Gaming platforms – a breeding ground for violence?

A new extremist game plan

Isaac Kfir

Government and governance, National security, Science and technology | Australia, Asia, The World

10 October 2019

Online games have become a world of entertainment for a new generation, presenting new and dangerous problems for policymakers along the way, Isaac Kfir writes.

Recognising that states, institutions, and businesses have become better at limiting their messaging or preventing them from disseminating their views, violent extremists have turned their attention to gaming platforms.

There are several reasons why these platforms are attractive to violent extremists. Firstly, there are over two billion gamers worldwide with many gamers looking for excitement, connection and experience. Many popular games involve violence, war, and fighting. These attract individuals that may be vulnerable to extremist messaging.

More on this: Playing a winning game

In fact, there are many games that are specifically based on fighting terrorists or where the player plays as a terrorist. Counter-Strike, Modern Warfare 2, and Medal of Honor: Warfighter are just a few popular examples.

These first-person shooter games incorporate modern, realistic graphics and a movie-style storyline. This creates a highly tactile simulation of a real experience. For example, the gamer could experience being stunned following a grenade exploding.

David Sonboly, the Munich shooter, used the gaming platform Steam to engage in forums whose users regularly glorified mass shooters, as well as opposing what they called the ‘mass invasion’ of Muslim refugees to Europe. Sonboly clocked around 4,000 hours on Counter-Strike.

Another example of a terrorist who may have used gaming to train is Anders Breivik who murdered 77 people in Oslo. Breivik reportedly trained for his rampage by playing Call of Duty.

Prior to committing his attacks, Breivik emailed his manifesto to a Dutchman whom he had met playing video games. The two discussed their admiration of Geert Wilders, a prominent Dutch politician known for his opposition to Islamic immigration.

In the 1500-page manifesto, Breivik describes Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 as “probably the best military simulator out there” and that he sees the game as “part of my training-simulation”.

Video games blend fun into a learning process. The game produces challenges that the gamer must overcome using innovative thinking – there are quizzes, a need for dexterity, and a skill requirement. This encourages the gamer to return to the game if they want to pass their existing score or beat others.

More on this: Podcast: Countering violent extremism

Consequently, computer and video games can serve as simulation or training for certain activities – something that the 9/11 Commission noted.

It is important to note that current game consoles and computer games urge gamers to join online communities. Games such as Fortnite and Roblox include discussions in chat rooms to facilitate greater interaction between the players. Violent extremist recruiters troll these chat rooms looking for potential recruits.

Violent extremists are also designing their own computer games. In 2003, Hezbollah released a video game, Special Force. Structured as a first-person shooter game, it was designed by Hezbollah allowing it to structure the narrative, which essentially meant that it was able to create a new moral reality by deciding who was hero and who was villain.

In 2006, al-Qaeda redesigned the game Quest for Saddam, in which players killed Iraqi soldiers and sought to capture Saddam Hussein, naming the new version Quest for Bush.

ISIL used clips from Grand Theft Auto 5 in some of their recruitment campaigns to show that ISIL does “the things you do in games, in real life on the battlefield”, leading to ISIL promoting its own version of Grand Theft Auto.

Contemporary gaming consoles are extremely advanced, allowing users to interact with other gamers in a largely secure setting, something that the makers pride themselves on, as they know that breaches would undermine the appeal of their games.

More on this: Gaming policy in cyperspace

The use of consoles in unlawful activities has been on law enforcement’s radar since as early as 2011 when the FBI issued a criminal tradecraft alert noting that gang members in New York were able to circumvent house arrests and communicate with others by using their PlayStations, which have a communication feature.

There has also been speculation that a Sony PlayStation 4 console was used to help coordinate the 2015 Paris terrorist attack.

Professor Megan Condis who has studied the gaming world also points out that gaming has a misogynistic, ideologically driven community, many of whom are susceptible to recruitment. This community of gamers rejects and reacts angrily to anyone that invades ‘their’ space.

Condis argues that these individuals are prime targets to extremists who will exploit these men and boys’ dark worldview.

Online recruiters look to those that exhibit an interest, be that in white supremacy, or Salafi-jihadism, and then slowly and effectively draw these individuals into the extremist world.

Christian Picciolini, a former white supremacist recruiter who leads the Free Radicals Project and helped establish the non-profit organisation Life After Hate, explains that while three decades ago, broken, angry young people had to be met face-to-face to be recruited into a movement, they now live much of their lives online.

Policymakers have paid enormous attention to how violent extremists have exploited social media platforms to promote their narratives. To their credit, mainstream social media companies have responded with many initiatives and measures, ranging from defining what terrorism is to de-platforming, establishing new user guidelines, or using artificial intelligence.

It is because of these measures that groups like ISIL no longer have the same presence in mainstream social media today that they used to.

The challenge is now for the online gaming industry. Gaming companies must adopt clearer guidelines and limit the ability of violent extremists to use their platforms to promote their narrative and recruit.

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