Playing jihad: the gamification of radicalization

We need better strategies to reduce the likelihood that gamified radicalization provides an entry point into extremism and a slippery slope into violence

Linda Schlegel
Konrad Adenauer Foundation

Gamification has become a buzzword in many areas of our lives. It is used to describe the use of game attributes in contexts which are traditionally considered non-gaming environments.

Through the introduction of interactive elements, rewards, rankings and other competitive and comparative elements, businesses have made use of the psychological appeal of games. Whether we are competing against our friends on a fitness app or experiencing the positive feedback loop of services such as Payback, we are engaging in psychological games. These are used to increase customer participation and loyalty as much as they are used on social media sites to increase the time users spend interacting on them.

The word ‘gamification’ misleads us to perceive the process as always harmless and fun; a psychological trick at most, but not malevolent. However, this is not always the case. Gamification exists in the business and media world, but it is increasingly also used by violent actors to facilitate radicalization processes.

Gamification can be used to draw individuals closer to violent extremist groups and presents a relatively new factor in pathways to radicalization.

Gamification of radicalization evolved with the technical advances of the internet and social media. In the beginning, jihadist internet forums started to facilitate participation by giving users the opportunity to ‘level up’ and showing ranks next to the avatars. Status incentives matter psychologically and challenge users to be more active, spend more time on the site and contribute more, which lead some to speak of “e-recruits” to jihad.

In 2011, Jarrett Brachmann and Alex Levine, writing in Foreign Policy, concluded: “The online world of Islamic extremists, like all the other worlds of the Internet, operates on a subtly psychological level that does a brilliant job at keeping people (…) clicking and posting away – and amassing all the rankings, scores, badges, and levels to prove it.”

Next to the gamification of existing forums, extremist groups developed actual video games to facilitate radicalization and spread the jihadist message to the world. In 2003, al-Qaida turned the video game ‘Quest for Saddam’ into ‘Quest for Bush’ by reversing the players’ roles. Since then, more games such as a jihad version of ‘Grand Theft Auto’ (called Salil al-Sawarim, the clanging of swords) or the so-called Islamic State group’s Android app ‘The Dawn of Glad Tidings’ have surfaced. The target group is young men, who are most likely enjoying video games anyway and then come to play ideologically-charged versions of what they already know.

Osama bin Laden said that communication is 90 percent of winning the battle for believers, and games are a new and effective way for communicating grievances, ideologies and calls to action.

Thrill seekers may be drawn into the jihadist ideology by way of shooting games and may experience a rather smooth entry into the milieu. Games are a fun and casual door-opener to draw users into an ideology.

However, one should stress that many of the ‘e-recruits’ limit their actions to the virtual sphere and only few move their jihadi identity to the real world and perpetrate a violent act. Gamification and virtual access lower the cost of participation, but also lead to flexible part-time participants, who do not sacrifice anything but some time spend online for the group. Participation is also more fluid. Group pressure is low if exiting the group simply means not logging on.

However, we should not underestimate the power of playful introduction to extremist content, especially in relation to children. ISIS and others have widened the traditional target group for radicalization from young men to women and children.

Children especially may easily be drawn into a certain worldview by way of games. Exposure to extremist content may lead to a normalization of violence for the children and may exacerbate the problem of extremism and even terrorism in the future.

Since gamification is a relatively new phenomenon, no effective countermeasure has surfaced. Should we mirror the strategies of extremist organizations and create games for children to teach democracy and human rights? Should there be ideologically-charged ego-shooter games, in which the player works against the extremists? The truth is that these games already exist.

Gamification of ideology is not an invention of terrorists, but part of our everyday life. Extremists of al-Qaeda have mirrored a game that was already on the Western market, not the other way around. Young people around the globe are already exposed to Western ideology one way or another through most of the games they play.

Therefore, it cannot be the answer to simply create more ideologically-charged games for “our” side. Countering the spread of extremism cannot and should not mean applying the same tools and methods extremist groups use to draw people into their milieu.

Rather, we should ask which mechanisms, both psychological and social, can facilitate that exposure to these games bears fruit in actual radicalization.

We should ask what impact digital literacy can have on the susceptibility of young people to extremist content and how we can provide them with the psychological and practical tools to detect recruitment strategies. Here safeguarding of children needs to be carefully balanced against knowledge that censorship, no matter how effective, will not eradicate the problem.

Lastly, we should ask what makes someone move from cognitive to violent radicalization and how altered media perception may support online-radicalization that leads to taking violent action. Gamification can draw attention to extremist content, but we need better strategies to reduce the likelihood that games provide an entry point into extremism and a slippery slope into violence.

Linda Schlegel
Linda Schlegel

Linda Schlegel holds an MA in Terrorism, Security and Society from King’s College London and is currently the counter-terrorism consultant at Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Berlin. Her research interests include (online-)radicalization, social movements, extremism and societal resilience to terrorism. She writes regularly for Global Risk Insights, Project for the Study of the 21st Century and other think tanks and has been published in the Journal for De-Radicalization.

Follow her on Twitter: @LiSchlegel.

All views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of The Defense Post.

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