanation for why your game communities should not tolerate it.
The organic and strategic distinction is a useful way to think about the problem theoretically. For those who want to think about the challenge practically, EGRN has identified a multi-part tactical typology to identify how extremists reach players.
Extremists do create games and game content to reach players. While Hezbollah does create its own games, extremist groups face a bleakly similar challenge to game developers in the sense that it can be hard to successfully fund, develop and release titles good enough to appeal to the audience they’re trying to reach.
To that end, extremist groups or individuals are more likely to mod games - such as the creation of a Doom mod of the Pulse nightclub shooting - or create content in a user generated content platform like Roblox or Fortnite to reach players, running as fast as they can to avoid the “whack-a-mole” of each platform’s content moderation processes.
More broadly though, extremist groups have used games content to propagandise. Far-right organisations, for example, have referenced games like Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla and God of War: Ragnarok when speaking to their audiences because the Norse mythology contained within can be subverted to appeal to extreme right wing audiences.
And as Galen says, referencing specific games, or games generally, is an easy and effective way for extremist groups to tap into the cultural literacy of the people they’re trying to recruit.
“We see a lot of groups that may not have the level of sophistication or the financial backing to create their own game, but they may try to present that they can. So ISIS for example, use a lot of gaming cultural references in their propaganda, and this is something that almost any group can do if you have a good comms team.”
Ultimately these tactics lead towards the main way that extremists exploit games: they tap into the communications infrastructure that sits within and around games to connect with players, sift for potential sympathisers and then drag them down the rabbit hole to the encrypted channels where radicalisation deepens.
How this happens is surprisingly, and depressingly, sophisticated. The person who is seeking to groom a target will either enter a shared communal space in a game (like a multiplayer lobby) or run a live-stream on a platform like Twitch.
When there, they will then do something like make a comment that is on the border of being acceptable such as a misogynistic joke. If a viewer in a live-stream chat or a person in a voice chat lobby responds well to it, the groomer (or the group around them) will then seek to contact them separately such as via their friends list.
Once contact has been made, the recruiter will then aim to send that person on a user journey from laughing at a single remark to full radicalisation.
After being hived off from the group, the player may be sent through a series of layers of communication channels - such as a Discord forum which leads to a WhatsApp group which leads to a Telegram conversation - through which they must prove their loyalty to the cause they’ve been recruited for.
And if they reach the end of the tunnel and are encouraged to take part in an activity, it is possible that what looked like “just a joke” in a video game community may lead to tragic consequences for society as a whole.
Gamifying a mass shooting
One of the most shocking examples of how the abuse of video games by extremist groups can lead to devastating real world consequences was a mass shooting in a supermarket in Buffalo, New York.
On 14th May 2022, an 18 year old who described himself as an ‘ethno-nationalist’ and a believer in ‘white genocide’ slaughtered ten black people and injured three others during an attack that lasted a little under ten minutes.
Following the assault, an investigation was launched into the shooter’s motives. And unfortunately, analysis of his communications and the manifesto he wrote ahead of the attack showed that games formed a key part of his radicalisation journey.
“The Buffalo Supermarket attack involved multiple layers of engagement with games and gaming,” Galen explains. “He directly indicted in his manifesto a particular nationalist Roblox title and he [the shooter] said, “I probably wouldn't have been as nationalist or as radicalized if I hadn't been playing so much of it on Roblox.”
“From a young age, he starts to really engage with this particular nationalist experience. Then he goes off and finds himself down a far right rabbit hole online, the usual mix of chan boards combined with a few areas on Kiwi Farms. He then finds himself down some more YouTube rabbit holes - gradually accelerating his radicalisation journey.”
This steadily progressed him to a point where he began to plan the attack. But again, games and games infrastructure featured in his thinking.
Galen explained to me that chats that the shooter had with friends within the far right movement - many hosted on Discord - showed that he used military simulation games as a tool to discuss what sort of weapons he’d use in the attack.
He then set a plan with other members of the community to live stream the shooting that sought to circumvent protections put in place by platforms such as Twitch after a livestreamed shooting occurred at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand in March 2019.
After attaching a camera to his helmet to create a ‘first-person shooter’ style angle for his stream, the perpetrator connected it to his Twitch account and started streaming the opening moments of the incident.
The video was taken down within two minutes but the damage was done. Collaborators within his community had anticipated that moderation services would kick in quickly, so they recorded the stream to preserve the footage.
After saving the stream, they then uploaded the footage online across a range of channels. This turned a barely watched stream of the opening moments of a mass shooting into something viewed millions of times across darker parts of the internet - inspiring a grim notoriety and fame for the shooter.
But what really knocked the stuffing out of me is what Galen told me happened within games after the shooting.
As expected, other extremists who had watched the attack online or been privy to the planning began to claim that they knew (and had played games) with the shooter to try to bolster their credibility in the movement.
But they also then started to recreate his crimes in video games by creating Roblox experiences - all of which, it must be noted, were rapidly taken down - based upon his head camera footage: potentially putting others on the path to radicalisation in the process.
It’s a disturbing example of how many aspects of games can be misused by extremists for harmful purposes. The question is what we, as an industry, can do about it and to interrupt cyclical patterns like this effectively as possible.
Win the culture wars
Refreshingly, Galen makes it clear that the issue that emerges here isn’t about games as a product and that knee-jerk moral panic is not the answer to concerns.
“Games are not inherently the problem here at all. By and large games are amazing pro-social engagements that are incredibly powerful tools to make our lives a lot better.”
Galen also emphasised that games platforms are trying - and in many ways succeeding - to react to issues like this increasingly effectively.
Twitch’s rapid takedown of the initial live-stream of the Buffalo shooting is, in many ways, an extraordinary example of effective rapid content moderation under duress. I also know from my sources at Roblox the time, effort and resources put into spotting and removing experiences such as those used by the perpetrator of the Buffalo shooting is extensive and increasing.
But with humans being humans and games being extraordinarily effective spaces for socialising, Galen’s advice for addressing the issue is less about changing the nature of games and more about building an environment around them that disarms the toxic atmosphere that allows extremists to flourish.
And there is a good example of how this can be done through the experiences of the industry that supports another hobby of mine: the sport of football (soccer, for my American readers).
No-one says that the game of football at a mechanical level is deeply political, let alone a far-right, activity. However, its ability to attract an audience that often includes young men, to provide a space for those people to congregate and create an environment where a community forms around it allows for football hooliganism - with its close ties to the far-right - to grow.
Football clubs have therefore agreed to work closely with police, community groups, competition organisers and their own supporters to build an environment in the physical and digital world that does its best to loudly and publicly repudiate toxic ideologies - with clear threats of sanctions for those who abuse the space.
Galen argues that the games industry needs to think similarly. While it has made significant technological process in regards to trust and safety tools, his proposals are wider, more social and applicable across industry.
He suggests that running public information campaigns and signposting players to information about how extremists may try to lead them astray is “low-hanging fruit.”
Ensuring that community management sets a standard of acceptable behaviour and nudges players to achieve it can have a greater impact on reducing misogyny and hateful behaviour than allowing banned players to disappear into the radical ether.
He suggests that industry works more effectively together with one another to set up data sharing and shared best practices between platforms, developers and supplementary social media services to ensure a consistent standard between companies in the sector.
He also recommends a deeper relationship between industry, governmental organisations and academics to build the strongest possible coalition of partners to stop extremism in his tracks. Notably, his arguments leant much more towards effective thoughtful self-regulation rather than further regulation.
There is a good economic argument for this approach. Galen highlighted research from Take This that found - unsurprisingly - that the toxic environments that prove fertile ground for extremists discourage other players from engaging. The friendlier and more inclusive your game is, the bigger your audience will be: providing a powerful commercial reason to counter extremism.
But for me, the argument that should cut through is a moral one. The industry’s mishandling of Gamergate didn’t just damage the reputation of the sector; it caused significant societal damage in the process too.
If we believe that video games are the world-changing, significant cultural medium that we think they are, it means we have a collective responsibility to accept that societal challenges such as this are not just arriving at our door; they’re here.
And if they’re here, it’s up to us to roll up our sleeves, take the challenge on and build a better world for both our players and the people who could be affected by their actions (or, potentially, our inaction).
Extremists will always find new ways to achieve their goals. But if we can come together to try to address the problems, we can build a coalition that will give us the best possible chance of turfing them out of the spaces - protecting our players and their fun in the process.
News in brief
No lay-off for lay-offs: Unity has kicked off 2024 in depressing style with 1800 lay-offs as the company continues its ‘reset’ and refocuses upon the core bits of the business that makes money. Twitch has also made 500 lay-offs.
Not-flush: In an article which is amusingly titled ‘Netflix considers ways to make money from videogames’, the Wall Street Journal reports that the streaming giant is considering including in-game purchases and advertising within its games. This follows reports last year that only 1% of people actually play games available via their Netflix subscription.
Tax relieved: New Zealand’s games industry breathed a sigh of relief after the cuontry’s new Government confirmed that the sector’s 20% tax rebate would stay on. This was despite criticism of the policy as ‘corporate welfare’ by the leader of the ACT party, a junior partner in the new government.
Savvy stuff: Brian Ward, CEO of Saudi backed Savvy Games Group, has confirmed that the three quarters of the company’s capital allotment has yet to be invested in an interview with PG Biz. The phrase featuring the words ‘kids’ and ‘candy stores’ comes to mind…
Class action: Into Games has launched a £100,000 fundraiser to support a new initiative called Game Plan, which aims to increase social mobility in the UK games sector by getting more working class talent into the sector. Given that two Ukie censuses showed social mobility was a clear weak point of the sector, and that we have done comparatively bugger all about it, I’d say it’s worth supporting this one.
Movers and shakers
Fred Chesher is the new Communications Lead for Electronic Arts in UK and Ireland…Alex Boucher has moved on from MCV/Develop to become Head of Developer Relations at Reactional Music…Peter Sharples has joined the team at Code Wizards Group as its Director of Business Development and Partnerships…Debbie Bestwick MBE has returned to Team 17 as a Non-Executive Director…Ellie Pattinson is the job seeker of the week and is looking to bring five years of influencer, community and PR management experience to your business…
Jobs, jobs, jobs
Square Enix is hunting for a PR Director to work on MMO projects…Sony Interactive Entertainment has an excellent Commercial Director position going…TrailMix is recruiting for someone to act as a Game Lead on a new title…Rebellion is hiring for a Principal Game Designer for a new sci-fi shooter…and Ubisoft Reflections would like to bring on board a new Animation Director please…
Events and conferences
Pocket Gamer Connects (20% off for VGIM readers), London - 22nd-23rd January
DICE Summit, Las Vegas - 13th-15th February
Guildford Games Festival, Guildford - 16th February
Game Developers Conference, San Francisco - 18th-22nd March
London Games Festival, London - 9th-25th April 2024
Games of the week
War Hospital - What’s better than no slightly depressing simulation games releasing in a week? One releasing.
Radiance - What’s better than one slightly depressing simulation game releasing in a week? Two releasing.
Before you go…
Want to see Brian Cox, or Logan Roy to Succession fans, narrate the history of the Tekken fighting series?
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