Gamification is purely an appeal to psychology, the principle that competition matters more than fun. When knowledge or experience is given a point value, it can be measured and compared through giving out badges and levels, statuses and prizes.
Hard-line Islamist sites have been increasingly building in gamified elements to their forums. "Reputation points" are the most common of these. Users can now earn status for the messages they post and the quality of the messages as judged by other members. In many of the forums, members can only receive points after they have posted a certain number of messages, enticing users to post more messages more quickly. Points can result in an array of seemingly trivial rewards, including a change in the color of a member's username, the ability to display an avatar, access to private groups, and even a change in status level from, say, "peasant" to "VIP." In the context of the gamified system, however, these paltry incentives really matter.
"The real reason I implemented [reputation points] is so we can weed-out useful posts from useless," explained an administrator of the Islamic Awakening forum who goes by the username "Expergefactionist." Virtually every Islamist hard-line forum now has adopted a points-based system, as have some non-Islamist hard-line forums: On Stormfront, for instance, a popular white supremacist forum, users earn points for their posts that can add up to earned statuses ranging from "will be famous soon enough" to "has a reputation beyond repute."
Gamified systems are designed to offer doable challenges. If challenges are too easy or too hard, "players" will just log off. But if they find a happy medium -- what game designers refer to as "flow" -- then people can stay engaged for hours on end. Earning points is a key component and can be part of a system that allows players to advance levels, keep score, and determine winners and losers. After one of the hardcore Islamist forums introduced additional features to its reputation scoring system this January, a member called "Milj" griped, "I think EVERYONE is going to end up with loads of rep and that won't be much fun." Earning reputation points had become too easy.
Other incentivizing structures exist as well. One Britain-based Islamic extremist website called Salafi Media measures a user's engagement level by a "fundamentalism metre." The more "radical" or "fundamental" a user becomes, the more power and legitimacy he holds in the forum.
Another innovation is "thanked" counts, which total the number of times other forum participants click on a "thank" icon in response to a post. Irritated by the introduction of "thanked points" on one forum, a user complained, "Typical! Just when i was about to have ultimate rep power and be the greatest repper in [forum] history i have to fight it out for most thanks now as well??"
Once you've gained all the rep points and "thanks" you can accumulate, you're close to winning one of the most prized goals in Islamist forums: administrator status -- with all the badges, status, and access to special powers and secret levels that come along with it. "From now on the admin/mod team will be editing people's signatures, if too big, at our discretion," an administrator of the 7th Century Generation (7cgen) forum announced in August 2008, boasting later that administrators themselves are allowed longer signatures than average users.
The question in all of this, of course, is whether the administrators and longtime users of Islamist sites reap any further benefits beyond the short-term, compulsive satisfactions of gamification. I.e., does gamification actually drive terrorism?
The obvious implication of Islamist online spaces becoming gamified is that an increasing number of users are likely to go there and spend more time there. Based on the limited personal information most of these online participants reveal about themselves, however, even the most obsessed seem to limit their play to virtual space. But for a select few, the addiction to winning bleeds over into physical space to the point where those same incentives begin to shape the way they act in the real world. These individuals 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.