Making extremism fun? The potential role of gamification in radicalization processes
by Linda Schlegel, 19.3.2020
The gamification of extremism has recently gained attention in the discussions surrounding the appeal of ‘cool’ videos published by the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) utilizing the visual style of first-person shooter games, and in the context of the livestreaming of various terrorist attacks, including Christchurch and Halle. [i] Both jihadist and right-wing extremists appear to progressively incorporate gaming elements into their propaganda efforts as well as their ‘performance’ during attacks, raising questions about the impact of gamification in increasing the appeal and potential resonance of propaganda material as well as its implications for radicalization processes. While the last years have seen an increase in engagement with the issue [ii], gamification has only recently drawn scholarly attention and must be regarded as understudied in comparison to other factors facilitating radicalization processes. [iii]
Part of the reason for this is that gamification research itself is a relatively novel academic field. The most relevant work on the phenomenon to this day has been published since 2010 and is mostly concerned with the commercial application of gamification. [iv] Gamification can be defined as “the use of game designs within non-gaming contexts” [v] and describes the process of introducing elements typically associated with games, such as points, leaderboards, badges, into circumstances not usually regarded as gaming contexts, thereby transforming them into gamified conditions. Gamification may entail more than these elements and could involve much more sophisticated tools such as player journeys [vi], but currently these are the most widely applied measures of gamification. While still considered a novel approach, gamification has been applied in a variety of contexts, including educational settings, employee and customer experience, library use, work, health, exercise or environmental protection. [vii] Governments too have used gamification to their ends, for instance, to nudge drivers into abiding by the speed limit. [viii] Crucially, gamification is often introduced with the aim to facilitate desirable (from the point of view of the introducer) behavior change in a target population. [ix]
The potential mechanisms by which top-down gamification could facilitate radicalization processes
The exact psychological processes underlying the success of gamification in shaping behavior have not yet been fully established and research so far has uncovered that it may not be effective in all circumstances and for all users. Age, for instance, has been shown to mediate the effect of gamification on users; the older the users, the less pronounced the effects of gamification. [x] It is therefore difficult to trace precisely how gamification operates in the context of extremist propaganda tools. Nevertheless, a general deductive analysis of how gamification could potentially facilitate radicalization processes, is possible. It should be noted that gamification can take place in a bottom-up and top-down manner, either driven by users during or at the end point of their radicalization processes or by extremist organizations seeking to facilitate radicalization. I have elaborated on this distinction elsewhere [xi] and will focus on top-down gamification in the following.
There are at least three ways the gamification of extremist tools could impact radicalization processes: (a) by providing gratification of psychological needs, (b) by gamifying the teaching of ideology, and (c) by increasing the appeal of extremist content.
a) According to self-determination theory, gamification can satisfy important psychological needs by making users feel autonomous, competent and socially connected. [xii] For instance, points, badges and leaderboards positively affect the feeling of competency, providing users with measurable and visible indicators of success. The triad also provides clear and easily obtainable goals, which can motivate users to collect more points and ‘move up’ levels. Completion of these goals makes users feel good about themselves. This positive feeling could lead to a higher likelihood of continued engagement as users are more drawn to applications that satisfy their psychological needs. Continuous engagement with extremist content could then lead to a normalization of extremist frames and thereby contribute to radicalization processes.
b) From ISIS to Hezbollah and ETA, many extremist organizations have engaged in educational activities, seeking to transmit their ideology and the narratives within it in an accessible manner to both children and adult learners. [xiii] Pieslak writes about the use of music in transmitting ideology: “when attempting to draw people to radical ideology, do not lead with the ideology if you can find a more attractive garment in which to dress the message. And music provides very fashionable clothes” [xiv]. The same might be said about gamifying ideological teachings. If one has the opportunity to make ideology accessible and ‘fun’ through gamified apps or other applications of gamification, it is preferable and likely to be more effective than dry modes of instruction. Especially children and young people could be susceptible to the exposure to and engagement with extremist content through seemingly harmless gamified propaganda tools.
c) Gamification can increase the social appeal of extremist applications or forums. Gamification adds an element of friendly competition to reach specific goals, the successful completion of which are visible to other users. Through awarding points or badges and by affording the opportunity to compare one’s own ranking to others, gamified applications can increase motivation to engage with extremist content in order to improve one’s standing in the group by collecting more virtual points. Higher rankings provide prestige within the group and increase feelings of competence and achievement. Gamification can therefore draw ambitious and competitive users deeper within the group processes as they seek to improve their score board and potentially facilitate their radicalization processes.
Gamification research is still in its infancy, yet it is likely that gamification as a concept will become more established and more widely used in the coming years. Extremist organizations have already shown an interest in using gamified elements. These included rankings and ‘radicalization meters’ in forums [xv], gamified apps such as ISIS’s Huroof[xvi], and the appPatriot Peer[xvii] by the Identiarian Movement to connect likeminded individuals. In addition the production of gamified ‘experiences’ during attacks via livestreaming and keeping virtual ‘scoreboards’ for ‘successful’ shooters have been observed. [xviii] It is reasonable to assume that a more widespread use of gamification elements in the commercial sector will be mirrored by gamified extremist propaganda tools and an increasing focus on ‘play’ as a means of appealing to and engaging large audiences. Therefore, it is critical that both academics and practitioners in the field of extremism studies and prevention and countering of extremism are engaging with the application of gamification in extremist contexts.
About the author
Linda Schlegel holds a Bachelor’s in Liberal Arts from University College Maastricht and a Master’s degree in Terrorism, Security and Society from King’s College London. Her research interests comprise (online-)radicalisation, extremists’ use of social media, processes of identity construction of extremist groups, and societal resilience to terrorism. She is a regular contributor to The European Eye on Radicalization and tweets here @LiSchlegel.
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[vii] See for instance:
Blohm, I. and Leimeister, J. (2013). Gamification: Design of IT-Based Enhancing Services for Motivational Support and Behavioral Change. Business & Information Systems Engineering. Vol. 5 (4), pp. 275-278
Mitchell, R., Schuster, L. and Jin, H. (2020). Gamification and the impact of extrinsic motivation on needs satisfaction: Making work fun?. Journal of Business Research. Vol. 106, pp. 323-330
Jagust, T., Boticki, I. and So, H-J. (2018). Examining competitive, collaborative and adaptive gamification in young learners’ math learning. Computers & Education. Vol. 125, pp. 444-457
Hamari, J. and Koivisto, J. (2015). “Working out for likes”: An empirical study on social influence in exercise gamification. Computers in Human Behavior. Vol. 50, pp. 333-347
Robson, K., Plangger, K., Kietzmann, J., McCarthy, I. and Pitt, L. (2016). Game on: Engaging customers and employees through gamification. Business Horizons. Vol. 59, pp. 29-36
[viii] Blohm, I. and Leimeister, J. (2013). Gamification: Design of IT-Based Enhancing Services for Motivational Support and Behavioral Change. Business & Information Systems Engineering. Vol. 5 (4), pp. 275-278
[ix] Robson, K., Plangger, K., Kietzmann, J., McCarthy, I. and Pitt, L. (2015). Is it all a game? Understanding the principles of gamification. Business Horizons. Vol. 58, pp. 411-420
[x] Koivisto, J. and Hamari, J. (2014). Demographic differences in perceived benefits from gamification. Computers in Human Behavior. Vol. 35, pp. 179-188
[xii] van Roy, R. and Zaman, B. (2019). Unravelling the ambivalent motivational power of gamification: A basic psychological needs perspective. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies. Vol. 127, pp. 38-50
[xiv] Pieslak, J. (2017). “A Musicological Perspective on Jihadi anashid”. In Hegghammer, T. (edt). Jihadi Culture: The Art and Social Practices of Militant Islamists. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, p.75