Reconciling Rhetorics: Gamification and Play as Progress

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:

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.


Danielle, your post made me think of children's toys, specifically Chutes and Ladders, which is arguably the least fun game created in history and sells itself as teaching counting. It's particular brand of serendipity is in no way fair. There is no way to improve the game or one's performance. Finally, kids have to already know how to count to play the game. Comparing this to legos, where anything can be built, improved upon, and part of the fun is taking something apart to put it back together,  we can see the advantages of open play. Legos, however, are not a game and the lack of rules makes it fun. Your focus on play complicates a notion of game and the idea of winning, which really doesn't happen in the classroom. I love this notion of play and more of it in the classroom could encourage much more creative analytical work, though what students get out of the experience may not always be what we intended. 

I can't believe it has yet to come up yet, but how do we assess the effectivity of  play or games in the classroom?

Danielle, I can admit that when I read the title of your post I was hesitant to continue. I am not a gamer or practitioner of gamification. Your post made me think of connected classrooms. When I first began teaching, there was a big push for all classrooms to be connected, to utilize new media, and to have hybrid classes. The idea was that these things would make the class more engaging. Will students participate in discussion if its in a Facebook group? Will creating a class wiki help students tackle complex concepts and ideas? The intention behind all this was (supposedly) to help students progress. In all the faculty meetings, committee sessions, and theoretical water cooler, we never discussed the idea or concept of play as helping students to progress.

I prefer the concept or idea of play over gamification, because play implies fun and enjoyment to me. When I think of gamification, I think of competition, which I don' t think is necessary in the classroom (thinking specifically of First Year Comp). On the other hand, I can also imagine badges, experience points, and leveling up as great ways to engage students and encourage them to progress in their writing, seeing it as more than a course to pass or get through.

After this writing-to-learn response, I think I would like to "gamify" one of my FYC courses. I, like Jamie, am wondering how I would assess the products of this endeavor.

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.