Last December, the Guardian published a leaked NSA document by whistle-blower Edward Snowden that discussed the threat of terrorists’ uses of ‘Games and Virtual Environments’ (GVE). The NSA and GCHQ have been systematically infiltrating popular game servers to spy on users, with the aim of countering potential terrorist activity.
They are concerned about the potential for the radicalisation and recruitment of gamers into extremist organisations or terrorist groups. While the launch of the much anticipated next-generation gaming consoles Xbox One and PS4 will enhance the virtual gaming experience, some believe this world could provide a sophisticated platform to exploit others, and a fresh arena to recruit into extremist movements, terrorist groups or foreign conflicts. But is there really a credible threat?
Gaming content has come under increased scrutiny as more explicit, graphic and sometimes controversial content is offered to customers. Prominent First-Person Shooter (FPS) franchise Call of Duty has been periodically criticised for some of its content. Drawing on narratives from existing conflicts, it has shaped its own ‘fictional’ storylines around real life scenarios. Many plots have pitted American troops against Muslim terrorist factions. Primary antagonists include an enemy known as ‘al-Asad’; a virtual storyline playing into the current conflict in Syria. The popularity of the Call of Duty brand has been used as propaganda by Syrian rebels. An underlying message is promoted that reinforces prejudices and cultural stereotypes and endorses an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ narrative between ‘Muslims’ and ‘the West’.
Extremists have also attempted to use popular gaming culture to rationalise real-life conflicts to those who are not able to critically engage with the content, particularly young men. Hezbollah famously launched ‘Special Force 2’ to glamourise the conflict with Israel, and ‘educate’ upcoming generations on the importance of their struggle. ‘Foreign fighters’ in Syria have also uploaded videos onto the internet mimicking the perspective of a First-Person Shooter (FPS) to try to tap into this market as a possible recruitment ground.
Meanwhile, Arid Uka, convicted of murdering two US airmen in Frankfurt in 2011, obsessively played violent video games whilst watching jihadist propaganda videos online during his process of radicalisation. Far-right terrorist Anders Breivik also discussed ‘training’ on Call of Duty.
Next-generation consoles would have the capacity to accelerate this process. But to those who have not yet been radicalised, or young people seeking a purpose via the medium of gaming, this is where counter-narratives to extremism may be the most valuable.
Gaming corporations have the resources, manpower and technical expertise to actively counter extremist narratives and prevent online recruitment. They have the capacity to work with actors in this field to develop subtle counter-narratives for their system interfaces, to enable users to critically engage with and think about the content of games and agendas of fellow users. Given the evidence to suggest that these platforms are being used by extremists, counter narratives can be part of a long term project to counter this.
Ideally, educational messages and positive real-world connections to games can be tailored for those who are most susceptible to extremist narratives, and unable to critically engage or detect bias in a subject or story. Using experience and technological expertise, gaming companies can create impressive visual displays and alluring videos that attract users to them through innovative interfaces, to deliver carefully crafted counter-messages. Gaming platforms are in many ways an ideal space to create positive identities and build resistance to extremist narratives. They could be another tool in the struggle against extremism online, and could throw weight behind the call to end government surveillance of these platforms.
Last December, the world’s leading technology companies came together to demand comprehensive changes to US surveillance law as a response to disclosures by Edward Snowden. Microsoft is one of a number of companies supporting Barack Obama’s proposed reforms. They are clearly concerned about their customers’ privacy and confidentiality being compromised. However, they may not recognise the potential for their new hardware and software to be used by extremists.
Covert government surveillance and infiltration reaffirms the extremist narratives of both far right and Islamist movements. Their shared anti-government conspiracy theories are vindicated. With this new leak now exposed to gamers worldwide, covert infiltration can only serve to foment an atmosphere of distrust in the gaming public – distrust both of government and gaming providers, alienating a vast reserve of dedicated, enthusiastic and loyal fans that pump millions of pounds into the market each year.
Still, gaming companies occupy a much stronger position to create effective and legitimate counter-narratives than governments. Having gaming companies on board in this field is critical and can illustrate gaming corporations’ guardianship over their genuine, law-abiding users. It would also indicate a willingness to make their service secure. They should use their powerful position of authority to attempt to tackle extremism head on, with the gaming fraternity, civil society, and charities.
To their credit, governments and civil society are trying to develop useful counter-narratives. Still, gaming corporations have a vital role to play in this space, one that is no longer optional. They have a duty of care that is mutually beneficial, which can enhance their reputation, protect their users, and aid governments in their efforts to tackle extremism and terrorism.
The rapid evolution and innovation of the console gaming market will continue. Next-generation consoles’ hi-tech assembly of social networking apps, private voice-chat forums and instant video upload capability, combined with game content resembling real-world scenarios, make them a potential paradise for extremists, who could easily thrive in this space if left unchecked. Next-generation gaming calls for next-generation responsibility and action.