| by Stephen Diehl

News Stories

Illustration showing three snakes emerging from a computer screen
CTEC and iThrive Games have received a grant from the Department of Homeland Security to develop a game that helps adolescents build resilience against extremist recruiters. (Credit: Michael Austin )

Researchers at the Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism will partner with the game company iThrive Games Foundation on a two-year project funded by the Department of Homeland Security.

Middlebury’s Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism (CTEC) and the educational game designer iThrive will collaborate on a new simulation game and curriculum designed to build resilience among adolescents and give them the tools to recognize and reject overtures from violent extremist recruiters. CTEC Deputy Director Alex Newhouse will serve as principal investigator for the two-year, $630,000 grant from the Department of Homeland Security, which will offer research experience to Middlebury graduate and undergraduate students.

CTEC will combine its world-class expertise in how radicalization impacts digital and real-world communities with iThrive’s experience in designing meaningful and transformative experiences, with and for teens. They believe the end product will fill an increasingly important need in the U.S. education system.

Supporting Adolescent Resilience 

Newhouse notes that extremist actors have long targeted middle and high school-aged youth for recruitment. He says adolescent members of terrorist and extremist movements have participated in dozens of failed and successful violent plots over the past several decades.

“​​Adolescents are uniquely vulnerable to recruitment and radicalization by extremists, but they also are uniquely able to build resilience and resistance to recruitment while also learning how to help their peers,” said Newhouse.

According to CTEC researchers, extremist recruiters are well-aware that an adolescent’s need for social connections, status, and belonging can be exploited in the radicalization process. The social needs of adolescents, as well as the development of the brain itself combine to create a “perfect storm” of both vulnerability and opportunity for building resilience.

According to the research team, the plasticity of the adolescent brain makes them more vulnerable to negative influences, but it also makes them more receptive to positive inputs. Education initiatives that create genuine engagement, offer challenging, relevant, and respectful content, and social and emotional skill building can create resilience and resistance to recruitment.

The Simulation Approach

The researchers saw that both the need and opportunity for programs preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE) were great in U.S. middle and high schools. The few programs that do exist often focus disproportionately on Muslim students and may not incorporate monitoring and evaluation steps, they noted.

Collaborating with the Newton, Massachusetts-based iThrive Games, CTEC will build the new program on the iThrive Sim platform. The web-based, role-playing simulations of this platform are designed to deeply engage students with rich content, storylines, and each other. It’s a type of experiential learning wherein players assume specific character roles and use both predetermined plot points and improvisation to interact with each other and solve problems within the context of realistic scenarios.

“We design role-play scenarios intentionally to invite students into dialogue with each other where they negotiate and compromise as they make decisions, explore possible solutions, try on values that may differ from their own, and take others’ perspectives into consideration,” said Susan Rivers, PhD, executive director at iThrive Games.

As students play, they’ll encounter source documents, contextually grounded news stories, memos, photos, and social media content that is both prepopulated and written by fellow players. Students use this information to fuel their real-time interactions with fellow players and to make decisions that move the scenario forward.

The research team believes input from the target audience—middle and high schoolers—was essential for creating an effective product. They plan to partner with students and educators at three secondary schools in California, New York, and Vermont during the design and implementation phases of the project.

“Curricular surrounds” will provide important context to help students transfer what they learn from the game into their own lives. These might include character profiles, important background information, and discussion prompts to enrich the learning experience. The researchers hope the surrounds will offer a jumping off point for meaningful reflection in discussions and activities following the simulation.

Student Research Opportunities

The project presents numerous opportunities for Middlebury graduate and undergraduate students—especially those interested in Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies—to participate in an innovative project. Newhouse says that students will be involved in all phases of the two-year project, from preliminary research to research and development to implementation.   

Newhouse says the ultimate goal is to deliver youth-focused counterextremism curricula at the high school level. The program aims to increase awareness of—and build resistance to—the radicalization process through online critical thinking initiatives and social and emotional skill building.

“Ultimately, preventing extremism requires us to build capacity among adolescents for both recognizing extremist radicalization and resisting it,” says Newhouse. “We think this program has great potential to simultaneously educate and empower students.”

This project is funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), opportunity number DHS-21-TTP-132-00-01, as part of its Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention (TVTP) Grant Program. It’s one of 37 grants totaling $20 million to be awarded in fiscal 2021. According to DHS, TVTP grants expand on the department’s new approach to prevention, which centers on providing local communities with evidence-based tools to help prevent violence, while protecting civil rights and civil liberties and privacy rights. More information

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