Do extremists like to play? A few years ago, this question may have sounded ridiculous. But since the livestreamed attack in Christchurch and subsequent attacks across the globe making use of and reference to video gaming and online gaming communities as well as increasing evidence that extremists are using gaming (-adjacent) platforms such as DLive, Discord, Steam and Twitch, it does not sound so absurd after all to ask about the potential interplay between gaming and extremism.
One of many ways this interplay has become evident is through the use of gamification. Gamification is “the use of game design elements in non-game contexts” and refers to the transfer of points, badges, leaderboards, rewards and other game elements into settings not usually regarded as spaces of play. Gamification is believed to make extremist propaganda more appealing and ‘fun’, thereby increasing the likelihood that individuals will engage with this type of content. In some cases, this could potentially facilitate radicalisation processes. The following Insight is based on the author’s working paper on this issue and explores how gamification makes content more appealing, i.e. the psychological mechanisms underlying its allure. It should be noted that while the following assessment is grounded in existing work on gamification, it is a theoretical discussion. Future research will have to support the theoretical claims made with empirical research on gamification in extremist milieus and its effects on radicalisation processes.
The most obvious mechanism by which gamification can increase and sustain user engagement is by making the content more fun. Game elements can make content seem pleasurable and lighthearted, leading to the perception that ‘it is just a game’. It can link the experience of fun with the consumption of extremist or fringe content, leading to a positive psychological connection between the two and increasing the chances that users will engage with the content again or for more prolonged periods of time. Prologued exposure may then lead to a normalisation of the content consumed and thereby support potential radicalisation processes.
While the real world often lacks continuous positive feedback, game elements provide instant feedback for users, e.g. by winning points for taking certain actions. By rewarding certain actions, game elements create positive feedback and reinforcement as users will be motivated to take another action to claim another reward. Being rewarded feels good and users are more likely to continue their engagement when they feel good about themselves. Constantly being rewarded for whichever behaviour the designer of the gamified content believes to be ‘desirable’ can nudge users into behaving according to the wishes of the designer. In an extremist context, this may mean rewarding users for spreading propaganda, for trolling other users, for supporting an extremist organisation or influencer, or simply clicking ‘like’ to increase the visibility of a certain post.
The dopamine rush caused by being rewarded for a certain action with points, badges or other rewards can also make users feel empowered and confident that they achieved something meaningful. Users in gamified applications want to feel competent and by rewarding even small actions, they become increasingly confident and may be more willing to take on bolder actions requiring more commitment than simply clicking on or sharing content. This feeling of empowerment and of being able to tackle an increasing number of challenges can lead to more consistent user engagement with the content provided and nudge them deeper into the gamified setting with every new action they take. In a gamified extremist setting, this may be the first step down the proverbial rabbit hole and into a radicalising community.
Some users enjoy competing with others and gamified elements such as points, rankings, and badges provide visible and quantifiable measures of how well one does in comparison to other users. Competition and wanting to lead the scoreboard can motivate increased engagement with the content provided and a willingness to take more time-consuming actions in order to collect more points. This increase in both time and intensity of the engagement could facilitate radicalisation processes by drawing competitive users deeper into the extremist online community. Gamification elements also provide a way to make social status within the peer group visible. Leading or placing high on the scoreboard may provide users with prestige within the online community they are part of and therefore be appealing to status-seeking individuals. This too may motivate continuous engagement with and commitment to the extremists’ digital space, increasing exposure to extremist content and thereby leading to a normalisation of their narratives.
Gamified applications can also include elements that facilitate social connection and a feeling of social relatedness to other users, such as awarding points for making connections, letting others like and comment on user posts in a forum, or offering collaborative tasks users can fulfill together. As research on other (video-) gaming settings shows, it is often the social connection to and exchange with a team, guild, or other group of users that leads to prolonged commitment to a game. Socially-driven users will enjoy this feeling of community and cooperation, which increases the likelihood that they will log in often to interact with others and with the content presented. As social connections to others is also crucial in radicalisation processes, including for lone actors, who may feel part of online communities, facilitating social relatedness through game elements can be beneficial for extremist actors seeking to draw users into their milieus and potentially support their radicalisation.
Gamification is not dangerous. In fact, it is most often used as a tool for positive behavioural change, including nudging people to workout more or abiding by the speed limit. However, as so many other tools, it can also be used for other means, e.g. to make extremist content and online spaces more appealing and ‘fun’ for users, potentially motivating them to continue to engage with such content. Over time, gamification could then help to facilitate radicalisation processes. However, there is not enough research to determine the influence of gamification on radicalisation relative to other factors. Is it simply another way to make content interesting, just like using references to pop culture? Or is there a more profound impact? We do not know yet. Considering the stark rise in interest to explore the potential interplay between gaming content, gaming (-adjacent) platforms and gamification on the one hand and extremism on the other hand, we are nevertheless moving in a promising direction to understand the phenomenon more holistically and in-depth than we currently do. Encouragingly, the psychological mechanisms that underly the appeal of gamification can also be used to gamify P/CVE content and increase the attractiveness of measures taken against extremism. Both research on the use of gamification by extremists as well as its potential in P/CVE settings, however, is needed before its role can be adequately judged.