In 2020, the EU Counter-Terrorism Coordinator issued a warning that extremists are increasingly present in digital gaming spaces and in 2021, the EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report detailed that right-wing extremist actors in particular use both videogames and related platforms to disseminate their propaganda. While much of the potential nexus between gaming and extremism remains severely under-researched, the following Insight provides a preliminary overview of the gaming (-adjacent) platforms currently used by extremist actors and both strategic and organic reasons for their presence there. It is based on a recent RAN publication.
There is no clear definition of what constitutes a gaming (-adjacent) platform, although the term often encompasses platforms initially designed for the gaming community. For this Insight, the focus is placed on Discord, Steam, Twitch, and DLive, although hundreds of gaming forums, gaming threads on reddit and other platforms, and YouTube accounts with gaming content exist in addition to these four platforms. The broader digital environment, in which games are discussed outside of gaming (-adjacent) platforms deserves attention in its own right.
On Discord, over 300 million users can join almost 7 million public or private servers with forums, chat functions, audio and video communication, to connect with like-minded gamers. While originally developed for gamers, there are now servers dedicated to every topic imaginable and the platform functions more like a social media site than merely a gaming space. Discord was used by the 2017 ‘Unite the Right’ supporters in Charlottesville, by Boogaloo boys and other groups linked to right-wing extremism or white supremacism but has also been used by incels. The servers are used by these actors for private conversations but also to vet new members and draw the attention of interested users, e.g. by tagging a server with the words ‘Nazi’ or ‘fascist’. Despite continuous efforts to deplatform extremist actors, several servers allegedly linked to right-wing extremist ideology and inceldom remain on Discord.
Steam is the largest digital distribution platform for PC games and had 120 million monthly active users in 2020. As research by the ADL indicates, Steam is home to a significant number of white supremacist and right-wing extremists, some of whom openly show their views through their profile pictures or account names. The platform has also been implicated in the 2016 Munich attack. The attacker allegedly participated in Steam discussions surrounding anti-Muslim narratives and glorifying mass violence.
Twitch is a livestreaming platform with 9.5 million active streamers, who stream on everything from games to outdoor activities, (e-)sports, cooking, arts and craft, music, animals, and political talk shows. Right-wing influencers use Twitch not only to disseminate their propaganda and communicate their views but also to raise money, for instance via donations. In 2019, the Halle attacker streamed his attack live on Twitch. Although livestreams are notoriously difficult to police in real time, the stream was taken down rather quickly. However, it re-appeared in various Telegram groups and reached over 70,000 viewers within four days despite the swift take-down from Twitch. This shows that deleting extremist content on gaming (-adjacent) platforms does not necessarily prevent its dissemination and will not be enough to mitigate its potential reach.
DLive was created as an alternative to livestreaming on Twitch and YouTube and has millions of monthly users. Although some of the most extreme streamers have been deplatformed, DLive is still considered a relatively safe haven for right-wing extremists, QAnon supporters and COVID-19 conspiracy theorists due to lenient content moderation and freedom of speech rules. The website was also used during the storm on the US Capitol, during which some individuals livestreamed the riot and took suggestions from commentators on their stream on what to destroy next. In addition, the Southern Poverty Law Center found that several lead figures of the far-right from the US and Europe are making considerable amounts of money with their streams on DLive, some allegedly making hundreds of thousands of euro.
Strategic and Organic Use
The evidence suggests that extremist actors use gaming (-adjacent) spaces both in a strategic and an organic manner. The presence of searchable content, e.g. livestreams by Identitarian Martin Sellner on DLive, trying to place games such as Heimatdefender on the most popular trade platform for games, and using Discord servers to vet new members suggests a strategic approach to using gaming spaces and the benefits each platform has to offer. The mere presence on popular gaming (-adjacent) platforms increases the potential to reach more people with the content and to generate attention as it is a way to ‘meet the audiences where they are’. Using gaming references on any type of platform may also increase the appeal of the propaganda output and could be used strategically to open conversations with users on gaming topics they are interested in and familiar with before moving the conversation towards more radical themes. Many right-wing extremist influencers have accounts on various platforms, which points to using different platforms as a safety net against deplatforming, an additional strategic consideration.
Radicalised individuals also use gaming spaces organically. Considering there are 2.5 billion gamers in the world, it would be surprising if there was no overlap between gamers and radicalised individuals. As gaming (-adjacent) platforms are increasingly used like social media sites and to exchange views on a variety of topics, including political and societal issues, some radicalised individuals who enjoy gaming spaces may express their views on these platforms without being prompted to do so by an organisation. They may feel especially safe to do so in the parts of the gaming community grappling with homophobia, anti-Semitism, sexism, racism, or harassment. Some right-wing extremist perpetrators, including in Christchurch and Halle, seem to have perceived themselves as part of a digital community, in which hate was normalised not by extremist organisations but by individual users. This suggests that deplatforming influencers and extremist organisations will not be enough to reduce such content on gaming (-adjacent) platforms as it also appears organically, from within certain communities.
A much more systematic research effort is needed to understand which (types of) extremist actors use which gaming (-adjacent) platforms for what purposes and to understand whether gaming spaces are used simply because they are popular and difficult to moderate or whether there is something about gaming (platforms) that is inherently interesting or beneficial to these actors. It is also unclear how these efforts increase the risk of digital radicalisation processes. What is clear is that an increasing amount of evidence suggests that extremist content and individuals are present on most if not all gaming (-adjacent) platforms and extremist actors are using these spaces to further their goals. While many gaming (-adjacent) platforms have begun to deplatform extremists and delete their content, a much broader effort is needed to reduce extremist activity in these spaces, including a discussion on how P/CVE measures can be successfully implemented in collaboration with the gaming community.