Kids radicalized by only a game?

12 December 2023

The game has a majoirty user base of under 16s.

• The Australian Federal Police report a significant rise in radicalized right-wing children.
• Investigations center on gaming platforms like Roblox.
• There’s a difference between correlation and causation – but the existence of things like the manosphere suggests gaming platforms could be a fertile recruitment tool.

According to the Australian Federal Police, Australian children are being targeted by extremists who are infiltrating online gaming platforms. Rising numbers of children as young as 12 are being investigated for radicalized ideologies.

Ahead of the Christmas period, when many parents will gift technology to their children and teenagers, the Australian Federal Police is urging parents and guardians to be mindful of who their children are interacting with this holiday season.

The Australian Federal Police.

Do not mess with the Australian Federal Police. They have a kangaroo on their badge.

Of course, we have to avoid the easy mindset of “New thing bad, make kids evil”: Dungeons and Dragons didn’t cause a generation of Devil worshippers [Hail Satan, roll for initiative – Ed]; Call of Duty didn’t make them “feral warhounds.”

But the AFP has experienced an increase in young people being investigated across Australian state and territory jurisdictions, and has seen far-right terrorism-related investigations increase from two per cent prior to 2020 to around 15 per cent in 2022.

Looking for support online, ideologically and religiously motivated extremists often use gaming platforms to meet individuals who can be manipulated. Roblox, a hugely popular gaming platform, is one example that’s rife with extremism.

Users can program their own games for others to play in a virtual universe, and some games feature virtual worlds where players can act out extremist ideological narratives, disseminate propaganda, recruit other users and generate funds online. Others feature scenarios such as Nazi concentration camps, Chinese communist “re-education camps” of Muslims, and Islamic State-style conflict zones.

Around half of Roblox’s 65 million daily users are 12 or younger. When the online extremist community encourages and validates a young person, it can become socially and emotionally reinforcing, say the Australian Federal Police.

It also normalizes violence, allowing them to take part in criminal acts within the game.

Correlation is not causation – but…

Some commonalities among users include neurodiversity or mental health conditions, being raised in a disruptive, unstable or harmful environment, and experiencing social problems at school.

The Australian Federal Police say Roblox is a popular recruiting platform for right wing idologies.

Imagine a generation of iPad babies fed right-wing propagana… photo via Alamy.

Rachel Kowert, director of research at Take This, a nonprofit that supports the mental health of game developers and players, told Wired in 2021 that “there’s this process of othering in some games, us versus them. All of these things do seem to make a cocktail that would be prime for people to recruit to extreme causes. But whether it does or not is a totally different question. Because nobody knows.”

There’s a long history of gaming platforms as a breeding ground for fringe groups to form and encourage each other, all too often into dangerous movements like incel culture.

AFP Assistant Commissioner Krissy Barrett said that “With more than 3.22 billion active gamers online around the world, these extremists are attempting to target a significant part of the global population to spread their views and propaganda.”

“These extremist groups and individuals are using these gaming and online platforms as a mode to transmit violent material and propaganda, across a range of extremist ideologies.”

Australian Federal Police Assistant Commissioner Krissy Barrett.

AFP Assistant Commissioner Krissy Barrett.

Some recent games are little more than a “Trojan horse to promote their worldview, blurring the reality of young users with the aim to radicalize them,” said Barret.

Joint counter-terrorism teams comprising AFP, state and territory police, and Asio and the NSW Crime Commission are working to prevent and identify the extremist activity online.

Roblox community standards state that they “believe in building a safe, civil, and diverse community” and “for some behavior that violates these standards, such as behavior that poses a real-world risk to others, we reserve the right to contact or cooperate with the relevant authorities in order to keep everyone safe.”

Earlier this year a Roblox spokesperson told the New York Times: “We recognize that extremist groups are turning to a variety of tactics in an attempt to circumvent the rules on all platforms, and we are determined to stay one step ahead of them.”

Last year the company told Wired that it works “closely with the Middlebury Institute’s Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counter-terrorism (CTEC), a world leading counter-terrorism institute and other governments and NGOs across the world to help us prevent extremist activity on our platform”.

Australian Federal Police warn of Trojan horse games

In 2019, reenactments of the terrorist attack at Christchurch began taking place on Roblox. At the time, the Australian Federal Police said their concern was that “extremist groups are exploiting these platforms to target a very young group of Australia’s population, by creating content to share and encourage far-right/extremist ideologies and abhorrent violence against others.”

The Australian Federal Police link gaming platforms to radicalization.

The Australian Federal Police link gaming platforms to radicalization.

More recently, arguably showing that politicizing online can be good, users joined virtual rallies in support of Palestine – but, as in reality, some pro-Israel counteractions cropped up. Some players violently (but virtually) attacked others with opposing views.

“While our Community Standards allow for expressions of solidarity, we do not allow for content that endorses or condones violence, promotes terrorism or hatred against individuals or groups, or calls for supporting a specific political party,” a Roblox spokesperson told CNBC.

In reality, the internet isn’t what makes young people interact with adults who have bad intentions – yes, it’s an enabler, but an older sibling’s friend could have as much sway in a child’s life.

What’s unique about the gaming community is that it’s a great equalizer, something especially attractive to people who feel somehow disadvantaged. When it provides community for a teen plagued with hormonal anxiety, that’s not a bad thing. But when it feeds emotionally vulnerable or especially receptive young audiences with an idology, that equalization can become a normalizing factor, whether the message is positive, progressive and self-caring, or politically regressive, racist, or violent.