Monday, May 16, 2011

The Gamification of al-Qaeda

Osama bin Laden
I try to keep this blog politics-free, but some things simply need to be said:

I don't like al-Qaeda.

That's right. I said it. Consequences be damned.

So nothing in this post should be construed as giving helpful advice to a terrorist organization that would love to see me and my entire country dead.

Here's the thing: Apparently, Muslim extremist websites are using "gamification" to promote greater site participation and, theoretically, recruit some future terrorists.
Like virtually every other popular online social space, the social space of online jihadists has become "gamified," a term used to describe game-like attributes applied to non-game activities. It turns out that what drives online jihadists is pretty much exactly what drives Internet trolls, airline ticket consumers, and World of Warcraft players: competition.
(via Foreign Policy)
Why are they doing this? The same reason everyone else is "gamifying": marketing. They are engaging potential consumers of their product—in this case, hateful, murderous extremism—collecting information, and raising awareness of their brand.

Fortunately for all of us, gamification is bullshit and it doesn't work. People go to these sites because they believe in the cause. They play the games because they're fun, but they came because they were already invested. Simple as that.

Nobody has become a terrorist because they enjoyed getting badges and achievements on a social networking site. Human beings don't work that way.

Gamification is not an effective method for creating positive social change, either. People will help because they want to help. People will play a game because they enjoy playing the game.

Why is that so hard to understand?

* * *
I really like the Foreign Policy article because it gives me a glimpse into a world that I thankfully know little about. And it's disturbing how techniques I see in my own life are in effect there as well.

I was slightly disheartened by the following quote, though:
These individuals [visitors to Muslim extremist websites] strive to live up to their virtual identities, in the way that teens have re-created the video game Grand Theft Auto in real life, carrying out robberies and murders.
This quote is meant to demonstrate the potential danger of games on extremist sites inspiring real-world terrorism. But this example is just silly, and probably comes from a lack of understanding of games and their relationship to real-world events.

The Grand Theft Auto series has not inspired an army of criminals to take to the streets. Given that GTA IV alone has sold over 20 million copies, you would expect this to be so if games have such a deep influence on behavior.

The article links to an incident that was inspired by the game (assault, car jacking, and robbery), and I've heard of a few others. This is just a hunch, but I'm willing to bet that the people who committed these crimes were not choir boys to begin with.

At any rate, this example does not convince me that games influence behavior or that they can be effective terrorist recruitment tools.

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