The video game industry is the largest and fastest growing popular culture industry in the world by monetary value, yet relatively little attention has been paid to how extremists use it as part of their strategic communications. In a recent journal article for Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, we argue that more focus must be paid to the audience, looking beyond superficial understandings that imply users are passive recipients of messages that can be “radicalised” or recruited by engagement with games. Our argument is two-pronged: Firstly, games are seldom made with an explicit recruitment function. Instead, they are typically aimed at preaching to individuals that have already accepted their movement’s ideological worldview. Secondly, it is important to understand the role of interactivity within gameplay; considering how the procedural “rules” of games can help to fulfil ideological goals. These findings, we argue, can be extrapolated to better understand extremist content on social media.
Games as Propaganda
The existing literature on extremist video games often frames them as propaganda with the primary intention of recruiting new individuals to their respective movements. Gabriel Weimann, for example, frames the release of the game Muslim Mali (2013) as a strategy to target children at an early age to lure them to its radical ideology. Similarly, the white supremacist game Ethnic Cleansing (2002) was described as a tool to recruit new members to the movement. Other scholars do suggest that games may have other functions, but recruitment is still framed as a key aspect. This mirrors discussions of propaganda more broadly, which often pays little attention to the receiver of the message and implicitly assumes that exposure to radical content may radicalise its audience and motivate them to join an extremist movement or conduct acts of terror, much like the now discredited “hypodermic needle” model of mass persuasion. However, there is important research that has challenged the idea of recruitment as the primary purpose of propaganda. Charlie Winter, for example, analysed a corpus of Islamic State (IS) messages, finding that the content was aimed at individuals already ideologically committed to the group: “for the Islamic State, propaganda was never just a way to recruit new supporters. Instead, it was instrumental to the jihad itself”. Similarly, J.M. Berger dissects the white supremacist novel The Turner Diaries (1978) and finds that William Pierce, the author, assumes that the book’s reader will already be ideologically committed to the movement and aims to convince them that violence is the right course of action.
The arguments of Winter and Berger are instructive when thinking about the audience of extremist video games. We argue that many games seem to have a target audience beyond the uninitiated. Instead, much can be learned if they are also understood as a means of reinforcing the beliefs and motivations of those already involved in the movement. The corpus of white supremacist games, which includes Ethnic Cleansing, White Law (2003), ZOG’s Nightmare (2006), and ZOG’s Nightmare II (2007), can be understood well using Berger’s discussion of The Turner Diaries. Little effort is made to convince the player that murdering minorities is the right thing to do, it is simply assumed that the player will be willing to do this. Furthermore, the in-game iconography in Ethnic Cleaning assumes a player with a strong knowledge of the movement, including the National Alliance symbol and an ‘Easter Egg’ (a hidden object in the game) of Pierce – the group’s leader – giving a speech. Both exist with little in the way of explanation or justification. Similarly, Islamist games such as Hezbollah’s Special Force (2003) does not seek to persuade players to join “the resistance,” but instead assumes that they will have no qualms shooting at Israeli soldiers that are clearly identified by an outsized Star of David on their uniform. While the release of extremist games tends to create a furore of speculation that they will be used to recruit a young, impressionable target audience, we contend that it is more likely aimed at those who have already accepted an extremist “system of meaning”.
Extremism and Interactive ‘Play’
The existing literature on extremist video games tends to focus heavily on discussions surrounding the content. That is to say, what is seen and heard when playing the game. This, too, mirrors research into extreme content more broadly, which is heavily reliant on the “supply” of content that is available to users. In an analysis of 28 white supremacist games, Andrew Selepak discusses the in-game “enemies”, the “heroes”, the quality of graphics, and the prevalence of violence. Similarly, Miron Lakomy looks at a corpus of jihadist video games, focusing heavily on their production and the iconography. While these findings are important, we place emphasis on the key aspect of video games that is often overlooked – interactivity. Games are interactive at heart, which sets them aside from many traditional forms of media. And much can be learned about why extremist content may be engaging to users from the existing literature in game studies.
One important consideration in the role of interactive gameplay is its “procedural rhetoric” – the ways in which video games communicate through a combination of the actions and processes that the user takes when playing and its relationship to the visuals, sounds, and story of the game. The procedural rules of the vast majority of extremist games help to convey the message that the only way a player can succeed within the game is through violence; there are no alternative nonviolent ways in which the game can be won. This is emblematic of the movements’ belief that compromise and ‘conventional’ political processes are not viable in achieving their goals. Another important facet of interactivity is “the art of failure”, coined by Jesper Juul, who notes that games must strike a balance between difficulty and success. Games that are too difficult will lead to frustration, while those that are too easy will lead to boredom. For games to be effective forms of strategic communication for extremists, they must provide engaging gameplay for their users. If a user becomes frustrated or bored, then they may link these negative feelings towards the group in question.
We argue that our focus on games can be extrapolated towards extremist content more broadly; it is important to look beyond superficial understandings of audiences. While it may be tempting to think about propaganda as “infecting” the minds of its receivers, this does not represent the reality and, moreover, content creators know this and instead attempt to stir the motivations of those already ideologically committed. Similarly, considering the role of interactivity and ‘gamification’, particularly on social media, yields so-far unanswered questions, for example: How do the procedural rules of Twitter differ to those of Telegram? How does extreme content stimulate receivers intellectually to engage them? At the very least, we hope to show that there is still much to be learned about the ways in which extremists use video games, and game-based processes in social media more generally, as part of their strategic communication strategies.