Since the online harassment campaign known as Gamergate, in which sections of the gaming world hounded female journalists with rape, bomb, and death threats, it’s been presumed that gaming culture has an extremism problem. Yet the specifics of this relationship have remained unclear. How widespread is the problem? How do extremists use games? And, of course, a point of morbid curiosity: What games do extremists play?
New research published by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), a counter-extremism think tank, attempts to answer these questions. Investigating the online strategies of the far right, the ISD has found that several major gaming platforms play host to extremist activity—from racially abusive livestreams to open support for neo-Nazi terrorists.
The ISD investigated four platforms: Steam, Discord, DLive, and Twitch. It analyzed 24 far-right chat servers on Discord, 45 public groups associated with the far right on Steam, 100 far-right channels on DLive, and 91 channels and 73 videos on Twitch. These spaces were publicly accessible and the ISD did not look at closed channels, such as private chats or groups requiring passwords. The authors speculate these would likely be home to more coordinated radical groups.
The entrenchment of these communities varied across platforms. Of the four, it’s Steam that has the most severe problem. The ISD found a “well established, large network” of far-right communities, some dating back as far as 2016. “The content we encountered on Discord and Steam was more egregious than the content you would expect to easily find on mainstream social media platforms, but at a smaller scale than you would expect find on alt-tech platforms such as Gab and Telegram,” explains Jacob Davey, head of research and policy of far-right and hate movements at the ISD. “I think Steam in particular is noteworthy because the communities there are several years old, suggesting that the extreme right is well entrenched on the platform.”
The investigation found two Steam groups with links to violent terrorist organizations: one to the Nordic Resistance Movement, connected to bombings in Gothenburg in 2016 and 2017, and another to the Misanthropic Division, a Russian group active in Ukraine, Germany, and the UK.
Extremist usage of the platform varies. Some, such as groups linked to political movements such as Generation Identity or Britain First, weren’t found to be posting gamer-specific content; instead, they used Steam as a social media platform, dumping propaganda to attract new recruits. Others, including some tied to neo-Nazi podcasts and forums, were set up explicitly to form gaming clans.
“[Steam] is essentially acting as a community hub for people who are affiliated with the extreme right to come together, to socialize, to communicate, to have fun with their friends in a relatively safe space, but also to discuss extreme right wing ideology, and some of those points are then being used to off ramp people onto the website of extremist organizations or other social media pages,” says Davey.
The ISD found that, in general, extremists do not play extremist games. This is primarily because these games are awful. While users might display an association to a game like Feminazi: The Triggering, this is largely just a badge of honor. “[Games like] Angry Boy 2 or Ethnic Cleansing—no one plays them, they’re barely available,” says Pierre Vaux, a research manager with the ISD. “They’re crude 16-bit titles that look awful and are badly designed and are probably filled with viruses—no one wants to download them.”
The ISD did note, however, that extremists enjoy historical games, such as Hearts of Iron, Europa Universalis, and Crusader Kings. In these games, extremists live out their fantasies: conquering the world as Hitler, for instance, or exterminating Muslims in the Middle East.