Gamification and Bad Marketing

Art by Skinny Coder

Gamification is the application of game elements in non-gaming situations, often to motivate or influence behavior…. Gamification offers instructors numerous creative opportunities to enliven their instruction with contests, leader boards, or badges that give students opportunities for recognition and a positive attitude toward their work. -Educause, 7 Things You Should Know About Gamification” (Emphasis in original)

As a librarian and advocate for information literacy, I’m weary of gamification, especially in higher education. I have two big issues with it. Gamification is primarily a marketing term, developed in the wake of apps like Foursquare that businesses use to promote themselves to customers by giving higher reward levels through interaction with the app and the business. Essentially, it is an interactive third-party advertising platform. By promoting the use of marketing style in higher education, we promote the perpetuation of those behaviors in our students, as opposed to finding ways to engage them that also allow them to challenge market-driven behavior, or at least be free from it. Broadly conceived, gamification does little to promote critical engagement with information technology or the larger, market-driven economy, and has much greater potential to do the opposite.

The second issue is this: the application of superficial gaming elements to education gives the impression that education in itself is not strong enough to hold interest on its own. We’ve all had bad days in a classroom, but using what any student can see to be a blatant bid for their attention sends the wrong message. Due to the use of superficial elements of gaming (points, badges, leaderboards), it overlooks the parts of games that make them truly wonderful: characters, narratives, and the balance of challenging yet rewarding gameplay. Education can be rewarding in its own right when we find ways to actively engage students in the subject matter itself, not in a system of superficial rewards:

Game developers and players have critiqued gamification on the grounds that it gets games wrong, mistaking incidental properties like points and levels for primary features like interactions with behavioral complexity. That may be true, but truth doesn’t matter for bullshitters. Indeed, the very point of gamification is to make the sale as easy as possible.. – Ian Bogost, “Gamification is Bullshit”


Ian Bogost, who develops games and teaches at Georgia Tech, delivered those lines to a symposium held by the Wharton School of Business on gamification. His understanding of Bullshit is derived from Harry Franfurt’s On Bullshit, whereby bullshit is defined as something which is used to conceal, impress or coerce, with no interest in truth or untruth.  I believe that gamification is a form of low-level coercion designed to impress students with a superficial knowledge of gaming, and as a result divorces real understanding both of the subject at hand and games by mixing the two in the name of an easily repeatable model of active engagement.

If we are going to use marketing methods to engage students, it is in our interest to aim higher than merely following the trends. Truly successful marketing  is driven by services or products that are either a) is attached to someone’s identity or b) is something they cannot live without and cannot procure themselves. As the art of using words, images and sound to connect people to those services and products, marketing rightfully deserves serious consideration. It is in our interest to do so in a truthful and open manner, otherwise, we run the risk of just giving our patrons and students something that does not hold truth in any regard: bullshit.

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3 thoughts on “Gamification and Bad Marketing

  1. Don’t they already have a “leaderboard” system in education? I think it’s called grades.

    Are you saying that if you are offering things of actual worth (such as education) that you ought not need to stoop to the bullshit tactics that marketers are using to peddle their often useless wares?

    If so, I agree.

    Nice post.

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