Extremist groups are using one of the country's most popular forms of entertainment – video games, as a dangerous recruiting tool.
Among the targets are vulnerable teenagers. One research team is exposing this trend to help law enforcement and parents become more aware of the danger. Gaming has become so popular that an estimated 216 million Americans consider themselves gamers. That's more than half the country's population. And today's games are a far cry from Pong and Pac Man, for better – and for worse.
"I'm currently looking at the darker side of games and how they're being leveraged for radicalization and the mobilization of radical networks," said Dr. Rachel Kowert, Research Director for Take This, a mental health non-profit decreasing stigma and increasing support for mental health in games.
Her cohort, Alex Newhouse, is Deputy Director of the Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counter Terrorism at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Together, they are behind a groundbreaking study on the evolution of gaming and the platform's use to promote extreme ideologies and radicalization.
"I personally focus on the far right – and it appears the far right is the most interested in using game platforms," Newhouse said. "But jihadists and Islamists – they engage with gaming platforms, too. They try to recruit teens and adolescents."
For those who believe they or their kids are safe from extreme propaganda, The Anti-Defamation League has found close to one in four people are exposed to white supremacist ideologies on the internet. That's about 54-million Americans.
"It's a small group of people, but it's a very powerful group of people," Dr. Kowert said. "It was so shocking to me that the number was 23-percent, that's so high. How is that possible?"
So shocking, it became the catalyst for Kowert and Newhouse to dive into the research to raise awareness. One aspect behind this trend is the combining of video games with streaming platforms or social networking apps.
"Discord and Twitch, which are not games – we refer to those as Gaming Adjacent Platforms," Newhouse said. "And then things like Minecraft and Roblox – things that have some sort of interactivity, those are games."
Given this overlap, players can stream live gaming sessions, or connect with complete strangers through chats and forums. Which can be great, but also dangerous.
"The problem is the growth of games' social networking spaces has exponentially outpaced the way the gaming industry has kept up with their moderation," said Dr. Kowert.
Discord is known as "your place to talk and hang out." It provides gamers (or anyone with a smart phone), the ability to talk over voice, video, and text. It was specifically identified in the Institute for Strategic Dialogue's 2020 study as a hub and community for right-wing extremism. In Europe, the country's counter-terrorism coordinator doubled down on that warning – saying extremists are increasingly present in digital gaming spaces.
"They shouldn't leave the game with a stranger – just like you wouldn't leave the park with a stranger," Dr. Kowert said. "If somebody's saying, 'hey, why don't you leave this gaming space and come join these other people on a third-party server,' that's usually a red flag – especially for younger children."
Even so, Rachel points out the research finds there are game spaces that provide more good than bad. She adds there is a darkness, however, which is why she and her colleague are working to make games a safer place.
Ryan Lo'Ree, shared with CBN about his former life as a prominent Neo-Nazi with the goal of taking online hate groups mainstream.
"I was a former extremist – I de-radicalized almost 20-years ago," said Lo'Ree. "I was part of the Rollingwood Skins which is an offshoot of one of the largest national socialist movements – or Nazi movements – in the United States."
Lo'Ree said his mission began well before Facebook – using Myspace and earlier social media platforms to plant propaganda. Today, he says that propaganda can be found in every platform you go to.
"These recruiters, whether it's Jihadism or whatever – they've adapted to where they should be to find the most vulnerable people," he said.
In finding ways to finance his mission and move in the ranks, Lo'Ree got into trouble with the law. While his life of crime ultimately led to prison, the time behind bars provided distance from his extremist group. Friends and family helped Lo'Ree de-radicalize and ultimately re-dedicate his life to Jesus Christ.
"I was born and raised a Christian my whole life," he said. "I think what happens is we can get tunnel vision as Christians and don't open up to what other cultures do offer." Lo'Ree went on to say, "I want it to be a shock to people, I want them to know that you can be anybody. Nobody is untouchable from these groups and what they offer."
For 10 years, Lo'Ree has helped extremists find a new way to live, through a counter-terrorism effort called Parallel Networks. He says the only way to open those doors is through conversations and compassion.
"I looked at Jesus Christ as he didn't go into churches to preach to the choir – he went out to where people were struggling, like adulterers – Mary Magdalene and others."
"I'm a firm believer that humanity – we are supposed to treat each other with peace, kindness and love; and this lack of empathy we have in our communities, I believe, is what's tearing us apart."
Unfortunately, technology combined with bad actors has torn the social fabric by trying to replace community with an online world. That's why Dr. Kowert wants to remind gamers and others that when things appear bad online or in life, they have the power to make a change.
"When things seem a little off – the good things about games is you can just switch to a different server or switch to a game, or mute that person or block that person," said Dr. Kowert. "You don't have to engage with people who make you feel uncomfortable."