Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Gamifying (online) Jihad?

A recent article in Foreign Affairs entitled “The World of Holy Warcraft” examines the increasing gamification of online jihadist forums and websites through the use of various incentive mechanisms (achievement badges, avatars, the ability of users to rate postings, and so forth):

Gamification is purely an appeal to psychology, the principle that competition matters more than fun. When knowledge or experience is given a point value, it can be measured and compared through giving out badges and levels, statuses and prizes.

Hard-line Islamist sites have been increasingly building in gamified elements to their forums. “Reputation points” are the most common of these. Users can now earn status for the messages they post and the quality of the messages as judged by other members. In many of the forums, members can only receive points after they have posted a certain number of messages, enticing users to post more messages more quickly. Points can result in an array of seemingly trivial rewards, including a change in the color of a member’s username, the ability to display an avatar, access to private groups, and even a change in status level from, say, “peasant” to “VIP.” In the context of the gamified system, however, these paltry incentives really matter.

“The real reason I implemented [reputation points] is so we can weed-out useful posts from useless,” explained an administrator of the Islamic Awakening forum who goes by the username “Expergefactionist.” Virtually every Islamist hard-line forum now has adopted a points-based system, as have some non-Islamist hard-line forums: On Stormfront, for instance, a popular white supremacist forum, users earn points for their posts that can add up to earned statuses ranging from “will be famous soon enough” to “has a reputation beyond repute.”

Given that the piece is by Jarret Brachman and Alix Livine—both excellent analysts of online jihadist social media—it is certainly well worth a read. There’s also an interview with Brachman on the same subject at Fast Company.

While I think the article usefully highlights the ways in which technology and innovations in interface design can be used by Warhammer enthusiasts, counter-insurgents, owners of Siberian huskies, and the supporter of violent non-state armed groups alike, I must admit that it also spurred a few nagging concerns about the broader excitement out there in the games and social media community about “gamification.”

Nagging Doubt #1: Are incentive mechanisms always best thought of through the lens of “games”? When I take part in a panel discussion and the audience nods in agreement (or laughs at a joke) I certainly take it as a positive and encouraging gesture. There may even be a competitive element with other panelists. But is it a game? Or simply a much deeper part of collective social interaction? Are all positive feedback loops “games”—even when participants aren’t particularly thinking of them in a competitive fashion? Does labelling this “gamification” in the context of social media actually risk missing or distorting some of what is going on here?

Nagging Doubt #2: Is there much comparative research on the effects of incentive mechanisms on participation in online fora? Does gamification count for much, or is its effect rather marginal compared to other things, like graphic design, intuitive layout, policing by moderators to weed out the trolls, the quality of participants, the quality of supporting materials (data and other resources), and so forth? I regularly participate in three professional fora and a half dozen game and hobby-related ones, and certainly in my case there is absolutely no correlations between the “gamification” of the site and the frequency of my participation.

Nagging Doubt #3: When terms like “gamification” become this trendy I worry a little. I can’t help it—I’m an iconoclast at heart (which probably explains nagging doubts #1 and #2).

Clearly, the increasing use of formalized incentive structures in online discussion fora or other social media raises a number of interesting questions. However, Judd Antin and Elizabeth Churchill have noted, the topic has been studied very little to date in any rigorous sort of way:

Although badges are in widespread use in social media, relatively little research has been devoted to understanding how or why they are valuable and useful. While badges can be fun and interesting, these qualities do not inherently produce social engagement or enhance motivation.


We must begin by examining the premise that badging systems are engaging and motivational for all. Evidence suggests that badges are not universally appreciated, understood, or attended to. For example, Montola and colleagues implemented badges in a photo sharing service and found that many users did not appreciate them and were worried that badges would create counterproductive usage patterns. Our own in- progress research on FourSquare indicates that most users find only some types of badges interesting or motivational. Furthermore, just as some have questioned whether badges are actually counter- productive as game mechanics, the “corruption effects of extrinsic incentives”  could make some badges harmful to intrinsic motivation.

Together, these findings demand a program of systematic research into the dynamics of badges in social media systems. [References removed—click the link above to read them.]

Chris Hecker raised the question at GDC 2010 (discussed here and here) of whether achievement awards could in some contexts actually be harmful to game design (and, presumably, social fora too) by leading participants to focus on extrinsic rewards (such as winning a new badge, title, or “thumb-ups” for other forum users) rather than intrinsic ones (in the case of jihadist forums, discussion for its own intellectual and political value). Certainly there is a literature in social psychology that suggests that extrinsic rewards can either encourage or discourage intrinsic motivations, and might even result inferior output over time. Given that translating online discussion to militant jihadist action presumably requires quite high degrees of intrinsic motivation, the cognitive complexities at work here are quite important.

None of which is to say, of course, that I think Brachman and Livine were wrong to flag the issue. It is certainly interesting, and it might even be significant. It is to say, however, that evidence of increasing gamification in social media is not, in and of itself, evidence that such gamification is having any particular effect.

h/t Ora Szekely

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