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The Ultimate Game: What We Learned from Mobilising Gamers During Brazil’s Elections

The Ultimate Game: What We Learned from Mobilising Gamers During Brazil’s Elections
6th March 2024 Mariana Ribeiro
In Gaming, Insights

Mari Ribeiro and Court Williams are members of the Extremism and Gaming Research Network (EGRN). The EGRN works together to uncover how malign actors exploit gaming, to build resilience in gaming communities to online harms, and to discover new ways to use gaming for good.

Introduction

Today, digital games are responsible for forming true communities with characteristics that go beyond entertainment. They have become environments for expressing ideas — complex social spaces where young people also discuss politics, culture, and society and form a sense of belonging.

Although gaming is often stereotyped as a solitary or purely recreational pursuit, online gaming communities often have a greater influence on users than their own family and friends. In Brazil, young people are developing political awareness through interaction with online friend networks and content produced by influencers. They are interested in politics — but not traditional institutional and party politics. Through these supposedly non-politicised channels, young people from all sectors of society are forming worldviews and political preferences and even affiliating themselves with extremist ideologies.

When we examine the dynamics of radicalisation, the games themselves are not the problem, but rather the comments and conversations that happen within spaces adjacent to gaming, such as forums, chat rooms, Twitch channels, Discord servers, and in-game chats. In these spaces, conservative and extremist voices can operate under the radar, benefiting from less rigorous monitoring and moderation compared to more established social media or gaming platforms.

Gaming communities have become a fertile ground for hate speech. This not only damages the online experience and mental health of players who are people of colour or have diverse sexual or gender identities but also helps shape the worldview of many. Thus, it contributes to the advancement of racist, misogynist, and LGBT-phobic norms and behaviours offline. According to a study released by Brazil’s Federal Government in 2023, radicalisation in gaming communities has contributed to a rampant surge in the number of school attacks across the country in recent years, with attacks being organised by teenagers on Discord servers and other social media and gaming spaces. 

To treat the causes of radicalisation and extremist behaviour, not just the symptoms, we must first go to online spaces. Given the limited engagement of progressive voices with the online gaming community in Brazil, pro-social voices still need to be represented. There is a significant opportunity to bring progressive action to young people in this space by equipping civil society organisations and trusted messengers from inside and outside gaming communities to act. 

For the past 15 years, Purpose has served as a global partner for philanthropies, social organisations, corporates, activists and movement builders in creating an open, just and thriving world across different issues, such as climate, democracy, human rights and combatting mis- and disinformation. Our mission is to inspire people to reimagine the world and harness their power to make it happen. In 2022, the Purpose team based in Brazil set out to investigate how key sectors of Brazilian society were being pushed into extremism, looking for ways to reach them before they moved down this road. This included youth participating in coordinated attacks targeting other gamers from minority groups and true crime communities sharing neo-Nazi content and fueling hate speech, including messages endorsing or encouraging school shootings, particularly when the victims were women, non-white individuals, or people with disabilities. 

As a result, ahead of the national elections in 2022, the Purpose Gamer Impact Lab was launched, a ‘think and action tank’ committed to occupying socialisation spaces in the game sphere to fight extremism and promote civic participation. The Gamer Impact Lab’s first initiative was to conduct Brazil’s first-ever behavioural research on different segments within the gamer community and their involvement in political action. This study, titled ‘Gamer Identity’, aimed to understand the nuances of gamer behaviour and engagement with political discourse, establishing the groundwork for informed interventions to counter extremism and encourage civic engagement.

Gamer Identity in Brazil

According to data from the 2023 Game Brazil Survey, 70.1% of Brazilians with access to electronic devices play digital games and spend two and a half hours a day playing — slightly above the global average. Contrary to popular belief, men and women, as well as Black and white people, are represented in equal proportions, and users bridge all social classes. Even indigenous people living in their traditional communities participate. In 2020, Brazil hosted the first Indigenous Garena Free Fire Cup, with 48 ethnicities represented. 

In partnership with Brazil-based research agency Box 1824, Purpose conducted the Gamer Identity research from April to June 2022 through (1) Interviews with 6 experts in the field; (2) Analysis of conversations on social networks and messaging (Twitter, Whatsapp groups, Facebook Gaming, Discord Groups) of 40 selected profiles; (3) Survey of references, cases and relevant information in identifying trends in the gamer universe; and (4) Interviews with 100 players across Brazil aged 18 to 34, with different incomes, political positions and gender identities. 

By exploring Brazilian gamers’ worldviews, values, and political inclinations, six main behavioural profiles were revealed: Questioners, Harmonious, Escapists, Occasional, Meme-makers, and Medallists. Each group was classified according to their values, formed communities, languages and topics of interest, motivations, influences they followed, and channels used. Purpose then used these profiles to craft specific campaigns and interventions looking to boost voter engagement of these groups ahead of the presidential election.

What Works?

Our work during the lead-up to the presidential elections in Brazil last year identified three essential tactics to occupy game-adjacent socialisation spaces, fight hate and promote civic participation, looking specifically into boosting voter engagement:

Context-Specific Interventions

In the months leading up to the elections, we observed that female voters were inclined to be progressive but often believed their votes wouldn’t make a difference. To promote voting among female gamers, who represent 50% of the Brazilian gaming community, we focused on Twitch, a hugely popular streaming platform worldwide. There, we created and live-streamed a 4-episode RPG (role-playing game) played by six influential Black, indigenous and trans female gamers from diverse backgrounds (Fig. 1). 

Fig. 1: Screenshot of one of the episodes of Shadows of Fear streamed on Twitch

The game revolved around female characters coming together to defeat a common enemy – a group of villains who carried the personality traits of fascist leaders: authoritarian, dictatorial, and disrespectful of minorities. The villains’ strongest weapon was their ability to spread disinformation. The game was watched by 60,000 people simultaneously on Twitch, while others watched through the influencers’ social media channels. The response of female gamers was immensely positive. One said [translated], “Completely shocked by the ending of this wonderful session. Thank you for delivering EVERYTHING! And we already want the second season of Shadows of Fear, please <3.” Another said, “The sisters are going to save the city!” And a third: “Perfect moment for this kind of adventure — the name of the city could easily be Brazil.” 

Research conducted after the election found that the combined voter-turnout efforts of Brazilian civil society organisations led to the lowest-ever abstention rate in the second round of voting, with women playing a decisive role in Lula’s victory.

Trusted Messengers

To encourage gaming influencers to engage politically, we developed a toolkit with practical tips on discussing politics without taking a partisan stance. Influencers were trained to deliver a message in their own authentic voice, emphasising the value of voting. The goal was not to provide standardised talking points but rather to equip each influencer to do their part to encourage political discussions among their followers using words and actions that felt natural to them.

Audience-centric Approach

We established a content creation hub on Discord, engaging gaming influencers and creatives to craft and share gamer-related content that resonated with their audiences. This approach was instrumental in breaking through the noise and broadening the conversation.

One key example was a piece of content that went viral a few days before the second round of the elections. The creators tapped into the popularity of Star Wars in gamer communities and created a visual asset saying, “I’m a Jedi and I support Lula.” Mark Hamill, who played Luke Skywalker, picked it up and tweeted it. Then, Lula himself shared Hamill’s post (Fig. 2). The post then went viral, even featuring on traditional media channels.

Fig. 2: [Translation] Thank you, @MarkHamill. Rebuild Brazil, I will. May the force remain strong with you as well.

Through social listening monitoring, we could see that one piece of content could burst the progressive bubble and start to be part of the conversation, not just for left-leaning groups but also for those who were undecided — it even started trending among conservative gamers, creating a rare point of commonality across the political spectrum. 

What’s Next?

Gaming communities are not only influential but adaptable and open to change. The battle for the hearts and minds of gamers is ongoing and one we cannot afford to lose. The gaming universe mirrors the broader challenges of our interconnected world. As progressive voices, it is our responsibility to lead by example, promote inclusive and democratic values, and stand up against hatred and intolerance.

We have seen some valuable steps forward. Earlier this year, President Lula signed into law (14.811/2024) the inclusion of bullying and cyberbullying as punishable offences in the Penal Code, a major recognition of the profound impact of online violence and hate speech on Brazilian youth. A 2023 report from the Brazilian government further emphasises the critical need to train school teachers and staff to educate young people and caregivers about digital and gaming culture, as well as the importance of exercising caution regarding content that promotes hate and violence.

However, achieving structural change, both in Brazil and globally, will rely heavily on engaging the platforms themselves: delineating provider responsibilities, reporting risks, and implementing mitigation measures, as well as finding ways to hold accountable those who fail to cooperate.

At Purpose, we believe that tackling antisocial radicalisation on gaming platforms will also require learning more about how gaming communities operate and intentionally flooding these digital spaces with a pro-social counterculture that is authentic and relevant, edgy and desirable to gamers. To do so, we have to build civic power first; we are working directly with social organisations in Brazil to provide them an entry point to the gaming universe, connecting them with creators and training to develop gamers-first campaigns.

As we continue our journey with the Gamer Lab, membership in the Extremism and Gaming Research Network (EGRN) will bolster our efforts. We look to a future where gaming fosters inclusivity, inspires creativity, and amplifies the principles of democracy.

Join us! Interested in learning more about the Gamer Lab? Get in touch here!