A deep dive into the FBI's bizarre anti-extremism browser game

With heavy-handed metaphors and a reluctance to let players think for themselves, this game's teaching style is uncomfortably close to the extremism it's trying to fight.

“It’s actually quite fun. It’s really, really fun. It’s better than Call of Duty.” So said British jihadi Abu Samayyah Al-Britani of his life in Syria with ISIS. Clearly, the decadent West needs to set up its efforts – but I’m not sure the FBI’s new counter-extremism game is going to cut it.

Don’t Be a Puppet: Pull Back the Curtain on Violent Extremism is an interactive multimedia microsite which promises to “educate teens on the destructive nature of violent extremism”. In practice it is a very beige combination of a Dorling Kindersley edutainment CD-ROM and some kind of War on Terror Reefer Madness, which never quite matches the adorable naffness of either. Designed for use in schools and representing itself as a “course”, it begins with a message from FBI director Jim Comey:

“We’ve seen a growing trend of violent extremist groups trying to recruit teenagers, especially over the internet. Drawn by false messages of power or glory, vulnerable young people can become puppets used to help spread a message of hate…The best weapons against violent extremists and their effort to recruit are empowered young people like you…so be part of the solution. Don’t be a puppet.”

DBAP: PBCOVE has five sections, comprising a mixture of reading material, videos and minigames. Each section you complete helps free an actual literal puppet which appears on the main menu screen entangled in its own strings.  Much of it is set inside a dingy CG-rendered basement full of ancient computer monitors and soda cans, representing either some slobby terrorist hideout or a very underfunded government agency. Sometimes when you click on a sub-section, the camera swoops like a very 90s gnat towards the relevant corner of the basement, and other times it doesn’t. The minigame in which you guide a rampaging goat down a 2D obstacle course has received most media attention because it’s so consummately baffling, but most are just quizzes or matching exercises which test your knowledge of what you’ve read. At the end, you get a certificate which you can print out and sign to show everyone that you’ve completed the course, which is more than you can say for Dark Souls.

The main screen, with heavy-handed metaphor top-left The main screen, with heavy-handed metaphor top-left

In one way what we’re seeing here is the death rattle of “serious games” – loose tradition of games, often sponsored by governments, news media,or NGOs, which framed themselves as conveying specific insight into real-world political phenomena. The classic example is 2003’s September 12, an Iraq-inspired blowback simulator in which every “terrorist” you kill merely inspires others to take up arms. Serious games were already dead as a discrete genre – their DNA spliced into consumer titles such as Papers, Please and Prison Architect, their top-down funding model outflanked by the Zinester revolution, and their uniqueness diminished by the gaming public’s increased willingness to discuss the politics of Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed. Their adoption by The Literal Feds represents a deliciously final nail in their coffin.

But DBAP is also part of an ongoing attempt by Western governments to police political expressions of Islam on the grounds that non-violent “extremist views” can eventually lead people towards violence. Whether that’s true is hotly debated, but it justifies the intrusion of counter-terrorist organizations into the “pre-criminal” space where “radicalization” happens. This is a difficult, maybe impossible tightrope to walk for any government with a constitutional commitment to freedom of speech and thought. Usually they fail, producing a climate of Islamophobic surveillance in which wearing the hijab is described by a US government report as a sign of “passive terrorism” and British Muslim kids are pulled out of class for surreal interrogations about exploding chainsaws.

Just like these initiatives, DBAP was originally focused on Islam, and clearly grew out of the same strategy, but criticism from community leaders and civil rights groups led to some changes. Now it goes to some lengths to signal its equal-opportunity concept of extremism (“I am a radicalized goat hell-bent on jihad” is sadly not an actual line). Examples of Islamic militancy are juxtaposed with white supremacy (consistently the USA’s biggest internal threat) and “eco-terrorism”; video messages from survivors of 9/11 and the Boston bombings share space with one from a Muslim American woman who received death threats against her children which specifically invoked the Twin Towers. One exercise asks you to identify “extremist” messages on imaginary social media feeds. In the build seen by civil rights groups, the correct answer was the person with the Arabic name inviting you on a “mission” abroad. Now it’s a man called “Alex Wu” who wants to smash up a cosmetics lab, while “Latif Khaled” just rhapsodizes about fishing.

Thanks, Sean Thanks, Sean

But what does “extremism” mean if it’s not tied to any particular worldview? The risk here is that “extremism” simply comes to mean any view too far outside the mainstream (and indeed, British police have been caught manufacturing new types of extremism to justify their continued funding). DBAP, which bristles with disclaimers that even very nasty beliefs are protected by the First Amendment, tackles this issue by defining extremism as a specific pattern of “twisted logic” which is shared across ideologies. First it divides the world into “us and them”, before blaming every member of “them” for the oppression “we” suffer and finally opposing on “us” an inescapable obligation to fight. If the game has one goal, it is to help you recognize this kind of groupthink wherever you find it, and commit you to resisting it where you can.

You might already have noticed the funny thing about this definition. Quite unintentionally, it risks indicting counter-terrorism itself.  Gary Younge memorably described American Sniper as a film about a disaffected young “jihadi” who is radicalized into travelling abroad to slaughter a designated enemy. Likewise, DBAP struggles to distinguish its own techniques from enemy “propaganda”. Its “don’t be a puppet” slogan is repeated so often it becomes a hammering refrain. Its guide to "getting around groupthink" reads like a liberal’s critique of American jingoism. It urges you to “recognize when you are being tricked by the way extremists use symbols” – right next to that recurring image of the puppet entangled in its own strings.

Seems familiar, somehow Seems familiar, somehow

More fundamentally, DBAP’s minigames and tickbox structure run utterly counter to its message of intellectual independence. Matching exercises and knowledge tests are essentially disciplinary in character: read what the FBI presents you, understand it enough to repeat it, and keep doing that until you get it right. ‘Right’ here means speaking the game’s own beliefs back to it with your own mouth like a child reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, confirming with your own actions that you understand and agree. There is no outlet for creativity or critical thinking, nor any space for you to find your own truth. Instead you simply tell the game what it wants to hear. You show the FBI that you’re not a puppet by doing pretty much what they tell you.

Whatever your politics, this kind of persuasion can only produce a very shallow type of agreement. It reminds me of what Aevee Bee, comparing her own behavior in Spec Ops: The Line to Shinji Ikari’s in Evangelion, calls “passive-aggressive compliance” : obedience without belief, so absolutely minimal that it is only intelligible as contempt. This is how lots of kids respond to school in general, and it seems fair to predict it’s how they’ll respond to DBAP. I appreciate the difficulty of producing something which actually encourages independence of mind while also making sense to a wide range of users. But the best the FBI can hope for here is that some enthusiastic civics teacher will lead a decent classroom discussion on why they failed.

But maybe that doesn’t matter. In 2013, Ian Bogost, one of the progenitors of “serious games”, gave a talk in which he concluded that most of them didn’t work. Their intended meanings came secondary to the message sent by their creators’ decision to develop them in the first place – that said creators were being prescient and hip in deploying the technology of “games for change” for their cause, and that everyone should be very impressed.

DBAP should be seen in this light: as a response to repeated, consistent demands that the war on terror be fought on every available front.  It fits perfectly with the words of Lord Carlile, a former British counter-terrorism advisor who recently called for the “best brains” of the gaming industry to be recruited against radicalization. Its most attentive audience will not be actual teens, but the politicians and civil servants who formulate these demands. To them, it will demonstrate the FBI’s commitment to innovative multi-spectrum war, while polishing the resumes of the people who commissioned and produced it. As such, it is probably more significant in terms bureaucratic status games than as a game in itself; its most lasting legacy will be as a slide in a classified PowerPoint presentation about How The FBI Is Fighting Terror. But hey, at least you get to keep the certificate.

John Brindle is a critic and journalist who lives in south London, working as a mild-mannered editor for a metropolitan newspaper. He tweets @john_brindle.