[In this searing edition of his Persuasive Games column, academic and developer Bogost takes a look at the core tenets of gamification and argues that not only is it not "games" but that the entire discussion must be reframed.]
I had been trying to ignore gamification, hoping it would go away, like an ill-placed pimple or an annoying party guest or a Katy Perry earworm. But a recent encounter with the concept has made me realize that plugging my ears and covering my eyes to it is a losing strategy. Even if our goal is opposition, we need to better understand gamification's appeal in order to practice that opposition more effectively.
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.
And just as GDC has its swank soirées run by big devs, publishers, and hardware hawks, so 4Cs boasts parties sponsored by textbook publishers. Instead of peddling platforms, companies like Pearson and Bedford St. Martins hope to lure the elbow-patch and twin-set set to purchase large quantities of their profitable wares.
My second book, Persuasive Games, is all about video games and rhetoric, but it's had slow uptake among the more traditional, slower-moving rhetoric community. This was the first year I was allowed to speak at the conference, and I was eager to spread my ideas among this large and influential, if traditional, set of scholars.
After all, everyone who attends college is subjected to writing classes. Since we communicate increasingly often with software, we ought to insure that the teachers in charge of these courses understand how computation works. This is generally new territory for most instructors, including college writing and communication professors.
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?
The Power of Words
Ironically, the answer has everything to do with rhetoric, and nothing to do with games. We like to think that the substance of ideas matters more than the names we give things, but that's not true. Names offer powerful ways to advance a position.
UC Berkeley cognitive linguist George Lakoff has built much of his reputation on this principle, arguing that the way people conceptualize or "frame" the world in their own discourse has a greater effect in politics than do politicians' actions. For example, conservatives oppose social welfare programs partly by framing taxation as theft.
And conservative political scientist Frank Luntz has built a business around carefully developing these verbal contexts. He's the guy you can thank for terms like "war on terror" and "climate change," phrases that have enjoyed general adoption across the political spectrum even though they advance deliberate partisan positions.
"War on terror" suggests that the complex extra-governmental motivations of ideological groups like al-Qaeda are winnable conflicts between "good" and "evil," clashes identical to two-party state-based conflicts. And "climate change" suggests that global warming is a phenomenon of adjustment rather than disaster. After all, change can be good!
As Luntz puts it, what matters is not what you say, but what people hear. And when we're talking about games, people often hear nothing good. Making games seem appealing outside the entertainment industry is a daunting task, and a large part of the challenge involves deploying the right rhetoric to advance the concept in the first place.
The Rhetoric of "Serious Games"
We've been through this scenario many times before -- political simulation in the 1980s, and edutainment in the 1990s, for example. Most recently, Serious Games have offered another, more general attempt to expand games' scope. These are games made and used "beyond entertainment," to use Serious Game Initiative co-founder Ben Sawyer's latest tagline. Application domains for serious games include business, health, the military, education, and public works, to name but a few.
The games industry has never much liked the phrase "serious games," because it seems reductionist and derogatory, as if to claim that other sorts of games are worthless or pointless. Even among those of us who have worked to bring games to other domains, the name "serious games" has sometimes posed problems.
People know that there's something magical about games. They don't always express that opinion positively, but even condemnations of video games acknowledge that they contain special power, power to captivate us and draw us in, power to encourage us to repeat things we've seemingly done before, power to get us to spend money on things that seem not to exist, and so forth.
While not everyone agrees that games are culture, or media, or art, everyone seems to agree that games are powerful. And that power is mysterious and wild, like black magic. You don't have to like games to want a piece of it.
But games are also terrifying, for just the same reasons. "Games" seem both trivial and powerful all at once.
"Serious games" has a specific rhetorical purpose. It is a phrase devised to earn the support of high-level governmental and corporate officials, individuals for whom "game" implies the terror just described; something trite and powerful, something that trivializes things, even if that trivialization is precisely part of its power.
Whether you like the term or not (I don't, for the record), "serious games" has served this purpose reasonably well. It has given its advocates a way to frame the uses of games in governmental and industrial contexts, by making the claim that games can tackle consequential topics and provide profound results.
When people complain that "serious games" is an oxymoron miss the point: it's supposed to be an oxymoron. When people hear "serious games," this contradiction is foregrounded and silently resolved.