Last Saturday’s GAMER Colloquium was a fitting close to the Keywords for Videogame Studies Graduate Interest Group. It brought together truly diverse participants including scholars, students, educators, developers, journalists, and, of course, gamers for a broad-ranging and through-provoking discussion. Despite the variety of perspectives contributing, a core set of concerns emerged from the stated themes of GAMIFICATION and GAMER. The central question of the day, to which we returned in many forms, was how does gaming become meaningful or significant? I’ll recap the first session here and the second session in a post later this week.
Though one might presume that this is an obvious question or that there was already a good answer if we are discussing gaming in an academic setting. Yet, it is precisely because the meaning of videogames is such an ill-defined “mangle” that the Keywords group has been so productive this year. Further, recent attempts to “gamify” everything from school to advertising often are hinged on the expectation that gaming is somehow inherently significant, that the structure of a game makes any activity meaningful to the participants. Against this assumption, our day-long discussion demonstrated just how complicated
Mark Chen opened the first session by defining ‘gamification’ as ‘a way of providing incentives’ and expressed concern that these incentives normalize the accrual of cultural capital which may have negative effects on emergent play. Joshua Gerrish followed by breaking down the what drives gamers to game, highlighting goal-setting, status or affirmation, reputation, norms of reciprocity, time pressure, scarcity, set completion, reinforcement schedules, and loss aversion or sunk costs.
Next, Eliot Hemingway used gaming as a metaphor to talk about motivation and apathy in education, which he tied back to the objectivization of learning. He wondered aloud if the mechanized acheivement system represented by many models of a gamified classroom abstract the purpose of learning and actually get in the way of discovering goals on one’s own. Theresa Horstman then addressed the uses of gaming in the classroom. She explained that assumptions about e-learning are often in direct conflict with game-design best practices. As the trend moves from attempting to incorporate mini or commercial games into the classroom to developing whole games for educational purposes, she argued that instructional designers would do well to recognize the limitations of linear instructional strategies and allow for learners to identify and define their own learning objectives.
Kris Knigge followed by discussing the often restrictive space game journalism occupies between developers and the gamer community. This lead to an open conversation about how game journalism has formed the way it has and how the gamer community came to be so resistent to critical gaming. We talked about the ferver with which gamers identify as such and/or with a particular game and recognized this self-identifying tendency as central to the appeal of gamification practices. Gamification as a marketing strategy typically aspires to cultivating ‘fanboy’ or ‘fangirl’ levels of brand loyalty. This suggests the underlying strategies of ‘gamification’ have a much longer history in capitalism rather than originating with the recent the success of Farmville or coming out of 21st-century gamer culture as is often presumed.
We made reference here to McKenzie Wark’s Gamer Theory and his description of contemporary culture as gamespace. In this context, some of the base assumptions about gamification were challenged, such as whether or not gamification is possible if culture isn’t a level playing field. Further, in a gamified culture, some of the less savory practices of contemporary gamer culture such as griefing, trolling, hacking, and so on, which in many ways disrupt or out-right reject reputation systems and other gamified models, might play an important socio-political resistence roles. We acknowledged that these practices are often immature and insensitive at best as we raised the question of how to cultivate sincere contemplation that is not the product of or subject to logics of accumulation. The first session concluded with the suggestion that perhaps it is the structure of gaming itself that makes sincere analysis difficult or, at least, a mismatch between the types of responses gaming elicits and the outcomes we keep calling for. “Fun,” like any other engagement, is an affordance of the game being played, which means maybe we need to access different kinds of “fun.”