DHS approves $700,000 grant to study radicalization in online gaming

As spotted by Vice, the US Department of Homeland Security awarded a $700,000 grant to terrorism and security researchers to investigate video games used to radicalize gamers. Among the recipients is mental health advocacy group Take This.

Founded in 2013, Take This is a non-profit organization working to reduce mental health stigma in the industry and gaming community. A few days ago, they disclosed their interest in researching online extremism at Gaming UX Summit.

“Over the past decade, video games have increasingly become focal points of social activity and identity creation for adolescents and young adults,” the grant says on the DHS website. . “As a result, extremists have used video games and targeted video game communities for activities ranging from creating propaganda to mobilizing and training terrorists.”

A spokesperson for Take This explained to Game Developer that the grant will support the organization’s core mission. “Increasing instances of hate, harassment and extremist radicalization in these spaces have personal and societal implications for safety and well-being, including mental health,” said research director Dr Rachel Kuwait. “The grant will fund research to better explore the scope and scale of this problem and develop industry-specific solutions to mitigate them.”

Other grant recipients include the Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism (CTEC) at the Middlebury Institute, Logically, an online company that tries to end toxic behavior online.

In order to understand extremism in games, the three groups will develop resources to monitor and evaluate extremist activity. In addition, the three will set up “training workshops for monitoring, detecting and preventing extremist exploitation in gaming spaces”.

Speaking to Ars Technica, CETC Deputy Director Alex Newhouse said the search would start with online games that “essentially act as social platforms”, such as Roblox Where Fate. “It’s been very, very clear in our conversations with the video game industry that they’re not fully aware of the emerging problem they have on their hands,” he said.

The lack of awareness and research on extremism in gaming communities is what attracted Kowert. As she explained to Vice, she focused on extremism once she realized that “it was an area that was very understudied (and by underexplored, I mean that there were literally none).”

Games have always had an extremist problem

White nationalists have been in the gaming space for years, and they and other extremist groups have thrived online as a result. In a 2020 report, the DHS considered white supremacists the “most persistent and deadly threat” in the United States.

Attempting to remove white supremacy ideology from games will cost upwards of $700,000 (and frankly, a substantial overhaul of the industry from the ground up). But bringing real attention to the issue has been what the industry has needed for some time, and can lead to bringing even more attention to the subject.

Newhouse’s hope is that his group’s research will lead to developers, who he says should be “afraid” to share player data for research purposes, to take better action against extremism. Currently, the onus is on players to report hate speech, but that method is no longer completely viable, he argued.

“I want game developers, especially big ones like [Roblox Corp.] and Microsoft, for having teams dedicated to counter-extremism in games. These days, we also have to strive to be as sophisticated on the games industry side.

September 28 update: This story has been updated with comments from Take This’s Dr. Rachel Kowert.

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