Points, Rankings & Raiding the Sorcerer’s Dungeon: Top-down and Bottom-up Gamification of Radicalisation and Extremist Violence

Points, Rankings & Raiding the Sorcerer’s Dungeon: Top-down and Bottom-up Gamification of Radicalisation and Extremist Violence
17th February 2020 Linda Schlegel
Linda Schlegel
In Insights

The research on gamification, defined as “the use of game elements in non-gaming contexts” usually aimed at facilitating a desirable behavior change in the users, has recently come into focus. Gamification is currently used by a variety of companies seeking to make engagement with their products more fun, rewarding and motivating for their customers. Most often, gamification is achieved through the introduction of points, leaderboards and badges, which can satisfy the psychological needs of users, for instance the need for competence, thereby increasing the likelihood of further positive engagement with the gamified application.

The concept of gamification has recently been transferred from the realm of business to the discourse on extremism and radicalisation, notably in relation to the livestreaming of attacks in Christchurch, El Paso and Halle. The livestreams resemble the increasingly popular ‘Let’s Play’ videos, during which audiences observe an individual’s video gaming, giving the viewers the illusion of watching footage from a first-person shooter game (FPS). Gamification has also been discussed in relation to jihadist propaganda videos, which employ the stylistic imagery found in video games and have even incorporated actual scenes from the popular FPS Call of Duty.

Research on gamification in general is still in its infancy and the mechanisms by which it could facilitate radicalisation processes have not yet been establish. Nevertheless, observations suggest that true to the current wave of extremism in the digital age emphasizing grass-root content production, gamification is not only starting to be employed by extremist organisations as a top-down approach to influence supporters but in a bottom-up manner by users themselves in their engagement with extremist content.

Top-down gamification

Some elements of gamification already existed, for instance, in jihadist forums awarding virtual badges for commenting or a ‘radicalisation meter’ tracking users’ ‘progress’. Only recently, however, gamification seems to have been employed more strategically by extremist organisations. Ebner describes the app Patriot Peer, planned by the German-speaking part of the right-wing Identitarian Movement, which awards points and an improved ranking for connecting with like-minded individuals, taking part in events or visiting designated cultural places. Because it also contains a ‘Patriot Radar’ to find other supporters, it has been described as blend between the popular apps Tinder and Pokémon Go.

Even seemingly mundane extrinsic incentives such as collecting points or improving one’s ranking can facilitate a player’s engagement with the content of the app and motivate to work towards an improvement of the personal ranking. Players differ in the degree to which they value competition or the social element of games. Patriot Peer is able to appeal to both by including elements of competition such as leaderboards as well as encouraging social connection between the users. Gamified apps launched by extremist organisations can increase the level of engagement with extremist content, connect like-minded individuals and motivate users extrinsically to fulfill actions deemed appropriate by the group. They may therefore constitute a tool to facilitate engagement with its content and could support radicalisation.

Bottom-up gamification

Users have been observed to gamify extremist content and even their own radicalisation process. The former is exemplified by the discussions on sites such as 8chan following attacks livestreamed in the style of FPS. After the attack in Christchurch, for instance, a user commented favourably on the ‘body count’ the perpetrator had ‘achieved’ and expressed a desire to ‘beat his high score’, a clear reference to collecting points for kills and an imagined leaderboard of extremist violence. Some users appear to structure and judge their experiences with extremist content by gamifying their perception of reality.

A few instances of self-gamification of radicalisation processes have also been observed. McDonald describes the case of a group of young British men connected through a WhatsApp group, who set out to fight ‘sorcerers’, religious leaders of Muslim groups they perceived as apostate. They would undertake ‘raids’ by breaking into the ‘sorcerer’s’ houses to steal ‘black magic’ objects and later share their experiences online, which mirrors the raids of dungeons and social sharing of completed ‘quests’ undertaken in famous multi-player games such as World of Warcraft. In this case, the boundaries between games and reality became porous. The social imaginary and their role as a ‘guild’ with a mission in the gaming sphere were transferred to the offline world. The young men projected the social imaginary familiar to them from gaming and their roles in the game into the real world and turned their own ‘bunch of guys’-style radicalisation process into a gamified experience.

These examples of top-down and bottom-up gamification show that gamified elements are increasingly employed by extremists of various backgrounds and can potentially increase the appeal of extremist content. It is likely that these utilizations of gamification by extremist organisations and their supporters are only the beginning of a larger trend. As gamification becomes employed more widely by companies and throughout society, extremist organisations and their supporters will probably follow suit and increase their usage of gamified elements in the future. The research community is well advised to continuously engage with the gamified tools, their mechanisms of influence and their implications for radicalisation and recruitment processes as well as to collaborate with those researching gamification in other settings. If gamification proves useful for extremist organisations, it could become an integral element of the tools they employ and potentially influence pathways to radicalisation.