updated 9/16/2011 1:20:19 PM ET 2011-09-16T17:20:19

NEW YORK — Tech-savvy terrorists understood the value of websites as far back as the 1990s, distributed propaganda videos for mobile phones as early as 2005 and readily switched from CDs to digital files for promoting their dark agenda. In keeping with their history of digital innovation, some jihadi masterminds have begun using the game-like rewards of social networking sites, such as reputation meters or virtual badges, to keep fellow extremists engaged in the online forums that encourage and incubate future terrorists.

Such growing "gamification" of jihadist websites encourages extremists to spend more time reveling in al-Qaida's brand of terrorism and violence. That may deepen the pool of people whose enthusiasm for extremism online could spill over into real-life acts of terrorism, said Alix Levine, director of research at Cronus Global. But she also cautioned that game techniques by themselves don't create a lust for extremist views or philosophy.

"If you aren't interested in extremism, no amount of badges and rewards will make you cross over," Levine said.

Levine had never heard of gamification until just seven months ago. But she quickly realized that the jihadists she studied were harnessing the same mix of gamification tactics used by big-name brands such as Nike or Starbucks in their social media promotions and customer loyalty programs.

Her recent talk, titled "The Games Jihadis Play: Extremism, Recruitment and Gamification," took place at the Gamification Summit being held in New York City from Sept. 15-16. It highlighted examples of how Islamic extremists had adapted to the latest tactics of the Digital Age.

Extremist websites don't seem to typically host their own versions of "Farmville" or other social games found on Facebook, Levine said. But extremists do use Facebook, Twitter and all the other latest social media tools — at least until they get kicked off for being too open about their enthusiasm for terrorist goals.

Only the most committed extremists get invited to more exclusive online forums where they can chat with likeminded people. One such website recently introduced a "radicalization meter" to gauge how well each registered forum user does to promote ideas that would have made Osama bin Laden proud. Users of another website complimented one another for getting reputation "jewels" equivalent to virtual badges above their profiles, earned through participation.

Like any savvy social media user, extremists also care about their online privacy. But their concerns have more do with fears of intelligence agencies or law enforcement trying to uncover their identities, Levine said.

And, as with any website, even the more extremist forums can't escape Internet trolls who stir up controversy and debate in the forums. The twist is that fundamentalist websites often ban "trolls" whose peaceful views contrast too sharply with the more violent yearnings of extremists.

You can follow InnovationNewsDaily senior writer Jeremy Hsu on Twitter @ScienceHsu. Follow InnovationNewsDaily on Twitter @News_Innovation, or on Facebook.

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