On 2 February 2023, GNET and the Extremism and Gaming Research Network (EGRN) hosted a webinar on ‘Preventing Extremism through Storytelling and Gaming.’ The panel was hosted by Galen Englund, co-founder of EGRN, alongside Dr. Constance Steinkuehler, George Weiss, and Dr. Jessica White (also an EGRN co-founder). The narratives used within gaming and gaming-adjacent spaces have garnered interest in the research and policy sphere, impacting the work of scholars in the field of radicalisation and countering violent extremism (CVE). This webinar explored the potential of storytelling and gaming as a tool for prevention.
This Insight provides an overview of the main themes of the webinar. First, we explore the potential of gaming as a storytelling intervention. Second, we outline the practical implications of gaming storytelling for CVE. Finally, we discuss the limitations of narrative interventions in the CVE space.
If you would like a copy of the recording of the event, ‘Preventing Extremism through Storytelling and Gaming,’ please email [email protected].
Gaming as Storytelling Interventions
Within extremism research, significant attention has been given to gaming communities also as a possible site for radicalisation. Games provide community, but also opportunities for collective reasoning to appear that may gear towards the negative. For example, misogyny, as a gendered ideology, presents an expression form and point of collective agreement for many within gaming, which is why it is one of the prominent negative narratives in the field. Narratives like misogyny present a point of connection where people can agree and engage with each other about what they see in their lives or grievances they may have.
While collective reasoning may present opportunities for radicalisation, it also offers an effective platform for storytelling intervention. Whereas research focuses on the negative potential of gaming and extremism, here we present gaming as a site for positive interventions. Gaming can harness the power of storylines, gamification, and community as aspects of CVE engagement that access those in hard-to-reach spaces or specific target groups. For example, within gaming, narratives provide a learning opportunity for gamers, who might learn from the arc of how a bad character becomes good, or as norms change over the life of a storyline in a game. This type of learning is not immediate but through repetition in gaming and time spent within these communities, behavioural or normative change can appear.
Gaming can also integrate critical thinking into narratives, and can reflect the real world. Mr. George Weiss used the example of games which replicate the real world where acting badly only works within the context of the game. For example, it is possible to reach high levels in games when making only ‘bad’ choices, but never the final ‘boss-level’ or end, until the player learns and fixes real-world-linked issues. Basic insecurities drive choices in games and real life – if a character is able to fix those issues, it presents a theoretical and literal example of how to improve communities through gaming, rather than just one part of the storyline. Gamers will go back in their gameplay to achieve narrative coherence and make the storylines as clear as possible.
Gaming also presents an opportunity for redemption for the ‘bad guy’ to make their transition to good. While this might, at least in some studies, lower a character’s popularity, redemptive characters provide positive examples and can prompt critical thinking within the gaming community.
Gaming Interventions and Implications for CVE
Games are narrative spaces, but also provide community spaces that present the best opportunities for intervention. The parasocial nature of gaming provides interactions across platforms, networks, norms, influencers, and communities, which is something that can be used for these interventions. Belief change is difficult, time-consuming, and reliant upon social changes as we calibrate to the values of others. In order to orchestrate effective interventions, we must take fan spaces seriously. People learn from others, but tech, and by extension gaming, can enable or prevent that learning.
One major opportunity within the gaming space is the power of streaming and e-sports influencers. Influencers such as gaming celebrities hold and wield an incredible amount of credibility and power within gaming communities, and can as such help with interventions. There are opportunities to work with influencers in a variety of gaming spaces, such as e-sports or livestreams, for them to expand on social causes or norm changes they are already passionate about. However, there are also some challenges to harnessing the power of influencers. First, it is difficult to ask them to work with CVE practitioners, as they risk their credibility by changing their tone. Second, there are differences in the types of influencers as they interact with their audiences in distinct ways. Interventions should seek to partner with influencers that build upon existing themes and topics of individuals rather than bringing in new themes that risk alienating their audience.
One additional potential gaming intervention could come in the form of bystander training and support. Most games have a function to report or intervene in cases of harassment. Such trust and safety-based reporting functions may not fix the issues occurring in the community but can protect players from harm at the moment. Working with gamers to train and support them in knowing when and how to intervene presents an opportunity to work directly with gamers. This approach also benefits from intervening in gameplay in real time.
One means of supporting bystander intervention is through mentorship programs designed to support players. When players feel empowered to intervene during toxic, violent, or harassing situations, they can better regulate themselves emotionally, act professionally, perform better within the game, and are better prepared to intervene moving forward. One of the major practical implications of this work is that the creation of narratives is nuanced and different players require different approaches. For example, hardcore gamers are more prone to seeing extremism, toxicity, and hate as normalised within gaming, but they are not more prone to being perpetrators of violence. Confronting these belief systems among part-time gamers may be a different process, and that should be considered.
Mentoring programs to facilitate bystander intervention also benefit from accessing target audiences where they exist. Escapism is a major aspect of gaming, but to add interventions means that people can not fully escape their realities as they wish. Targeting audiences requires changing the dynamics within the environment of each game. Evidence from other CVE interventions indicates that mentorship is effective, but it is time-consuming, individualised, and hard to scale. This can lead to difficult choices for CVE practitioners to ensure resources are managed better and trust is built and wielded positively. Mentors can help mentees to think about how their biases create harm and issues not only in society at large but among themselves, forcing people to think about what narratives they interact with critically. While mentors can be a positive way to target the varied and often multifaceted needs of mentees, mentorship programs can be difficult to implement.
Another potential intervention is the development of specific CVE games. However, people who enter this space are not typically storytelling experts who know how to design programs or games with storylines that can captivate the audience’s attention. They usually build from a securitised perspective, rather than drawing from adjacent creative spaces that can create more engaging interventions. Programming CVE games involves reactant audiences and practitioners who expect quick changes. However, practitioners and researchers should focus on attitude change, creating a model where different norms influence the audience in what is a traditionally slow process.
Limitations of Narrative Interventions in the CVE Space
The final theme of the webinar looked at the impacts and limitations of narrative interventions in the CVE space and how practitioners can adapt to the environment around certain games. One limitation within the intersection of gaming and CVE programming is communication. Strategic communication and the deployment of counter-narratives have posed significant challenges to CVE practitioners. Terrorists and extremist actors use violence as a means of communication, and combatting this violence means that CVE programmes must communicate as well as violent actors.
Another limitation is the issue of critical discernment and false information. Critical thinking isn’t always the problem. Instead, gaming communities can act as an echo chamber for pervasive disinformation that generates a multitude of problems. In a gaming environment, vulnerable actors are often surrounded by like-minded people, allowing disinformation to take hold. Breaking out of these echo chambers requires critical, revisionist thinking and introspection. Narrative interventions should teach gamers how to implement these types of character development for themselves and the larger community.
Finally, the field of security also creates a limitation within itself. When security actors become involved, gaming can become securitised, which can eliminate trust and credibility. Most CVE practitioners want straightforward solutions, rather than the complex solutions necessary. Influencers present a complex solution as they talk to more than one person at a time, purely based on the different perspectives at play. For example, the different aspects of Andrew Tate’s character appeal to and influence different personalities within his fanbase. While this fanbase shifts and may wane due to the realities of his crimes, trust is a major impact and limitation where practitioners must redefine how they utilise narrative interventions to create change. These limitations are not insurmountable, but they present a direct challenge to how CVE practitioners build programming within the gaming environment and where the space should move in the future.
While gaming is often viewed as a potential site of recruitment, radicalisation, and training, this Insight, based on the ‘Preventing Extremism through Storytelling and Gaming’ event, demonstrates that gaming can also act as a site of creative intervention and prevention. Moving forward, gaming within the CVE community should be viewed for its challenges, as well as its opportunities. Building off existing lessons in the CVE space, gaming interventions need to be community-specific, like community organising. Interventions should incorporate a variety of perspectives and nuances to create the best narrative interventions possible. Creating a well-designed story will never be easy, but the ideas posed by the panellists provide a strong starting point not only for CVE practitioners but also gamers, both serious and casual gamers, to create a healthier environment for all gamers.
If you would like a copy of the recording of the event, ‘Preventing Extremism through Storytelling and Gaming,’ organised by the Extremism and Gaming Research Network (EGRN) and the Global Network on Extremism and Technology (GNET) please email [email protected].
This article was originally published in conjunction with our partner, GNET, as an Insight on 9 February 2023