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Let’s Play Prevention: Can P/CVE Turn the Tables on Extremists’ Use of Gamification?

Let’s Play Prevention: Can P/CVE Turn the Tables on Extremists’ Use of Gamification?
29th March 2021 Linda Schlegel
Linda Schlegel
In Insights

In the wake of the attacks in Christchurch, El Paso and Halle, the so-called ‘gamification of terror’ has made headlines and sparked academic interest in the potential role of gamification in radicalisation processes. Most recently, the Radicalization Awareness Network (RAN) has discussed both videogames and gamification as potential facilitating factors of radicalisation in the EU. This blog article is based on the new RAN Paper “The Gamification of Violent Extremism & Lessons for P/CVE”.

Gamification is “the use of game elements in non-game contexts” and has most recently emerged as a feature in extremist sub-cultures online. Extremist organisations have sought to apply gaming elements in their propaganda and recruitment efforts, but gamification has also emerged organically from extremist online milieus. Some users, for instance, keep virtual scoreboards of right-wing perpetrators and comment on body counts, whereas some perpetrators of recent attacks have expressed the desire to “get the high score” on their livestream.

Currently, there is a gap in both theoretical and empirical work on the role of gamification in extremist communication. However, preliminary findings point to the motivational role of gamification: Users experience gamified applications as fun and engaging, leading to a greater likelihood of sustained engagement with the narratives propagated through such applications and thereby, potentially, increasing susceptibility to radicalisation. The logical question following from these findings is: Can gamification be used in digital P/CVE measures? So far, the application of gamification in digital P/CVE is extremely limited. The following discussion should therefore be read as an invitation to consider the potential of gamification in this context rather than a guideline of how it should be done.

It is likely that introducing game elements such as points, leaderboards, quests, and badges will be most effective in primary and secondary prevention. No matter how well designed, it is unlikely that those further along the pathway of radicalisation will be moved simply because they enjoy collecting points in an online application. Creative use of gamified elements may be possible in tertiary prevention, e.g. one-on-one settings online, and in light of the current state of knowledge, nothing should be excluded a priori. However, considering that gamification is generally used most often to gain attention and nudge users into slightly prolonged engagement with the content presented, it can be expected that early adaptations in P/CVE will also be mostly used to increase attention.

These early adaptions are likely to be low in both technical and design sophistication. To be sure, highly sophisticated gamification goes far beyond adding points and a leaderboard and presents a wide variety of possibilities. However, as P/CVE actors are only beginning to engage with the issue and sophisticated gamified design elements require game design skills the field is currently lacking, it is to be expected that pilot projects will draw on basic elements first to test the waters. For instance, on existing Instagram channels, gamification could be tested by announcing a caption contest, in which the comment with the most likes wins (competition, social reward), the best five are presented in a new post (leaderboard) and the winner receives a ‘shout out’ (symbolic reward).

Actors seeking to develop gamified P/CVE applications may also benefit from existing video games against extremism, hate speech, and disinformation as well as educational games. Developing full games is not only costly and laborious, it requires expert knowledge in game design. It should be easier and less expensive to incorporate some game elements into P/CVE measures rather than generating full video games. Learning from video games may, for example, open possibilities to incorporate gamification into alternative and counter-narrative initiatives. Video games provide players with a comprehensive storyline – such as a hero-protector narrative – to frame required in-game actions. Existing (counter-) narratives of P/CVE measures may be used as such framework storylines to guide users through gamified interventions. For instance, in primary prevention it might be to construct a story, in which users are the heroes protecting democracy from disinformation or hate speech and motivate users to act as ‘pixies’ against Internet ‘trolls’.

Game elements may have another advantage. Gamifying P/CVE experiences may equip practitioners with additional engagement metrics. Collecting points, completing quests, or earning badges means that users must have engaged with the content presented. In contrast to, for instance, impressions and clicks, gamified elements may be used as an indicator of how sustained user engagement was. It may support practitioners in assessing the appeal of their digital content and provide more meaningful quantifiable indicators to measure engagement.

The use of gamification in extremist milieus is in its infancy and its application in P/CVE must be regarded as even less developed. So far, there are little to no practical experiences to draw from. However, it is a tool that deserves attention. As P/CVE measures move increasingly into the digital realm, its content needs to compete with an intensifying attention economy online. Unless the intervention is hyper-targeted, it stands little chance of not only being seen but of users engaging with it for long enough to grasp its main message. Gamification may help to ‘cut through the noise’ online and increase visibility of P/CVE measures. However, it needs to be designed with a purpose. Simply adding points and a leaderboard is unlikely to be enough in the long run. Therefore, exchange with game designers, experts in human-computer interaction and tech firms will be crucial if gamification is to become a useful tool for P/CVE.