NSA Gamifies Surveillance Training: Ethical or Questionable?

NSA Gamifies Surveillance Training: Ethical or Questionable?


The Ethical Implications of the NSA Surveillance Training and the Gamification Industry

It is undeniable that gamification is a force to be reckoned with as it is a powerful tool in eliciting change for a user’s behavior. Although gamification as a tool by itself is inherently neutral, its use for good or bad has been highly debatable.  Here at Gamification Co, we have covered numerous examples where gamified systems have been used for good in solving problems across industries. Nonetheless, there is a need to address the elephant in the living room where gamification is used for questionable means.

The case in point was a recent Der Spiegel report on the NSA gamifying its infamous international surveillance program, XKEYSCORE. Gleaned from a secret report entitled, “Tales from the Land of Brothers Grimm”, it detailed training procedures that were used to motivate NSA agents who are new to the program. Gamification mechanics were used such as how agents could earn “skilz” points and “unlock achievements” as they effectively use the training program. What was startling was that the report indicated the training procedure changed the perception of its users opinion on surveillance after a certain period of time.

Der Spiegel wrote, “One analyst is quoted as saying that he always felt that he had one foot in prison when he was using the program, but that he began feeling more confident after going through training.”

The effectiveness of the gamified training program was highlighted in the report as well. It noted that Griesheim base, the European hub of the XKEYSCORE achieved the “highest average skill points” compared to other NSA departments in the same training program.

nsa gamification xkey score
CC Image by 禁书网中国禁闻

If readers are feeling uncomfortable right now, you have all the right reasons to do so. For this has not been the first time a federal agency has used gamification to to pursue their own organizational goals. So, the big question now is, how should the gamification community respond to this?

A core principle of gamification design is to include rules to govern the parameters of the “game”. If rules were non-existent within a game, there will always be a segment of users who will inherently attempt to game the system for their own needs. While there are currently no laws that specifically govern against the misuse of gamification, the gamification community can seek guidance based on a code of ethics. In a write up by Zichermann covering ethics, he has pointed out how “game, film, loyalty and behavioral economics industries don’t really have an omnibus code of ethics, despite their persuasive natures.” The same goes for gamification as well. As the field is still developing while trying its best to avoid terrible design and ultimately failure, the discussion on unethical application of gamification is often an afterthought.

Nonetheless, important strides has been made to address this long overdue subject matter. The establishment of the Engagement Alliance has helped generate discussion on ethics while Kevin Werbach’s Coursera class and his book, “For the Win” co-written with Dan Hunter, covered extensively on the role ethics play for gamification design. These efforts are helping to educate the community while addressing the issue but this is not the end of it. In fact, it goes to show the significant responsibility that must be shouldered by gamification designers.

In essence, ethics are actions and behavior that are deemed socially and culturally acceptable by the majority. Will there come a day where society will become ambivalent to gamified systems that are designed with questionable intent? It is always a possibility. This article may prove to be a Pandora’s box, leaving us with more questions than answers. Is a code of ethics temporarily sufficient in governing an entire industry? How do we tell when gamification systems are morally right or wrong? Above all, when should gamification designers draw the line upon realizing their work’s true purpose? Hopefully through continuous dialogue on the ethical implications, gamification may turn out ultimately to be a catalyst of positive change.

Cover CC Image by ThatGuyWithCats


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  1. What I always say is this: Gamification is like Charisma: you can use it to motivate people towards great and benevolent things, or you can motivate people towards insidious and evil things.

    • I’m sure you are sincere, but a tool of psychological motivation (manipulation) carries a level of responsibility the gamification “industry” does not seem to acknowledge. If you see “charisma” as being like “operant conditioning”, you do not understand the science.

      • Charisma is a form of manipulation – making people do what they would not otherwise have done, and perhaps feeling good about it. In fact, it’s just part of one of the 8 Core Drives (Social Influence & Relatedness) within gamification.

        If you think about it, saying “Please” is a form of mild manipulation. People didn’t want to help you because it did not benefit them, and now they do because you said please – nothing material about the activity has changed. Also, saying “Thank You” is like giving people a reward at the end.

        Also, gamification is not like mind-control either. Even studies that show “gamification increased engagement by 50%!!” They basically increased engagement from 7% to 10.5%, where 89.5% of the population still “could easily choose to say no” but the few on the fence decided that they would participate. This is also the same as dealing with Charisma or people saying please – you still get to make a choice, you just have a higher tendency to choose something.

        They key here is transparency – if you know people are trying to influence your thinking, it’s fair game because you still have a choice. If it’s done in a subtle and hidden manner to make you do things against your own wellbeing, then that’s ugly. (But it could also make you exercise more and eat healthier if you opt into that).

  2. “Although gamification as a tool by itself is inherently neutral” No, it’s not “inherently neutral”. It is based on psychological (and physiological) techniques known/proven/designed to subvert conscious, rational thought/choice. There is *never* a context where this is merely “neutral.” While any tech can be used for good or evil, gamification is a tool of manipulation. Period. That these techniques *could* be used for potentially good purpose (debatable, for complex reasons), does not make the tool “inherently neutral” unless you see subverting consciousness as “neutral”.

    Some tools really *are* inherently NON-neutral. That they could be put to potentially non-evil purpose doesn’t change this.

    • What about Hypnosis? Is it fundamentally evil because it is manipulation at its prime? Or does it depend on whether the subject opted into it or not?

    • There’s no need for Oppenheimer-level angst here. Yes, gamification does provide incentives for behavior. So do appeals to patriotism, competition for your boss’ favor, and other motivational cues that, no doubt, also play a role in the life of an NSA employee. Are those behavioral tools, ipso facto things we should be worrying about?

      In any case, the article leaps to a conclusion about the NSA, that a government agency using gamification, or any system of incentives, for “their own organizational goals” is inherently immoral or unethical. I’m furious about the surveillance state, and the glib attitudes towards the Constitution that lie behind it. However, I’d rather that NSA employees perform their job duties competently.

  3. Gamification is a tool, in the same way as a hammer is a tool. It has no good or evil intentions. A hammer can be used to build houses, carve sculptures or smash things. The hammer is still neutral, it is the intent of the person that is holding the hammer that is not.

    Yes, Gamification uses deep psychological triggers and techniques, but again – these are neutral in themselves.

    I wrote a code of ethics for Gamification (http://marczewski.me.uk/resources/gamification-code-of-ethics), even have a few people registered to it. I wrote it excuse I believe that you should use Gamification in a way that does not intentionally cause harm to the people it is being used on – not to manipulate them into doing things they should not do. If I was a writer, I would probably do something similar – books have huge power over people’s way of thinking – yet paper is still neutral.

    The NSA using Gamification to train their spys is not the fault of Gamification. Someone was asked to make the training program more effective and did their job, making use of Gamification. They were not doing it to manipulate the end user other than to make the training more engaging. The real moral issue is the content of the training – that is where ethics are needed in this case.

  4. Must tell that nowdays gamification penetrates into all important life fields: science, education, trainings, business and it’s not strange. Even gamified competitions (for example among business management students) are being organised based on gamified platforms. An example is http://virtonomics.com/ .