Much journalistic and academic attention has been focused on understanding the role that games and gamification plays within extremist groups. However, far less has been dedicated to how games and interactive media can contribute to translating counterterrorism research to practice. In this blog post, I argue that games can play a unique role in bridging the gap between academia and practitioners within counterterrorism.
A Primer on ‘Serious’ Games
The use of ‘serious games’ — games with a primary purpose other than entertainment — is well established in fields such as healthcare, education or the military. Some well-known examples of the use of games in a non-entertainment context include the popular educational history adventure game The Oregon Trail; and flight and military simulators such as X-Plane and America’s Army, which are used for training purposes. Recent and lesser-known examples include the use of serious games for training healthcare workers and teaching effective environmental management. Further, research from the fields of healthcare and the military highlight the importance of simulations for practitioners’ knowledge development through repeated practice in a safe environment.
Within the field of security, examples of serious games include the RAND Corporation’s war game, developed as part of a project sponsored by the US Army, to understand Russian grey zone tactics; and the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism’s digital game on counterterrorism, which allows players to explore key perspectives in the aftermath of the devastating 2011 Norway Attacks. These examples make use of interactivity and gameplay elements to highlight crucial lessons gleaned from research, and provide a platform for understanding security decisions in a real-world context.
Academic research highlights how game-based learning can contribute to a variety of beneficial outcomes for a wide range of players across 129 studies, including knowledge acquisition (the most frequently occurring outcome), behaviour and attitude changes, and improvement of motivation to learn. When seeking to influence practitioner or policymaker mindsets, or to share research on extremism in a compelling fashion, games can provide an unconventional medium for bridging the gap between academics and practitioners. It is important to note however that the likelihood of learning outcome achievement varies depending on game genre, mode of gameplay, and the discipline it is intended to teach.
It is important to note that the contemporary study and perception of games has shifted significantly since the first iterations of game-based learning. The term ‘serious game’ is now a disputed one, as it implies a distinction from non-serious gaming; a distinction not fully established. Indeed, contemporary examples of video games challenge traditional notions of what gaming is capable of. Depression Quest, a text-based game, has been praised as an immersive experience which creates empathy for mental health struggles. This War of Mine, a game inspired by testimonies and accounts of the Siege of Sarajevo, has been lauded as a piece of morally engaging and persuasive anti-war media and marks the first example of a game placed on Polish schools’ reading lists. Such examples highlight the cultural and educational importance of play, which can be used in the context of counterterrorism.
Using Game-Based Learning for Counterterrorism
Some challenges in translating counterterrorism research into practice include the lack of applicability toward ‘real-world problems’ in research outputs and the desire for greater relevance of research towards practitioners and policymakers. Towards these challenges, an engaging game based on research findings and focusing on understanding how extremist behaviour can translate into tangible real-world situations. More importantly, it has the potential to provide compelling avenues for understanding these findings in a real-world context through an interactive experience.
Further, such games create unique opportunities. Game-based learning allows for the simulation of historical or hypothetical crises, while minimising costs. Within these games, players can also take on the role of diverse actors — including those not within the domain of traditional law enforcement such as civilians and journalists — to broaden their understanding of the likely impact of policies and actions against extremist behaviour.
Crucially, research findings can be interwoven with experiential learning through the use of debriefings and accompanying instruction or oversight. Beyond a hands-on approach to learning, game-based learning can provide avenues and incentives for practitioners to discuss research and extract actionable knowledge.
Existing research and past examples indicate that identifying the intended learning outcomes is a crucial first step: What specific lessons, research findings, or practices is your game designed to impart to the user? What intended behaviour or attitude changes do you hope to achieve? For example, is the game meant to build empathy for a particular perspective in the context of counterterrorism, such as journalists or law enforcement?
Iteration and testing are necessary to ensure desired learning outcomes are met. These specific learning outcomes should then inform crucial game design choices, such as the mode of the game (physical or digital) or the nature of a player’s interaction with the game (alone, cooperative or competitive). Lessons from the fields of game studies, psychology and healthcare should be incorporated to better understand how thematic and game design decisions are likely to impact player attitudes and approaches to the game.
Far from being the sole domain of commercial game developers, there exist a wide variety of accessible tools for game design and prototyping. For physical games, inspiration can be drawn from pre-existing examples. For digital games, Twine is an open source software widely used by game developers to both prototype and create games, and has been credited as an invaluable tool for making game design accessible to all.
Games can be a powerful medium for experiential learning and developing empathy towards a multitude of perspectives. With play increasingly recognised as an important component of learning, counterterrorism researchers have much to gain from incorporating game-based learning into their engagement with practitioners and policymakers.
Teo Kai Xiang is the Communications Officer at the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism – The Hague (ICCT). He holds a bachelor’s degree in political science (Leiden University) and a diploma in media studies (Singapore Polytechnic).