Since the Christchurch attack in 2019, it is explored how games, gaming spaces, gamification, and violent extremism are potentially linked and how gaming-related content may influence digital radicalization processes. However, both the theoretical and empirical basis to understand this influence are underdeveloped. This blog post adds to the theoretical foundation of a “gamification of radicalization” by presenting five ideal user types and their potential interaction with gamified extremist content.
Videogames, gaming-related content, game aesthetics, gaming (-adjacent) platforms, gamification, and their potential link to digital extremist content and digitally-mediated radicalization processes, are an increasingly popular topic in extremism research. Gamification, defined as “the use of game design elements in non-game contexts”, i.e. the transfer of points, badges, leaderboards, rankings, quests, and other game features into spaces not usually considered as games, is one of the gaming-related mechanisms that have been identified to make extremist online content more appealing, entertaining, and ‘fun’. Gamification has also been discussed as a potential avenue to make digital P/CVE (Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism) content more engaging and increase the likelihood of such content being seen in a digital environment over-saturated with information and entertainment content. However, both the theoretical and empirical basis for a theory of the “gamification of radicalization” is slim and often relies on anecdotal evidence. One avenue to expand the theoretical foundation of this issue is to examine how different user types may react to and are affected by certain game elements. Based on a recent, more detailed discussion of user types in digital gamified radicalization processes published in Perspectives on Terrorism, this blog post presents five ideal user types and their potential interaction with gamified extremist content.
Five ideal user types
Player types are a well-known concept in the study of videogames, explaining why individuals engage differently with the various elements within videogames and why it is often beneficial to offer multiple routes to playing and winning the game. Similarly, research on gamification uncovered that different user types are motivated by and react differently to various gamified features. While gamified content may be generally appealing, not everyone will engage with game elements in the same manner. User types influence which features an individual may enjoy most and are therefore decisive in understanding which elements are most likely to engage certain users in what way. Knowledge on user types could therefore facilitate our understanding of the nuanced ways in which gamification may influence radicalization processes or may lead to prolonged engagement with gamified extremist content, and to whom certain gamified elements may be especially appealing. The following user typology is a modified version or Marczewski’s HEXAD, a framework explicitly created to account for user differences in gamification applications.
|User Type||Driver of Radicalization||Motivational Driver||Game Elements|
|Socializer||identity seeker, belonging||relatedness, connection||guilds/teams, networks/forums, collaboration|
|Competitor||status seeker, significance relative to in-group||extrinsic rewards, in-group comparison||competition, points, leaderboards, achievements/badges|
|Achiever||need for certainty about the world||exploration, mastery, new skills/ knowledge, personal progress||quests, certificates, knowledge sharing, progress bars|
|Meaning Seeker||need for meaning/purpose||purpose, meaning||epic story, sharing items/knowledge|
|Disruptor||thrill seeker, adventure, confrontation||challenging others/the system, making themselves heard||rewards for disruption, tools to make themselves heard|
Socializers are motivated by connecting, communicating, and collaborating with others. For these users, it is the social aspect of gamified applications and cooperative tasks, which encourage prologued engagement with the content and could thereby contribute to their radicalization processes. Online, Socializers may enjoy discussion boards, ‘thank you’ buttons, and rankings or badges based on socializing activities such as the number of comments posted. For some, the social connections may extend to the offline space. The Patriot Peer app by the Identitarians, for instance, was supposed to include a ‘Patriot Radar’ to enable users to find like-minded individuals in their physical proximity.
Competitors enjoy the visible measures of success and social status in comparison to others that gamification provides them with. They are motivated by leading the scoreboard and the opportunity to establish themselves visibly at the higher end of the in-group social ladder. This may lead Competitors to engage with gamified extremist content more often to maximize the collection of points. Evidence for Competitors has been observed in virtual scoreboards detailing ‘high scores’ of right-wing extremist perpetrators and users expressing their wish to ‘beat’ someone score on the board. When such a framework is not present, users may develop their own measures of success, such as the Halle attacker, who detailed various ‘achievements’ in his manifesto he wanted to fulfill in order to gain recognition and social status.
Achievers are motivated by gaining new knowledge or skills and their wish to understand the world. These users may be especially motivated by ‘solving the puzzle’ and the feeling to have truly understood the world. Gamification can support the perception that one is working towards solving a ‘quest for the truth’. QAnon, for instance, arguably operated based on gamification mechanisms. It provided supporters with breadcrumbs and encouraged them to ‘do their own research’ and put the puzzle pieces together as they saw fit; an ideal environment for Achievers. Supporters could also collaborate with each other, share their knowledge, and gain a sense of ownership of their self-built worldview.
Meaning Seekers want to be part of something big, feel a sense of purpose and derive meaning from the ‘epic narrative’ that often accompanies game elements. Providing an overarching story for the gamified application is important as collecting points may require repetitive or mundane tasks and users may be bored rather fast when the points do not actually carry any meaning. Embedding the collection of points in a narrative, e.g. building a castle or defeating a dragon, makes a gamified application more appealing. In the context of extremism, the ideological foundation of the digital content may already provide such an overarching narrative, for instance of ‘good versus evil’, and may embed mundane actions such as writing comments, liking, or sharing into the context of the broader ideology. In addition, as seen in the case of ISIS, digital engagement may be advertised as carrying similar, meaningful rewards as real-world action, e.g. when online mujahideen were promised heavenly honors for their actions.
Disruptors ask “Who can I upset? How can I be heard?” and thrive on being noticed for upsetting other users. They may enjoy trolling, doxing, dark-humored memes, and affronts against political correctness, especially when they are validated and celebrated for such actions by their in-group. The backlash they cause in the out-group may be an additional reward. Disruption could be gamified as observed on the Reconquista Germanica Discord server, where ‘quests’ to troll certain accounts were fulfilled in a coordinated manner and successful Disruptors could apply for being promoted to a higher rank after actively contributing to the trolling ‘raids’. This could keep Disruptors engaged and motivated to continue their behavior.
The framework presented here is preliminary and will have to be tested and (re-)shaped by empirical research on the gamification of extremism. Future research may ask, for instance, whether all five types are present in digital extremist communities, how prevalent each type is, and whether there is any link to real-world behavior. It will also have to grapple with the problem that user types may not be immediately evident from the content individuals post openly and that therefore motivational drivers may not easily be detected in such communities. Nevertheless, the user type framework is another step towards building a theoretical foundation to understand the impact gamification might have on radicalization processes as well as support our understanding of how gamified content should be designed in digital P/CVE measures. User types must be taken into account to understand the impact of gamification in a holistic manner and knowledge on individual differences and preferences of gamified features should counteract the dangerous generalization of treating gamification as equally engaging for everyone. Arguably, the 21st century will become a ‘ludic century’, characterized by the proliferation of play throughout life. Potentially, engaging with gamification and its allure can help us to understand ludic extremism and design ludic P/CVE campaigns apt for a playful era.
This article has also been published as part of the GNET Blog series.