Apr 27, 2022 - Technology

Experts warn about rising extremism in gaming

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Far-right extremists are a growing presence in gaming, researchers have found, while the industry’s hidden metrics, lackluster content moderation and head-in-the-sand attitudes get in the way of assessing and combatting the problem.

Why it matters: Gaming and game-adjacent platforms have grown into some of the largest entertainment industries in the world, leading to massive opportunities for recruitment and organizing by extremist groups.

  • A December 2021 report from the Extremism and Gaming Research Network (EGRN) found that innovative efforts to prevent and counter violent extremism in gaming spaces are “nearly undetectable.”

State of play: Extremism in games is "a growing threat," Alex Newhouse, the deputy director at the Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism, said in a Games Developers Conference talk last month.

  • "Games are becoming increasingly social ... those social hooks provide the structures and the infrastructure for extremists to organize, mobilize and spread their hateful and extreme ideologies," Newhouse said.

What's happening: In games stretching from military shooters like Call of Duty to open creative environments like Roblox, extremist groups spread abusive messages and foster relationships.

  • Experts like Rachel Kowert, research director at Take This, have found that games can create unique relationships due to the cooperative, stimulating experiences they present. “Friendships are closer, long lasting and form faster than in other spaces on the internet,” she told Axios.
  • Newhouse said it was relatively easy to find signs of neo-Nazi, and far right fascist groups on Roblox, Discord, games marketplace Steam and other platforms.
  • Since much of the player data is private, researchers say they lack detailed knowledge of which games or platforms extremists use most for these activities. Nor, according to Kowert, has there been overt cooperation with many studios to share that data.

By the numbers:

  • A 2019 report from the Anti-Defamation League found that 53% of online multiplayer game players who experience harassment believe "they were targeted because of their race/ethnicity, religion, ability, gender or sexual orientation."
  • The same report found that almost one in four players, 23%, said they have been "exposed to discussions about white supremacist ideology."
  • "The more time you spend immersed in gaming cultures, the greater the likelihood you are exposed to extreme ideologies, or opportunities you have to internalize those beliefs and endorse more extreme behaviors," Kowert said at the GDC talk.

What they're saying: "While it may be a small number of players, compared to the billions of players, they are a very hardened, very influential, very dangerous group of people who are living their lives in these gaming spaces, with little to no consequences to their actions or behaviors," Kowert told Axios.

The big picture: To Kowert, gaming's extremist problem has grown to its imposing size because of ignorance, discomfort about the topic and an unwillingness to understand the threat.

  • "I don't think it's been recognized as something important, worth their time, worth their money, worth their effort," she said.
  • And the lack of current data keeps solutions from emerging, as the EGRN report found most research on games and radicalization was conducted on "now antiquated games."

Negative perceptions of video games, like violence or addiction, might also keep industry leaders from wanting to look too closely into how hate groups are building networks.

  • "We're constantly battling all these bad narratives, which takes energy away from actually looking at the actual threats that are truly festering in these spaces and addressing them properly," Kowert said.
  • The Entertainment Software Association, the leading industry group for games, declined to comment.

The intrigue: This spread of extremism in gaming is similar to what we've seen on social media platforms like Facebook, but with significant differences.

  • "We know that the big the giant social media companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter, have dedicated counterterrorism teams that are working on this day in day out," Newhouse said. "We also know that video games simply just often don't have the resources to stand up counterterrorism teams specifically, or don't have the expertise necessary to do so."

The other side: "We abhor extremist ideologies and have zero tolerance for extremist content of any kind on Roblox," Remy Malan, VP of trust and safety operations at Roblox, said in a statement to Axios.

  • "Because of the swift, proactive steps we take, extremist content is extremely rare on our platform and therefore, for the vast majority of the Roblox community who do not seek out such content, it is very unlikely they would be exposed to it."
  • "Discord has a zero-tolerance policy toward hate and violent extremism of any kind," a Discord spokesperson told Axios. "When we come across such activity, we take immediate action, including banning users and shutting down servers, and engaging with authorities when appropriate."
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