Gamification, Exploitation, and Games – Ian Bogost

Ian Bogost shines a dim light on the recent trend in product and service development around quantifying user experience, a trend he calls “exploitationware.” He begins his article by speaking about this trend by its more commonly used name, “gamification,” and focuses his argument on the “game” as well as the “-ify” qualifier added to it. I see issues with both aspects of his argument but will limit my provocation to just one: the linkage between gamification and games, and Bogost’s treatment of games as magical and powerful entities.

First, I’d like to point out that the type of exploitative behaviors that Bogost condemns in the implementation of gamification is widespread in game design itself. Studies have shown that many “free-to-play” games – a pricing model that rakes in millions despite the use of the term “free” – are structured around techniques employed by gambling services to entice their customer to spend as much money as possible over a long period of time via small impulsive payments that cumulatively grow beyond what the same customer might spend in a single large sum. Considering that many of these games are marketed towards children, I consider this the epitome of exploitation.

Second, while the terminology around gamification does include many game-related concepts such as points, I do not see games themselves as being the motivators of non-gaming industries adopting gamification techniques. Whether in the case of frequent flyer miles, the number of followers on your Instagram, or the leaderboards your smartwatch displays after every run, these services and products are not being “gamified” but, rather, are being made more interactive through the quantification of the level of interaction that the consumer engages in. These techniques exist in simple methods such as the card from the coffee shop that records — and rewards — my purchases and are not at all directly linked to games themselves. Games can avoid using those methods and are just as likely, if not more so, to be exploitationware when they don’t.

3 thoughts on “Gamification, Exploitation, and Games – Ian Bogost

  1. I’m not much of a game player, but I do read a lot of comic books. During most of this past week’s reading, and especially this piece by Ian Bogost, I kept being reminded of the educational connections between the two fields. The phenomenon being described in this article is not exclusive to games, as comic books/graphic novels have similarly been of interest for their potential uses within the classroom.

    The enthusiasm for their educational benefits is entirely understandable.
    You only have to walk through a store like Barnes & Noble to notice the great number of kids seated on the ground in and around the graphic novel section. But like Bogost says, making games is hard, and so is making good comics.

    As schools and libraries can be highly lucrative markets, there is always danger of exploitative marketing and sales aimed at giving the impression that the products being sold are one thing, when in reality they are something else entirely. Several years ago, I noticed a number of education-based graphic novels that not only failed as comics, but also did an injustice to the source materials that they were attempting to make more accessible. An example of this would be some of the graphic adaptations of works by Shakespeare. Perhaps some good adaptations eventually made it to print, but the couple I saw fell flat. It’s not just drawings within panels that create the magic of comics; just as having a rewards system hardly gets to the essence of what is attractive about games.

    I think finding new ways to engage students (especially in mediums they are already comfortable with) is both exciting and necessary, and games and comics can definitely be impactful in this regard. Though because the right buzz words can create movements around the least useful aspects of these genres, intensified scrutiny seems to be required on the part of educators.

  2. That’s really interesting– I have seen the use of graphic novel and comic book style illustration being used in educational environments but never considered the practice alongside “gamification.” Visual media – especially illustrations and photographs – are the most powerful mediums for communication. The source of this power is found in the way image absorption takes place in the brain through the eyes, i.e. the instantaneous and compulsive intake and digestion of visual stimuli. Graphic novels and video games require effort by the reader/player which creates an important axis of two disparate elements: design and narrative. Just because young adults are attracted to comic book aesthetics does not mean that the narrative of a graphic novel can be distilled into purely educational materials. (I assume the graphic novels you mention likely failed is because they were simply not fun or compelling to read, despite their friendly appearance.) Narrative is equally important a medium as aesthetic design when trying to consider how to implant educational materials into traditionally recreational forms.

    One example I immediately think of is the game The Stanley Parable. The Stanley Parable was a game made through the modification of an existing game (the source code of which was made available for just this DIY purpose). It specifically explores the role of narrative, and the role of the reader and their ability to structure experience through decision making. It has no points, no win or lose conditions; there are simply multiple endings based on the ways the player chooses to with comply with or defy the instructions of the game’s narrator. It is both highly familiar to anyone who has played games before and deeply reflective of the player’s relation to narrative in general.

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