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Beyond the “LULZ:” Memifying Murder as ‘Meaningful’ Gamification in Far-Right Content

Beyond the “LULZ:” Memifying Murder as ‘Meaningful’ Gamification in Far-Right Content
18th January 2021 Ashley Mattheis
In Insights

Research on the relationship between video games and extremist propaganda has been increasing in the last few years in both Right-Wing Extremist (RWE) and Jihadist contexts. This scholarship has focused on two primary areas: the use of gaming imagery in producing propaganda and gamification as an emergent technique for circulating propaganda and producing radicalising effects. These two areas of concern are, ultimately, connected as they overlap in at least two senses. First, the use of gaming imagery in propaganda is a form of gamification because it is the addition of gaming elements to non-game contexts. And second, gamification in propaganda employs the aesthetic sensibilities and visual rhetoric of gaming to engage specific publics online with violent and radicalising materials.

I employ Scott Nicholson’s conception of “meaningful gamification,” to show how gamification in extremist content production and online communication is found in more practices than are currently researched which has implications for developing our understanding of gamification as an aspect of radicalisation. Nicholson describes meaningful gamification as “the use of gameful and playful layers to help a user find personal connections that motivate engagement with a specific context for long-term change.” This concept of meaningful gamification allows for a discussion of gamification practices that traverse a range of user engagement styles and their effects on users’ ongoing behaviours. An important distinction within this discussion is how gamification practices develop either extrinsic or intrinsic motivation for users. Reward-based systems, which are most typically discussed in extremist contexts, offer “extrinsic” motivation through rewards – badges, level/leaderboards, achievements, and points (BLAP) – which works well to drive initial engagement and maintain engagement as long as the rewards continue and increase in frequency or value. However, if extrinsic motivators (rewards) stay static, become less available, or stop, engagement wanes. On the other hand, gamification practices that build “intrinsic motivation” by engaging users’ personal connections, developing skills, and creating meaning for users, tends to produce sustained, long term behaviour change.

This broader understanding of gamification is crucial to thinking about the multiple practices which constitute gamification within RWE culture online. While signs of reward-based gamification are clear in content and discussions about events in these communities online, the study of gamification practices that build intrinsic motivation have not yet begun in earnest. Focusing on intrinsic motivation practices helps to explain several specific RWE practices and trends which intersect with gaming and gamification.

One of the primary discussions about gamification in RWE contexts began with the Christchurch attacker’s origination of the practice of “livestreaming” mass violence and brutal murders using a helmet mounted camera which replicated the viewing sensibility of First Person Shooter (FPS) video game play. Along with the grim innovation of performing gamified violence intended for consumption by social media audiences, extremism researchers noted the attacker’s unique use of memes in his manifesto. However, this utilisation of memes, or memeification of the manifesto, has not been discussed in relation to the attacker’s “gamification” of his violence.

As the Christchurch manifesto shows with text, Right-Wing Extremist propaganda production – its cut and paste style and use of internet aesthetics – lends itself to memeification, which is the practice of creating new content by turning a bit of video, an image, or other visual/audio cultural content into a meme. This is clearly being done with violent content, particularly extremist news footage, violent livestreams, and, in the case of Christchurch, manifestos. Moreover, a newer trend of coding simulations of RWE icons (mass attackers, Hitler, and KKK members) works as an extension of memeification specifically within gaming platforms. Research currently being conducted by Ashton Kingdon, shows that gamer populations are creating avatars of these figures on the gamer platform VR Chat. Along with avatar production, digital re-creations (full-length simulations rendered in game environments) of livestreamed attacks have also been produced and uploaded to video sharing platforms.

Memeification, then, specifically in relation to violent events with livestream footage, is a particular form of community-developed gamification that includes both rewards-based and intrinsic motivation-based practices. Rewards-based gamification in meme production includes competitive production in both scratch-made memes and meme-generator developed arenas and this competition’s penultimate expression involves engagement in so-called “meme wars” between producer factions. Practices which develop intrinsic motivation in this context include memeifying violent livestream footage and coding simulated icons as a response to and mechanism for (vicariously) participating in the violence. Moreover, memeification of violent attacks which have been banned by social media platforms represents a form of “gaming” the system because it works as a mechanism for recirculating banned content as “humour” and “parody” thus allowing “players” to make evading platform rules part of the gamified experience. The Christchurch livestream provides a robust example of how memeification works as the shooter’s audience/online community response began immediately and continues still.

Memeification and manipulation of the Christchurch livestream video has been broadly engaged – as a sort of game in itself – to produce the best, funniest, most irreverent “take.” In a single compilation of these livestream memes, there were eight different versions. One version incorporates the intro and theme-song from “Friends” overlaid on a video clip timed so that the clapping in the theme-song matches the livestream gunfire. Several versions include gaming dashboard overlays on top of the livestream footage to reinforce the intended FPS effect and promote identification for specific gamer communities. Another version replicates the *Record Scratch* *Freeze Frame* meme, which “refers to a movie cliché in which a character is introduced by the sound of a vinyl record scratch followed by a freeze frame, which is typically followed by a voice-over narration of the character explaining how they arrived in their current predicament.” Others include a “PewDiePie” mashup (referencing the shooter’s use of the same meme in his manifesto), a Strawberry Shortcake cosplay TikTok video clip where again the music from the video is timed to match the gunfire from the livestream footage, a Beatles song overlay with added images of pro-refugee marches to suggest the attack as a “solution,” a mixed cut of the livestream with disaster footage set to Lauren O’Connell’s cover of “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner,” and a “Fashwave” version using pastel color washes, instability filters, and incorporating hard synth music.

To understand how such memeification acts as “meaningful” gamification requires understanding how it produces intrinsic motivation through personal meaning making for users. Returning to Nicholson’s discussion, he notes that studies of building intrinsic motivation indicate “three things…were connected with intrinsic motivation and a healthy mental attitude toward a task: mastery, autonomy, and relatedness.” Nicholson’s work, although related to education and consumer behaviour, provides a way to think about practices of meme production and how they engage intrinsic motivation. Making successful memes involves mastery of cultural phenomena, content, and online norms; autonomy in bringing disparate materials together in original ways to say “something” new and funny; and relatedness with an online community as memes are made to be interactive with others online across the globe.

These features – mastery, autonomy (choice), and relatedness – as functions of meme practices are supported by research. Memes, which may look simplistic actually require a wide and deep knowledge of popular culture relevant to one’s milieu as well as an understanding of the norms of internet “ugly aesthetics.” Memeification also offers a simultaneous opportunity for expressing both individuality and membership with a specific group, culture, or ideology. This derives from the meme making process itself in which producers’ choices about how to (re)mix and juxtapose content in original ways generates new (but coordinating) messages within ongoing cultural conversations. As Saleem Alhabash, quoting Aja Romano for the Vox article “Coping with war and crisis through memes,” notes, meme producers “become part of the narrative and it becomes part of [them].” Furthermore, Julia DeCook’s research underscores the utility of memes in building community in online male and white supremacist hate cultures. Thus, memeification works as a mechanism for developing and maintaining relatedness through the management of anxiety about the world and participation in worldmaking which are social processes of belonging within what Benedict Anderson has described as “imagined communities.”

Gamified practices such as the memeification of violence and extreme propaganda may, to the extent that they develop intrinsic motivation for engagement, encourage deeper radicalisation into RWE ideology and violence than that produced by the more typically discussed reward system gamification practices in this context. Reward-based systems may work more effectively to enculturate users to violence and disengage moral responses. Alternately, reward-based systems and intrinsic motivation systems gamification practices may work together in a variety of ways to produce a more holistic combination of ideological radicalisation and enculturation to violence that act as push/pull factors to extremist violence. Continued research in this area is important to ongoing discussions of online radicalisation including factors of sociality, media production and consumption, and engagement with violence and extremism.