Jarret and Alix have published an intriguing article in Foreign Policy on how jihadi ideologues and forum administrators are deliberately applying gaming principles to their discussion boards and propaganda. The jihadis are doing so to encourage their readers to compete with one another to embody the community’s ethos and take direct action.
That’s a new way to frame some old features of jihadi discussion boards and propaganda. But given that the features were around well before gamification was theorized, it’s a stretch to say that Awlaki or anyone else is deliberately employing gaming techniques in a “systematic” way, as the authors assert. There are some other claims in the article that are also difficult to verify, such as the notion that competition for things like virtual badges leads to violent action (there may be some other factor causing both intense competition and violence, cases that confirm the theory are few and could be explained differently, etc).
It’s not that Jarret and Alix’s application of the theory is wrong; it just misses the larger context that makes it right. The jihadi forums create communities whose members crave recognition, as with any community. Competing for badges is part of that, but so is sharing dreams, crafting poems, writing hagiographies, and so on. As someone who spent too much of his graduate career playing Warcraft, I can assure you that leveling up and getting good gear was not worth it unless you were part of a group that could appreciate it. And that competition for levels and gear was just a tiny part of what kept me coming back given that everyone had better gear and higher levels. What mattered more was making my online community laugh and applaud and if there is any link between the forums and violence, that impulse is where you will find it. As for the end of my sessions online, my only orcish impulse was to raid the fridge.