The Limits of Gamification

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.

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4 Responses

  1. Absolutely agree with this. With due respect, the article to which you were referring was written by people who didn’t play social games much–or at least it was written that way. There is far more to gamification than just points (see http://progresswars.com) if you question me. Seriously. There are several factors here that you’re alluding to William that are entirely absent in Jarret and Alix’s article. Here is a critical point for any online community and social gaming system: (1) purpose/meaning > there has to be meaning and purpose to the grind. Look at all the dumb graphic games Atari put out, put a story to it and all of a sudden it isn’t green dots vs. green dots in Mission Control; it’s you saving the planet from Nuclear War. (2) community, to which you referred, is key in all of this > you need people who will care about the points in the first place, what does it symbolize, and who are you competing with (I could care less if some year old uber nerd 13 from Anytown USA out-gears me, but the hell if I let my best fruebd get that +5 shield before I do). (3) competition vs. cooperation > you have to know your audiance (openideo people are more likely to collaborate vs simply compete, while mafia war people might do a bit of both, and then you got something like Threadless which is pure competition because you want cash money. The list goes on, and probably into a more coherent article that draws on behavioral economics, psychology, and sociology of gaming, but I’ll leave that to the pros. I think you can really apply the understanding to predict if some of these gaming concepts will fail–after all, even Jihadist corporate people are not immune from bad game design (next up foursquare points of terrorist attacks?)

  2. The gaming principles are in use on some sites, and also use of clever avatars and also numerical grading systems to denote the “star power” of the member. As such, I will gravitate to the power commentators and ignore small players.

    I see these things as merely part of a continuum of what is available for use to draw an audience.

    What seems to be catching on is the use of Tweets mixed in with posts. This first came to notice on my end with the protests in Tahrir Square.

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