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Gamifying the Edupocalypse

A couple of days ago, I attended an unconference-style “catalyst workshop” on Gamification for Education hosted by Georgia Tech’s Center for 21th Century Universities. I have some thoughts on specific topics that were brought up at the workshop, as well as some musings on games-(in,via,through,above,below,whatever)-education that occurred to me after the workshop, which I will address in future posts. But I first wanted to generally frame the discussion.

I automatically become skeptical and nervous when I hear the word “gamification,” since it often seems to imply applying tropes from games to Thing X, Y, and Z without a lot of focus on the particular nature of Thing X, Thing Y, or Thing Z. In particular, I duck for cover when words like “badges,” “points,” “achievements” (to use Microsoft’s term) and “trophies” (to use Sony’s term) start to get piled onto activities like brushing teeth and exercising. Ultimately everything becomes fungible — eat enough low-fat potato chips, get a free train ticket to Boise!

The clearest — and hence, most terrifying — articulation of the Omega Point of gamification I’ve seen is Jesse Schell’s DICE 2010 keynote, which was likely the tipping point after which the syllables “game-uh-fa-cay-shun” were on the lips of every Mad Man from New York to New Delhi, each one hoping to unleash their inner Skinner. Although Schell’s speech was widely heralded as a blueprint for a brave new cyberworld, and excitedly embraced by a slew of societal actors as a novel way to bring people around to their cause (whether that cause is buying soda or riding a bicycle), I found myself recoiling in horror. If you haven’t seen the talk, and don’t have the full 28 minutes, 19 seconds needed to see it in its entirety, just start at the 20 minute mark. By the 23 minute mark you’ll have an urge to voluntarily douse your keyboard in whiskey and set your computer on fire. By the 27 minute mark you’ll have an urge to involuntarily douse your computer in vomit and set your hair on fire. To be fair, it’s not entirely clear to me whether Schell was saying that his predictions were a cause for celebration, or whether he was merely pointing out that these things are coming, and encouraging his audience to be the Gamifiers instead of the Gamified.

But my visceral revulsion to a future in which every action is recorded, with some actions rewarded, along with questions about which specific powers would want to reward which specific behaviors, is secondary to the critique my colleague Ian Bogost made of Schell’s talk. All this chatter about leaderboards and progress bars neglects the true potential of “games,” which is to get people thinking about the underlying behavior of specific complex systems, whether those systems are dental, defensive, or democratic, and whether the subjects are cavities, castles, or countries. Bogost calls this procedural rhetoric:

Procedural rhetoric affords a new and promising way to make claims about how things work… video games can make claims about the world. But when they do so, they do it not with oral speech, nor in writing, nor even with images. Rather, video games make argument with processes. Procedural rhetoric is the practice of effective persuasion and expression using processes. Since assembling rules together to describe the function of systems produces procedural representation, assembling particular rules that suggest a particular function of a particular system characterizes procedural rhetoric.

Another way to understand procedural representation is in terms of models. When we build models, we normally attempt to describe the function of some material system accurately… Models of all kinds can be thought of as examples of procedural rhetoric; they are devices that attempt to persuade their creators or users that a machine works in a certain way. Video games too can adopt this type of goal; for example, a flight simulator program attempts to model how the mechanical and professional rules of aviation work. But since procedurality is a symbolic medium rather than a material one, procedural rhetorics can also make arguments about conceptual systems, like the model of consumer capitalism in Animal Crossing…

In response to Schell’s presentation at DICE 2010, Bogost wrote:

…games are not primarily comprised of incentives and rewards in the first place, not even the more unusual ones Schell presents in his talk. The heart of games is not points, but process. Games have the capacity to persuade us because they can depict perspectives on how things work, and they can give us insights into the complex and often ambiguous connections between them… the most ironic example Schell presented in his talk at DICE is that of the Ford Fusion dashboard. The growing plant in the dash holds promise not because it offers an incentive to drive in a fuel-efficient manner, but because it reveals the combinations of mechanical, electrical, and combustive processes that lead to fuel-efficient driving.

The Fusion driver does not jump with Pavlovian delight upon seeing a lively fern, but noodles with intrigue over the combinations of traffic patterns, driving, techniques, topology that lead to different results. She might ask questions like “Why does driving a certain way have an impact on fuel consumption,” and “How are neighborhoods and cities designed to encourage and discourage such driving?”

The sentence about “Pavlovian delight,” or I should say the lack thereof, is classic Bogostese. (I’m going to see how many times I can employ variations of the phrase “noodles with intrigue” over the next week.) My wife and I recently bought a Nissan LEAF, so questions such as those mentioned in that paragraph are particularly on my mind. There’s a gauge on the LEAF that tells you how economically (and hence, I suppose, ecologically) you are driving. Unfortunately the car doesn’t provide much feedback into exactly what factors go into that gauge — as far as I can figure out, the LEAF thinks I am driving most economically when I am at a stop light, and least economically when I am pressing the break or accelerator pedals, which I refer to as “driving.”

Wow — there’s actually a company called Badgeville, which calls itself “The Behavior Platform.” Ah, look here! “Reward customer and employee behavior with smart gamification techniques.” Excuse me a moment, I need to go score some Pepto-Bismol…

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Donna Llewellyn
    January 22, 2012 at 11:29 am

    I am curious – did the “unconference” help clarify your thinking on this topic and if so, how? Or was it more that you had put aside the time to think about it because you were going to attend the session? I am trying to understand the mechanisms that really catalyze thought and then action.

    • January 22, 2012 at 1:17 pm

      No. Unconferences are universally idiotic and pointless. They’d be less so with absinthe, but this is Georgia Tech.

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