Video games and gamification have become key tools of extremist actors’ recruitment arsenal and have taken a central role in their modus operandi. Analyses have pointed out how terrorists employ gaming elements in staging their attacks, or how violent extremists create full-blown video games fraught with hateful narratives and include opportunities to annihilate various social and ethnic groups.
But how about using games for P/CVE purposes? Some serious games (i.e. games used for educational purposes in addition to providing entertainment) have already been developed and rolled out in prevention work, such as Flashpoints, YoungRes and DECOUNT, a German browser game developed in Austria through the framework of an EU-funded research project. The following Insight presents a deeper look into the latter’s production process and evaluation results. It reveals some important lessons learned about the preconditions, opportunities, and potential limits of serious games for P/CVE.
Building on a Solid Evidence Base
When conceptualising DECOUNT, now listed in the RAN Practitioners collection of inspiring practices, we were able to build on some of the conclusions reached in the development and dissemination of related instruments, such as online video campaigns. For example, it was apparent that similar one-off, self-use online products may not be suitable for tertiary prevention i.e. with radicalised individuals, as they might trigger cognitive dissonance, potentially creating adverse effects by strengthening the target group’s resolve and commitment to the cause. It was equally clear that we would need a solid scientific base when creating the radicalisation stories in terms of potential situations for extremist groups to recruit, as well as the mechanics, actors, and discourses involved in radicalisation processes more generally. The team relied heavily on an existing radicalisation model that moved away from a deterministic logic of root causes to focus on individual motivations and the role of interpretative frameworks. Specifically, the model was built on insights drawn directly from primary data to develop concepts such as status, recognition, and rewards, while mapping the mechanisms which make certain frameworks salient and gradually more extreme. Particularly useful for the development of the game was the ‘rational actor concept’ of the radicalisation process, understood as a series of phases and degrees of the radicalisation process which evolve as the consequences of decisions made in specific situations, motivated by self-gain of immaterial or material nature and on the background of evolving interpretative frameworks.
DECOUNT is a game that rolls out four radicalisation stories; the main characters, two male and two female, navigate these jihadi and right-wing extremist stories towards several possible endings which depend on their decisions. The game immerses the player into a gradually evolving extremist environment on social media and in real life; it also presents opportunities to exit extremism through interactions with significant others such as friends and family. For this environment to be realistic, not just virtual observations but also insights into relevant extremist scenes in the country of intervention, Austria, were necessary. These were collected through interviews with former (violent) extremists and an in-depth analysis of jihadi and right-wing extremist online ecosystems and their use of social media.
Conditions for a Successful Game
While our knowledge of radicalisation and P/CVE in general can help in creating an adequate P/CVE product, the specific format of a game poses a number of challenges. For example, other P/CVE initiatives may not have to worry as much about the element of drama and the nature of their storylines. These need to be both realistic and engaging. Mapping a target group was necessary to capture who might be interested in games and what their aesthetic, thematic and gaming preferences might be. This was then reflected through the graphic designers’ choices and the storyboard’s development. Defining the target group, especially the so-called ‘vulnerable youth’, as sometimes formulated in calls for research proposals, was particularly challenging since focusing on socio-economic, ethnic, or religious criteria would have posed serious ethical concerns. Conversely, this targeting would have proved to be of little use, given the lack of a specific extremist or terrorist profile.
We eventually settled for interest-based criteria as derived from our fieldwork data on radicalised pathways, namely political topics, music, and gaming preferences, and these were also used in dissemination activities through social media adverts. Some of the categories considered were: football; digital trends or gadgets; gaming; rap and hip-hop; news and politics; empowerment, equality, social justice and social change. Marketing strategies were essential, though they often receive little consideration in research and development project proposals. DECOUNT was a ‘learning by doing’ process which revealed the crucial importance of influencers, in particular, Let’s Players – gamers who play games live online in the presence of an audience. DECOUNT was played live on Twitch in June 2020 by two Let’s Players, Becci and Veni(craft), both from Austria. 22,766 users watched the two live streams, which was almost three times higher than the number of people reached by adverts. Veni also produced a YouTube video documenting his journey through one of the stories. The video was viewed 11,713 times and liked 1,014 times, with no dislikes. Some of the comments of the viewers included: “The game is simple but brilliant;” “Cool, that you stand up for this;” “I stayed on the right track in all four stories;” and “The thumbnail is killer.” While not explored to the fullest extent in this game which mainly focused on illustrating radicalisation processes, pursuing a goal and deciding whether to stay on track or radicalise appears to have been engaging for the audience.
Finally, an aspect that DECOUNT did not manage to implement fully, and one that continues to pose challenges in this field, is the meaningful insertion of typical gaming elements such as incentives, constraints, and goals into the mechanics of the game. Arguably, developers of serious games will find it hard to integrate such elements in a product that does not focus on combat or competition but is meant to first and foremost teach players about democracy, tolerance, and diversity, so this particular challenge remains open.
What Games Can and Cannot Do in P/CVE?
As exciting as the use of games and gaming in prevention work is, they do not present a ‘silver bullet’ end-all solution to online radicalisation. Simply put, serious games will not be a suitable solution for every purpose and target group. For example, games and gaming elements designed for youth might not be suitable for the older public, or at least not the most effective method. As such, DECOUNT was specifically designed for younger players up to 25 years old. Consequently, random tests at public events confirmed that significantly older players had difficulties using the mechanics of the game. Considering the potentially limited effects of online tools in the context of tertiary prevention, games should only be used with this target group in the framework of broader and more intensive counselling efforts.
With regard to impact, playing a game for 5 to 10 minutes or a 2-hour workshop may not necessarily have a deep effect on behaviour, but it can affect attitudes. The evaluation of DECOUNT included a quasi-experiment with a before and after measurement of attitudes. After playing the game, as measured by before and after questionnaires, participants agreed less with extremist statements; thus, a positive effect on attitudes away from extremist narratives could be observed. The game was followed by a workshop, in which it was noted that authoritarian attitudes among participants decreased while their ability to be autonomous, self-reflect and think critically increased, as did their awareness of extremist narratives, democracy and the value of diversity.
As extremist scenes evolve continuously, so must P/CVE prevention efforts. One area that we increasingly need to focus on is games and gaming; in particular, we need to gain a more differentiated understanding of the roles these play in radicalisation and how we can best employ them in our P/CVE efforts. DECOUNT has provided a number of lessons learned that follow-up projects such as GameD will build on to develop even more impactful P/CVE serious games.
The game DECOUNT was developed in the framework of the EU-funded project Promoting democracy and fighting extremism through an online counter-narratives and alternative narratives campaign, DECOUNT, ISFP, 812617 by the Austrian Institute for International Affairs, Bloodirony Games and SUBOTRON. It is now curated as part of a scientific repository on extremism for youth work developed within the Erasmus+ project CAYET.