British and American intelligence agencies infiltrated online gaming communities, searching for what they thought could be terrorist and criminal groups lurking in the digital realm of orcs, elves and player-created avatars.
According to documents provided by whisteblower Edward Snowden, the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) and the British Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) analysts in 2007 became convinced that online communities like the World of Warcraft and Second Life had become hubs for the secret transfer of information and money between wanted organizations, according to reports published Monday by The Guardian, The New York Times and ProPublica.
It's not clear, based on the leaked documents, if the agencies uncovered any actual plots, but analysts from the NSA and GCHQ reportedly saw a wide range of possible targets and gaming groups that warranted surveillance.
Online communities seem like odd venues for intelligence officials to search for terrorist plots. In World of Warcraft, participants play virtual selves in a digital fantasy land of magic, monsters, orcs and elves, where they duel with other players in real time, speaking over headphones.
While in Second Life, users can create custom human avatars to chat with friends in an environment that mirrors the real world.
The Guardian report suggests that the analysts who prepared the report were trying to play the online games on company time — and thus went to great lengths to prove their case.
"Al-Qaida terrorist target selectors ... have been found associated with XboxLive, Second Life, World of Warcraft, and other GVEs (games and virtual environments)," the report says, according to The Guardian. "Other targets include Chinese hackers, an Iranian nuclear scientist, Hezbollah, and Hamas members."
The online games intrigued the intelligence services because players may provide numerous nuggets of personal information such as geo-location tags or photographs in their biographies. And because World of Warcraft players, thousands of whom may be playing worldwide at the same time, generally trust the system, breaking into the trove of personal data was easy.
Blizzard Entertainment, which operates World of Warcraft — or WoW as it's referred to online — said it was unaware of the infiltration.
"If it was, it would have been done without our knowledge or permission," Blizzard told The Guardian.
Second Life and the NSA declined comment to the paper.
NSA analysts also saw the games as an effective way for groups to spread their beliefs and train recruits with virtual weaponry and target practice.
“Terrorist groups and sympathizers could use games to twist historical context, demonize enemies, disrupt the social moral compass, and desensitize users to violence,” the report states.
The leaked analysis notes that Hezbollah, an armed Lebanese group, released a game called “Special Force” as a propaganda and fundraising tool.
According to the documents, Hezbollah’s video game, which is available in Arabic, French and English versions, “plays on the common themes of ‘Israeli occupation’ and ‘Palestinian victimization,’ and offers players the opportunity to 'fight back' by 'digitally' reenacting various elements of the Intifada,” or Palestinian uprising.
The report includes detailed accounts of video games it deems suspicious or controversial, many involving the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
“Games designed to appeal to terrorist sympathizers leverage salient political themes and typically exploit ‘pro-Arab’ and 'anti-Israel’ sentiment. Such games attract players because they provide them with a consonant message and an opportunity to take part 'virtually' in ‘resistance movements,’" the analysis states.
While social media sites like Facebook and Twitter have proved to be lively forums for different political ideologies worldwide, the idea of online games as a place where politics reigns supreme in the Middle East hasn't come up in academic discourse, according to Jon W. Anderson, a professor of anthropology at Catholic University who focuses on information technology and social media in the Middle East.
“In all of the academic literature on new media and political use of new media in the Arab world that has come out over the last six years — because it started with demonstrations in Egypt in 2007— in all of this I have never heard of anybody using World of Warcraft for passing information," Anderson told Al Jazeera.
World of Warcraft players took to their online forum to discuss the revelations, reacting with a mixture of amusement, exasperation and dismissal.
“If the NSA spied on me, they would be pretty bored watching me craft and talk nonsense with my wow buddies,” said one.
Another quipped: “About the most use the NSA would be in wow would be to be playing the game during office hours. Great excuse really to be 'working' yet playing.”