Hidden Danger – New Study Reveals How Video Games Are Being Used by Foreign Actors and Extremists

Video Game Warning Sign

Video games are being exploited for propaganda and recruitment by various entities ranging from extremist groups to nation-states, according to a report from Lund University in Sweden. While the focus has traditionally been on social media manipulations, the gaming sector with billions of users remains under-acknowledged. From historic utilization by groups like Hezbollah to recent manipulations in the Ukraine conflict by Russia, gaming platforms are emerging as influential tools. To address this, experts recommend collaborative solutions between industry stakeholders and governments while prioritizing freedom of speech.

Video games can be easily manipulated, and entities ranging from IS and Hezbollah for recruitment purposes to Russia, which reportedly utilizes them to disseminate propaganda during the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, are taking advantage. This is according to a new report from Psychological Defence Research Institute at Lund University in Sweden.

Ever since the 2016 US Presidential election, many democratic governments have paid close attention to how foreign actors are using digital communication to further their agendas, in particular social media. However, the gaming sector, which has billions of global users, has been relatively neglected. A study from Lund University, backed by the Swedish Psychological Defence Agency, discovered as many as 40 vulnerabilities in the gaming sphere.

“It surprised us that the gaming sector, a global industry with billions of users, has been largely overlooked by most Western nations. Currently, it offers an immersive and easily accessible arena for persuasion and propaganda for hostile states, organized criminals, and extremist groups”, says Jesper Falkheimer, one of the co-authors and Professor of Strategic Communication at Lund University.

Historical and Contemporary Manipulations in Gaming

According to the researchers, there are several examples of video games being used as recruitment tools by terrorist groups from the beginning of the 2000s, with Hezbollah, Hamas, and Da’esh using video games to influence different target groups. One early notable example is from 2003, when the video game Special Force was released by the Hezbollah Central Internet Bureau. 

Video games have also been used for war propaganda, for example in the current war in Ukraine, where Russia has spread propaganda through Roblox, Minecraft, and other games.

One example is the Ukrainian MiG-29 pilot known as the Ghost of Kyiv who gained significant fame on social media for taking down invading planes during the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. However, the pilot was fictional, and the footage used in some online videos was taken from the 2013 video game Digital Combat Simulator. Similarly, according to fact checks, a video claiming to depict the Israel-Hamas conflict was in fact footage taken from the game ARMA 3.

“Compared with social media, the gaming domain has insufficient policies and mechanisms to cope with information influence campaigns. Nor are there sufficient avenues for researchers, journalists, and the industry itself to better understand the degree to which gaming platforms are currently being exploited. In other words, not only do we not know how serious the situation is, we also lack the means to find out”, says Jesper Falkheimer.

Toward Securing the Gaming Domain

So what should be done to secure an industry that provides entertainment and communication for billions of users worldwide?

The researchers say that lessons can be learned from social media platforms, as they have already been under scrutiny for the same issues. For example, voluntary agreements such as the EU Code of Practice on Disinformation reveal successes and also missteps that then would not need to be repeated. Any countermeasures should be designed as partnerships between the industry, players, and governments in a spirit of dialogue aiming to avoid major threats to democratic societies, they argue.

“Freedom of speech and expression must always come first, much in the same way that the debate surrounding social media was framed primarily by this right. Raising awareness is the first step towards an open discussion on how to move forward with this pressing issue, especially given the current state of the world”, concludes Jesper Falkheimer.

The six main tactics identified in the study:

  • Reframing reality, which includes disputing history, changing facts or disinformation about real-life situations, adopting gaming tropes in real-life situations, dehumanizing through gamification of real-life situations
  • Projecting authority, which includes techniques such as censoring and encouraging self-censorship in line with authoritarian norms and values, harvesting data, and conducting espionage
  • Hacking systems and phishing, which refers to when threat actors use cyber capabilities to gain access to systems belonging to gamers, organizations, as well as the gaming industry.
  • Interactive propaganda, which means spreading both traditional and interactive propaganda through games, establishing relationships with players by forming in-game communities, and radicalizing & mobilizing players
  • Social propaganda, including shaping shared cultures with gaming as a common thread, and the use of social functions to introduce propaganda and increase polarization & intolerance
  • Psychographic targeting, used by threat actors who use harvested data to better know, audit, and understand individuals, groups, opinions, and market segments. Harvested data can be used to many ends.

Reference: “Malignant foreign interference and information influence on video game platforms: Understanding the adversarial playbook” by James Pamment, Jesper Falkheimer and Elsa Isaksson, 9 October 2023. 

1 Comment on "Hidden Danger – New Study Reveals How Video Games Are Being Used by Foreign Actors and Extremists"

  1. They say that negative thoughts produce negative outcomes, to either the individual that experiences such thoughts or to the individual’s external world. We can probably expand on that far enough to say that an entire series of such thoughts would have an even greater negative impact; such as philosophy and/or theology, etcetera. I don’t know if that would hold true for all life forms, or just primates and the like. But, this article is an obvious example of why this species is on the brink of extinction, and the same sort of thought pattern that produced this article will cause that same organism to believe that it can cause the death of another organism without causing the death of itself; so, as I see it, in humans at least, intelligence is a lethal disease, hopefully other intelligent species are better equipped genetically to survive intelligence.

Leave a comment

Email address is optional. If provided, your email will not be published or shared.