Three video games released this summer that promote violent extreme-right beliefs are part of a disturbing trend of free to play games specifically designed as extremist propaganda and recruitment tools. Video games created by extremist groups and individuals seeking to spread violent ideologies pose a unique challenge to those working to prevent and combat radicalization, and their sinister potential has yet to be fully appreciated by tech companies and distributors.
With over 214 million players in the United States in 2020, and two billion globally, extremist groups have recognized the potential of video games for spreading their beliefs. People of all ages play games. According to the Entertainment Software Association, U.S. video game sales in 2019 were $35.4 billion. This growing economic sector has led to the expansion of academic and job training programs centered on the video games industry, which has led to an increase in the number of individual creators and the greater accessibility and simplification of development software.
The creation of video games by bad actors is not new. Since at least the early 2000s, extremist groups have produced their own games, such as Hezbollah’s 2003 “Special Force,” (with a 2007 sequel), the neo-Nazi music label Resistance Records 2002 game “Ethnic Cleansing,” and the 2006 National Socialist Movement game “ZOG’s Nightmare.” In two neo-Nazi indie games released in 2017 and 2018, players murder Jews, people of color, leftists, and LGBT people. These games’ existence does not mean that players are instantly brainwashed into committing acts of terrorism. However, they allow extremist groups to advertise, encourage the dehumanization of their perceived opponents, and portray violence as a positive. Screenshots and soundtracks may also be shared online, including on web forums that have banned the games.
While extremist games are not novel, they are becoming easier to produce through the democratization of technology. The barriers to game creation are lowering as new development software is released and the skills necessary to build games become more widespread. This not only means that games can be created faster than a few years ago, but that they can depict very recent events. Low graphics and browser-based games especially fall into this category. At least three extreme-right video games were released this summer. One game, advertised on 8chan successor imageboards, Gab, and extreme-right Telegram channels, allows the player to commit vehicular attacks against Black Lives Matter protestors. Another, also advertised on extreme-right Telegram channels, allows the player, as Kyle Rittenhouse, to shoot anti-fascist protestors. The third game, available on the Steam gaming platform, first noted by a German anti-fascist researcher, promotes the extreme right-wing nationalist group Generation Identity (GI).
Tech companies have to do better in recognizing the extremist video game trend, enforce their Terms of Service where they exist to prevent the spread of these games, and modify their terms to avoid gaps in enforcement. YouTube’s Community Guidelines pertaining to violent criminal organizations prohibits clips of “video game content which has been developed or modified (‘modded’) to glorify a violent event, its perpetrators, or support violent criminal or terrorist organizations.” As a result, video of the Rittenhouse game was removed for Terms of Service violations. However, footage from the other two games released this summer were easily located. As of September 16, the GI linked game is still available on Steam. The platform does not have a report option for games that endorse or are created by extremists.
Games developed by or on behalf of groups and individuals that promote extremism, racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, or transphobia need to be treated as propaganda tools. Tech companies, including game distributors and file hosting sites, should make it their enforceable policy to remove all content that promotes extremist groups. One of the pro-Generation Identity game creators noted with pleasure that it drew significant web traffic and was a great way to appeal to youth. Clearly, the creators of these games see their potential. It is time tech companies do as well.