The DHS is spending $700,000 on researching counterterrorism in games

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The United States’ Department of Homeland Security (DHS) (opens in new tab) is devoting almost $700,000 of funding to a research project aimed at countering terrorist recruitment via games like Roblox, Ars Technica reports (opens in new tab).

The grant totals an incredibly specific $699,763, and will go to research aimed at the “development of a set of best practices and centralized resources for monitoring and evaluation of extremist activities”. 

The project is being undertaken jointly by three organisations: the Middlebury Institute’s Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism; Take This, which focuses on mental health in gaming; and Logically, which looks at ways to deal with bad online behaviour.

The research aims to find ways to counter radicalisation and terrorist recruitment via games like Roblox, alongside games from the like of Blizzard and Bungie. In other words, it’s focusing on games that function as social hubs as well as playable experiences. The DHS grant announcement says that game devs both big and small “have lagged in awareness of how extremists may attempt to exploit their games”. 

The Ars report points to a 2021 ADL survey (opens in new tab) as an example of the unchecked growth of extremist subcommunities in the underbelly of online gaming. The survey found that:

  • 10% of surveyed people aged 13-17 had been exposed to white supremacist discussions and ideology in games.
  • 7% of adult online players were exposed to Holocaust denial while playing.
  • Nearly half of the women and 41% of black people surveyed had experienced identity-based harassment while playing online.

The grant also comes in the context of a recent shift in focus by the DHS (opens in new tab) that identifies “ethnically motivated violent extremists—specifically white supremacist extremists” as the “most persistent and lethal threat in the Homeland”. 

Dr. Rachel Kowert, of Take This, told Vice’s Motherboard (opens in new tab) that the project’s research would likely lean towards “white nationalism and white supremacy” in games. It makes sense, at least from my limited perspective. I may be an asocial hobgoblin who rarely plays big multiplayer stuff, but even I can rattle off various examples of times I’ve come across far-right loudmouths in my brief and infrequent multiplayer adventures. It was only last year, after all, that Discord had to purge over a thousand servers (opens in new tab) from its service for playing host to violent extremism. This is an ongoing problem across the whole internet, including gaming.

Kowert told Vice that research of this kind was literally non-existent before the project began. It’ll take more than a $700,000 grant to halt the spread of poisonous ideologies, of course, but with any luck the project will bring the problem some much-needed attention.