Gamifying higher education: is it BS?

Ian Bogost, professor of interactive computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, made waves a couple of years ago by bluntly characterizing gamification as bovine excrement. (That’s as profane as it gets here, folks. Deal.) Bogost had actually made the same points, in more detail but without the splashy hook, several months earlier in a column for Gamasutra.

In that May 2011 column, Bogost characterized “gamification” as “exploitationware.” Bogost’s chief target in the essay is gamification as a marketing gimmick, but some of his criticisms may have application to higher ed as well. Indeed, he begins the column with an anecdote from a higher ed conference:

In early April I spoke at the annual Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC, or 4Cs). 4Cs is to the college writing and rhetoric community what the Game Developers Conference is to the video game community. It’s almost as large, with dozens of simultaneous sessions. … But during the Q&A session following my panel, I was surprised to hear one of the attendees ask explicitly about the possibility of using “gamification” to improve students’ performance with and engagement in the writing classroom. Here was a scholar of rhetoric who didn’t know my ongoing work on procedural rhetoric, but who was familiar with a very recent marketing gimmick. What’s going on?

Bogost identifies several problems with gamification in marketing, but the two most important, as I see them, are these:

  • Gamification typically involves layering a few somewhat game-like features (badges, points, leaderboards, and such) on top of a system designed primarily for the gamifier’s benefit, not for the gamer’s benefit or enjoyment.
  • The -ification in gamification implies an easily-applied template-style solution that virtually any organization can deploy with a minimum of thought and fuss.

Bogost spends little time in his essay with critiques of the gamifiers’ shallow understanding and implementation of gaming (I’ll return to them in other installments in this series). He explains why because he thinks that the gamification gurus aren’t really interested in producing rich, enjoyable, meaningful game-like experiences for their “targets.” “The sanctity of games’ unique means of expression is just not of much concern to the gamifiers,” Bogost claims. “Instead they value facility—the easiest way possible to capture some of the fairy dust of games and spread it upon products and services.” That’s why he labels gamification as BS a few months later, riffing on Harry Frankfurt’s understanding of BS: “Rather, [BS] is used to conceal, to impress or to coerce. Unlike liars, [BS]ers have no use for the truth. All that matters to them is hiding their ignorance or bringing about their own benefit.” (For more on this point, please read the entire section under “How to Talk About Gamification” on p. 3 of “Exploitationware.”)

In the comments thread to Bogost’s “Exploitationware” essay, Andrew Dobbs wrote: “I’m not a rhetorician, but isn’t Ian mainly criticizing the execution rather than the idea? When I think gamify, I think ‘making more game-like.’” Bogost responded: “The well’s been poisoned. We’ve lost ‘making more game-like’ as a possible meaning for ‘gamification.’ Alas.” Yet when I think about “gamifying” my classes, that’s exactly the sense I’m looking for: “making more game-like.”

I’ll have Bogost’s critique of marketing-style gamification in mind throughout my other posts in this series, and as I think about implementing game-like features in my classes. I ask you to do the same. Turn on your BS detectors as we move ahead with this discussion.

One thought on “Gamifying higher education: is it BS?

  1. Ian

    (from James’s blog)

    I don’t think gamification is BS. In fact I think it is really powerful. But Ian is right, the well has been poisoned by folks who wanted the cachet of games without the actual game.

    Gamification done well is about play. How do you make an activity that isn’t about play, into play? Playing games is about experimentation and mastery of rule-based systems with only token consequence for failure.

    How do you make failure have minimal or token consequences in a formal education context? How do you allow students to experiment? Games simulate high-skill, high-stakes activities with low-skill, low-stakes play. How do you do that when the grade at the end is real?

    So I think using games in education is a good idea, but I think it is more fundamental that co-opting the language and artefacts of games. Those artefacts are only in games at the service of the game mechanics. So adding them to something else makes it no more a game, than sticking wheels on something makes it a car.

    Finding ways to make it work is hard, I think. Even Scott Nicholson, who I strongly rate on these issues, as both an academic and a professional game designer, struggles to give lots of good examples of when it works.


Leave a Reply