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Game Over. The dangerous nexus between Gaming, the Metaverse and violent extremism - Part Two

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Introduction


This analysis describes more in detail and practices how violent extremist groups exploit gaming and related platforms (see Part One), and provides some examples of potential terrorist attacks that could be carried out in the Metaverse.


In the previous analysis, the nature of these two phenomena has been clarified, starting from their definitions and their link to violent extremism, as well as a description of the funding opportunities through the related activities and an overview of the legislative constraints to counter violent extremism, have been provided too.


Otherwise, this second part is focused on some case studies to clarify how gaming and related platforms are ‘hotbeds for radicalization’, and, above all, tools to strengthen the sense of belonging to the extremist group. It also investigates how the Metaverse is an ideal environment to train potential terrorists and simulate attacks having a violent subversive nature.


1. Gaming, chat messaging and live streaming: play, interact, radicalise.

1.1. Foreword


As already mentioned before, the gaming (and related) platforms show some common characteristics, despite their differences: they are used to strengthen the bonds of affiliation among the members of an extremist group within the same chat or channel; they also allow recruitment of new supporters; additionally, they serve as vehicles for the introduction of extremist tropes in other channels, pages and platforms.


Overlooking the first two aspects that have already been examined in the previous section, the trend to spread messages and propaganda by ‘violating’ neutrality and moderation of other discussion spaces is a typical trait of extreme right-wing groups, but can also be found in violent Islamist groups, especially Salafist-jihadists, known as ‘Islamogrammers’.


Raiding is the main activity, based on sending harassing messages to political opponents and key targets (immigrants, the black population, the LGBTQI+ community, Muslims, women, etc., according to the ideological reference group, although sometimes the targets are common to both fringes).


Related to raiding is the so-called trolling, which consists in sending offensive messages with the sole purpose of annoying a specific subject or a selected circle of users for political, religious, racial or, more broadly, ideological reasons.


Another method is shitposting, which refers to the practice of posting messages and content that do not merge with the main topic of the discussion to manipulate this latter by hindering the original debate and hamper the interaction between the victims of such disruptive actions.


1.2. A look at the main gaming and related platforms used by violent extremist groups


For its purposes, the analysis is focused on Steam, Discord, Twitch and DLive platforms, due to their popularity and their number of users.


Steam


Steam is reported as the largest site and service for providing and distributing PC video games. Launched in 2003, the platform currently offers registered users access to various discussion forums and in-game chats with both text and vocal functions that are typical of instant messaging.


Research has shown how this platform is widely used by extremist groups and movements to consolidate existing ties between their supporters, also on a transnational level. Although to a lesser extent, recruitment campaigns by conducting discussions on extremist tropes within the chat rooms of popular games are not excluded, taking advantage of the fact that there are no strict rules on content moderation. It is no coincidence that the messaging functions within Steam are exploited to share links allowing access to sites, blogs, podcasts and Telegram channels – but also to Discord servers, which will be discussed later.


Although there are video games created ad hoc by extremist groups, Steam mainly provides commercial gaming products that are not directly linked to the above-mentioned groups. However, in already radicalised or becoming radicalised users, role-playing games, war and ‘historical strategy’ games equally arouse extremist feelings and views. Indeed, there is evidence that many extreme right-wing supporters share factious political narratives related to historical events of great emotional and ideological significance and impact, such as, for instance, virtually simulating the victory of Nazi Germany during the Second World War or the extermination of entire Muslim factions through a crusade.


Discord


Unlike Steam, Discord does not directly provide services related to the gaming business. Developed in 2011, it is a free service that allows registered users to interact with each other in real-time via text, voice and video messages. The link with gaming is given by the fact that many gamers exploit Discord to improve the quality of their in-game interactions, given the higher performativity compared to other platforms. As on Steam, extremist groups exploit the services available there to recruit or, more so, strengthen the sense of belonging among members.


Due to the extremist nature of many chats, access to them is only allowed once the ideological and cultural synergy of the potential users with the group has been ascertained through determined questions: in the case of neo-Nazi groups, for instance, information on identity, religious beliefs, political opinions, even specific positions on National Socialism and Adolf Hitler are required. Moreover, some groups demand to receive a picture of the would-be member’s arm in order to verify the colour of his/her skin, a sign of how neo-Nazis and white supremacists prevail on this platform: the Atomwaffen and Sonnenkrieg Division are some of the most present and active extreme right-wing groups on Discord[1].


Concerning violent Islamist extremism and jihadist terrorism, this platform has mainly been used by the Islamic State for recruitment purposes and to entice potential ‘lone wolves’ to carry out attacks in their home countries.


Twitch


The nature and purpose of Twitch are even more specific. Launched in 2011, it offers a live streaming service to its users, most of whom start live streams to show their followers their gaming sessions.


The use by violent extremists is remarkable. Having recognized the symbolic weight of war or historical strategy online games for radicalised or vulnerable to radicalisation that leads to violent extremism, launching a live stream dedicated to such video games enables the promotion of narratives focused on extremist propaganda. Moreover, users can monetise their content, using their live streams to self-fund or finance their extremist group of reference.


However, perhaps the most problematic aspect (though certainly not the only one) is the tendency of many individuals, even ‘lone wolves’, to initiate live streaming of their attacks, as happened in October 2016 with the attack on the Halle synagogue. Although not live, many streaming sessions involved meetings and discussion spaces in support of the riot in Capitol Hill, on the 6th of January 2021[2].


DLive


Similar to Twitch, DLive is another live-streaming platform created in 2017 with the same functions and opportunities for monetization. One major difference, however, concerns the affiliation that extremist groups have with this platform, which is far less than with the others analyzed there. The use of DLive seems to be due solely to a convenience factor, given the greater freedom in sharing content that this service allows its users.

Image not copyrighted (Source: Moka Adv)

1.3. Case studies

Games developed and/or favoured by the extreme right


Along with what has been stated above, the video game contents most favoured by the violent extreme right supporters refer to discriminatory, racist, anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim narratives. One of the most evident examples of games specifically developed or readapted to spread a certain extremist and violent ideology is Minecraft. In it, it is indeed possible to freely reproduce a Nazi concentration camp. Moreover, some users built a similar model to recall forced labour camps where members of the Muslim Uyghur community in China's Xinjiang province are imprisoned.

A reproduction of a Nazi concentration camp within the Minecraft game. Source: BBC

As proof of the racist nature of certain extremist narratives, on the other hand, it is possible to find on Roblox a game in which the main objective is to run over all ‘black’ pedestrians or members of an ethnic minority with a car.

The game is available on Roblox. Source: BBC

Games developed and/or favoured by the Islamist violent extremism


The tendency to proselytise or reinforce violent extremist identities through the dimension of gaming is not unfamiliar even to Islamist violent extremism.


As early as the beginning of the 2000s, the most extremist military wing of the Hezbollah party developed its video games. Special Force”, which is considered the most popular, replicates a war scenario where the player covers the role of a Hezbollah fighter aiming to destroy the Israeli ‘Defense Forces’. The first release, dating back to the Israeli retreat from South Lebanon, was later followed by a second version, which was based on the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel war.


The armed group also developed a video game honouring the internal Muslim warfare, plunging the player into a firefight against the Sunni enemy forces of the Islamic State in Lebanon and Syria. “Holy Defence”, Hezbollah's latest game product, has been distributed throughout Lebanon with intensive promotion campaigns. Like its predecessors, it reproduces, in a propagandistic key, scenarios of real events, this time involving the 2013 clashes against the Islamic State.

“Holy Defence”, the videogame distributed by Hezbollah. Source: Middle East Eye

Also on the Sunni front, first al-Qaeda and then the Islamic State have developed video games for propaganda purposes. The first organization subverted the ideas of the “great Western enemy” by reversing the roles: drawing inspiration from the video game "Quest for Saddam," they released the jihadist version Quest for Bush in 2003. While in the U.S. version, the ultimate goal of the game was to kill Iraqi soldiers and capture Saddam Hussein, in the Qaedist version the player takes on the role of a suicide bomber committed to murdering the President of the United States of America.


Newer, but likewise inspired by a Western video game, is the jihadist version of “Grand Theft Auto” developed by ISIS under the name Salil al-Sawarim (the clang of swords).

“Salil al-Sawarim”, ISIS videogame. Source: The Defense Post

2. Possible and dangerous implications in the Metaverse: from virtual to reality


That the Metaverse has to some extent lowered geographical barriers, facilitating interconnection between individuals and groups in increasingly similar ways, if not replaceable, to reality, is now a fact.



Even without necessarily waiting for a terrorist attack to occur, the Metaverse dimension already has episodes of gender-based or even sexual violence within it. Both employees of the Meta company and ordinary users of the platform have reported experiencing abuse and violence from other users. As derisory as it may seem to suffer such actions in an environment other than a physical one, victims of abuse and violence in the Metaverse have suffered emotional and psychological trauma. What needs to be considered is that the use of this digital and virtual world is possible because of the use of devices that mimic sensory capabilities that exist in real and physical space: visors, objects from augmented reality, and joysticks that develop the sense of touch and enable movement. It is therefore not surprising that those who experienced violence in the Metaverse partially felt the same sensations as in the real world. There was no actual physical violence, but the vibrations produced by the devices on one’s body, listening to the voice of the perpetrator, and the immersion in the digital space that obscured the physical one effectively brought into a dimension perceived by the victims as real.


If it is true that the goal of a terrorist attack is to generate panic, fear and chaos in the minds of target populations, conducting an attack in the Metaverse enables the same results as an attack in the physical world.


Technology thus facilitates the perception of danger in the digital environment. Below are two obvious examples of how this is possible:

  • human joystick

It is a hacking action aimed at leading unconsciously an individual immersed in the Metaverse to another location in physical and real space. Through an altered virtual space, the individual undergoing this type of remote control, wearing possible augmented reality tools, loses the right references to move in the real environment in which he/she finds himself/herself. By doing so, the hacker can make the victim converge to a specific point in the physical space, concretely putting him/her in danger[3].

  • chaperone attack

Similar to the previous action in terms of purpose (exposing a target individual to a specific threat), this attack does not act directly on the victim but put the victim in danger by changing the boundaries of the virtual space. If, in the first case, the hacker took control of the joystick of his target, in this one, it is the malicious modification of the space in the Metaverse that misleads the victim in his orientation in the real world while in an immersive session using VR technology [4].


What about exploiting the Metaverse to enhance attack and destruction capabilities in the real world? This has already been addressed in the previous analysis. For the sake of clarity, a basic description is given here, which is useful for understanding the danger of exploiting this dimension by terrorist groups. As previously written, “the Metaverse thus promises new opportunities to exert influence through fear, threat, and coercion.[8] In this regard, the digital dimension offers opportunities both for recruitment purposes, making it easier for members and potential followers to meet and keep in touch, and for coordination ones. Many terrorist groups are improving their operational capabilities to plan attacks in this dimension and translate them into the real world. For example, they could virtually move around or within a specific location that is a reliable replica of an existing location (e.g., an embassy), learn viable and efficient routes, and coordinate alternative ones if some turn out to be blocked or inaccessible. Additionally, as already anticipated, while attacking the physical world, augmented reality objects (e.g., virtual arrows), can guide violent extremists in the field to move and identify targets. As one can easily deduce, this poses a high-security risk to individuals and critical infrastructure.” [5]


Conclusions


The analysis of Gaming and the Metaverse as spaces for violent extremism has highlighted the importance to have a thorough understanding of the virtual environment, actors, and mechanisms that trigger, encourage, and facilitate pathways of radicalisation, reinforcement of extremist ideologies, and planning of terrorist attacks. P/CVE and counterterrorism practitioners appear to be trailing in investigating and recognising the hazards inherent in these new spaces, even though these two dimensions have not yet reached their maximum level of technological development and performative potential.


Given the lack of agreement in defining 'radicalisation,' 'violent extremism,' and 'terrorism,' as well as the increasingly blurring boundaries between different types of violent extremism, the inclusion of new dimensions in which these threats can manifest their impacts.


(download the analysis)

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Note

[1] A. GALLAGHER, C. O’CONNOR, P. VAUX, E. THOMAS and J. DAVEY, The Extreme Right on Discord, Institute for Strategic Dialogue, August 2021, pp. 4-7. https://www.isdglobal.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/04-gaming-report-discord.pdf [2] C. O’ CONNOR, The Extreme Right on Twitch, Institute for Strategic Dialogue, September 2021, p. 4. https://www.isdglobal.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/05-gaming-report-twitch.pdf [3] J. LIBERATORE, “Ecco i 7 potenziali rischi nel metaverso per i privati e per le aziende”, in Forbes, April 19, 2022. https://forbes.it/2022/04/19/ecco-i-7-potenziali-rischi-nel-metaverso-per-i-privati-e-per-le-aziende/ [4] Ibidem. [5] D. LAURETTA, S. SENNO, “Game Over. The dangerous nexus between Gaming, the Metaverse and violent extremism - Part One”, in AMIStaDeS – Fai Amicizia con il Sapere, January 3, 2023. https://en.amistades.info/post/game-over-dangerous-nexus-gaming-metaverse-violent-extremism


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