Is there no productivity issue that can’t be solved with gamification?
Unlikely, as gamification, the idea of applying game mechanics to non-games, has conquered corporate America, education, and healthcare, and has begun to catch on in the expanding spaces of terrorism and militant Islamism.
In a recent article in Foreign Policy, security consultants Jarret Brachman and Alix Levine wrote on what they call the World of Holy Warcraft and argued that jihadist bulletin boards and chat rooms are making use of the same gamification techniques that Foursquare and airlines, among others, use. We took the opportunity to ask Brachman a few questions and to find out whether Anwar al-Awlaki reads Jane McGonigal too.
FAST COMPANY: Why do you both think gamification is such a good way of analyzing why people spend so much time in jihadist bulletin boards or chat rooms?
JARRET BRACHMAN: I think that it’s less us thinking it’s a good way to view them, and rather them thinking that it’s a good way to incentivize partcipation in their own space. We actually stumbled on the gamification concept after briefing a room full of techies about how al-Qaeda and their global supporters are using the Internet. It was this group who were familiar with gamification that helped us to see what had been going on under our noses–we just didn’t have a framework in our minds for understanding it, so we did so ancedotally. Gamification allows us to make sense of the introduction of points, status, levels–elements that are being introduced into forums of all kinds–in order to increase and enhance participation. But the difference is that with al-Qaeda, gamification is being used for promoting hatred and encouraging militancy, as opposed to rewarding you for brand loyalty in where you shop or on what airline you fly.
Did any jihadist sites you encountered use gamification in an especially noteworthy way?
Well, it’s less about how they use it, and more about how they talk about themselves using it. There seems to be a schizophrenia on the sites about whether the introduction of “thank you points” and “reputation points” [used on jihadist bulletin boards to reward frequent posters] is actually a good thing or if it distracts them from the point at hand. One of the key elements of gamification is that it tends to replace the intrinsic value that one achieves from participating in an activity with the extrinsic value that one puts into the rewards of that participation. These al-Qaeda supporters are starting to wonder if the introduction of these game like elements are actually causing their community to participate more, not for the sake of the movement, but rather for the sake of participating in and of itself.
When you came across the use of gamification on bulletin boards or chat rooms, was it because of the system (Vbulletin, etc.) having default capabilities or was it something the admin appears to have purposely added?
it’s definitely add-on features that the admins decide to build into the structure. Again, these are features that all sorts of (non-jihadist) sites are introducing, but it’s to get you to shop more or discuss more about webcams or vacuum cleaners. There’s really nothing innovative or pioneering about how the al-Qaeda websites are introducing these gamified elements. It’s more the fact that they are doing it that concerns me.
If someone posts 50,000 times about a coffeemaker or the latest video game, I just think they are weird. But if someone posts that many times about supporting al-Qaeda, that concerns me.
At the same time, I do see these sites as useful for providing an outlet for angry guys to vent with one another. I think taking down sites like the one we profile in the article, Islamic Awakening, would actually do the United States a disservice by depriving individuals of a safe space that they can have to themselves to blow off steam. I think they need to be watched carefully because, as we’ve seen, individuals who seek to commit acts of violence come out of these communities.
The more they gamify the experience, the more extreme the participation levels are likely to be, which to me suggests that the ramp-up time for an individual who puts down his keyboard and picks up a gun is likely to shrink in the near term.
One Islamist site you mentioned, salafimedia.com, is based in Great Britain and offers mainly English-language content. Do you think there is a difference between the way that Western-language extremist sites are using gamification and how it occurs on primarily Arabic-language sites?
Yes, absolutely. The Arabic language sites have always had implicitly gamified elements such as status and leaderboards and levels, but they have not introduced the explicit structural dimension of points in the same way that non-Arabic sites have. This might be simply because they dont need to: the levels and intensity of participation are adequate in Arabic forums. That also might be because the gamification of websites is becoming so commonplace in the West that admins may realize that the only way to keep their participants hooked is by gamifiying the structure itself.
What is the most creative reward for frequent users on extremist site that you have encountered?
Honestly, it’s quite the opposite: The rewards that these guys tend to get most concerned with is their ability to display an avatar, the size of that avatar, the color of their name, size of their name. But again, these concerns are no different from that which any superuser on any other forum would concern themselves with. The reward itself seems trivial outside of the context of the forum. But within it, having a larger name in a different color than other people makes you king.I guess the one reward that everyone wants is the ability to ban other users–an “admin” or “mod” ability. That’s pretty much the ultimate in these forums.
In your Foreign Policy article, you both write about how Anwar al-Awlaki used elements of gamification to interact with followers and how his would-be acolytes have gamified internet experiences when they disseminate his articles and videos. Do you see the same thing happening with other Western or Western-based extremists?
Brachman: Nobody compares to Awlaki in how he created a cult following around him of people vying among one another for his attention and affection. It is more reminiscent of Charles Manson than of Bin Laden; I haven’t seen anyone who is nearly as skilled at manipulating online communities rising up the ranks.