As a language-bender-turned-game-studier, I’m fairly fascinated with the idea of play and with thinking about how we talk about play. One of the most noted contributions to the scholarly conversation about play comes from Brian Sutton-Smith, who puts forth seven rhetorics of play in his book, The Ambiguity of Play. Sutton-Smith points out how overwhelmingly the conversation about play in education tends to be shaped by a rhetoric of progress, reminding us that “most educators over the past two hundred years seem to have so needed to represent playful imitation as a form of children’s socialization and moral, social, and cognitive growth that they have seen play as being primarily about development rather than enjoyment” (9-10). Arguably, many instructors (and likely even more administrators) would likely eschew the use of play for play’s sake; instead, gamification always arises to meet some need:
- Students need to learn a skill set.
- Students need to be familiarized with a new environment or task.
- Students need to be socialized.
- Students need to enter the academic conversation.
- Students need to grow as readers/writers/thinkers.
Above all, of course, all these needs rise out of the academy’s prime directive: students must be assimilated. Play in education is situated as a means to an end, a method of ensuring the progress of students through the academy and into the marketplace. As we talk about play in the academy and the place of play in learning, then, it's worth mentioning that “gamification” is a term that actually rose out of industry.
The wholehearted embrace of gamification across disciplines and sectors amuses me, given the term’s checkered history. Software developer Nick Pelling is generally credited with coining the term “gamification” in 2002. Pelling outlines the term’s origin story on his blog, admitting that he coined a “deliberately ugly” term to describe the process of using game strategies to create for consumers a more satisfying transaction experience.
These days, however, companies like Badgeville enthusiastically endorse sites like this Gamification Wiki, where the term is defined simply as “the concept of applying game-design thinking to non-game applications to make them more fun and engaging.”
Still, it seems that gamification has, for many people, jumped the shark. Many scholars and popular writers associated with play and game studies have sought to distance themselves from gamification:
- In a presentation at the 2010 Playful Conference entitled “Pawned: Gamification and Its Discontents,” Sebastian Deterding insists that “most gamified applications today . . . are glorified report cards that turn games into work rather than life into play.”
- In her book, Reality is Broken, Jane McGonigal lauds the ability of games to offer players “an opportunity to focus our energy, with relentless optimism, at something we’re good at (or getting better at) and enjoy.” However, in 2011 McGonigal publicly distanced herself from “gamification” in favor of what she calls “gameful design” (“We Don't Need No Stinkin' Badges: How to Re-invent Reality Without Gamification,” Game Developers Conference 2011).
- Ian Bogost, games scholar and himself the creator of multiple games (including the controversial satire Cow Clicker), insists that “gamification is bullshit.”
As we make our way through this discussion of gamification in education, these types of objections from across disciplines and sectors should give us pause enough to ourselves consider the dark side of gamification, including its potential to:
- reinforce “Sage on the Stage/ Game Show Host” classroom model
- disrupt equitable classroom labor practices
- create “creepy treehouse” situations
- overshadow sound pedagogical goals with game mechanics and procedures
- suck the play out of games
If the academy’s objective, pedagogically, departmentally, and/or institutionally, is the “progress” of students (and in a capitalist system, my bet is that we’ll keep telling ourselves that it is), we would do well to tease out some of the inherent complications and contradictions that gamification brings to the classroom.