Recent years have seen an increase in the gamification of digital extremist content and discussions around the potential implications of gamification for radicalisation. As individual reception of extremist propaganda differs, it is reasonable to ask whether different users may react differently when presented with gamified extremist propaganda. It is common sense knowledge that users engage with social media platforms and applications for various reasons and to satisfy different needs. A user only seeking information uses platforms very differently from a user craving communication with others. Similarly, there are various ways to classify video game players. They may be motivated by wanting to get better and reap in-game rewards, by wanting to beat their friends, by wanting to simply enjoy themselves or a range of other motivational factors. In the last 10 years a new digital tool has gained increasing attention: Gamification. Gamification is “the use of game elements in non-game contexts” and has been employed in various contexts from the commercial sector to education, health, and the public sector. Unsurprisingly, as extremists are early adopters of new technological advances, gamification has been added to the extremist ‘toolbox’ to make digital propaganda and communication channels more engaging and ‘fun’ for users.
However, as research on user and player types suggests, not every gaming element will be equally appealing to every user. User types determine the engagement with gamified applications. As extremist actors seek to appeal to a broad spectrum of users, gamified propaganda likely contains elements that are intriguing to different types of audiences. The theoretical possibilities to distinguish user types are practically endless depending on how in-depth one seeks to classify user behaviour. In the following, I distinguish two basic types and discuss how gamified extremist propaganda may motivate them to engage: one is motivated mainly by competition, one by social relatedness. They may be referred to as challengers and socialisers.
Challengers are highly competitive users, who are motivated by competition, enjoy comparing themselves to others and want to ‘win’, i.e. lead the scoreboard. Gamified elements such as leaderboards provide users with clear measures of others’ progress in relation to themselves and a quantifiable indication of what they need to do to ‘win’, i.e. how many points they need to lead. Competitive users may be motivated to spend more time on the gamified application in order to collect more points and ‘level up’, thereby engaging more thoroughly with the propagandistic content and the group’s narratives. Without noticing – because they are ‘playing’ – increased exposure may normalise the ideas they are exposed to and, potentially, increase susceptibility to radicalisation efforts.
Challengers who are also status-seekers may be especially prone to be influenced by gamification in such a way. Hierarchy and status are usually difficult to judge in online interactions, but through providing points, leaderboards, rankings, and similar elements gamification provides visible, quantifiable indications of status within the group. Competitive users who seek status may be motivated by an increase in self-esteem that a high position on the leaderboard provides, the feeling of being more successful than their peers, and, potentially, to be noticed as a leader within the in-group, i.e. to ‘be someone’. Recruiters could seek out such users and offer them opportunities for even more significance and an even higher status within the extremist group by, for instance, taking offline action.
Socialisers, on the other hand, are not motivated by competition or status, but seek social relatedness. They enjoy collaborative tasks, quests that can only be mastered in a group, the feeling of belonging to an online community, and sharing experiences with others. For socially-driven individuals gamification may provide them with social cues of what is considered appropriate behaviour in the group. If it is the norm, for instance, to collect a certain amount of badges or obtain a certain level, socialisers may be inclined to follow such norms and thereby increase their own exposure to extremist content in the process. They may also strive to get ‘likes’ or other forms of validation from peers on forums, potentially encouraging them to continuously engage.
In the context of games, it has been shown that for many players it is their social group, such as a guild in the popular game World of Warcraft, that motivates them to be engaged, to log on multiple times and to keep playing. Social relatedness can facilitate sustained commitment to a particular online environment and lead to the emergence of virtual communities. As radicalisation processes are often social processes, arising from interaction with a ‘bunch of guys’ or other types of peer groups, gamified applications that facilitate cooperation and social relatedness, for instance by awarding users points for connecting with others or sharing their experiences on a form, may motivate socialisers to engage more deeply with the group, its ideas and the potentially propagandistic content posted by their peers.
Research on the use of gamification in extremist sub-cultures is still in its infancy. Both theoretical foundations and empirical analyses are lacking. Therefore, it is difficult to judge the impact of gamification relative to other factors that might facilitate engagement with extremist materials. The discussion above points to a moderating effect of user types on engagement with gamified extremist content. The distinction between challengers and socialisers is rather basic. Further research needs to delineate how various user types may react to and engage with gamified content generally and gamified extremist propaganda specifically, and analyse more deeply the exact role gamification may play in user interaction with extremist sub-cultures. It may also be fruitful to discuss potential regulatory mechanisms or counter-measures platform providers or other stakeholders could apply to reduce the appeal of gamified extremist content.