A propaganda image from the ISIS-supporting Wafa’ Media Foundation.

How ‘Call of Duty’ Is Transformed Into a Call for Jihad

  • Terrorists are using “Call of Duty” specifically and other video games to recruit young men
  • Groups’ production skills have improved
  • Researchers believe tracking the videos can provide an “aesthetic fingerprint” to pinpoint recruitment video creators

Researchers have been studying whether violent “first person shooter” video games are making young men more aggressive, and possibly inspiring some of them to join violent extremist organizations.

A study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that terrorist groups are lifting elements from popular video games to use for recruitment and practice.

Professor Cori Dauber, Mark Robinson (director of the UNCCH Media Laboratory), Jovan Baslious and Austin Blair studied the way that the Islamic State professional-grade propaganda and recruitment videos copy popular computer games, notably Call of Duty. “First Person Shooter” (FPS) games like these are played by hundreds of millions of people, generally under age 35 and 90 percent male – a key target demographic for Islamic terrorist organizations.

Dauber and her team found that ISIS videos mimic or lift footage and imitate editing styles, common features and sequences often in detailed ways that only regular gamers may fully recognize. This includes things like how the weapon the shooter is holding appears in the shot, the progression from lighter to heavier weapons, the use of drone footage clips, and the way graphics and titles are used.

They do not claim that such games make young men aggressive or even radicalize them. But they do think that adopting the look, feel, and familiar themes of such games speaks in a uniquely engrossing way to the group that ISIS and their imitators are trying to reach. Videos like these attract their engagement, and to an extent sanitize the violence.

Further, they noticed that other, less-sophisticated groups began copying Islamic State in this regard. They may start out with simpler, cruder videos, but some have shown that they can rapidly catch up by copying ISIS’ techniques.

In order to get a handle on this phenomenon, the team picked up on earlier work by Dauber and Robinson that graded the production values of ISIS videos. This was expanded to cover about 50 points of assessment ranging from technical production values to storyline, camera technique, editing craft, and so on. A video can then be graded against these, with each factor being scored 1-6, with the lowest deemed “consumer” and the highest “Hollywood standard.” A typical ISIS video scores 4 or 5 on almost everything, the researchers determined, meaning that their material is at a similar level to a professionally produced corporate video.

The authors then compare these with an early video by Al-Nusra, which scored poorly, and with a later one by Al-Nusra’s successor organization, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which was dramatically better and not far off the standard of ISIS. The competitive nature of the jihadi recruitment market has led the spread of sophisticated video production to more and more groups.

Dauber and her group believe that a tool such as this for studying propaganda videos can help track the spread of sophisticated production values and develop detailed “aesthetic fingerprints” that could be used to identify teams and organizations producing such material.

Their aim is to raise awareness of the below-the-radar way in which a particularly impressionable demographic is being ruthlessly targeted and suggest ways in which positive and anti-extremism messages could be deployed to the same target audience through this uniquely vivid and compelling medium.

“It is well worth considering this new venue, a place where the precise demographic being targeted by extremist groups of all sorts are gathering, as a space that is just waiting for positive messaging from counter- and anti-extremist organizations,” Dauber wrote.

Read the full paper

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Phil Price is a multilingual writer and translator based in London, UK. A graduate of Oxford University, Phil went on to hold senior management positions in several major British and German companies, and spent time living and working in Germany and Poland as well the UK. For HSToday, Phil reviews the latest findings from academic research and international studies into all aspects of international terrorism and presents the key trends and insights.

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