The Dark Side of Video Games: How Extremists Use Gaming to Recruit Vulnerable Teens

Extremist groups are using one of the country’s most popular forms of entertainment, video games, as a dangerous recruiting tool.

Among the targets are vulnerable adolescents. A research team exposes this trend to help law enforcement and parents become more aware of the danger. The game has become so popular that approximately 216 million Americans consider themselves gamers. That’s more than half of the country’s population. And games today are a far cry from Pong and Pac Man, for better or for worse.

“I am currently looking at the dark side of games and how they are exploited for radicalization and the mobilization of radical networks,” said Dr. Rachel Kowert, research director for Take thisa non-profit mental health organization that reduces stigma and builds support for mental health in games.

His cohort, Alex Newhouse, is deputy director of the Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counter Terrorism at Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey. Together, they are at the origin of an unprecedented study on the evolution of gaming and the use of the platform to promote extreme ideologies and radicalization.

“I personally focus on the far right – and it seems the far right is most interested in using gaming platforms,” Newhouse said. “But jihadists and Islamists – they also engage with gaming platforms. They try to recruit teenage boys and girls.”

For those who believe they or their children are safe from extreme propaganda, the Anti-Defamation League has found that nearly one in four people are exposed to white supremacist ideologies on the internet. That’s about 54 million Americans.

“It’s a small group of people, but it’s a very powerful group of people,” Dr. Kowert said. “It was so shocking to me that the number was 23%, it’s so high. How is that possible?”

So shocking, it became the catalyst for Kowert and Newhouse to dive into research to raise awareness. One of the aspects of this trend is the combination of video games with streaming platforms or social media applications.

“Discord and Twitch, which aren’t games – we call them adjoining gaming platforms,” ​​Newhouse said. “And then things like Minecraft and Roblox — things that have some sort of interactivity, they’re games.”

Given this overlap, gamers can stream game sessions live or connect with complete strangers through chats and forums. Which can be great, but also dangerous.

“The problem is that the growth of gaming social networking spaces has exponentially outpaced the way the gaming industry has tracked their moderation,” Dr. Kowert said.

Discord is known as “your place to talk and hang out”. It offers gamers (or anyone with a smartphone) the ability to talk via voice, video, and text. It was specifically identified in the Institute for Strategic Dialogue’s 2020 study as a hub and community for right-wing extremism. In Europe, the country’s counter-terrorism coordinator has doubled down on that warning – saying extremists are increasingly present in digital gaming spaces.

“They shouldn’t leave the game with a stranger — just like you wouldn’t leave the park with a stranger,” Dr. Kowert said. “If someone says, ‘Hey, why don’t you leave this play space and come join these other people on a third-party server,’ that’s usually a red flag, especially for young children.”

Despite this, Rachel points out that research reveals that there are play spaces that offer more good than harm. She adds that there is darkness, however, which is why she and her colleague are working to make games safer.

Ryan Lo’Ree, shared with CBN his former life as a prominent neo-Nazi in an effort to mainstream online hate groups.

“I was a former extremist – I de-radicalized almost 20 years ago,” Lo’Ree said. “I was part of the Rollingwood Skins, an offshoot of one of the greatest National Socialist movements – or Nazi movements – in the United States.”

Lo’Ree said her mission began long before Facebook – using Myspace and earlier social media platforms to seed propaganda. Today he says propaganda can be found on every platform you go to.

“These recruiters, whether it’s jihadism or whatever, they’ve adjusted to where they should be to find the most vulnerable people,” he said.

Finding ways to fund his mission and rise through the ranks, Lo’Ree got into trouble with the law. While his life of crime eventually led to prison, his time behind bars allowed him to distance himself from his extremist group. Her friends and family helped Lo’Ree de-radicalize and ultimately give her life back to Jesus Christ.

“I was born and raised a Christian all my life,” he said. “I think what’s happening is that we can have tunnel vision as Christians and not be open to what other cultures offer.” Lo’Ree went on to say, “I want it to be a shock to people, I want them to know you can be anyone. No one is untouchable from these bands and what they offer. .”

For 10 years, Lo’Ree has helped extremists find a new way to live, through a counterterrorism effort called Parallel networks. He says the only way to open those doors is through conversations and compassion.

“I watched Jesus Christ as he didn’t enter churches to preach to the choir – he went where people were struggling, like adulterers – Mary Magdalene and others.”

“I strongly believe that humanity – we are meant to treat each other with peace and kindness and love; and this lack of empathy that we have in our communities, I believe, is what tears us apart.”

Unfortunately, technology combined with bad actors has torn the social fabric trying to replace community with an online world. That’s why Dr. Kowert wants to remind gamers and others that when things look bad online or in life, they have the power to change things.

“When things seem a little weird, the great thing about games is that you can just switch to another server or switch to a game, or mute that person or block them,” Dr. Kuwait. “You don’t have to engage with people who make you uncomfortable.”

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