Video games: The alt-right’s radicalisation toolkit in the West | #cybersecurity | #cyberattack

Alt-right’s radicalisation of youth and adults has moved beyond online chat forums and grassroots demonstrations to video games’ virtual reality, particularly in the western world, through avenues such as Roblox. If remained uncontained, these threats can blur the lines between radicalisation and terrorism over time. However, despite this phenomenon’s widespread chokehold, effective government-enforced sanctions and policies are predominantly absent from the public domain. This is so because efforts to dismantle a skewed sense of solidarity and kinship nurtured between gamers have still not been put into play by counter-terrorism experts and officials. Instead, while not wholly devoted, their (experts and officials) focus has primarily remained confined to radical Salafist Islamism promulgated by groups like the Islamic State (IS) and the Al-Qaeda, or Hanafi-Deobandism by the Taliban, and similar tactics previously adopted by the IS.

Consequently, incomplete counter-radicalisation strategies and policy frameworks devised by the state apparatus have provided alt-right groups and individuals sufficient leeway to gradually seep into the societal framework and normalise their efforts to dehumanise the “others” in a developing dystopian climate.

For example, reports of a video game titled Ethnic Cleansing centred around a neo-Nazi skinhead hunting down and shooting targets belonging to minority communities – Jews, Mexicans, and Africans – in an apparent race war emerged. National Alliance, a neo-Nazi organisation created the game in 2002. The virulent rhetoric promoted by its music division’s advertisement barely scrapes the layer of hatred and violent indoctrination that teenagers, particularly Americans, became subjected to over the years –

“In this game, the Race War has already begun. Your character, Will, runs through a ghetto blasting away at various blacks and spics to attempt to gain entrance to the subway system … where the jews [sic] have hidden to avoid the carnage. Then you get to blow away jews as they scream ‘Oy Vey!’ on your way to the command center.”

On the other hand, radicalised persons have virtually attempted to recreate alt-right terrorist attacks. For example, gamers playing Roblox have had opportunities to recreate the horrific mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, which occurred in 2019, or the Walmart shooting in El Paso, Texas, during the same year. Collectively, these terrorist attacks had killed more than 70 unarmed civilians, with primary targets being Muslims in the first event and Hispanics and Latinos in the second.

Unravelling the virtual reality’s security dilemma

While constituting a minuscule sample size, these violent acts underscore the frightening security dilemma confronting the trans-Pacific community. Concurrently, they bring to the fore the lapse on the part of security and law-enforcement officials to push the policymakers to securitise the gaming arena. The former’s initiative is crucial for bringing to the governments’ attention the ramifications of unhindered leeway accorded to alt-right proponents in virtual reality. State administrations generally swamped with civil and defence-administrative matters might not otherwise accord the required attention this grave issue deserves.

The continuing surge of the pandemic and its variants have also fomented pathways for alt-right leaders to recruit people who have increasingly experienced anxiety and isolation amid the stringent restrictions imposed by their governments. They [gamers] are looking for ways to overcome the loss of close-knitted bonds and a sense of normalcy.

What is more worrisome is that officials caught amid these developments have laid out the trends that indicate a growing security threat, including in the United Kingdom (UK), which has recently witnessed a spate of terrorist attacks. Matt Jukes, the head of the UK’s Metropolitan Police’s [Met Police] Counter-Terrorism Division, has presented findings on alt-right’s recruitment through video games and the percentage of arrests on terrorist charges last year. For example, right-wing individuals represented 41 percent of counter-terrorism-related arrests in 2021.

On the other hand, until the recent changes made to Crusader Kings, a video game created by Paradox, a Swedish company, neo-Nazis were running amuck, promoting a distorted Middle Ages narrative. The second version of this game, launched in 2014, had an option to expel Jews from a homogenous Christian kingdom, militarily guarded against threats posed by non-whites. Selling at least one million copies in the initial year of its launch, it also popularised the rally crying given by Pope Urban II – Deus Vult or God Wills It – during the first crusade against the Muslims. However, until Paradox launched the preview of its third season in 2020, it laid the foundations of a virtual and utopian dystopia, aligning with the divisive agenda of the alt-right.

Since 2016, the populist and extreme alt-right wave has swept North America and Europe to varying degrees. Therefore, it has become more relevant for game makers to rein in the neo-fascist and neo-Nazi users who are manufacturing the truth to fuel domestic political violence, and disorder on which they thrive. Islamophobia and anti-Semitism target vulnerable communities that have, for centuries, been subjected to widespread tyranny and unprecedented violence.  

In November 2017, Angry Goy II, a video game released by a white supremacist, Christopher Cantwell, incorporated a mission where users could break inside LGBTQ+ Agenda HQ, a gay club, and massacre everyone present.

Unsurprisingly, the virulent narrative spanning these video games is directed against women, Jews, and Muslims. These are the three categories of individuals whom the alt-right have relegated to positions of second-class citizens, only worthy of serving the “superior” race through absolute submission and erosion of their individualistic identities. Notably, most of those arrested belong to families part of mainstream society.

Moreover, forums such as Roblox and Minecraft have provided means for like-minded radicalised individuals to connect with fellow gamers and embrace the solidarity offered to lone-wolves, via interactive Nazi concentration camps-based games. The brotherhood cultivated by alt-right leaders under these circumstances provides disgruntled and isolated individuals avenues for expressing their shared grievances against a particular community or perhaps the state establishment perceived to be unjustly supporting the non-members by taking on racially-driven characters and through chat rooms. Although having been taken down a few years ago, specific profiles on Roblox flagged by a concerned mother were proactively engaged in disseminating anti-Semitic and white supremacist propaganda. One of the users had even developed an avatar of Gavin McInnes, the founder of Proud Boys – a misogynist, neo-fascist, and a politically violent American organisation, whose members participated in the Capitol Hill riots.

Jason Blazakis, a Professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, had earlier raised his concerns surrounding such games. He expressed his fearf that gamers, mainly the younger generation, could be caught in the trap of jargon and memes promoted by neo-Nazi groups as the latter advance their extremist alt-right agendas. Alex Newhouse, a professor at the same institute, has argued that “There are individuals who are actively on the lookout or people they think can be spun out into a mass shooter or a terrorist.”

Overcoming the pitfalls of gamers’ radicaliation

While several concerned users or organisations have spotlighted these profiles and urged gaming companies to take stringent action, and Roblox has hired thousands of content moderators to pursue and remove such instigators, their efforts have continued to fall short. The challenge is that private companies will continue to fall short of preventing their games from becoming hotbeds of radicalisation without equitable support from state institutions and legislation. Unfortunately, some companies also fail in this objective because of their profit-driven strategy to recruit increasing users who, under the radar, forge connections with alt-right organisations such as the British Nationalist Vanguard and The Patriotic Front.

Furthermore, close coordination and synergy between civil society cyber activists, government officials, and private industry is paramount to ensure that a bottom-up approach can compensate where a top-down strategy to counter alt-right trolls and propagandists fails.

Additionally, laws as per the advice of gaming and cyber experts to minimise opportunities for persona non grata to join and spread harmful content on such forums should be implemented gradually. Empowered nationwide specially-trained personnel must lead this change. However, the drive to institute these reforms is insufficient. Instead, a defined timeline to implement the desired transformations, backed by a gradual and simultaneous replacement of redundant measures by these overhauls, is equally pertinent.

Additionally, administrations worldwide need to work in consort with gaming psychologists and the judicial branches to constitutionally introduce policy reforms to recruit, via an undisputed mechanism, capable individuals with experience and theoretical knowledge to form a sub-section within bureaucracies. These personnel would provide lawmakers with relevant knowledge to introduce the aforementioned overhauls. Without fulfilling this gap within this institution, governments will always find it challenging to step up to this task. Moreover, educational curricula detailing the alt-right agenda and its dangers spilling into the virtual reality should be adequately disseminated across academic institutions to forewarn the upcoming generation about what the gaming world might entail.

Also, mainstream and local media have an influential role in shaping this discourse. On national and regional levels, they can relay informative stories about how impressionable youth are vulnerable to radical indoctrination by alt-right propagandists. Furthermore, personalised stories of affected families can add a human touch to the counter-response and forewarn numerous persons about being more vigilant and closely monitoring their children’s gaming activities and their manufactured ideological leanings shaped by radicalised leaders. Moreover, equipped NGOs to rehabilitate and re-assimilate affected gamers into mainstream society need to be set up at the grassroots levels.

Perhaps equally, if not more crucial, is to turn the strategy adopted by the alt-right on its head. Gaming platforms used to instigate hostility and cultivate an insular attitude among the users could also be used to fester inclusivity and accommodation.

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