Gamification: Don't say it, don't do it, just stop

I think it's time we had a frank talk about what gamification is, and why we should stop doing it -- or at least, why we should agree that if we're not going to stop doing it, we ought to stop calling everything that involves real-world game design by that name. 
Gamification as formulated by its proponents -- let's thumbnail it as, "the application of points and badges and other representations onto real-world behaviors under the assumption that doing so will 'incentivize' or motivate certain actions" -- is anti-human. It's about closing down possibility rather than opening it up. When "successful" (which, to be sure, it often is not), it amounts to a sleazy kind of behavioral control system. Population control is anathema to what games are, or have been, or ever will be. 
A true game is a set of rules and procedures that generates problems and situations that demand inventive solutions. A game is about play and disruption and creativity and ambiguity and surprise. A game is about the unexpected. Gamification, on the other hand, is about the expected, the known, the badgeable, and the quantifiable. It is about “checking in” and being tracked. It's not about breaking free, but rather about becoming more regimented. It's a surveillance and discipline system -- a wolf in sheep's clothing. Beware its lure. 
Of course, if your goal is to create compliant employees, students, consumers, or citizens, then maybe gamification is for you. What better way to hammer home the idea that innovation, intellectual development, identity, and citizenship consist of doing what one is told and checking off boxes than by, well, "rewarding" people for doing what they're told and checking off boxes? This is the essence of gamification: here are X number of things that you can be rewarded for doing. Now do them. Your activity will be monitored, and you will be credentialed accordingly.
In education, gamification is the hellspawn of No Child Left Behind and other kinds of quant-led learning policies. It posits that the main role of the educator is to identify a finite set of things that students ought to learn and do, and then to make them learn and do those things by whatever means necessary. If trickery is involved, then so be it. The principal "trick" gamification deploys is to make the tasks it seeks to support feel like game activities by using scorekeeping metaphors drawn from videogames and role-playing games to track completion. But aside from superficial similarity, is this approach really any different from handing out As and Bs, certificates and diplomas, GPAs and SAT scores? 
Make no mistake: gamification -- for we must differentiate it from game design proper, else the term is meaningless -- is a credentialing system, and while it sometimes poses as a way of honoring and acknowledging informal learning, what it really amounts to is an extension of the formal into the realm of the informal. It is not concerned with teaching learners how to learn, but rather shockingly exclusively with offering them a set of discrete objects that they must accumulate (in part or in whole) in order to be credentialed. This is not a recipe for creating the kinds of creative problem-solvers our civilization needs. This is a recipe for creating rule-followers who are more concerned with optimizing their badge collections than with truly exploring and engaging with the world in which they live.
So just stop. End this dark chapter, this Frankenstein perversion of all the beautiful and liberating things that games can do. Refuse the marketing pitch. If you want to design games to make your school or city or country a better place, then do it -- design games and change the world. But don't do gamification. It's bad for people. And if you're an acolyte who just won't let go, then at least do the rest of us a favor and keep your dirty word to yourself.
Image in front page from Drew McLellen and available on Flickr. 


I like that this post addresses a lot of the underlying pedagogy of gamification and how much of it comes back to Freire's old nemesis: the banking model. I agree with all of what you have said here, but I also think that it is important to acknowledge that gamification can offer some advantages in certain areas of study.

For example, I am working with my colleagues to build a gamified learning system that introduces students to various study habits. Essentially, it is offering access them to the exploration of different behaviors (e.g. it talks about different styles of note taking, reading habits, maintaining focus while studying, etc.). In this case, I believe that gamification can encourage students (even badge chasers) to explore different ways of doing things. The goal of the system is to give the students bite-sized pieces of information that offers ways to reconsider their study habits.

The definition certainly drives at the functioning of gamification; the "application of points and badges and other representations” disturbingly recalls Skinner’s descriptions of operant conditioning.  A Foucaltian disciplinary practices which leads people to inculcate specific ideas is bad enough, but somehow I find the concept of treating people who are trying to learn as trained monkeys slightly more insulting. 

However, I do wonder whether this not-to-be-named process has no place at all.  Are there no situations in which a strict regimented type of learning is beneficial?  As a former technical trainer, I can say that there are situations in which a technician needs to follow a regimented process.  For example, working on live electrical equipment is a task in which there are consequences for poor behavior, specifically the possibility of electrocution.  Within the Humanities, we often strive for creativity and independent thinking.  My own field is literature, and I believe that the process of interpreting imaginative works should be approached openly to maximize discovery of the rhetoric tactics and unspoken assumptions within a text.  On the other hand, training on ethical application of the rules of research on human subject should necessarily entails a certain right-or-wrong perspective.  These two examples don’t present a binary so much as a spectrum of competing emphasis on rules-based processes and creativity-driven activities.  Shouldn’t teaching first-year composition or the interpretation of historical documents fall somewhere within that spectrum? 

Matthew and Anthony -- thanks for your thoughtful comments, which both touch on the same ideas. If I'm reading what you've written correctly, I think we're basically in total agreement. Gamification, if it works at all, generates compliance -- that's what it's best at. But games are not about compliance (indeed, as I've tried to argue here, they're about quite the opposite), and so it's important for educators to think about what they're trying to do when they're considering designing learning interventions.

If the goal is compliance, then gamification is possibly an appropriate approach. In some cases, I suppose, a compliance orientation is the only rational move -- Anthony, your "working with live electricity" training example is a good one in that regard, though it also of course raises the question of why bother to 'gamify' such a lesson when surely the desire of the learner to continue breathing would be enough.

But generally, I think the compliance approach to education -- which, let's face it, is the standard default approach -- is almost always a matter of putting the cart before the horse. I would go back to Dewey on this one -- to paraphrase, in Experience and Education, he said something like, "our desires are the moving springs of all action," and that it is only through action and experience -- desire-driven play with the world that we inhabit -- that we truly learn. So for someone to truly act, and thereby truly learn, they have to truly want to take the action that they are taking, not just be told that it's the thing they need to do and offered a badge or other treat in return.

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