Does "gamification" disrupt enough?

In 2011, Ian Bogost claimed that "gamification is bullshit," arguing that the term existed "as a means to capture the wild, coveted beast that is videogames and to domesticate it for use in the grey, hopeless wasteland of big business." This certainly reflects the genesis of the term, if not the varied meanings that "gamification" has come to connote for many in academia.

"Gamification," depending on the context, can refer to many conceptions of games and learning — most often the transformation of traditional learning environments through the use of incentive measures inspired by some games (e.g, badges, achievements, "leveling up"). Additionally, in some cases, it has come to refer to the mapping of structural/mechanical elements of games onto non-game environments (e.g., the accrual of experience points) and in rare cases, some have used the term to generally refer to the use of games in instructional contexts (e.g., playing Civilization in a history course). Bogost was, of course, correct in that the term was developed in and found purchase within the world of business. "Gamification" has become profitable, perhaps now reflected in the sheer number of prescriptive texts aimed at helping the "gamification consumer" to redesign businesses and schools using "gamification" principles.

Some game designers, most notably Jane McGonigal, have similarly sought to use games to inject playfulness into otherwise dull, "broken" parts of the real world. In reference to McGonigal's influential Reality Is Broken, Heather Chaplin criticized her attempts to make "gameful" many unfulfilling work realities, essentially arguing that games served as a a new opiate for the masses in these contexts:

McGonigal is not advocating any kind of real change, as she purports, but rather a change in perception: She wants to add a gamelike layer to the world to simulate these feelings of satisfaction, which indeed people want. What she misses is that there are legitimate reasons why people feel they're achieving less. These include the boring literal truths of jobs shipped overseas, stagnant wages, and a taxation system that benefits the rich and hurts the middle class and poor. You want to transform peoples' lives into games so they feel as if they're doing something worthwhile? Why not just shoot them up with drugs so they don't notice how miserable they are? You could argue that peasants in the Middle Ages were happy imagining that the more their lives sucked here on earth the faster they'd make it into heaven. I think they'd have been better off with enough to eat and some health care.

It should be noted that while her approach to game design shares many common emphases with the gamification movement, McGonigal does not use the term "gamification" in her work. Yet, if Chaplin was correct that McGonigal's experiments with adding game-like layers to unfulfilling tasks was tantamount to sweeping issues of labor and equity under a rug of fun, then we, educators and educational researchers, should take notice.

Bogost's and Chaplin's criticisms are over two years old, and the choice to include these early criticisms in the present argument was intentional. "Gamification" is not a new idea, and despite the early warnings, seems to live on in our discussions of games and learning. Why are we still discussing it? As the present call for responses indicates, I suggest that the "gamifiers" have won a battle that we might not be aware was even being waged.

We now take for granted that the "gamification of higher education" is an appropriate way to frame the task ahead for games and learning, and that our shared goal as faculty and administrators is to understand how to best implement a form of "gamification" (whatever it may be) within the realms that we have control over. We have been sold that the specific term "gamification" -- and its problematic use of the idea of a "game" -- is something that's up to us to implement and experiment with, and that we can "-ify" existing instructional systems using games. The term reflects a specific stance toward games, and an implicit conception of what "games" are. "Games" are tools to do things with, as if our work within potentially problematic institutional structures (extending Chaplin's critique) makes it our responsibility to figure out how to Angry Birds-ify away those problems.

For the strongest "gamification" proponents, this is not a particularly controversial statement, though it does reflect a limited view of games. Games are conceived as useful technologies first and foremost, rather than modes of participation in cultural forms of play or as expressive media which can communicate values through play. Games are tools to be strip-mined for interactional elements that we can airlift and then drop into systems that were designed to serve very different purposes. For even the most conscientious of "gamification" proponents, games are sets of mechanics and structural devices (points, achievements, badges), whose main purpose is often to serve as a motivational impetus, intended to drive engagement in topics that contemporary students often find difficult to relate to. How can I make Shakespeare more fun for students in 2013? Students may not understand why they should care about the Krebs cycle, but can a game help them to understand it anyway? If I "gamify" my history course, will I see an increase in students' performance on their multiple-choice exams?

I do not mean to disregard the very real and practical concerns of faculty interested in connecting their students to content areas that may be difficult for them to relate to, but this instrumental use of "games" rings as false as gluing hubcaps on a horse and calling it a Prius. The classroom context is not eliminated by the use of a game in a classroom (be it a videogame, board game, or "gamified" participation). But in these kinds of "gamification" experiments, we often pay little attention to students' goals and what they bring to the "gamified" experience -- many students enroll in educational institutions because they are mandated to do so or are seeking credentials that these institutions currently hold sole ownership over. And to extend the earlier ludicrous metaphor, a "gamified" classroom may include elements reminiscent of games that exist outside the classroom, but no matter how many flashy hubcaps, fenders, and windshield wipers we affix to it, the heart of the experience is still equine.

Games, as philosopher Bernard Suits has described, are willingly agreed upon by participants, who adopt a "lusory attitude," or willingness to adopt the rules of a game, which puts the player in a space where they agree to conduct less efficient means to achieve goals (such as a golfer repeatedly hitting a ball toward a distant hole rather than simply picking it up and walking it to the hole). As many of us have seen firsthand, students in formal instructional environments often seek the exact opposite approach to educational content, seeking to minimize the impediments and difficulty to achieve the goals that they seek from the educational experience.

"Gamified" instruction is thus in direct conflict with what many students expect and desire from their educational experiences. Is violating these expectations a problem? Certainly not, but this does point to a gap between the limited instructional goals of "gamification" proponents and the potential influence of the institutional structures that give rise to such expectations. "Gamifying" a unit in a class is a very different thing than adopting the forms of learning prevalent in games throughout a curriculum, or throughout an institution.

In his 2003 book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, James Paul Gee made the argument that games could and should be seen as drivers of educational change, and that they provide models of situated learning that can serve as the basis of new instructional environments. And yet, the question that all of us working in this area seem to face more than any other is "What games should I use in my classroom?" or "What game should I buy my child?" The revolutionary thrust of this area of research has been tempered by the everyday needs of educators, and the creation of "good games for learning" is now a dominant approach, with very few experiments in large scale institutional change based on gaming (c.f., Quest to Learn and Chicago Quest).

The framing of the "gamification debate" poses a similar problem -- by selling "gamification" as a means toward the end of propping up existing instructional structures, are we devaluing the potential of games? Are we reducing them to tools and resources for us repurpose, rather than wrestling with how we conceive of play and games more broadly? By employing a conception of games as designed elements that we implement in our classrooms to drive motivation, are we doing exactly what Chaplin warned against in the context of education?

I'll end with a hopefully even more provocative question: If the problem of "gamifying" learning has been pushed off to the relatively powerless -- higher education instructors and faculty -- how can we transform the structures of institutions to better foster the forms of situated learning that games and learning research has long advocated? While the "gamification" debate provides us with a problematic framing of what games are, its presence helps to clarify what our tasks may be in changing the structures of institutions. If we wish to seriously engage with games and other forms of informal media, I suspect that at some point we will have to wrestle with more, much more than adding experience points to our classrooms.


Photo on front page from Tsahi Levent-Levi and available on flickr


Your question in the conclusion, I think, also connects to issues of compromise. While many learn and are incentivized by playful, some aren't and many instructors will not want to adopt gameful/gamified classrooms. Your mention of higher institutions makes me wonder how to really implement play and learning. I have never gamified a class, but I have encouraged play with writing and technology and used games in my classes, but always within the time and space alloted for class--as an even more powerless adjunct and/or grad student. I want to push your question and ask you what reorganizing of higher education might be necessary for gamification to move beyond applying badges to more traditional class?

Thanks, Jamie -- yes, I think these are critical questions, and I wish I had better answers.

In their 2009 book Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology, Allan Collins & Rich Halverson asked (and I paraphrase): "If we've had over a hundred years of research on and advocacy for educational reform, why is it that classrooms still look pretty much like they did in the 19th century?" The standard space model of education -- K-12, but also higher ed, where we're still inordinately focused on lectures -- is really the target of my piece, moreso than just "gamification." MOOCs are, for the most part, continuing to replicate the lecture model with videos instead of lecture halls, and I don't see much progress being made with these high profile, educational technologies these days.

"Gamification" is seen by some as a solution to this problem, in that it at least potentially changes how instruction works, though I'm clearly not bullish on how well these experiments capture what games are, as well as how useful the directionality of reform is here. We're in a quandary where in order to justify larger-scale rethinkings of educational systems toward truly game-like structures (Gee's situated learning model), practitioners need to show that it works in the small scale, in specific classrooms, and align to existing assessments that were never developed to assess this kind of learning. Like I said above, I'm skeptical that small-scale interventions do much other than slap lipstick on a pig (or, hubcaps on a horse, as per my earlier metaphor), and the folks who are tasked with showing the potential of games in education are not empowered to do much other than implement them in limited ways.

I do see a lot of promise in experiments like Quest to Learn and Chicago Quest, which I briefly alluded to above. For those who are interested in how Katie Salen and her colleagues have rethought schools from a foundation based on play, I strongly recommend reading their MacArthur report summarizing the project.

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