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The video game Animal Crossing: New Horizons is supposed to be a bucolic, adorable utopia where the player’s chief concerns typically include catching butterflies, designing clothes to sell in an online marketplace, and landscaping their islands to impress visitors.
On one recent day, an Animal Crossing player took to Twitter to complain about an upsetting incident. They’d unwittingly welcomed two visitors, whose avatars appeared dressed in KKK robes and a T-shirt emblazoned with a swastika, onto their island.
Animal Crossing is widely considered a “sandbox game”, meaning players are given a lot of freedom to build their own worlds—and in some cases, create their extremist fantasies, which they seek to lure others into.
That’s just one way extremists use gaming spaces to spread their propaganda, and reach, radicalize, and recruit young followers, according to a new report by New York University.
The report makes clear that they are not suggesting in any way that playing video games is itself a gateway to violence or radicalization. Instead, they’re arguing that inadequate moderation has made multiplayer games and gaming platforms, such as Discord or Twitch, fertile ground for extremism.
A survey of 1,128 gamers in the U.S., UK, France, Germany and Korea found that 51% reported encountering some form of extremist statement or narrative while playing multiplayer games in the last year.
Players under the age of 18 were more likely to encounter statements promoting white supremacy, genocide or political violence, than their adult counterparts, the survey found.
Extremists have long manipulated video games and gaming culture, but the report offers some fresh insight into the scope and persistence of the problem, and outlines the different ways that gaming spaces are used by extremists. Some extremist groups make their own video games, and others use modding to hijack video game narratives. In-game chat functions allow extremists to reach potential recruits, as do video game platforms such as Discord and Twitch. And finally, extremists have also co-opted video game aesthetics and tropes to broaden their appeal and promote violence in real-life contexts.
The authors of the report argue that the gaming industry needs to act fast: suggestions they make include hiring more human moderators and improving AI tools that can identify extremist content in real time during voice chats. This is urgent because the video game industry is enjoying a significant boom, and its worlds are becoming ever more complex, especially with the expansion of immersive virtual reality.
GamerGate in 2014, which is seen as being one of the precursors to the emergence of the “alt-right”, drew attention to toxic, misogynistic, violent gaming subculture. Around that time, reports also highlighted how ISIS were integrating video games aesthetics into their propaganda to draw in new recruits from around the world.
In 2019, the white supremacist who attacked two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, peppered his attack and manifesto with references to popular video games. He live streamed his deadly attack, which left 51 dead, in a way that resembled the perspective in a first-person shooter game.
An investigation into the massacre by New Zealand’s government found that the shooter was enmeshed in a community of online gamers where he spread his racist, extremist propaganda, and regularly engaged in role-playing and first-person shooter online games. The shooter’s stylistic flourishes and references to gaming were quickly co-opted by copycats in Poway, California and Halle, Germany. Online extremists cheered those attacks on as they unfolded, urging each to outdo one another with their “high score” — by which they meant the number of people killed.
The report found that this has continued to be a “trend” among mass shooters. The white nationalist who targeted Black supermarket shoppers in Buffalo, New York, last year kept a diary on the gaming platform Discord, and invited a select group from that community to watch the livestream of his attack on Twitch.
Extremists in gaming communities aren’t only looking to radicalize and recruit other gamers—they’re making those spaces less safe in other ways. The report also found that 34 percent of multiplayer gamers across the US, UK, France, Germany, and Korea reported experiencing “severe harassment” in the last year, defined as “stalking, hate-raiding, sexual harassment, violent threats, doxing or swatting.”