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Into the Dungeon? Possibilities for Primary and Secondary Prevention on Gaming (-Adjacent) Platforms

Into the Dungeon? Possibilities for Primary and Secondary Prevention on Gaming (-Adjacent) Platforms
15th September 2021 Linda Schlegel
In Insights

Videogames, gaming-related content, and gaming (-adjacent) platforms are a new key area of discussion for those seeking to understand how extremist actors use the digital space to further their aims. Livestreamed attacks, the development of videogames with radical ideological content, the potential to use in-game chats and Discord servers to disseminate propaganda, and the link some right-wing perpetrators had to parts of the gaming community have placed gaming-related content and spaces at the heart of the discourse on contemporary extremism. While much more research is needed to understand the potential link between gaming and extremism, why extremist actors are present in gaming spaces, and how gaming topics are used for propaganda, it is undeniable that extremist content is present on gaming (-adjacent) platforms and is seen by many users in these spaces. Therefore, it is reasonable to ask whether gaming (-adjacent) platforms – such as Discord, Steam, Twitch, and DLive – could (or should) be used for P/CVE measures as well. The following recommendations are based on a recent RAN paper on this issue and are meant as an invitation to think about the development and implementation of such measures as there are currently few examples of P/CVE initiatives in these spaces.

Pitfalls to Avoid

Before sketching possible routes P/CVE measures could take on gaming (-adjacent) platforms, attention must be drawn to important pitfalls to avoid when thinking about developing initiatives in gaming spaces.

Viewing gaming as a problem to be solved

Neither gaming, nor gamers or gaming (-adjacent) platforms are inherently problematic and should not be treated as such. Gaming spaces are like other digital spaces and are often used by a variety of individuals and groups. Even when not explicitly stated, gaming communities are likely to be able to detect when the underlying assumption for engaging with them is one of threat and risk management. Therefore, the approach should be collaborative rather than driven by risk assessments.

Treating gamers as more susceptible to radicalisation

There is no evidence to suggest that gamers are more susceptible to radicalisation or propaganda and should be considered as an ‘at risk’ community. This remains true even when gaming-related aesthetics, themes, and content from videogames is used in propaganda material.

Disregarding religious extremism

Because most real-world incidents linking extremism to gaming have been perpetrated by individuals espousing right-wing ideology, much of the discussion on extremist content on gaming (-adjacent) platforms focuses on right-wing extremism. However, this does not mean that there are no religious extremists in gaming spaces or that P/CVE measures directed at religious extremism have no place on such platforms.

Meeting them where they are vs invading the spaces

The inherent tension between the necessity to meet audiences where they are and being perceived as invading their spaces, is just as acute on gaming (-adjacent) platforms as it is elsewhere. Caution should be exercised when entering new platforms with unfamiliar rules or customs and a user base that may not be welcoming of certain actors.

Possible Avenues to Take

Similar to implementing P/CVE measures in other contexts, initiatives on gaming platforms will need to be supported by thorough subcultural knowledge as the memes, codes, references, and tone of speaking on such platforms may not be intuitively understood. Without such knowledge, one runs the risk of being immediately identified as an outsider and as potentially invading the space.

Once subcultural knowledge is established, P/CVE actors can take passive or active measures. Passive measures may include, for instance, the support of organic counter-speech by the platforms’ users, influencers, and streamers or aiding users who flagged disturbing content in reacting appropriately. It may also be fruitful to ask whether risk assessment tools can be adapted to identify individuals or groups that need heightened attention by EXIT organisations or law enforcement agencies. More active measures could include becoming part of gaming (-adjacent) spaces by establishing channels, accounts, and servers with (P/CVE) content the target audience may find appealing, using livestreams to establish a line of communication with users, or engaging in digital youth work activities on these platforms. Videogaming with users may also be a fruitful way to establish a connection to them. The Dutch Police, for instance, uses videogames in such a manner and a recent RAN Spotlight suggested the exploration of eSports as a new avenue for P/CVE.

In addition, P/CVE engagement and content on gaming-related platforms does not need to be about games. On Discord, there are thousands of servers dedicated to other topics, including anime (almost 140,000 servers), manga (15,000 servers), KPop (over 10,000 servers), memes (over 50,000 servers), role play (over 98,000 servers), and fantasy (over 10,000 servers). Without necessarily needing knowledge on gaming culture, using these topics to open an avenue of communication with users on these platforms could be beneficial for P/CVE initiatives. Gaming (-adjacent) platforms should therefore be viewed not only as gaming spaces but as spaces of discussion on various themes and P/CVE actors could utilise any one of the popular topics for their campaigns.

One could also look beyond the platforms. Gamers may not only enjoy videogames as such, they may also enjoy game references and game aesthetics, suggesting that, for instance, alternative and counter-narrative campaigns appropriating the visual style of videogames could be especially appealing to individuals who self-identify as gamers. Individuals who frequent gaming (-adjacent) platforms are likely to also use other platforms, including YouTube or Instagram. Therefore, even when the target audience are gamers in particular, they do not necessarily need to be addressed in gaming spaces. The narrative campaign mirroring familiar styles from videogames could just as well be placed on other platforms and still reach gamers. Just like gaming-related extremist content is not contained to gaming (-adjacent) platforms, neither do P/CVE measures using gaming elements need to be placed only in gaming spaces. Thinking broadly about how to use gaming-related content and gaming spaces will be beneficial when developing suitable P/CVE campaigns.

Conclusion

With so few P/CVE measures implemented on gaming (-adjacent) platforms, it is difficult to delineate which initiatives are the most promising, what should be considered as best practice, and what would constitute ‘success’ for interventions in gaming spaces. However, while the content of the conversations may differ, many gaming (-adjacent) platforms are not fundamentally different from other digital spaces and knowledge on digital interventions on other platforms can be transferred to the gaming space. Given the popularity of such platforms, the most important take-away from the recent upsurge in interest on gaming and extremism is to start somewhere, i.e. to begin a conversation about how these spaces can be used fruitfully for P/CVE and which interventions are both suitable and feasible on gaming (-adjacent) platforms.