DHS awards nearly $700,000 for research into extremism in games

The initiative is a collaboration between a handful of organizations. Dr. Rachel Kowert, research director of Take This, spoke to GameDaily about the funding.

The Department of Homeland Security this week has approved a nearly $700,000 grant for an investigation into the connection between video games and extremism.

“Over the past decade, video games have increasingly become focal points of social activity and identity creation for adolescents and young adults,” the grant text reads. “Relationships made and fostered within game ecosystems routinely cross over into the real world and are impactful parts of local communities. Correspondingly, extremists have used video games and targeted video game communities for activities ranging from propaganda creation to terrorist mobilization and training.”

The investigation will be a joint venture between the Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism (CTEC), AI developer Logically, and Take This, an advocate for positive mental health in the games sector.

For some time, the intersection of extremism and game communities has been the primary subject of investigation for Dr. Rachel Kowert, research director at Take This. Many popular game platforms have become a hotbed of recruitment for violent extremists and white supremacy groups, although very little research has gone into researching this phenomenon. 

Preliminary studies have shown a strong link between unmoderated game spaces and hate group recruitment, but very little official research has gone into the subject. For years, Dr. Kowert has sought to change this, and in a phone call with GameDaily, she expressed excitement at the new DHS funding.

Over the last few years, Kowert has been working closely with Alex Newhouse, deputy director at the CTEC; at this year’s GDC, the two gave a talk on the state of extremist behavior in video games. The panel was focused largely on sandbox gaming platforms Roblox and Minecraft, as well as Valve’s digital marketplace Steam. 

A concerning statistic with Roblox is the fact that 24% of players are under 13 years old, and the game is one of the most popular destinations for recruitment.

Kowert and Newhouse began with a fairly simple question, Kowert said: “why do games foster extremism?” After all, games are primarily a form of entertainment. However, many are also part social network. Think about MMOs like World of Warcraft or Final Fantasy XIV and all the communication that goes on there. Kowert’s goal is to study the social dynamics of this environment and determine why extremism appears to flourish there.

The pair jumped at the chance to increase the scale of their research when the DHS announced that it would open applications for grant money, Kowert told GameDaily, and hopes the influx can bring more attention to the problem. In fact, that’s one of Kowert’s short-term goals: raise awareness of the link between extremism and games. This, she hopes, will lead to the creation of tools to combat the issue at its roots.

Kowert's interest in the subject was piqued partially by a 2019 survey from the Anti Defamation League that studied harassment in online games. According to the findings, 79% of all Dota 2 players experienced some form of harassment, while 75% of players of Counter-Strike, Overwatch, PUBG, and League of Legends reported the same. 53% of online players believed they were targeted due to their race/ethnicity, religion, ability, gender, or sexual orientation.

Considering these statistics, it’s not much of a stretch to connect harassment to extremism. This will be Kowert and Newhouse’s prerogative as their research continues. The goal is to produce quantitative research that will lead to concerted efforts to address the problem. The DHS has clearly seen something worthy of funding, and hopefully the industry will see some sort of reform as a result.

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Editor-in-Chief

Sam, the Editor-in-Chief of GameDaily.biz, is a former freelance game reporter. He's been seen at IGN, PCGamesN, PCGamer, Unwinnable, and many more. When not writing about games, he is most likely taking care of his two dogs or pretending to know a lot about artisan coffee. Get in touch with Sam by emailing him at  sdesatoff@rektglobal.com or follow him on Twitter.