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Can You Really Fight Terrorism with a Video Game?

A new FBI video game perpetuates dangerous myths on extremist violence and radicalization.

  • Michael Price
Published: February 18, 2016

Cross-posted on The Daily Dot

I don’t normally write about video games. I’m a civil rights lawyer, and I usually write about lofty things like privacy and national secur­ity. But that changed last week when the FBI released a comic­ally bad video game for teens designed to stop extrem­ist viol­ence.

Don’t Be A Puppet, the latest release from the FBI, is an online game to help school-age kids spot homegrown viol­ent extrem­ists in home­room. Sure, I know what you’re think­ing: Terror­ist attacks are extremely rare here in Amer­ica (compared to, say, gun viol­ence). But the bureau spent a lot of money on this, OK? So they’re rolling it out to hundreds of thou­sands of kids all over the coun­try despite some concerns from beta test­ers. It’s a part of the Obama admin­is­tra­tion’s much-vaunted Coun­ter­ing Viol­ent Extrem­ism program, and I have to say, I was expect­ing more. Both the concept and design seem dated, and not in that fun, Nintendo way.

Maybe the old-school vibe is inten­tional. After all, hunt­ing for radic­als is some­thing the FBI has been doing for decades, from the first Red Scare in the early 1900s to the second Red Scare after World War II. It’s a clas­sic, really. This time around, the FBI repeats its fan-favor­ite mistakes of the past and adds a refresh­ing post-9/11 twist.

[Full disclos­ure: My employer, the Bren­nan Center for Justice at NYU, recently sued the Depart­ment of Justice to release inform­a­tion about Don’t Be a Puppetfollow­ing reports that it was discrim­in­at­ory and would cause kids to look at their Muslim class­mates with suspi­cion.]

Don’t Be a Puppet is an inter­act­ive website designed for use in social stud­ies class, and it features a series of quizzes, puzzles, and oddly frus­trat­ing video games sure to draw eye rolls every­where. Each of five modules that students complete gets them one step closer to free­ing a mari­on­ette bound by the meta­phor­ical strings of extrem­ism. There is the “Distor­ted Beliefs Match­ing Game,” for example, along with assor­ted terror­ist trivia, and my personal favor­ite, the “Slip­pery Slope to Extrem­ism.” Yes, that’s correct, the FBI made a video game out of the prover­bial slip­pery slope. It’s like a no-frills reboot of SkiFree from 1991, except that now you’re a pixil­ated goat…a goat that prevents viol­ent extrem­ism. As far as I can tell, there is no national secur­ity purpose what­so­ever to that part of the game.

If Don’t Be a Puppet has one redeem­ing qual­ity, it is that it does­n’t auto­mat­ic­ally single out Muslim Amer­ic­ans as the go-to suspi­cious popu­la­tion. It casts a relat­ively wide net, cover­ing extrem­ists of all stripes, from anarch­ists, to envir­on­ment­al­ists, to white suprem­acists. But the whole effort seems to intern­al­ize one major glitch: there is no typical traject­ory toward viol­ent extrem­ism, no set of easily iden­ti­fi­able warn­ing signs that can be reduced to chil­dren’s video game.

Consider, for example, the section titled “How Do Viol­ent Extrem­ists Make Contact?” The FBI lays out a four-step process of radic­al­iz­a­tion (“Immer­sion,” “Iden­ti­fic­a­tion,” “Indoc­trin­a­tion,” and “Action”) that mirrors a 2006 intel­li­gence assess­ment and a 2007 report by the NYPD that were widely debunked anddiscred­ited as over­broad, overly simplistic, and full of meth­od­o­lo­gical errors. Build­ing on this flawed found­a­tion, Don’t Be a Puppet then asks students to view fictional online posts and spot the poten­tial terror­ists:


Notice anything suspi­cious about Sean? The “S” stands for subtle. Too easy? Try this one:

Alex! Didn’t we just have a little talk about using scare quotes? Come on!

If it were really this simple to spot terror­ists on the web, one might begin to wonder why the FBI needs help from Ms. John­son’s social stud­ies class.

Over­all, the game­play is confus­ing, clunky, and the webpages are slow to load (could be the track­ing cook­ies), making it pain­fully appar­ent that the FBI is a n00b in the gaming industry. It may be tempt­ing to cut them some slack, but the truth is that FBI should have known better. Multiple empir­ical stud­ies, includ­ing those funded by the U.S. govern­ment, have concluded that there is no roadmap to radic­al­iz­a­tion, no set of indic­at­ors that can predict who will engage in acts of viol­ence. Don’t Be a Puppet’s greatest short­com­ing is that it perpetu­ates this myth, poorly.