From March 8 to 11, DHS’s Office for Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention (OTVTP) hosted its 6th Digital Forum, which focused on topics surrounding online gaming and esports. The forum brought together top professionals from a wide range of disciplines, including law enforcement, game development, education, and mental health. Throughout the four-day program, the forum delivered insights and resources on the risks of radicalization to violence through online gaming platforms, but it also emphasized how the gaming industry and civil society are best positioned to create solutions together.
Online gaming and esports are increasingly popular outlets for all age groups. However, these platforms incorporate social networking and communication features that are ripe for manipulation and abuse by malicious actors. There’s a crucial role for OTVTP to play in the digital space as we enhance our efforts to prevent violence and terrorism, particularly as these same platforms offer crucial social outlets that can provide protective factors to build resiliency against these potential online harms.
Although typically an in-person event, this Digital Forum took place virtually due to the pandemic; a familiar format by now for most people, and one that is relevant to the topic of online engagement.
The forum kicked off with three keynote addresses that outlined the topic of online gaming and esports. Speakers included John Cohen, DHS Counterterrorism Coordinator and Assistant Secretary for Counterterrorism and Threat Prevention Policy; Susanna Pollack, President, Games for Change; and Daniel Kelley, Associate Director, Center for Technology and Society, Anti-Defamation League.
The keynotes were followed by a panel discussion led by moderator Dr. Kimberly Voll, founder of Stray Bombay Company and Fair Play Alliance. Panelists discussed ways to promote positive social experiences in online games; how to prevent individuals from radicalizing to violence; how to improve and promote equity, diversity, and inclusion in game development; and the importance of trust and safety both online and offline.
The first day of the forum concluded with a workshop focused on debunking myths about gaming and how it impacts children. This discussion, led by Dr. Raffael Boccamazzo (“Dr. B”) of Take This, offered practical tools and tips on how parents can use games to engage with their families, to connect and have fun.
The forum’s second day started with a panel titled “Challenges From the Sector: Risks of Online Harms in the Online Gaming Environment.” The session was moderated by David Gersten, Principal Deputy Director of Programs with OTVTP (currently on detail as the Acting Immigration Detention Ombudsman in the Office of the Immigration Detention Ombudsman), which focused on the value of private sector engagement in preventing violent extremists’ use of the online gaming environment. The discussion also highlighted the risk factors for violence and terrorism that may be exacerbated by the local public health restrictions necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. These risk factors include isolation, boredom, and lack of empathy.
The day finished with a session led by the National Counterterrorism Center Tech Outreach Team for gaming industry representatives and an additional workshop hosted by Twitch’s Global Law Enforcement Response Team.
The third day began with a panel discussion titled, “Perspectives from the Field: Promising Practices, Bringing in Youth Voices, and the Importance of Games in Children’s Lives.” Dr. Elizabeth Newbury, Director of the Serious Games Initiative at the Wilson Center, moderated the discussion. The panel featured top professionals from education and gaming, including Susan Rivers of iThrive Games and Janelle Ridley, founder of Transition HOPE. This discussion explored the role of civil society organizations and game developers in ensuring that youth voices are included in efforts to improve policies. Panelists Gerald Solomon and Dr. Gabriela Richard also explored the use of game design as a means for supporting youth by sharing their experiences on platforms with stakeholders.
The day wrapped up with a speed networking and breakout room event featuring conversations around the North America Scholastic Esports Federation’s fellow program, which provides a community of practice, mentorship, resources, and instructional coaching for educators interested in connecting esports and learning in schools and community-based organizations across the globe. In addition, Lost Tribe hosted a workshop that provided an “esports 101” lesson for parents, mentors, and youth.
The final day of the Digital Forum began with a panel discussion moderated by keynote speaker Susanna Pollack on exploring how violent extremists and individuals radicalize to violence and use gaming culture to recruit and radicalize others to violence. Panelists Tyler Golson, a senior tech advisor to the U.S. Department of State’s Global Engagement Center, and Jon Roozenbeek, a postdoctoral fellow at Cambridge University’s Social Decision-Making Lab, discussed how researchers and education practitioners are using online games and game-based learning applications in the classroom to address misinformation and bias. Panelists Dr. Lindsay Grace, Eve Crevoshay, and Dr. Susan Rivers discussed teaching students how social and emotional skills can build resiliency.
The day concluded with a simulation game workshop where attendees received a firsthand look at some of the cutting-edge work being done in the gaming space. One workshop was hosted by Jane Lee, Senior Director of Mental Health at iThrive Games Foundation, and demonstrated the live simulation portal “iThrive Sim: Lives in Balance.” This role-playing simulation is used in high-school civics classes to bring civics alive and to provide space for teens to practice social and emotional skills—all in the context of play. The final workshop was hosted by the U.S. Department of State’s Global Engagement Center, which showcased “Harmony Square,” an interactive social impact game that inoculates users against misinformation.
The 6th Digital Forum on Terrorism Prevention wrapped up with a virtual happy hour that featured a livestream via Twitch hosted by Black Girl Gamers. It was a great end to a valuable, informative week.
Future Digital Forums are already being planned for emerging communities of stakeholders. In addition to 2020’s virtual forum focused on the Atlanta area, previous Digital Forums were held in Pittsburgh in September 2019, Santa Monica in November 2018, Silicon Valley in February 2018, and Washington, DC, in September 2017.
Please reach out to Hala V. Furst, Associate Director for Strategic Engagement in OTVTP, at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to learn more about Digital Forums for your community.
Disclaimer: Speakers and moderators are presented for informational purposes only. Participation of individuals and organizations does not imply an endorsement or sponsorship of any particular product or group by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security or Federal Government.