Game Design, Gamification, Learning Design and Assorted Other Strangeness

Serious Games and Terrorism Education

A Framework for Matching Games and Theories.


Games have been used as a method of engaging with topics as diverse as international relations (Brynen 2015) and laproscopic surgery. It is hardly surprising then that some have been designed to look at issues associated with the study of terrorism. This has led to some difficulties however as there are several distinct areas within the study of terrorism. Examples include but are not limited to  the radicalization of individuals, counter insurgency strategies and intelligence gathering methodologies among many others. It would be myopic to think that any single game could accurately reflect all these areas at once. Therefore, in the design or deployment of a serious game to aid students in understanding the theories, some framework is needed to match the theoretical problem space with the type of game suited to that space. This essay will outline a framework which can be used to match the learning objectives and problem spaces in terrorism with the serious game types that are best suited to exploring them.

 It will do this in four sections. The first section will provide definitions of key terms. The second section will give examples of the different types of serious games that have been used in studying terrorism. It will provide a quick overview of the type of game and then provide examples. The third section will outline the framework the essay is proposing to differentiate between the types of serious games and place the different types of games discussed in section two into the proposed framework. The final section will show how two theories of radicalization can also be placed into the framework thus matching them to the serious game method best suited to studying them.

Definitions of terms

Before launching into a description of the various types of serious games that have been used in terrorism studies it is important to quickly review what is meant by the term serious games. The term was first coined by Clark Abt in his book serious games. His definition was that “serious games … have an explicit and carefully thought-out educational purpose and are not intended to be played primarily for amusement.” (Abt 1987 page 9). Using this definition games like ‘Grand Theft Auto’, ‘Call of Duty’ and the ‘Bioshock’ series have been excluded from the discussion. This is not to suggest that these games can not be used in the field of study (indeed Bioshock Infinity’s story includes a violent revolution) but merely that they are beyond the scope of this essay.

Serious games can be used in two ways that are of use in the study of terrorism. They are used first as a way to deliver information or an experience and second as a method of analysis (Brynen 2015). All of the serious games discussed in this paper can be viewed from either of these perspectives. While some are more suited to the experience models than others it is still possible to use them as a method of analysing the underlying assumptions about terrorism that they are based on.

Another term which it is important to define is Terrorism studies. This essay will be using Hoffman’s distinctions between guerrillas, insurgents and terrorists (Hoffman 2006).  Briefly a guerrilla is a military unit who attempts to seize and hold territory. An insurgent is similar to a guerrilla but includes psychological warfare and information warfare tactics. Finally, a terrorist does not attempt to seize or control territory but uses all of the techniques of the insurgent. It is clear that these groups are interrelated and it is possible for an organization to shift between these grouping. This becomes important when the games are discussed as some of them are specifically focused on insurgents rather than terrorists per se. This essay will treat all of the different groups as falling under the umbrella of terrorism studies.

A review of game types used in terrorism studies with examples

The Philosophy of the virtual Bomb: FPS’s and terrorism

The idea of Propaganda by deed that ideas can be directed by the (often times violent) action of individual can be traced back to Carlo Pisacano who died in 1857 (Laquer & Hoffman 2017). In 1928 the Hindustan Socialist Repbulican Association (HRSA) published “The philosophy of the bomb” Laquer & Hoffman (2017) has pointed to this as the introduction of the idea of propaganda through becoming a martyr. While Nathan Hale may have regretted that he had but one life to lose for his country, the advent of computer games has given people the opportunity to lose many lives in the pursuit of their ideals. The use of digital media as a recruiting and propaganda tool is interesting in the study of terrorism as it sits at the intersection of propaganda by word and propaganda by deed with a generous sprinkling of encouraging propaganda by death. They can be viewed in this way as they are both texts constructed by a designer to be read and actions that a player must chose to take in the context of the text.

Arguably the most known use of a first person shooter in recruitment and propaganda is “Americas Army” released in 2002 (Nicholas 2009). However, it’s apparent success has bred several other projects by non-state actors attempting to emulate its success. The three different groups examined below all released the first of their games within a year of America army.

Text Box: Fig 1 Dar al-Fikr screenshot (Sisler 2006)

A picture containing building, yellow, front, holding

Description automatically generatedIn 2003 Hezbollah released “Special Force” a first person shooter in which the player was able to fight against the Israeli Defense forces.  On the official website of the game (now archived) the stated goal of the producers was “WE DECIDED TO PRODUCE A GAME THAT WILL BE EDUCATIONAL FOR OUR FUTURE GENERATIONS AND FOR ALL FREEDOM LOVERS OF THIS WORLD OF OURS.”(Special Force homepage 2003) It is clear that the game falls into the category of serious games defined in section one of this essay. A direct Sequel to the game “Special Force 2: Tale of the Truthful Pledge” was published in 2007 and set during the 2006 Lebanon War. (Perry 2007)

While not directly tied to a terrorist organization Afkar Media based in Damascus has also published two FPS games based on the Palestinian conflicts with Israel.  Dar al-Fikr or in English Under Ash, 2002 and Tahta al-Hisar  or in English Under the Siege 2006  both put the player into the role of a Palestinian protestor. (Sisler 2006)

It has not been just Arabic groups that have leveraged this new avenue for propaganda. In 2002 Resistance Records which is affiliated with the National Alliance a white supremacist organization (Southern Policy Law Center 1999) in the USA published “Ethnic Cleansing”. In the game the players are encouraged to “Run through the ghetto blasting away various blacks and spics in an attempt to gain entrance to the subway system, where the jews have hidden to avoid the carnage. Then, if YOU’RE lucky…. you can blow away jews as they scream “Oy Vey!”, on your way to their command center.” (Resistance Records 2002)

All of these games allow a student of terrorism to put themselves into the idealized shoes of a “freedom fighter/terrorist”. A critical reading of the texts can help a student to understand the way that these various groups view themselves and can give a clearer view of the grievances that the organizations are based upon.

Virtual Reality Training Programs

The first use of Virtual reality in training scenarios can be traced to head mounted displays developed to train pilots in the 1960’s and 70’s (Mcclean  , 2008).  This was an extension of the flight simulators used to train pilots since the 1920’s. Virtual reality training has also been extensively used in surgical training programs.  In educational terms the immersion that virtual reality allows has been instrumental in increasing educational outcomes (Pantelidis , 2009). In addition they reduce the costs of failure in the areas that they are deployed For example an aircraft or a human life.


As part of the Horizon 2020 Programme the AUtomated serious Game scenario Generator for MixED reality training or AUGGMED system was developed. The primary purpose of the system was to be able to full immerse Police, Military or First responders into a virtual training environment.  (Van Hooijdonk, 2018)

Text Box: Fig 2 AUGGMED system in use (Van Hooijdonk, 2018)

The hope is that this system will lower the cost barriers to training as the system does not require the traditional physical infrastructure to rub a training in. It is also designed to be networkable so that different experts can train together thus increasing preparedness. (Silva 2019)



Wargaming and Terrorism

“a wargame is a warfare model or simulation whose operation does not involve the activities of actual military forces, and whose sequence of events affects and is, in turn, affected by the decisions made by players representing the opposing sides.” (Peerla & Curry 2011 pg228)

Wargames have been used by militaries around the world to examine strategies and tactics since the advent of the Kriegspiel in 1824 (Peerla & Curry 2011 pg51). While the nature of the conflicts have changed dramatically from 1824 to the present; from large scale engagements in a global conventional war to the threats of war in a nuclear theatre to counter insurrection tactics the methods of examining them through the use of wargames have remained stable.

 In general, there is a division in the types of wargames used. The rigid style wargames fit more closely with the operations research approach where the outcomes of moves are generated by models which are mathematically defined and applied. Whereas the free wargames fit more with the use of an umpire with experience to define the results of moves.

Rigid Wargames

Two armies facing off against each other across a table using incredibly complicated rules and dice to decide the outcome of actions is almost the quintessential picture of a wargame. This picture is one of a rigid war game which can be used to examine tactical strategic or logistic problems

The difficulty with using rigid games

One difficulty with applying a rigid wargame system to terrorist actions is in the creation of the Lethality Index for the weapons platforms used. The modelling for weapons effects lethality published in numbers prediction and war do not have a listing for improvised explosive devices or other weapons systems that are commonly deployed by terrorist organizations (Dupuy, 1985). In contrast the weapons systems of guerrillas or insurgents can often be accurately modelled making it possible to use rigid wargames to study them.

The speed of development and associated cost of rigid systems is also a matter of concern. The Joint Simulation System (JSIMS) of the US military cost almost a billion dollars (Brynen 2020). While this was not a game, it was a system to allow games to be played across different services.

  It is also probable that games that do exist in this area are classified and so finding details about them for academic purposes is difficult. All of this limits the utility of this type of serious game in the study of terrorism in the academic field to specific examples.  

This has led to a mixed methods approach to the game with the specific games using the rigid tables where they can and adjudication where they cannot. An example of this approach is detailed in the call for indias “COUNTER TERRORISM OPERATIONS PLANNING TOOL AND WARGAMING SYSTEM VERSION 1.0” (Citation needed). Another example would be in NATO’s  Harbour Protection Table-Top Exercise (HPT2E) sponsored under the defence against terrorism program. (Kessel 2013)

Free Wargames

There is a subsect of wargaming known as Pol-Mil wargames. Developed in the 1950’s and used extensively by the Rand corporation and governmental departments (Brynen 2015).  Standing for political military wargaming it has the express purpose of looking at the political consequences for military decisions and vice versa.

In contrast to rigid wargames these Pol-Mil and other free wargames rely much more on the rulings of an umpire on the outcomes of actions. (Peerla & Curry 2011 )  To immerse the player into the scenarios a great deal of effort is made in the production of the briefing materials and selection of players.  In Paddy Griffiths “Long reach village” for example the background briefing materials includes the local pub opening times and the milkmans delivery route (Curry 2016) as well as a map of the village it is set in. (Brynen 2016)

Long reach village

Given the classified nature of most military wargames finding sources are sometimes problematic. Currys book “Paddy Griffith’s counter insurgency wargames” lists three different wargames developed during the 70’s and 80’s for the British government. In addition to their historic value to the study of the Northern Ireland conflict (Curry 2016) they can also serve as a jumping off point to a discussion of how techniques used in the Northern Irish context would have to be adapted to the more modern Islamic terrorist threats. 

Text Box: Fig 3 map of Long reach village (Brynen 2016)In the game set in long reach village players must decide where to setup observation posts and other intelligence gathering methods. The umpire then provides information to the players based on what they have managed to uncover through their efforts.


System Simulation Games

In systems simulations players are asked to distribute resources inside a system. These resources are then processed and changed into outputs based on variables that have been established. They can be contrasted with rigid wargames in that the player actions do not directly affect each other but instead change the game state conditions which may have an indirect effect on the player.

Balance of terror

Text Box: Fig 4 Screen capture of “Balance of Terror” (author 2020)

One of the best exemplars of the System simulations type is “Balance of Power” by Global ECCO. (Balance of Terror, N.D) The player takes on the role of either the state or the terrorists. They then make decisions on which policies to enact against their opponent. The decisions have positive and negative outcomes and the player must try to retain strength in two areas while reducing their opposition to below 30% for three rounds or more in two others. The image provided is a screen capture of a game in progress showing how the information is displayed to the player.


Text Box: Fig 6 User interface of Sibbila (Bruzzone, Tremori & Massei 2009)Developed by a group of international researchers in partnership with NATO. It was designed to improve collaboration and data analysis skills in its players. The players in the game were all experienced intelligence officers from a variety of countries. In the game players act as different intelligence gathering agencies attempting to prevent a terrorist attack. The player must decide what resources to share and where to place the resources available to them. This is complicated by the competition each of the organizations is in for a limited pool of funding. ((Bruzzone, Tremori & Massei 2009)


Cutting Corners

Was designed with the goal of creating an “empirical test-bed for research that cannot otherwise be conducted in realistic environments.” (Sandham et al.,  2011  pg 459) Specifically, it was designed to look at how deception could be identified using digital scent trails. Thus creating an interactive training tool for police and intelligence operatives.

In this Location based game players are divided into four teams. Two contractors, one terrorist group and the investigators. The contractors are rushing to build an event stage and are told to bend the rules to get the job done quickly. The terrorists are using the construction as an opportunity to stage an attack. Finally, the investigators must use the data gathered in the game to identify the terrorist group. The players must travel to actual physical locations to purchase resources and to transport them to other areas. All actions are measured by a 3g enabled phone with gps monitoring and a full playback of the actions can be pulled from the server for the purposes of debriefing.  (Sandham et al., 2011)

Narrative Structure Games/RPGs

This type of game has many names from roleplaying games to visual novels. They focus on getting the player to experience a story. Often, they have very few game mechanics relying on simple choice systems where the player is presented with a situation and then asked to select how their character will react.

Choices and Voices

Text Box: Fig 7 Choices and voices scenario screen (Memarzia & Star 2011).Choices and voices is a single player RPG developed by PlayGen in 2008-2009. In the game the player takes the role of a student in a school in the midlands of England. They are then presented with a series of scenarios and asked what they would do in them. The scenarios revolve around the arrival of a new ethnic group into their area. The game is designed to be part of a teaching program with guided discussions happening after the game has been played in class. (Memarzia & Star 2011).

The game was developed as part of the United Kingdoms efforts to prevent violent extremism. It received funding from Local government Authorities. It was developed to engage 12 -16 year olds in conversations about the issues around violent extremism.

Establishing a framework

The last section reviewed several different types of serious games which can be used to study issues in terrorism. It is necessary however not to just list the games but to try to provide a relational framework so that the correct type of game may be selected to explore the correct issue. This essay will do this by constructing a matrix chart and placing each game onto it.

Abstraction Vs Realism

Chess and the wargame at the end of the Tactical Command Readiness Program (TCRP) of the US Navy (Peerla & Curry, 2011 Pg146) are both considered wargames. However, they can be placed at the opposite ends of a continuum. The war engaged in with chess is abstracted from reality. The moves in chess do not relate to any real-world equivalents and turn taking is used which is completely alien to real life warfare. In contrast the wargame at the end of the TCRP strives to be as close to real life as possible. Each component has a real-world equivalent and the interactions between these are mathematically expressed.

Games that study terrorism can also be placed on this continuum, with AUGMED clearly striving for realism and the system games clearly being more abstract. Where the games fall along the continuum can be a matter of debate however they all do. This gives an X axis for the proposed matrix.

Societal Vs Personal

Another way in which the games can be separated out is by using the role that the player takes inside the game.  There are two types of roles that a player can adopt inside a game according to Moreno psychodramatic roles and sociodramatic roles. In psychodramatic roles the player adopts the role of an individual whereas in sociodramatic roles the player adopts the role of a group of people or an organization.  Each of these different roles are used to explore different issues in psychodramatic roles the issues are personal relationships and in sociodramtic roles they are the interactions and interrelationships between groups. (Moreno & Fox, 2008)

In essence this is dividing up the game based on its level of focus. Where is the game on a continuum between the personal level and the societal level? So FPS games in which the player is clearly one person would be strongly on the individual side whereas rigid wargames and Pol-Mil wargames in which the player acts as a group would be on the societal level. This gives the Y axis for the Framework.

Next the types of games can be placed within the framework. FPS’s strive towards realism in their play and are very much at the individual’s actions.  Similarly, the training systems using virtual reality are striving to increase the levels of realism to increase immersion. In contrast system games like “Sibilla” and “Balance of terror” use abstracted representation of the real world and focus on the player making choices for a group of people they are representing.  So, this group of games fit within the top left quadrant of the framework. The other games were placed into the framework in a similar manner.


Matching game types to theories

In the same way that this paper has reviewed examples of games used in terrorism studies and placed them in a framework it is possible to look at theories and see how they would fit within the framework. X examples will be given in this section.

Moghaddams’ staircase model of radicalization

Beginning with Moghaddams’ staircase model of radicalization as summarized in Figure 9 (Silke & Brown 2016). The staircase focuses on the steps that an individual would go through to become radicalized. It uses an idealized linear progression with people either moving up or down the staircase. For these reasons it fits within the lower left quadrant of the framework.

Text Box: Fig 9 Moghaddams’ staircase (Silke & Brown 2016)Therefore, a narrative rpg style of game is best suited to exploring this theory. As it is focused on the individual experience in play and abstracts from reality.  From a game design perspective, the staircase model could be easily adapted into the game structure.  Choices and Voices did not use Moghaddams staircase, however it did use three key mechanisms to base the game around (Memarzia & Star 2011).

While FPS’s focus on individual actions they are not as well suited to an exploration of this model as they routinely skip floors on the model.   Tahta al-Hisar (Under siege) begins with the player already taking part in a protest when the Israeli forces open fire (Sisler, 2006). This starts the player off on the fourth floor of Moghaddam’s staircase by establishing the perceived legitimacy of the terrorist organization from the beginning. Similarly “Ethnic Cleansing” skips straight to the fifth floor in the model that of that of the virtual terrorist act of gunning down targets (Resistance Records, 2002).


Kruglanski et al.’s Quest for Significance Model of Radicalisation

Text Box: Fig 10 Kruglanski et al.’s Quest for Significance Model of Radicalisation (Silke & Brown 2016)

Kruglanski et al.’s Model of Radicalisation is less linear than Moghaddams and can be approached from two different directions. A bottom up reading of it discusses in an abstract way the potential paths of an individual to radicalization. This reading would place the theory alongside the staircase model in the lower left quadrant of the framework.

It is a top down reading however that is useful for the discussion in this paper. From the top down it looks at how political or economic instability can influence radicalization. This is an example of a group focus in the proposed framework and clearly is an abstract expression of the processes. This places the theory into the top left quadrant alongside System Simulation games. It would also be possible to explore this theory in the form of a Pol-Mil or free wargame however it would require a specific setting to immerse the player within the game environment.



Serious games are not silver bullets, this essay has shown that they are in fact highly situational.  An understanding of the different types of serious game is needed therefore to select or design a game for studying the issues in terrorism. To facilitate this the various types of serious games that have been used in terrorism studies were reviewed from the literature. Then this work created a framework to categorize them and placed the examples listed into the framework. Finally it has shown how this framework can be used with two different theories on radicalization to select the game type most suited to studying that theory.

Further work will be needed to expand the framework or to translate it into a design tool for serious games development. 


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