The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the agency that brought you great hits like airport facial recognition, kids in cages, and a short-lived Disinformation Governance Board, is setting its sight on another supposed hotbed of terror—video games.
This week, the DHS awarded terrorism and misinformation researchers a $699,763 grant to investigate the ways extremism can spread through online gaming communities. The DHS hopes the researchers will use the grant to develop a set of “best practices and centralized resources,” for game makers to monitor and evaluate potential extremist activity occurring on their games. The DHS grant was first reported on by Vice.
In its announcement, the DHS acknowledged some of the positive community-building aspects of online games, noting how many have, “become focal points of social activity and identity creation for adolescents and young adults,” but went on to criticize developers for failing to properly account for the ways extremist groups could potentially use those same platforms to promote harmful conduct.
“Extremists have used video games and targeted video game communities for activities ranging from propaganda creation to terrorist mobilization and training,” the DHS writes. “Game developers in general–from small, independent studios to billion-dollar multinational corporations–have lagged in awareness of how extremists may attempt to exploit their games, and how their communities can be targeted for radicalization.”
The grant money will go towards a joint project by the Middlebury Institute’s Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism, mental health non-profit Take This, and Logically, a company claiming to use artificial intelligence to address misinformation. In addition to setting best practices and standards, the groups will conduct a series of workshops for monitoring, detecting, and preventing extremism exploitation in game spaces aimed at, “community managers, multiplayer designers, lore developers, mechanics designers, and trust and safety professionals.”
Anyone who’s spent more than a few minutes on popular multiplayer games can attest to the unpleasant, often flagrantly racist sentiments hollered out over chats and slithering through chat boxes. Though none of that’s particularly new, reporting and research show extremist groups, particularly those of white nationalist persuasion, are both recruiting disaffected gamers and then encouraging them to act on their ideologies in the physical world.
In 2017, The New York Times and other outlets reportedly found video-game chat app Discord played an outsized role in mobilizing Unite The Right members in Charlottesville, Virginia. Similarly, the Anti-Defamation League released a survey in 2019 of U.S. video game players and found that 23% of respondents said they’d been exposed to extremist white supremacist ideology in online games. When you consider somewhere around 90% of teens reportedly play some form of video games, that potentially amounts to a hell of a lot of exposure to shitty racist rants.
At the same time, the DHS and its associated tendrils like ICE and TSA aren’t exactly known for their moral tact or deep consideration for civil liberties. In 2020, under the Trump Administration, American Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Anthony D. Romero called for the wholesale dismantling of the DHS after agents were deployed to agitate, and in some cases snatch, anti-racist protestors throughout the country.
“The short history of DHS has been filled with violence, the stoking of fear, and a lack of oversight,” Romero wrote. “We can preserve our freedoms and our security better by dismantling DHS and beginning anew.”
Correction: 7:04 PM: A previous headline of this article said the DHS grant awarded was nearly $700 million. The grant is actually worth nearly $700,000.