Gamification – Round Two

The two results from my interviews with Australian games developers that have surprised me the most, are the negatives responses to the suggestion that there is a need for more women to be working in the local industry (but more on that in a later post) and gamificiation.

Long before I’d heard the term and considered the rhetorical magnitude of the word, I had wondered idly about what it might mean to bring the types of experiences I’d enjoyed in terms of learning through social connections and communities ties in World of Warcraft (in what they call the ‘vanilla’ or pre expansion times) to the higher ed classroom.

I once asked my first years would they be interested in a system that showed their progress in character levels rather than percentage grades, rewarded their participation with loot and avatar characteristic upgrades for their student accounts rather than just the mundane text and links that filled their online experience of dealing with institution.

In turns out that gamification is a polarising concept; half the students enjoyed the idea and suggested possibilities, while the other half derided the idea as childish, silly and waste of time. Higher Education in my mind was already ‘gamified’, with some students simply playing to pass, and others maximising their high scores, or at least attempting to maintain high batting averages, but to many the concept of introducing game-like mechanics (if not play) was appalling.

My own objections to gamification are naive. The gamification of education, would not be about play-based learning, or introduced elements of play to encourage greater degrees of collaboration in learning (the experience I had with World of Warcraft in learning how to play my character, manage an online community, ensure equity in groups etc). Gamification (as it currently stands) in education would mean swapping out grades for levels, achievements and badges and just another form of accounting  with glossier graphics. It would mean giving up on the last vestiges of the intrinsic drive to learn of students, the innate desire to acquire and produce knowledge, to accomplish personal goals and develop critical and practical skills,  in exchange for purely extrinsic rewards. It means making the carrot bigger, probably just enough to distract from the increasingly large stick.

Two of gamifications most well reasoned and elegant critics, Ian Bogost and Christian McCrea provided a new round of criqute this week. Bogost focuses on the rhetoric of the snake oil merchants of gamification, calling them out on counts of “bullshit“, but McCrea’s analysis goes deeper and asked more fundemantal questions of gamification:

“As a whole, if our criticisms are coherent, then we are a whole. We can begin to ask some very interesting questions if we share more that a simple distaste:

One, why do we presume that ‘games’ and entrepreneurship culture share their agendas? This cozy relationship requires examination.

Two, a reinvestment in the concept of play as a force which both grows and diminishes power – a spectrum we used to call design, before they took away that word as well.

Three, a total war without end on the infantilisation of the consumer. On the assumption of his or her inexorable fate, most of all.”

The reponses from Australian developers come back to me time and time again, when thinking about gamification. So far there hasn’t been a negative response, the games developers I’ve spoken with all like the basic idea, but most agree the pointsification approach of marketeers has been underwhelming.

Only two developers have said to me that they need to be the ones involved, that the marketing departments and advertising agencies, setting up the interactive and gamified layers of the campaigns, need to work with more developers to figure out how they can introduce actually more engaging play elements of design and not just glorified (and cheaper) frequent flyer clubs.

Perhaps we might add a fourth question to McCrea’s list, how might critics work with developers to produce an alternative?

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