Gamification in composition

This will be part of my upcoming Computers and Writing presentation. I've got to prepare it in the next week, so pretty much everything I write for the next few days will be part of that presentation damnit! So, spoiler alert, I guess. 

Ian Bogost has a piece on Gamasutura taking on one of his favored targets, gamification. It grabbed the attention of the WPA list (mostly because he starts out talking about his experience at 4C's this year) but was also picked up on sites like the Wall Street Journal (where Ian was demoted to assistant professor… too bad they couldn't manage to do about 30 seconds of research).  Essentially the objection to gamification is that takes superficial features of games (e.g. points, badges, leveling-up, etc.) and somehow misidentifies them as the games themselves. So, for example, I could "gamify" a composition course by giving students "points" for every "challenge" (i.e. assignment) they completed and when they earned enough points they could "level up" (get a better grade).

Ooh, I just gamified my course: who wants to play? Of course, there are games that suck and so there can be poorly "gamified" courses, like the one I just described. This is related to Ian's primary complaint about gamification, which is that it's just vaporware really. It's a marketing ploy, a way to get a bunch of execs to pay big money to some consultants or to attend some gamification seminar. And Ian spends much of the article exploring why the term gamification is so rhetorically effective and how we might oppose it. In short, gamification reflects a kind of superficial engagement with gaming. It's a largely empty gesture that tries to show that one is keeping up or in touch with the kids or whatever without really taking up the deeper lessons that games can offer us. That said, while gamification may be superficial, that doesn't mean there aren't other ways to investigate and take up games in learning. As Bogost writes,

for gamification proponents, the idea that adding points and incentives to things fails to engage the power of games as interactive systems is likewise nonsensical. Doing that would be hard. It would require changing the practices of entire industries. It would take time and effort. That's not what marketers and educators and politicians and executives want. They want easy answers and fast results.

I'm thinking about this in similar terms, and in some respects it is not so differnt from the challenges composition continues to face with social media, mobile technologies, and such. We embrace these things on a superficial level (e.g. post your papers on a wiki instead of handing them to me), without exploring the interactive systems that operate here. Even if we take it one step further and create assignments the leverage the affordances of a technology (e.g. having students keep a blog over the course of a semester), we are still likely conserving our ideas about what writing it and how it works. I've been doing this for years and I can say quite confidently that writing doesn't work the same way here as it does in your word processor. Yes there are many things that are similar, but if you've struggled to keep a blog while still being able to be successful writing elsewhere then you should realize that writing here is different. To really take up social media composing one would have to adapt one's understanding of writing itself to incorporate the interactive systems one finds here. Not because blogs are better or wikis are the future, but quite simply because they are writing and if your theory/practice of writing doesn't account for them then there's something wrong with your theory/practice, right?

But I've digressed into a lengthy analogy there. Let's return to games. If we want to think on this deepest level about games, I think we can come at it from two directions. The first is in terms of rhetoric and composition; the second is in terms of pedagogy. As Bogost's procedural rhetoric suggests, games can seek to persuade through their procedures: the design of the game play, the rules of the game, the choices the game allows you to make, and so on. One example Bogost discusses is SimCity, a fairly popular and familiar game, and also one I've played so it works well as an example for me. SimCity offers an argument about how to build a thriving city. It demonstrates the impact of taxation, providing education and other civic services, building parks and museums, public transport and so on. Bogost's examples all deal with clearly intentional attempts at persuasion: politics, advertising, and education. 

My interest is in thinking more expansively about this procedurality to places where intentionality is dimmed. If we can imagine compositional processes, then we can start to think about their procedural rhetoric as well. I view such processes in terms of Latour and DeLanda, so I am thinking about the actor-network that participates in the procedure of this blog post's composition. I am thinking about the assemblage that is at work, de/re/territorializing this post. And I am thinking about the distributed rhetorical procedure of thinking. As I've written here before, if cognition and agency are the result of a minimal rhetorical relation, as an object-oriented rhetoric might suggest, then might we not investigate the rhetoric of that procedurality. Simply put, how does the assemblage in which I participate (in order to think or act and thus compose) operate persuasively in relation to that composition? If, as rhetoricians we can ask such questions then we can begin to think about writing in a very different way. And it is in that context that we can investigate the rhetorical operation of gamic procedures.

So that's one angle.

The second angle, as promised, relates to education. And here we can return to Bogost's point about the desire for quick fixes and not making real changes to industries, like higher ed. This was a focus on my 4C's presentation last month, where I discussed the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, specifically in relation to flow, which is a subject of great interest to game designers and game studies. Briefly, we find games engaging when they ride a crest between challenge and success. Too hard and it's frustrating. Too easy and it's boring. So games give us the experience of achievement, even if that achievement often has little material consequence outside the game itself. Furthermore, games give us a way of socializing and strengthening relationships and community. These are things we all probably already know from our own experiences with games, and now they are being borne out by cognitive research and such. The result is that gamers develop a strong sense of instrinic motivation toward gameplay. And I believe it is really that sense of instrinsic motivation that we are seeking to develop in our pedagogy when we turn toward games.

Unfortunately, gamification, at least in its standard forms, ignores the fundamental qualities of games that produce intrinsic motivation and instead gives us only the superficial, extrinsic motivations of points and such. To truly turn a composition classroom into a game would require significant rethinking of the industry, which perhaps is warranted. It would be shifting the relations among students and teachers. To a degree, it would mean developing a new ethos for pedagogy. Specifically, it would require a wilingness on the parts of both students and teachers to take on what Bernard Suits terms "unnecessary obstacles." Unnecessary obstacles are integral to games. It's why you can't just take the golf ball and drop it in the whole. It's why you play the game in the first place. It is rarely necessary to play a game. This is largely counter to the practices of the composition classroom, where for the most part we are engaged in pursuing a rational and direct route toward producing a finished composition. Games, at least on the surface, do not appear especially efficient, especially if we are only measuring cost and benefit in terms of extrinsic rewards.

Are we willing to spend time playing the workshop game or the revision game rather than just workshopping or revising? In some obvious way, the workshop game will make workshopping more difficult and time consuming, but it might potentially make the experience more engaging, but only if we accept those unnecessary obstacles. In the end though, the challenges the student writers have to face are the ones they encounter in their own writing. So ultimately I would suppose the task is to imagine games that facilitate students thinking of their own writing if not as a game then as a series of unnecessary obstacles that they must discover the intrinsic motivation to address.


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