Op-Ed: Gaming the System

Op-Ed: Gaming the System


Gaming the System: Changing the Course of Online Radicalization

Alix Levine is the Director of Research for Cronus Global, a security consulting firm. She specializes in the study of homegrown extremism and online mobilization. You can find her at www.alixlevine.com.

We all know that the purpose of gamification is to drive consumer participation. I fly on Continental Airlines because I want to obtain elite status and I buy my coffee at Starbucks in order to level up on my Starbucks rewards. But just as corporations have figured out a way to engage consumers in a more meaningful way and encourage brand loyalty, al-Qaeda’s marketing gurus aren’t trailing too far behind.

Similar to most other online social spaces, virtually every hardline Islamic website attributes ranks to their members based on the number and the quality of their posts. As members are more engaged on the forum, they can level up in status, earn badges, and obtain trivial online rewards like changing the color of their username or adding an avatar.

As I note in my Foreign Policy article on this topic, its not just Islamic extremist sites that implement gaming mechanics into the architecture of their websites. Other hardline sites also use gamification to encourage engagement among their users, including the popular white supremacist forum Stormfront, which allows users to level up in status based on their posts in the forum.

In addition to gamified websites, al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups also gamify their propaganda materials. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) English-language magazine, titled Inspire, uses gimmicky phrases to downplay the seriousness of their very dangerous message. The magazine teaches readers how to “Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of your Mom,” a dangerous and illegal task that when presented in a rhyming phrase makes the undertaking more appealing and achievable. By gamifying the message, AQAP is able to lower the threshold between virtual and reality, between unattainable and within reach.

The result of gamification in the jihadi online space is increased engagement. As more and more game mechanics are employed on the extremist forums, an increased number of users will become even more engaged, ultimately spending longer durations of time on the forums talking about more things related to militancy. Gamification has enabled extremist forums to successfully create jihadi superusers. The concern is that these superusers will eventually decide to live up to their virtual identities that they have created, and carry out violent acts in the real world.

This isn’t a far-fetched concern. The majority of Westerners arrested on terror-related charges have used the Internet at some point of their radicalization process. A 20-year old boy from Virginia, for instance – who came to fame last year for threatening the creators of South Park – was active on at least a dozen different social online spaces that employed gaming mechanisms, ranging from hardline Islamic extremist forums to the mainstream social networking sites like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. He reached such a high status through his online postings, that the well known New York-based extremist organization Revolution Muslim asked him to run their website. Six months later he was arrested for attempting to join an al-Qaeda linked terrorist group in Somalia and communicating online threats; he was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Within a two-year span, this boy went from a promising young star to an unemployed college dropout who spent nearly every waking hour posting about his support for terror, how to raise your children with the values of jihad (he has a child of his own), and how to propagate jihad online. The fact that someone with no real world connection to extremists can reach such an elite status virtually is very telling of how powerful gaming elements can be for up and coming online extremists.

For years counterterrorism analysts have been exploring options for combatting online extremism. On one end of the spectrum are those who argue that we should remove every extremist site from the Internet. However, this not only disregards our first amendment right, but it also neglects the fact that a site can simply move to a different URL. On the other end of the spectrum are those analysts that believe we should make more of these sites and use them as honeypots, entrapping as many extremists as we can so that others are scared. Neither of these tactics have proven successful, and as the Internet has become more prevalent in our lives, it has also become the driving factor of radicalization for the majority of Islamic extremists.

The counterterrorism field has never used the theories of gamification to help us understand online radicalization. Analyzing the current situation with this new framework helps build an understanding for what motivates the online extremist community. While this framework has helped tremendously in our understanding of online extremism, I am now looking to game mechanics to guide me toward an understanding of how to counter online extremism.

So my question to you is how do we reverse the process of online radicalization using game mechanics? In other words, can we use gamification to influence these online communities in a positive way, rather than driving them further toward extremism? This is not an easy challenge and I do not expect easy solutions. But as gamification becomes more and more a part of our daily lives, it will inevitably increase at an equal pace for online jihadists. The challenge is figuring out how to disrupt the game flow, and I wholeheartedly believe that gamification is the answer – but how?


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  1. Alix – thanks for this enlightening, and frightening analysis.

    As a game designer, its easy to see the game mechanics present in so many dogmatic practices. Whether its counting beads, going on missions or leveling up to purgatory, game mechanics have always worked wonders on our flow-driven psyches. And social recognition of these gamified accomplishments go all the way up to the white puff of smoke released for papal succession. So it shouldn’t surprise me that radicals have adopted them as well. But it did.

    Well design game mechanics that appeal to our intrinsic motivations will always be the most popular, and powerful. As you point out; “The result of gamification in the jihadi online space is increased engagement.” For those that are engaged by the messages of jihad, game mechanics will absolutely heighten that engagement. But game mechanics by themselves, without context, are not engaging. If the messages, and tactics of jihad can be made less appealing and we offer extremists a gamified and rewarding way to satisfy their intrinsic desires, we can drive positive social recognition within their communities.

    The answer is to engage them in activities that are rewarding, by producing immediate ‘flow’ for the individual and long term social benefit for the community.

    Jane McGonigal highlights the possibilities with games like Evoke. Here’s another great example of influencing social mores with games: “‘Yes Minister’ which revolved around the concept of raising one’s voice over corruption and building ideal India, [gained] 50,000 players in the first week of its launch.

    The numbers doubled to 100,000 in one-and-half months after introduction of an Anna Hazare element to the game during the anti-corruption campaign. The numbers augmented further due to the contexual relevance.” http://bit.ly/mQCW0K

    Here’s hoping we can create enough compelling, contextual, positive, gamified experiences to lure would-be extremists from leveling-up the path of gamified jihad.

    • Vincent, thanks so much for your insights. These examples are great, and I agree that we need to find a way to create an engaging gamified experience for would-be extremists — which I think is challenging but doable. The problem I see is finding a way to create a gamified experience for those individuals who already are on the path of extremism and are engaged further because of game mechanics on jihadi online social spaces. How do we disrupt this progress when it is too late to insert game mechanics in a peripheral way and hope they take notice? As I develop my research in this area I will continue to share!

  2. Just thinking loud: Maybe we can do that like the teaching experiment “The Wave” did. In this case we’d need to infiltrate these forums, and bring a mole up to the highest ranks and bring them to get the most extrem to make this step, and help them prepare a presumed terror attack. By staging the attack and shocking them with the graphical display of such a scene with actors in victim make up etc., maybe they will recognize that they are talking about real human beings, not just “infidels” other dehumanizing terms they us.

    Otherwise, to use counter-gamification would probably mean to own the website. How to get there? And what are the conter-measures? In Germany, a anti-neo-nazi-group went to a right wing music band’s concert, pretending to be selling shirts with motives from the band. After the first time of washing the t-shirt, the message came out (here a before and after: the message reads: what your shirt can you also can do: exit –

    Or maybe there was this case of the hacker network, who illegally collected all these credit card numbers. The different hacker-communities ran multiple hacker websites, and one of them gained control over all these communities, got admin authorization and kicked the founders out to merge all hacker communities for his purpose. Maybe we can learn tactics from them (see Wikipedia and the mastermind: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albert_Gonzalez)

    I think to be successful, we need to employee a mix of different things, gamification could be one part. Such an important and sad topic.