Gamification of life and learning – I’m up in arms

OK – I immediately apologize for the length, but this is a bit of a rant.

I woke up this morning to an article waiting to be read, sent over by a teacher friend @ginrob_pt (Twitter).  The article is titled, “How Video Games are Infiltrating – and Improving – Every Part of Our Lives” by Adam L. Peneberg.  The link is here.  Full URL:

Of course we can talk about the organization and perspective of the author, his choice of examples and details… but I just want to get into my rant here.

The article goes for 6 pages, discussing different ways “games” are part of our culture.  Peneberg typically discusses reward systems – credit cards, purchases, painting the picture that consumers spend and go on in life for the sole purpose of racking up points.

The article indeed mentions a type of gaming training we’ve discussed for learning.  Simulations for surgery or online meetings are a bit more “serious”.

The article’s title claims there is something positive to come out of this gamification of life, and I didn’t get that impression at all.  While reading, I was a bit appalled by the notion of humans being completely and blindly participating in these life “games”.  Does life need to be such a novelty?  I’m not convinced this is the norm NOR will be it the way of the future.  As many of you know, I am already against the notion that LEARNING always has to be flashy and externally rewarding in order to be engaging.  Are we becoming more and more convinced by stimuli? We have a brain for a reason.

If you want to see possible alternative opinions in this article, you’ll need to go to page 6 and 7.  I want to just mention two alternatives worth mentioning – and worth critique.

One quotation:

“We humans are pretty susceptible to addictive tricks, so surely people trying to make money will exploit that to the fullest. In fact, they already do,” says David Sirlin, an independent game designer. “The best defense is to raise awareness about the dangers of being manipulated by external reward systems.” But he isn’t hopeful. There’s too much money to be made.

Commercialization is embedded in the “games” listed in the article – that’s an obvious area of concern.  What really concerns me are the different training and work gaming systems.  At first glance, training or simulation games can help disperse relevant company information and develop necessary skills/attitudes.  But the more I think about it, the more it seems to merely to assist company efficiency and profit.  Are humans mere workers who are entertained and satisfied with winning a pre-determined, developed game by our employer – a game with the sole intentions on keeping us happy to keep us working? Come on, if this becomes the case, I’ll be one of those up in arms.

Another quotation:

Where Priebatsch sees economic opportunity, McGonigal of the Institute for the Future sees nothing less than a way to save the     human race. She believes that if  we want to conquer problems such as climate change, hunger, obesity, poverty, and war, we need to play at least 21 billion hours of video games a week.

Say what? McGonigal would like to see roughly half the planet play an hour a day, which is a low-end estimate of the time spent by gamers now — that’s how she gets to 21 billion hours a week. “I reckon that roughly six hours a week should be spent playing games we love, to develop our gamer skills,” McGonigal says, “and one hour a week should be spent playing serious, world-changing, life-changing, or reality-changing games.” For example, she prescribes Evoke, a game she designed with the World Bank Institute that takes place in Africa and has users undertake 10 missions in 10 weeks involving water sustainability, disaster relief, and human rights. A game called World Without Oil simulates how we could survive without nonrenewable resources, while Lost Joules encourages players to save energy by awarding points for turning down thermostats, or for using appliances like washers and dryers during off-peak hours.

So how will playing these games save the world? I didn’t really get a clear answer from that quotation.  If anything, they are merely simulations… they can help us deal with possible scenarios that occur in real life.  I can understand how this may help with military  initiatives and training.  But for saving the world? Unless you’re in a field in which these games directly mimic and relate to your actual work, I’d say this claim is outrageous.   I’m sorry, but merely playing a game about environmental initiatives or human rights is no guarantee I’ll apply it to my real life.  There is no guarantee that I’ll then allocate real money to the causes or that I’ll actively participate in these worthwhile initiatives.

I think I am very against this gamification, this notion that gaming is the way of future learning and living.  It seems to remove any type of human interaction and expanded thinking (as in, stepping out from this gaming box and looking in).  What occurs virtually in a static, isolated game (however high movement or “global” it may appear, it’s still a closed game) is still disconnected to reality.  To claim they are interconnected is to assume humans can’t note the difference between what they experience on-screen (albeit,3D) and what they experience in the tangible, REAL, reality.

Am I being too harsh?  Jumping the gun?  Am I being reactive to a trend that’s already starting to take shape? Am I not giving humans enough credit? I don’t know…

I guess I’m just more and more appalled by blind promotion of this gamification, game-based learning, and any type of teaching/learning approach in general.  We need to think long and hard about what’s out there, if and how we choose to participate with/in/against it, and the implications on other people who don’t actively think before engaging in or promoting the processes.

[P.S. If anyone can tell me how to indent on this WordPress blog, I’ll be forever grateful.]

One thought on “Gamification of life and learning – I’m up in arms

  1. Hi Monica

    I really liked you response; you’ve kind of said it for me. I am really worried about this trend. I am worried that people will buy in for it, and that others will exploit it. I think that we are seeing it in education already and as you pointed out earlier, in business training. If we continue to use games, point systems, and bribes in school, students will be more accustomed to them as they age. Aldous Huxley or Neil Postman need to be required reading. They question though is at what point do rewards cease to be mere motivators and transform into more insidious controls that suppress autonomy? That is a question that I do not have an answer to…


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