Bookforum has a thoughtful review of Jane McGonigal’s book, Reality if Broken, titled What You Are Missing: The utopian visiion of one ardent proponent of gamification by Clay Risen (Feb/Mar 2011). Risen is critical of the view that we can transform learning by gamifying it.
Like a lot of hard-core gamers, McGonigal believes that game worlds offer something better than reality: “In today’s society, computer and video games are fulfilling genuine human needs that the real world is currently unable to satisfy.” One could say the same about a drug high—indeed, McGonigal often mimics the chatter about marijuana’s world-altering potential common to freshman dorm rooms. Still, if she’s right, it’s only because, as real as some games look and as human as some of their characters appear, games are by design not real. Huge chunks of the human condition have been left out. Decisions have been simplified. Despair, anger, jealousy—emotions like these are engineered out of the gaming experience, not because game companies want to turn us into zombies, but because that’s what we demand: escape into a simplified existence from the messy disappointment of reality. Simply put, video games can’t help us change the world if they’re designed to divorce us from it.
I share the skepticism about the transformative power of gamifying things. Some of the issues we need think about are:
- Anyone who has taught K-12 has already tried gamifying with stickers, friendly competitons, using games and so on. It is already in the portfolio of a good teacher to try to make things playful.
- Games and simulations may work to teach some topics but it is likely that they won’t work for others. Flight simulators are examples of simulations that are clearly useful, but they work because we can actually model success on a computer. We cannot, however, model success in writing which means that games for writing are limited to gamifying things, not actually providing useful feedback.
- If we gamify things then we risk making gaming the least fun thing around. Gamification sounds like an Orwellian plot to dress up exploitation as play. Most people will see through it at the expense of serious attempts at serious games.
- Play is not work. Work dressed up as play is still work. At the end of the day it is a waste of money to dress things up instead of facing work as work.