Combating Gaming Jihad: India Needs Families and Communities to Stand Up
Updated: Oct 10
Game, Set, Jihad?! Combating the growing menace of radicalisation in the gaming world is not just a job for policing and intelligence agencies. Children and young adults are the largest takers for graphic video games and those at most risk of being targeted by radical groups. With India’s gaming market poised to become the world’s largest, the risk of Pakistan-based terror groups following the IS model of indoctrinating youth through video games would require an all-of-community effort to beat back.
An incident of an alleged religious conversion through a gaming platform in Ghaziabad, UP, popularised the term ‘gaming jihad’ in India. Living up to its declining reputation, the Indian media reportage on the incident remained polarised between the right and the left. Politically too, the incident served as an opportune event for parties to score brownie points at the cost of social harmony. The UP police have apprehended the accused, and a month later the episode is buried deep in public memory.
In a sense, this brief narrative covers all the key players on the Indian ‘radicalisation’ stage – polarised political parties, dishonest media, and religious extremists. The only addition here is the gaming platform. At this stage, although it would be difficult to accurately estimate the existing threat of radicalisation in India’s gaming world or predict its future trajectory, it is safe to say that a discussion on preventing the threat from expanding is warranted.
The term ‘gaming jihad’ is not entirely an Indian invention. It has been in use in academia to denote the Islamic State’s (IS) use of “shooter games and violent imagery to attract young recruits”. Besides IS, there is growing evidence of right-wing extremists in the US using gaming platforms to radicalise youth by spreading racist, misogynist or extremist content. In effect, gaming platforms have served as mediums for recruitment, propaganda, networking, and mobilisation of extremists.
Pakistan’s Jamaat-ud Dawa (JUD), the front organisation of the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), has also begun using games to brainwash youngsters into taking arms against India. With such an external and internal security threat development within the gaming spaces and an expanding gaming market in India poised to be the world’s largest soon, a diagnosis of the problem and exploration of potential solutions is in order.
Diagnosis of the Problem
Broadly speaking, gaming platforms serve as sources of indoctrination and/or platforms for covert communication for radicalised members. In the former, the content of the game is designed to instill certain values aligning with the ideology of radicalised groups. The challenge in identifying and containing this form of radicalisation stems from the subjectivity associated with determining radicalising content. Unless the content of the game is explicitly ‘othering’ such as ethnic cleansing, or the game that glorified the Christchurch shooter, it is difficult to build a consensus around whether or not a particular content can lead to radicalisation.
It relates back to the popular perception regarding violent video games having a negative effect on the gamers’ real-life behaviour. However, numerous academic studies have shown little to no correlation between violence in video games and real-world behaviour. Similarly, interpretation of the video games’ content as racist, misogynist, or extremist could well be a reflection of the bias of the observer and not indicative of any real-life implications on the gamers.
The latter source of radicalisation presented by the gaming platforms is not the content of the games, but the people that inhabit the gaming spaces. Even in the Ghaziabad incident, the culprit was not the content of the game but how certain individuals had manipulated the structure of the game to trap innocent gamers. It has been alleged that the perpetrators dominated the games and conditioned progress in the game to recitation of certain Quranic verses. The anonymity offered by the gaming platforms allowed the perpetrators to mask their identity and pretend to be Hindus whilst the privacy accorded by the gaming chatrooms granted them the much-needed protection from intelligence and security agencies. Therefore, beyond the content of the games whose influence on radicalisation remains ambiguous lies the covert element of the gaming spaces that undeniably contributes towards radicalisation and terrorism.
Yet, when exploring the relationship between radicalisation and gaming in India, a third dimension that does not reside within the gaming world also needs consideration. The content of the games, if found hurting religious sentiments, can be provocative to people outside the gaming world and result in law and order disturbances. This was evident 14 years ago when India’s first console game Hanuman: Boy Warrior was launched. A controversy had emerged when a certain American Hindu group had raised objections to a deity being trivialised in the game. In an era predating the arrival of social media, the episode did not garner much attention or cause severe law and order issues. However, if the examples of public reaction to some of the recent cinemas with purportedly offensive content are to go by, one cannot underestimate the threat posed by games with religious content to the public at large.
Owing to such a scenario, administering any one solution to a complex problem with multiple actors is unlikely to produce favourable results. It is in this regard that various countries adopt differing approaches to tackle the challenge of radicalisation. India will need to chart its own course by implementing measures across the domains observed below.
Tackling ‘content’ related challenge posed by gaming platforms can take either the American approach or the Chinese approach. Unable to completely remove IS’ games from the internet, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) came up with its own game to counter IS propaganda. Calling it Slippery Slope, the game aimed to lure American youth away from radicalisation. However, the game was declared “awful, out-of-touch” and eventually “it sucks”. Whilst the IS aims to appeal to the tech savvy youth through its advanced game designing skills, the FBI’s attempt at counter design had clearly failed.
On the other hand is the Chinese approach that froze all video games for a nine month period and then permitted only those that complied with the state regulations. These included removal of English words, especially ones such as “headshots” and “death”, elimination of any religious content, and organised training programmes for developers to emphasise the importance of “correct set of values”. India could adopt a mixed approach to content regulation. Instead of committing the American mistake, India could take the Saudi route and invest in private gaming firms and seek development of appealing content that can lure the youth away from radicalising games. Where games are emanating from inimical states, the Chinese way of blocking is the easiest – something that India has done with Pakistani and Chinese apps.
The sheer expanse of the gaming spaces makes it impossible for even the most well-funded intelligence agencies in the world to monitor. Since 2007, the American National Security Agency (NSA) and the British General Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) have tried to tackle the challenge of extremism emanating from the gaming spaces. However, considering the large volume of data to sift through and the low evidence of terrorists participating in the games, the agencies were compelled to outsource monitoring to private players. These actors were able to create fake online personas to infiltrate private chatrooms and collect vital information.
In the aftermath of the Pentagon data leak that revealed important details about the Russia-Ukraine War among many others on a gaming platform, the US is ramping up its monitoring of such spaces. Notwithstanding the complexities involved in international intelligence cooperation, there is merit in exploring avenues for India to improve cooperation with the US for timely sharing of intelligence or exchange of technological knowhow. Besides the US and the UK, India could also consider partnering with countries such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which faces a similar threat of radicalisation through gaming from actors based in Iran and the Hamas while also making vast investments in areas such as artificial intelligence (AI) that can enable greater monitoring of these spaces.
Parenting and Community Policing
Considering the challenges and limits to intelligence gathering, policing becomes crucial. Notwithstanding the large body of studies conducted on gaming and radicalisation, no scholar is able to precisely identify signs of vulnerability. This is also reflected in the large volume of false positives and false negatives produced in the Prevent referrals – UK’s counter extremism strategy. However, India has presented a promising example of successful community policing against radicalisation owing to its familial and societal structures. Therefore, pursuant with the existing logic of allowing family members and community elders to observe and report radicalising behaviour among the youth, the responsibility of monitoring the activities of gamers within the gaming spaces should also be impressed on the families and communities.
Education, Health and Academic Responses
Finally, radicalisation, being an issue in the psychological domain, requires educational and mental health solutions. This is because radicalisation emanating from the gaming spaces is essentially one of “identity fusion”. As a condition where a person’s social identity begins to overpower the individual identity, it occurs among gamers largely due to a lack of a proper support system in real life. Like radicalisation in social media occurs when strangers connect and form a sense of community by means of ‘othering’, gaming platforms too present a similar challenge. In this regard, a better dialogue between the civil society and the health and educational sector is important in improving the psychological conditioning of the youth. Yet, to facilitate this, better ethnographic studies on gamers is necessary. The motivations, behaviours, and responses in the gaming spaces need to be mapped thoroughly to shape better educational and health policies to curb radicalisation.
As the Indian demographic profile shifts, access to the internet eases and expands, and the gaming industry moves increasingly towards user-generated content (from Web 2.0 to Web 3.0), India will need stronger regulatory frameworks, efficient security architecture, and a healthy social setup to increase financial benefits from the gaming industry while keeping threats of radicalisation at bay.
Disclaimer: The article expresses the author’s views on the matter and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of any institution they belong to or of Trivium Think Tank and the StraTechos website.