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The Problem Isn’t Video Games — It’s Gamification

Politicians still can’t find the nuance when linking violence to digital culture

One of the clearest signs that we ought to worry about gamification — the proliferation of immersive, game-like aspects in everything from advertising and the workplace to healthcare and schools — is our inability to gauge its presence. Since the term caught on as a Silicon Valley buzzword around 2010, we’ve seen countless articles declaring the phenomenon either totally dead or suddenly resurrected. That, I think, is also a measure of how embedded and common game elements have become, even in the lives of people who don’t know the first thing about setting up an Xbox: They’re now an ambient reality, like the architecture of the internet.

And as the utopian social promise of the tech giants’ platforms gave way to fake news, extremist radicalization and new strains of cyber-fascism, gamification has rippled into the darker, violent waters of a terrorist network, too. When Joe Biden ponders the role of violent video games in the mass shooting epidemic, Donald Trump says he wants to crack down on them for the same reason and even the batshit Ohio state representative who blamed the recent carnage in El Paso and Dayton on gay marriage and legal marijuana manages to throw some responsibility on games as well, it’s because the parallels do exist. In many respects, the young men storming public areas to kill as many people as possible are enacting the experience of a first-person shooter game. They’re also often active in web communities directly or tangentially connected to the gaming world, many traversing the GamerGate-to-Nazism pipeline.

The fact remains, however, that Fortnite isn’t causing these attacks. The distinction our politicians fail to make is between the ideological influence of the shoot-’em-up content and the use of game patterns as a framework for mediating the actual violence. As journalist Robert Evans wrote for the investigative site Bellingcat in a post titled “The El Paso Shooting and the Gamification of Terror,” the endless competition for a new “high score” (i.e., the highest body count) is a meme that goes back to the Columbine killers, who explicitly said they wanted to outperform the Oklahoma City Bombing.

Reducing human casualties to gamer stats has the dual effect of depersonalizing the victims and setting a common objective — take out the most targets — that binds a global terror group, from Christchurch to Pittsburgh, and anywhere that angry, young, English-speaking white men feel otherwise isolated from the local community.

What Do We Do About the Violence of Lonely Young Men?

It’s not only white supremacist terror enjoying the benefits of gamification either. Back in 2011, security consultants Jarret Brachman and Alix Levine noticed how Al Qaeda and similar organizations incentivized recruits on jihadist forums to keep “clicking and posting away — and amassing all the rankings, scores, badges and levels to prove it.” These are the addictive features that draw the disaffected into a realm of propaganda and trap them there, as surely as they hook a subway commuter on the hot new iPhone game. 

Similarly, Stormfront, a Nazi site, offers reputation points that determine one’s place in a hierarchy, and Hezbollah designed a video game in which you fight against ISIS… on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, an alleged war criminal.

Still, it appears that white, Western men have the clearest path to gamified terror. They’re the ones spending suburban adolescence on video games, which draw them into a virtual fraternity bristling with ties to hardcore misogynist and racist subcultures. The meme-consciousness of gamers, not to mention the Darwinian outlook that comes with a 24/7 battle royale, is what opens the rabbit hole to the abyssal zones of nihilistic despair, paranoia and deadly rage. It’s a lingua franca.

Does that make video games, if not definitionally liable for mass shootings, a kind of gateway drug to violence? No — probably no more than smoking weed predicts an eventual heroin habit. We all know gamers who have made a harmless or even healthy habit of such entertainment. But already troubled or at-risk men who take on a gamified view of actual experience, combined with the casual, even supposedly “ironic” hate speech coursing through any number of gamer-adjacent online spaces, appear to lose any sense of the difference between shitposting on a fringe forum and committing murder.

Indeed, it’s almost as if their crime has to unfold on the internet — where it’s accessible to a chosen audience — in order for it to be real to them. The Christchurch shooter live-streamed his rampage in the gamer style. The man charged with the murder of 17-year-old Bianca Devins in Upstate New York posted an image of her bloodied body on Discord and shouted out YouTube gamer PewDiePie. The El Paso, Christchurch and Poway attacks were all announced beforehand on the far-right hotbed 8chan, usually “accompanied by racist writings that seem engineered to go viral.” 

It’s naive to suggest, as many American leaders have, that the absence of violent video games would deprive this ecosystem of the oxygen it needs to thrive. What the games do provide, however, is a lens, or aesthetic, to filter, describe and encourage a cycle of atrocity — and the means of bringing potential “lone wolves” into memetic collaboration on forums like 8chan. It’s just the ether of the place, not the inspiration. What’s more, the phrase “lone wolf” is a misnomer, as Evans writes: “Both shooters were radicalized in an ecosystem of right-wing terror that deliberately seeks to inspire such massacres.”

Besides, how would a ban on certain games erase their impact? Would we suddenly forget the search-and-destroy ethos? Would furious men be automatically released from their emotional and cognitive distress? What about graphic, gun-crazed movies? Don’t sports have points and competition between vaunted all-stars?

Gamification is the liberation of game-rules from the games themselves, a measure of the way our physical and digital lives have melded. It’s not going to stop because some 15-year-old can’t buy the new Call of Duty. The sooner we quit trying to put the genie back in the bottle, the better we can understand it.