How Extremist Groups Are Using Video Games To Recruit Young People — And How You Can Avoid Them


Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

By Movieguide® Contributor

A new study found that extremist groups are using video games to recruit vulnerable young people.

The study seeks to provide advice for parents looking to protect their children from these groups. 

Dr. Rachel Kowert, Research Director for Take This, a mental health non-profit decreasing stigma and increasing support for mental health in games, and Alex Newhouse, Deputy Director of the Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counter Terrorism at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, have teamed up to study how extremist groups are using gaming platforms.

“I personally focus on the far right – and it appears the far right is the most interested in using game platforms,” Newhouse said. “But jihadists and Islamists – they engage with gaming platforms, too. They try to recruit teens and adolescents.”

While many believe that they and their loved ones are safe from extremist content, this is not always true. 

The Anti-Defamation League has found that about one in four people are exposed to white supremacist ideologies on the internet, or about 54-million Americans. 

“It’s a small group of people, but it’s a very powerful group of people,” Dr. Kowert said. “It was so shocking to me that the number was 23-percent, that’s so high. How is that possible?” 

Adding to this issue is the rise in gaming platforms. Many video game sites now have a social aspect to them, like Roblox and Minecraft. Users connect with other players and sometimes forge friendships. 

“The problem is the growth of games’ social networking spaces has exponentially outpaced the way the gaming industry has kept up with their moderation,” Dr. Kowert explained. 

It can be difficult to spot someone targeting your child online, but Dr. Kowert did have some tips. 

“They shouldn’t leave the game with a stranger – just like you wouldn’t leave the park with a stranger,” Dr. Kowert said. “If somebody’s saying, ‘hey, why don’t you leave this gaming space and come join these other people on a third-party server,’ that’s usually a red flag – especially for younger children.”

She also reminded people that the easiest way to remove yourself from bad situations is to remove yourself from the game. 

“When things seem a little off – the good things about games is you can just switch to a different server or switch to a game, or mute that person or block that person,” said Dr. Kowert. “You don’t have to engage with people who make you feel uncomfortable.”

Others are attempting to fight these groups directly. Ryan Lo’Nee is a former Neo-Nazi who was “de-radicalized.” He now spends his life working with Parallel Networks, a counter-terrorism group. 

“I was born and raised a Christian my whole life,” Lo’Nee shared. “I think what happens is we can get tunnel vision as Christians and don’t open up to what other cultures do offer.” Lo’Ree went on to say, “I want it to be a shock to people, I want them to know that you can be anybody. Nobody is untouchable from these groups and what they offer.”

He continued, “I looked at Jesus Christ as he didn’t go into churches to preach to the choir – he went out to where people were struggling, like adulterers – Mary Magdalene and others. I’m a firm believer that humanity – we are supposed to treat each other with peace, kindness and love; and this lack of empathy we have in our communities, I believe, is what’s tearing us apart.”

Movieguide® previously reported on the link between violence and video-game use:

More American politicians and citizens, including Pres. Trump, are calling for the country’s leaders and people to consider the effects of media violence on mass shootings, in the wake of three recent mass shootings in California and Ohio that left 34 people dead and many more wounded, in the space of only one week.

Thousands of studies have shown that depictions of violence in the mass media can lead to actual violent behavior among consumers of such violence, especially children and teenagers.

Two new double-blind studies, one on movies conducted in 2017 and a follow-up study on video games conducted in 2019, show that watching characters use guns in movies and video games can encourage children to use guns, Dr. Brad Bushman, Professor of Communications and Psychology at Ohio State University, reported in a recent article in Psychology Today.

In the 2017 study, 104 children aged 8-12 were tested in pairs who knew each other. The children were “randomly assigned to watch a 20-minute clip from a PG movie with guns or the same clip with the guns edited out.” After watching the clips, the children were able to play for 20 minutes with toys, with a real disabled 9-mm handgun hidden in a cabinet.

Bushman said 72 percent of the children, 75 children, found the handgun.

“Children who watched the movie clip with guns held the handgun longer (53.1 seconds versus 11.1 seconds),” Bushman writes, “and pulled the trigger more times (2.8 times versus 0.01 times) than those who saw the same movie clip without guns.”

Bushman adds, “One boy pointed the real gun out the laboratory window at people in the street.”

In the 2019 study on video games, 220 children aged 8-12 were also tested in pairs. In this study, however, the children played one of three versions of the same video game, one version where the player could kill monsters with guns, one where they could kill monsters with swords, and one with no weapons or monsters. Also, two handguns were hidden in the toy cabinet.

“Children who played the video game with guns handled the gun longer (91.5 seconds versus 71.7 seconds in the sword condition and 36.1 seconds in the nonviolent condition), pulled the trigger more times (10.1 times versus 3.6 times in the sword condition and 3.09 times in the nonviolent condition), including at themselves or their partner (3.4 times versus 1.5 times in the sword condition and 0.2 times in the nonviolent condition).”

Bushman concludes, “Taken together, these studies suggest that exposure to violence in the media can increase children’s dangerous behavior around real firearms.”

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