Persuasive Games: Exploitationware

Persuasive Games: Exploitationware

Ian Bogost’s vitriolic attack on gamification, in my opinion, is somewhat scathing and unwarranted. His premise is that gamification focuses too much on the game layer of points and systems used to attract and motivate – rather than focusing on the actual game itself. Bogost’s contention is how gamification is able to be used by advertising and companies to manipulate people. He refers to gamification as ‘exploitationware’ in an attempt to use rhetoric and word-smithing to position gamification as, well, evil. 

My contention with Bogost’s view is that he’s looking for reasons to hate gamification and the tenets it supports. While a game layer over the real world may not be everyone’s cup of tea, there’s definitely merit to the idea – as well as historical precedent to justify it.

Let’s talk about classroom learning for a moment. A teacher decides that she needs to motivate students to learn more. This is every teacher’s desire. So the teacher decides to use sticker systems, stamps and candy. The teacher also offers rewards to students who perform well … this is gamification! The idea of giving students stickers (10 stickers and you get a reward) is no different to frequent flyer miles, no different to 10+1 coffee coupons. Stamps and points are the same. Giving prizes for reading 10 books in a semester is another reward system. Adding a game layer to the real world has been a trend for over 50 years. It’s a method to motivate participants and provide incentive to play the game. Often, that game is for profit (fly the same airline, rather than their competitors, and you get benefits).

When we look at the history of using games in education, the game itself is rarely the motivation – the reward of winning, prizes, status and other symbols are the reason we play. Numerous studies have shown that education based computer games are a failure because they don’t motivate students to keep playing. This is something “dark lord” Game Zichermann has stated on numerous occasions; the best games are not games made by educators. 

Now, I concede that Bogost is concerned with how gamification is used to monetize (and profit from) participants. It’s a somewhat persuasive methodology. However it’s inevitable that private industries will jump on the gamification bandwagon. Business, and advertisers, are always early adopters of new ideas. If you want to know what works, look at what private companies are doing!

Rather than investing in positioning “serious games” and “persuasive games” and “gamification” against each other, I wish that Bogost would consider that games and game methodologies (including gamification) can all be applied to education with considerable benefits. All of us who are pushing for change in education are on the same team.

I’d rather we spent our time focusing on what’s good for kids in schools. It doesn’t matter if you hate the word ‘gamification’. What matters is that the ideas can be applied to learning. 

Dedicating a few thousand words to rhetoric is a waste of words.


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