In December 2004, a frequent online commenter who had reached "administrator" level on his favorite chat site admitted that he was getting fed up with his online life. In his 19,938th comment on the forum, he wrote that his wife had grown impatient with how much time he spent online, he was sick of the verbal assaults from other posters, and despite being just a few posts away from the 20,000 mark, he was throwing in the towel.
"Seriously, i am tired," he wrote. "Looking at that number [of posts] just reminded me of how much time i am online my wife will love me for it, she says i spend too much time here."
He did not, however, stick to his resolution. Seven years later, this same user continues participating as a senior administrator on the same forum, where he has now posted an astonishing 63,000 posts. The forum measures "rep power," a way of rating users based on the quality of their posts, and his rep power is at 50, whereas most other users score in the teens. He's also started using the chat software Paltalk and Skype to reach out, hosting live forums.
The user's online handle is Abumubarak, and the forum where he spends hours at a time is not a gaming site or a forum about celebrity gossip, but one of the dozens of hard-line Islamist sites where commenters post news articles, terrorist propaganda, and their own opinions on the subject of jihad. And more than a few of the commenters have gone from online jihad to the real thing: The majority of Westerners following a radical interpretation of Islam who have been arrested on terrorism charges have either been active in the hard-line forums or in possession of extremist materials downloaded from the web.
The counterterrorism community has spent years trying to determine why so many people are engaged in online jihadi communities in such a meaningful way. After all, the life of an online administrator for a hard-line Islamist forum is not as exciting as one might expect. You don't get paid, and you spend most of your time posting links and videos, commenting on other people's links and videos, and then commenting on other people's comments. So why do people like Abumubarak spend weeks and months and years of their time doing it? Explanations from scholars have ranged from the inherently compulsive and violent quality of Islam to the psychology of terrorists.
But no one seems to have noticed that the fervor of online jihadists is actually quite similar to the fervor of any other online group. The online world of Islamic extremists, like all the other worlds of the Internet, operates on a subtly psychological level that does a brilliant job at keeping people like Abumubarak clicking and posting away -- and amassing all the rankings, scores, badges, and levels to prove it. 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.
Gamification started out as a corporate buzzword, meaning any attempt to ensure brand loyalty and engagement through applying gaming principles. It doesn't mean turning something into a game, but rather allowing users to gain status-based awards and reputation, earn meaningful badges, compete with others, use avatars, and trade in a virtual currency. If you've used frequent-flier miles, earned stars with your coffee purchase at Starbucks, or checked in on Foursquare, you've had a gamified experience.