The audience for video games is massive. According to Nielsen, 82% of global consumers either played video games or watched content related to them in 2020 — a trend accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

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In 2019, the anti-hate organization ADL published survey data of US gamers, revealing that 23% of respondents had been exposed to white supremacist ideology in online games. Given recent surges in right-wing extremism and violence, including concerning trends in youth radicalization, understanding the extent to which this hugely popular medium offers a potential vector for radicalization is important.

Gaming and Right-Wing Extremism

There is a growing corpus of literature exploring the intersection between gaming and right-wing extremism. This includes work that focuses on the cultural overlap between online extremism and gaming communities; potential vulnerabilities that might mean gamers are more susceptible to radicalization; the gamification of extremist activity; and discussion of the “gamergate” controversy that saw a number of gamers involved in coordinated online trolling help drive online extremism.

However, there is a limited body of work exploring the use of gaming platforms for recruitment by extremists, with much of the content exploring this phenomenon being largely anecdotal, such as a report in November 2020 by Sky News on the radicalization of a 14-year-old boy in the United Kingdom which suggested that the boy had been shown “extreme neo-Nazi video games” by his older brother.

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Understanding whether there are concerted radicalization efforts that seek to leverage online gaming to reach new audiences has implications for regulatory discussions, interventions and prevention efforts.

Our Findings

To help fill this dearth in knowledge, the digital analysis unit at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) engaged in a piece of scoping research across four platforms associated with online gaming. This included two live-streaming services — Twitch and DLive, which both host individuals who broadcast online gaming to digital audiences, and which have both been used to stream extremist activity.

Additionally, we explored Steam, the PC game digital distribution service that also provides a platform for gamers to build community groups, and Discord, a chat application originally designed for gamers that has been notably used by right-wing extremists.

To better understand the potential for overlap between extremism and gaming, we used digital ethnography to scope these platforms, searching for users and communities promoting extremist content. In total, we identified 45 public groups associated with the extreme right on Steam, 24 extreme right chat servers on Discord, 100 extreme right channels on DLive and 91 channels on Twitch.

These communities and individuals commonly promoted racist, exclusionary and supremacist material associated with the extreme right, including the sharing of material from proscribed terrorist organizations on Discord.

We then qualitatively analyzed the content shared by these extremist channels and publicly accessible discussion threads to explore the extent that gaming was being used to radicalize or recruit individuals.

Here we identified several ways in which extremists use gaming. In some instances, extremists would use politically aligned games, such as “Feminazi: The Triggering” as a means to signify their ideology to their peers. Additionally, we found evidence that extremists used historical strategy games to role-play extremist fantasies, such as winning the Second World War for Nazi Germany or killing Muslims in the Crusades. However, although we found ample evidence that extremists are using gaming platforms, we found limited evidence to suggest they are using them to radicalize or recruit new members.

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Instead, extremists primarily seemed to use gaming as a means of building bonds and community with their peers, as well as more broadly to blow off steam. Whilst there has been a focus in preexisting literature on extremist-created games, we found that a majority of extremist gamers preferred popular mainstream titles such as “Call of Duty” or “Counter-Strike.” Additionally, although anecdotal evidence suggests that young people are being groomed over online games, we didn’t find content that corroborated this.

Future Research

Although there were gaps in our methodology — in particular, we didn’t seek to play online games with extremists — these preliminary findings suggest that gamers seem to primarily use gaming in the same way that non-extremists do: as a hobby and past time. These findings have implications for policy responses to online radicalization as well as for future research. In particular, they highlight how extremist users have been able to find a home on gaming platforms online.

Our project was designed as scoping research to pick up on key trends and didn’t attempt to gauge the scale and reach of these communities, but it is important that future digital research tracks the size of extremist communities so that proportional policy responses can be proposed.

*[Fair Observer is a media partner of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.