A View from the CT Foxhole: Jessica White and Galen Lamphere-Englund, Co-Conveners, Extremism and Gaming Research Network.

AuthorHummel, Kristina

CTC: Tell us about the Extremism and Gaming Research Network (EGRN). How did it come about, and what is its mission?

Lamphere-Englund: Jessica and I are co-founders and co-conveners of the Extremism and Gaming Research Network, which started a little over two years ago as a practitioner- and researcher-led initiative to try and unpack concerning developments we'd seen in the online space.

My background is as a conflict and terrorism researcher, and I'm also a gamer. I have been my entire life. I started to see those two worlds colliding more and more, and seeing significantly more violent extremist content in gaming spaces online. I sent around a note to a lot of other colleagues in this space and said, "Look, are you seeing something similar? Do you know anyone who's also working on this intersection?" That's when Jessica and I met, and we started putting together a wider group of practitioners to try and figure out: What kind of interventions can be programmed in this space? And on the research side, what kind of data do we currently have? And more importantly, what research gaps do we need to try and fill globally?

In the over two years since, we've put together a research agenda that we've gradually hacked away at through our different members, and we've managed to learn quite a bit about the scope of this problem, though there's still certainly more to be done. That's where we're at now. We now have monthly meetings with over 100 invitees and roughly 60 formal members, and [are] continuing to grow quite rapidly.

White: People were, in an ad hoc way, realizing that the online gaming space was something that needed to be discussed more, but we were the first group put together to really get to this issue of extremism and violent extremism in the online gaming space. We originally were largely research institutions and individuals working on researching violent extremism and terrorism and counterterrorism. As the network has grown, we've added in a wider variety of people. We've added in policymakers that are asking questions about how they can address extremism. We've added in people from the gaming industry who are also asking questions about what they should be doing. We've added in security practitioners who are concerned about this space. And we aim to make connections to other networks that are working on online gaming safety, including through bolstering research and 'safety by design'(a) practice, etc.

CTC: Who are the partners in your network? Who does EGRN work with?

Lamphere-Englund: It's pretty wide. We are partners with a number of research institutions, so groups like the Royal United Services Institute, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, etc. We also work with a lot of university partners--the University of Sussex in the U.K., for example. We have a lot of PhD researchers who come and join us. Then we have the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT), (b) which is an industry body. We are partnered with the Global Network on Extremism and Technology,(c) which is also GIFCT-related but housed at King's College in London, and Tech Against Terrorism."(d) On the law enforcement side, we work with a kind of eclectic mix of people because it's based on interest. We have local beat cops who are designing 'cops versus kids' Esports initiatives (1) all the way up to informal partners who will come in from fusion cells and from national CT and intelligence centers as well. We span the gamut, as long as there is a genuine interest in exploring the space and developing solutions for it.

White: It's interesting to point out that the policymakers come along because they want to know what to do about legislating: What kind of considerations need to be made in relation to regulatory efforts and content moderation questions. The police and the intelligence services often come along because either, one, they're interested in knowing more about the harms and investigating how deep this issue of extremism in the online gaming space goes and what the legal and ethical parameters are around their intervention, if they're trying to investigate in that space. Or two, like Galen said, there are a lot of police departments that now use online gaming as a positive outreach tool to reach out to groups in the community to build that bond of trust through positive gameplay engagement or to use it as a positive mentorship tool to encourage behaviors--almost as a P/CVE [preventing/countering violent extremism] tool in a lot of cases.

CTC: As a starting point, can you describe how big gaming is? And who's participating in gaming?

Lamphere-Englund: Gaming is huge. It's colossal as a space. Right now, there are around three billion people who game across the world, so more than one in four humans are gamers. Now, that's a slightly misleading stat because that includes all of the mobile gamers who just play games on their phones. Generally speaking, in terms of our area of interest, we're more focused on games that have communicative abilities inside of them--online games that are multiplayer, generally speaking--so that's a bit of a smaller audience. We're still talking a massive swath of people across the world.

It's no longer a male-dominated space in terms of gamers themselves. When it comes to studios and game design, that's a different story. But about half the gamers in the world are women now, and increasingly they're everywhere, in every continent. About half the world's gamers are in the Asia Pacific region; that's probably the highest per capita in terms of where gamers are. But the fastest-growing audiences are in MENA [Middle East and North Africa] and Latin America at the moment.

Who participates in gaming? It's everyone really. Obviously, it's concentrated in terms of younger audiences. When we think about prime recruitment demographics for violent extremist organizations, terrorist groups, and armed groups globally, that core 14- to 24-year-old age range still constitutes one of the largest share of gamers. (2) There are a lot of older gamers now, too, but the majority are still in that slightly younger demographic.

White: Gaming is a huge industry. The value of the industry is more than other media--for example, movies and others you might think actually make more--but gaming makes more money than all of those.

Lamphere-Englund: $ 200 billion last year in revenue. That's more than movies, TV, music, all of it. Gaming is incredibly lucrative and incredibly profitable.

CTC: Turning to the gamers themselves, what are the at-risk groups that you're really focusing on? We know that gaming can attract isolated individuals. And then there is the presence of online, often anonymous chat groups. How can the online chatting aspect impact gamers?

White: It's important to remember, as we are discussing the potential for extremism and violent extremism to be spreading in this space, that the majority of online gamers use it as a very positive engagement tool. People find positive communities in this space; there are gamer communities out there raising money for great causes. I think this question of at-risk groups is a really interesting one and a complicated one. We've seen over the last 20 years of counterterrorism efforts that it's really difficult to pinpoint at-risk groups. There's no profile for someone who might go out and commit a terrorist act. The radicalization process is usually a very complicated, back-forth, here-there process of stepping to and away from and back towards extremism and violent extremist content.

The online gaming space provides a myriad of subcommunities, and to really investigate how these different subcommunities are interacting with each other, we need more research, because there isn't a lot of research on the scope of how deep this issue [violent extremism] goes into the online gaming space. But we know from anecdotal evidence and incidents that have happened, things like Gamergate,(e) that the online gaming space tolerates and sometimes encourages sexist language, sexist attitudes, racism--a lot of the -isms that we are worried about that can lead to extremism and violent extremism. These dynamics are part of the culture of some of these gaming subcultures.

What is difficult to pinpoint [is] that this group or this game has a problem. I think it's a pretty widespread issue. It's a reflection of society because so many people now play games. Gaming is such a transnational gathering place, where you do get expressions of hateful ideas that people hold and bring into their games and game chats with them, and exposure is quite widespread. So, there's an interesting challenge in looking for at-risk [groups], looking to see if we can discern if there are certain gaming narratives that perhaps allow extremists to pick it up and use it as part of their ideology, or certain games where people gather around a game and allow hateful content into their spaces. But it's something that certainly needs more investigation before we could really tell you whether there are those specific types of indicators that we can pick up on.

Lamphere-Englund: Agreed. Apart from focusing on individuals, we have tried to break out of a typology of use cases and of exploit cases by extremist actors. We've tried to go a bit in the opposite direction: What are the potential use cases for harm and exploits that occur rather than focusing on individual profiles that we haven't really been able to have much success with across this entire field, let alone in gaming per se.

The general six categories that we think are important to focus on are:

One, the production of bespoke or custom video games and 'mods,' or modifications, and those are really used for recruitment and retention purposes.

Two, gaming culture references. Gaming is pop culture now. Where you might have seen far-right extremist groups using MMA [mixed martial...

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