THE POSITIVE EFFECTS OF VIDEO GAMES AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR P/CVE
Gaming is one of the most popular leisure time activities today. Billions of gamers play with and against each other, watch others play video games, or spend time on gaming-related digital platforms. While the vast majority of gamers are peaceful, the 2019 right-wing extremist attack in Christchurch (New Zealand) and the subsequent discovery that extremist actors are seeking to exploit digital gaming spaces for their ends, has caused concern that gaming could potentially contribute to radicalization processes. While the research on gaming and extremism is still in its infancy, the last years have shown that extremist actors use gaming in various ways, including the production of bespoke games, the modification of existing games, the use of in-game communication features, the presence on gaming (-adjacent) platforms, the use of video game references and aesthetics in propaganda output, as well as in the gamification of digital spaces. Unsurprisingly, the discourse on the potential nexus between gaming and extremism does not only involve discussions on how extremist actors are seeking to exploit gaming, but how this exploitation may be prevented and how gaming may be used for positive interventions, such as to improve and foster democratic attitudes and tolerant perceptions.
The EU-financed research and pilot project GameD attempts such a positive intervention and utilizes gaming as a tool to make a positive impact in the context of preventing and countering (violent) extremism (P/CVE). European researchers, youth workers and game developers involved in the project develop a mobile online game to promote positive attitudes of young people towards democracy and fight stereotyping. While several games with P/CVE-related content already exist, they often focus on education rather than entertainment. They tend to be text-heavy, are based on a static game world and linear story lines, use relatively simple mechanics and controls, afford players only binary choices, and prioritize serious topics over fun and engaging gameplay. GameD has the objective to go beyond existing P/CVE video games and design a game that is a true entertainment-education experience, i.e. a game with education content that is genuinely appealing and entertaining to young people in order to create a genuine gaming experience. To do so, the project is anchored in the existing literature on video game design, player types and differences, the psychological appeal of video games, factors which satisfy players’ emotional needs, and considers insights of the positive effects video games are able to elicit.
In a GameD report the researchers reviewed existing literature on the positive effects of gaming in light of the specific needs of the P/CVE field and deduced recommendations for practitioners seeking to develop a bespoke game in the P/CVE context. This included the following main insights and endorsements:
Learning & Education
Video games have been successfully used in educational settings to improve a range of learning outcomes. Videogames are viable tools to facilitate learning, because they are more fun than other forms of instruction, provide immediate feedback to the learner, and match the level of difficulty to the players’ abilities, which allows a tailored learning experience and the opportunity for each learner to progress at his/her own pace. Video games with P/CVE content could build upon existing research on video games’ positive effects on learning and, for instance, seek to increase players’ knowledge about issues surrounding radicalization and extremism or improve their critical thinking skills to inoculate them against online disinformation or conspiracy theories – similar to Moonshot’s digital literacy game Gali Fakta.
While the public discourse usually focuses on the anti-social effects and violent outcomes of playing video games, research has uncovered a range of positive social outcomes that video games are able to bring out. This includes, for example, the development of social communication skills, a greater willingness for teamwork and collaboration, the decrease of aggression and increase of empathy, and the development of social connections and friendships. Unsurprisingly, it is the content and the narrative underlying the video game that is the strongest facilitator of prosocial outcomes. Current P/CVE games do not usually focus on social outcomes and merely aim at the individual level. Future games could, however, seek to facilitate positive social outcomes, e.g. by strengthening feelings of belonging, nudging players to work together, or encouraging intercultural communication.
Attitudes & Perceptions
Research has also uncovered that video games can impact players’ perceptions and both implicit and explicit attitudes by encouraging perspective-taking and facilitating prosocial attitudes. Here, too, the games usually elicit such effects via the narrative that guides the gameplay. P/CVE actors could seek to facilitate the development of positive attitudes in players, e.g. by encouraging perspective-taking with out-groups, and the decrease of negative perceptions, e.g. by seeking to reduce stereotypes or Manichean worldviews.
Lastly, studies on the positive effects of video games have uncovered that video games may support positive behaviour change, e.g. by encouraging players to make health-related behavioural adjustments for a healthier lifestyle or by reducing anti-social behavioural tendencies. Video games may even be able to reduce negative behaviour and facilitate positive behavioural choices. P/CVE actors could seek to facilitate desired behavioural changes, especially regarding the reduction of anti-social behaviour and an increase in prosocial behaviour to advance their prevention aims.
However, not the video game effects exist. Because video games are so diverse and span a number of different genres, their effects are far from uniform. When designing a serious game, it is therefore important to ask which game is most suitable to elicit which effects. Similarly, there are also not the video game players. Players have vastly different preferences, personality traits, different motivations to play a certain video game, and seek to fulfil different psychological needs through the gaming experience. Consequently, while research has uncovered a multitude of positive effects video games are able to have on players, individual reception is contingent upon the type of game, the player type of any given user, and hence cannot be fully predicted.
Overall, the existing research demonstrates that video games can evoke a range of positive effect. P/CVE actors could or should seek to leverage these positive effects in the video games they design. To do so, the following ist recommended:
Also serious games must be enjoyable and entertaining in their own right to elicit persuasive effects. Good game design is key, ideally based on a cooperation between P/CVE experts, game designers and other gaming experts. Current P/CVE games are often simplistic, text-heavy, and only offer binary choices. This suggests that there is room for improvement in the games’ entertainment appeal.
Ideally, P/CVE games should cater to different player types and allow players to fulfil important psychological needs, such as competence, autonomy, relatedness and offer motivational drivers for engagement.
Existing research points towards a variety of positive effects video games can have. Consequently, the goals serious games may seek to achieve can range from educational outcomes to shaping or changing attitudes, facilitating positive social outcomes, and even influencing behaviour. P/CVE games could seek to have similar effects. However, more research is needed to clarify how games can support P/CVE-specific aims and outcomes.
Linda Schlegel is a Research Fellow at modusIzad and a PhD student at Goethe University Frankfurt. Her research focuses on narrative campaigns against extremism, digital radicalization processes, gaming/gamification and (counter-) extremism.