The concept of "gamification," adding a gaming component to a non-traditional medium, has become a staple of the advertising world, known for creating brand loyalty and encouraging consumer engagement. Security consultant Alix Levine says that jihadist websites and forums are starting to employ gamification in the hopes of encouraging participation both online and off.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. The term “gamification” describes the practice of taking the incentives and mechanics of games, like points or rewards, and applying them to something that’s not a game. Think of credit card reward programs or grocery store purchase points. Alix Levine, of the security consulting firm Cronus Global, says Islamic extremist websites have borrowed from the gamification playbook by incentivizing participation in terrorist activity.
ALIX LEVINE: You post a comment or a news article, whatever you decide to post, and other people can thank you for your post. They can also give you negative or positive rep power or reputation power, based on the amount of posts you’re posting and the quality of your posts. Your community will give you rep power if they like your post.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What does rep power mean?
ALIX LEVINE: For most of these forums, the more rep power you have, the more rewards you can actually get. And the rewards are pretty trivial. You know, you can add a larger avatar or change the color of your user name. But people are really engaged and want these prizes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There is a, a competition, just as there would be on Farmville or Foursquare?
ALIX LEVINE: Absolutely, it’s the exact same thing. If you’re checking in on Foursquare, if you’re playing Farmville, you’re competing in a game space and you’re experiencing gamification in the same way that these people are on these forums.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: These have been adapted from a commercial environment. Nonprofits use these things, as well. You noted in your article that the neo-Nazi site Stormfront uses these techniques.
ALIX LEVINE: What’s so scary and dangerous about what we're seeing is that gamification works so well for corporations. Ultimately, what it does is it encourages loyalty among the consumers. And so, if militant forums and Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups are able to use these same game mechanics, then what we're concerned about is that they're going to continue to engage their users and that there'll be much more brand loyalty, that Al-Qaeda will be the terrorist group that these users will want to stay with. They actually, in the past few days, with bin Laden’s death, I've seen some users say, how come so-and-so hasn't weighed in on this. I mean, there’s a real community here. People really rely on their peers for answers. And the fear is that they'll find a way to communicate offline, where law enforcement isn't necessarily watching, and actually do something.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But you don't have any data that points to gamification translating into real world violence, do you?
ALIX LEVINE: We're in the very beginnings of understanding this theory and how it applies to the Jihadi online architecture. But there are some U.S.-based convicted terrorists who were very, very involved in the forums that employ gamification.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Give me an example of someone.
ALIX LEVINE: Zachary Chesser. He was a 20-year-old born in Virginia. Just last year he boarded a plane for Somalia with his infant son, and he was arrested before he was able to go to Somalia to join the Al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group Al-Shabaab. He was very, very active on almost every forum out there, in particular, got his beginning of his online radicalization started on Anwar al-Awlaki’s blog.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And explain who that is.
ALIX LEVINE: Anwar al-Awlaki is a prominent leader in Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. He’s based in Yemen, and -
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And he’s American.
ALIX LEVINE: Yes. He was born in America and he lived in America for a long time before going to Yemen and joining AQAP.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And before his website was taken down, he inspired an enormous amount of loyalty through it.
ALIX LEVINE: The beauty of Anwar al-Awlaki is the way that he was able to employ gamification throughout his website without actually letting users know what he was doing, and perhaps he didn't even know what he was doing. He created a community-based forum where people were able to post about his lectures and reach out to him, as well. There was a lot of people who would brag about the fact that al-Awlaki reached out to them and inspired them. He actually made himself the prize in this gamification world.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So without revealing any deep company secrets, what are you telling your clients to do, if anything, about these powerful tools that these websites are using that are potentially threatening?
ALIX LEVINE: Right now we're in the process at Cronus of looking at game personalities. There’s four different gaming personalities. There’s an explorer, a socializer, an achiever and a killer. And what we're trying to do with our clients, particularly the government agencies that we work with, is understand a person’s gaming personality and predict what will happen in real life.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Who potentially they should trace, of all the-
ALIX LEVINE: Absolutely.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - tens of thousands of people engaged in these sites.
ALIX LEVINE: Absolutely. And if someone has more influence, is that necessarily someone to look at or not? It depends on the individual and how to classify it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Alix, thank you very much.
ALIX LEVINE: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Alix Levine is the director of research for the security consulting firm Cronus Global.