Terrorists turn to gamification to create more devoted followers

You might roll your eyes at the idea of using gamification to sell children sugary cereals -- but this news will really furrow your brows. Recent reports show that terrorist organizations, such as Al Qaeda, have been actively employing gamification tactics to acquire members and inspire deeper engagement.

You might roll your eyes at the idea of using gamification to sell children sugary cereals -- but this news will really furrow your brows. Recent reports show that terrorist organizations, such as Al Qaeda, have been actively employing gamification tactics to acquire members and inspire deeper engagement.

A recent article on foreignpolicy.com highlights several specific examples of gamification -- and many seem to revolve around online chat room and message boards that cater to jihadists. These online communities have built-in a reputation points system -- the more you post, the more points you accumulate and that will change your status, enable you to show off an avatar and allow access to private groups.

Reputation points are fairly common across most modern-day message boards (I’m a regular on the pregnancy site, TheBump.com, which uses a similar system), but terrorist groups have continued to refine process, pushing community members to interact more with other users (by, say, giving people rewards for clicking the ‘thank’ icon in response to a post) and influencing the types of conversation they have on the boards (for instance, by giving users more power if they sound more ‘radical’ in their posts).

So -- does this stuff actually work? Apparently, it does. The foreignpolicy.com article gives a haunting example of how American-born Al Qaeda cleric Anwar Awlaki has used gamification principles to inspire action, and he uses access to himself as the ultimate reward for followers who show the most devotion. The rules to Awlaki's game aren't pre-programmed like status points on a message board, but they seem to be just as effective in some cases. Remember the Times Square bomber and Fort Hood shooter? Both of those incidents were linked back to this influential cleric (although not specifically, as far as we know, to any of the game-like elements of those message boards). From the article:

“By gamifying his followers' Internet experiences, Awlaki has been able to rally a more engaged online fan club than any other hardcore Islamic extremist to date. Through the creation of an online community of like-minded individuals, al Qaeda has mobilized these e-recruits through a natural process: competing with their peers for status and reputation. Awlaki has used gamification to do what al Qaeda had been unable to do before him, at least in any systematic way: get Americans to compete with one another to put down their keyboards and pick up their weapons.”

It’s frightening to think that something as harmless as adding badges and other achievement systems to a website can be used for such dubious activities, but it also highlights that gamification is a powerful force that can spur people to action -- hopefully positive action, rather than negative -- that goes far beyond conspicuous consumption.