The potential nexus between gaming and extremism is an increasingly important concern for researchers, tech companies, policymakers, and practitioners working in preventing and countering (violent) extremism (P/CVE). While the exploitation of gaming content and spaces by extremist actors is a relatively new phenomenon and research in this area is sparse, it has become clear that extremists are seeking to utilise video games, gaming (-adjacent) platforms, and gaming-related content for their ends. Video games and gaming spaces have even been connected to recent acts of violence, including a number of livestreamed attacks around the world.
Consequently, it is unsurprising that P/CVE practitioners are currently debating how gaming could also be used in efforts to prevent and counter extremism and radicalisation. The production of bespoke video games, i.e. ‘serious games’ developed for educational purposes, is currently one of the most popular routes to incorporate gaming into P/CVE efforts. A number of games with narratives surrounding radicalisation have been produced in the last few years. Largely absent from the discourse surrounding these games so far is, however, a thorough and explicit engagement with the existing literature on what such serious games can realistically achieve and in which areas P/CVE-related video games could seek to make an impact.
The Positive Effects of Videogames
While mainstream media often reports on the alleged negative effects of gaming such as aggression, addiction, or antisocial behaviour, decades of research have also uncovered various positive effects video games may elicit. These include educational benefits, social outcomes, the influence of perception and attitudes, as well as beneficial behavioural changes.
Education & Learning
“There is no doubt that video games have an important role to play in education (…) because to play is inherently to learn,” writes game designer Celia Hodent. A recent meta-analysis confirmed the positive impact of games on learning outcomes. It is therefore unsurprising that hundreds of games, including the popular game Minecraft, have been used and tested in educational contexts in the last 40 years. Video games are believed to be beneficial for learning because:
- Games make engaging with the educational content more fun, which motivates players to spend more time learning;
- Players receive immediate feedback and can adjust their behaviour immediately in order to succeed; and,
- Games are designed to increase in difficulty proportionally to the increase of skill in players, which allows for an individual learning experience at one’s own pace.
Research has shown that video games can have a range of positive social outcomes, including an increased willingness for teamwork, improved interpersonal communication skills, and the development of leadership skills. Playing games may also contribute to a feeling of belonging and being part of a (gaming) community as well as the development of friendships with other players.
Perception & Attitudes
Researchers and international organisations such as the UN, the Council of Europe, and the World Economic Forum have highlighted that video games with prosocial content and narratives may contribute to positive social change and improve perceptions and attitudes on a variety of issues, including misinformation, climate change, bullying, mental health, homelessness, or the fate of refugees around the world. Games may be especially potent tools to elicit changes in attitudes and perceptions because, unlike movies or books, games require active participation rather than mere passive consumption, which may increase the content’s impact on players. In addition, multiple studies suggest that video games with prosocial stories may influence attitudes by encouraging perspective-taking, increasing the accessibility of prosocial thoughts and empathy, and reducing stereotypes, e.g. by placing players in the shoes of a member of their out-group.
In addition to influencing attitudes and perceptions, video games may also hold the power to shape behaviour. This has been most prominently shown in the health context, in which games have been used, for instance, to facilitate beneficial behavioural changes in individuals with cancer or chronic diseases and to support the management of ADHD. It has also been discovered that video games with prosocial content can increase the likelihood that players display both low-cost prosocial behaviour, e.g. helping someone pick up an item they dropped, and high-cost prosocial behaviour, such as helping someone who is being harassed.
It should be noted that the effects of video games are not uniform. Both positive and negative effects are contingent upon a variety of game-related factors such as genre and individual characteristics such as player types. Nevertheless, the existing literature on the positive effects video games are able to elicit suggests that video games could be a promising avenue for P/CVE.
Video Games and P/CVE
The existing literature on the positive effects of (serious) video games indicates that the development of video games could be a fruitful avenue for P/CVE actors. P/CVE games may also be aimed at achieving educational or social outcomes as well as attitudinal or behavioural change. For instance, P/CVE actors could seek to design games:
- For educational purposes, including games seeking to teach players about resolving in-group conflict, strengthening the players’ knowledge on and understanding of democratic principles, showing the dangers of radicalisation, or inoculating against disinformation;
- With the goal of influencing social outcomes by connecting players from different groups, who may not usually communicate with each other, or by facilitating group-based learning and interactive engagement with serious topics surrounding radicalisation;
- Aimed at facilitating a change in perception or attitudes, by encouraging perspective-taking to reduce stereotypes; and,
- To influence behaviour, such as by using prosocial narratives and rewards for in-game prosocial behaviour to nudge players into displaying more prosocial behaviour in the offline world.
P/CVE actors could aim to make an impact in any of these areas but should set clear goals regarding what their game seeks to achieve. In order to develop a successful and impactful P/CVE game, P/CVE actors should also follow the same set of recommendations as developers of serious games in other contexts. This includes catering to different player types and offering different motivational drivers to players, and, most prominently, by making serious video games that are not “chocolate-covered broccoli” but rather “candy with vitamins.” In other words, P/CVE games need to be good games. They should be entertaining and engaging games in their own right, not simply consisting of educational content poorly transferred to a boring game setting.
Currently, many existing P/CVE video games could improve their entertainment value. Many of these games rely almost exclusively on a serious, educational story rather than entertaining gameplay. They often employ relatively simple game mechanics, are heavily text-focused, and frequently afford players only binary choices. This suggests that there is room for improvement to make P/CVE games more fun, increasing the likelihood that players spend more time engaging with the P/CVE content within the game and, in turn, making the persuasive impact more likely.
Succeeding in the development of P/CVE-related (serious) video games will require a trial-and-error approach by practitioners until the database of experiences is large and diverse enough to deduce best practices from it. It also requires the willingness to work creatively: to go beyond a political communication approach and toward creating entertainment products. This likely requires collaboration between P/CVE practitioners and game developers or related companies. While the first pilot games have been produced, there needs to be more engagement with gaming literature within P/CVE discourses and better collaboration with game designers in the future if P/CVE video games are to become a valuable tool in preventing and countering radicalisation.