The last years have demonstrated that extremists’ target audience has become progressively younger: in 2016 a 12-year-old was arrested in Germany for planning to place a bomb at a Christmas market, a year prior to that a 14-year-old was arrested in the UK for helping to plan an attack in Australia. In order to appeal to such a young audience, extremist organisations increasingly use pop culture elements in their propaganda and radicalisation efforts, which includes the use of video games. These often violent games are a familiar point of reference to many young men, and alluding to popular games such as Call of Duty presents a chance to frame extremist content in a ‘cool’ manner. The proliferation of such references has led some to speak of a ‘gaming jihad’. “For many, war isn’t hell, it’s entertainment” during leisure time and the familiarity of gaming references can support the resonance of extremist narratives.
However, extremist organisations have not only used the stylistic imagery of games. Hezbollah, the Daily Stormer and even Islamic State have produced their own video games or modifications of popular first-person shooter games. However, research has not yet established whether games are used for radicalisation purposes or are merely a tool to appear ‘cool’ and draw young people towards the extremist groups that produce them. Theoretically, games may have a variety of functions in support of violent radicalisation processes, including desensitisation to violence, an increase in self-efficacy in relation to violent acts, identification with violent avatars, and, if self-made by extremists, the transmission of ideological narratives. The latter two are briefly described in the following.
Identification with the characters featuring prominently in extremist propaganda and stories is an important mechanism of narrative persuasion. If one perceives the stories as relatable, they are more likely to resonate and to find inclusion into a person’s structure of beliefs. Video games, especially those that allow for avatar customisation, have been shown to cause players’ identification with the goals and perspective of the video game characters. Video games are fundamentally interactive and, more so than media such as movies or written stories, can immerse players within their world and increase identification with the game characters. Lin showed that the higher the degree of identification with the avatar, the higher the aggressive affect after exposure to violent video games, and Fischer and colleagues showed that personalised gaming characters elevate the psychological effects of video games, also concluding that higher levels of identification with avatars lead to increased aggression if the game contained violent content. If extremist organisations can develop games that are highly interactive, allow for avatar personalisation and then engage players in a violent, ideologically-charged storyline, games could become tools to facilitate both violent radicalisation processes and identification with the goals and worldview of the extremist organisation personified as the lead character in the game.
Transmission of ideology
The transmission of ideology can be overt and obvious or implicit in the video game storyline. The modification of Doom 2 by the Daily Stormer, for instance, overtly advocates right-wing ideology by allowing players to fight against a Jewish world conspiracy and perpetrate genocide. These types of games can support radicalisation processes already underway by strengthening the resonance of extremist narratives and reinforcing the Manichean worldview propagated by extremist groups. Video games provide “temporary algorithmic order” in a chaotic world, showing clear winners and losers set in a fictive yet believable narrative, which can facilitate an ‘us versus them’ mentality that may translate into extremist beliefs outside of the gaming context.
Video games may also transmit ideological narratives in a covert manner. Hong describes that we live in an ‘age of simulation’, in which games invoke the image of a heroic past filled with bravery and strong masculinity. Players do not need to believe that stories in games are real, only that the storyline could or should have been the reality, in order to be immersed in a glorification of the past ‘when life mattered’. Organisations such as Islamic State, but also right-wing extremist groups, employ the narrative of ‘retropia’, a utopian image of the past they aspire to re-establish. Through games, these past utopias can come to life and be experienced directly by the players, which may increase a longing to rebuild this supposedly grandiose world. Radicalisation processes can be supported by creating a virtual reality akin to the idealistic society extremist organisations advocate for, thereby sharpening the vision for and identification with these narratives in potential recruits, potentially leading them to act in support of establishing this utopian society.
While research on the effects of violent video games has flourished in the last thirty years, radicalisation research is only beginning to engage with the use of games as potential tools to facilitate engagement with extremist content or to support radicalisation processes. Considering the technological advancements, including the possibility to play sophisticated games on smartphones and virtual reality goggles immersing the players even further than current gameplay, as well as the increasing availability of relatively cheap equipment to develop and launch games, it is likely that extremist organisations will increase their use of video game technology in the future to appeal to and recruit potentially very young individuals. Therefore, more research on the potential role of games in radicalisation processes is necessary to develop effective counter-measures to the use of video games as recruitment tools.