I’ll start this post as someone who has lived and worked in the game industry for a while now and then switch into a more “objective” register as I attempt to analyse this phenomenon from the perspective of an anthropologist and historian of game development coming from the perspective of the field of science and technology studies (STS).
Dear rest of the world now interested in games, serious games, educational, game development, gamification, or whatever other term you’re going to use to dismiss games as something akin to Nutella, which you can spread liberally on your dry toast, whether that is my inbox, US educational agendas, social networking, job hunting, or whatever you’ll thow up in the next couple of years: blow.
Its clear by now, most of you are not really interested in coming to the table and taking games and game development seriously. You’re here for the free food and don’t have a whole lot of interest in being part of a conversation that might very well convince you that games are art, educational, fun, sad, moving, motivating, frustrating, beautiful, ugly, or anything else that they clearly are, and have already been for years. I’m tired of you not taking seriously the incredibly complex creative work of an entire industry. The lame belief that by “adding points and stirring,” which is only a continuation of the previous generation of thought, “add technology and stir,” or, “add social networking and stir,” which has also clearly been done half-assedly and resulted in as much as one would expect from such feble approaches to topics so complex.
That bit of vitriol aside, from whence did it come? I have spent the last 6 years now studying the practice, political-economic, and historical aspects of the videogame industry. Prior to that I spent more than 5 years of my in and around the game industry. More recently I have returned to game development, working alongside scientists, artists, engineers, and educators attempting to make great games that “just happen” to also be education. What I’ve realized, more recently, is that not only is ibogost right in his playful toying with “gamification,” and Jesse Schell dead on that the majority of people attempting to leverage the power of games largely have little clue. But, the honest truth is that this isn’t really a new occurrence.
The educators tried this a while back with Edutainment. While I might recall fondly my time spent in front of Mathblaster or Oregon Trail, the truth is that they were largely a chance to get in front of a computer and out of the classroom (should we call it Reaganification?), which sucked back then too. They weren’t particularly great, they were just better than school. Edutainment is the reason that “educational” games are only now making their way back onto the shelves available on modern console game systems (and largely limited to the Nintendo DS). Edutainment killed for nearly two decades any real chance for games that were both great and educational, because the moment the “e”-word was uttered on the part of anyone involved, the project was set aside as something other than what the game industry does. That was the fault of a weak “add games and stir” approach and yet here we stand attempting to do the same thing again. Except that there is significant funding available for this kind of work right now and I worry that many of these efforts will fall into the same old category, simply because they have not taken seriously the practice, creativity, and labor of game development.
Gamification, thus far, has largely been the sound-bite-ification of games. Games are being yet again marginalized with the assumption that they are simple, trivial, or capable of being added with little background. “Just make a game about X,” and everything will be better. But, that process is complicated. If I’m going to make a game about AIDS, email, or anything in between, I’m going to take it seriously, but I wonder if so many of these grants will go the way of Edutainment. Game development, which is itself a complex epistemic work environment striated by numerous academic disciplines, needs to be taken seriously. At the same time game developers need to take seriously the concepts and difficulties that face educators, scientists, policy makers, or whomever they’re working with. Of course that assumes that they’ve actually been involved in the process from the start. When I read things such as:
Therefore, the goal of this proposal is to adapt existing software to develop and refine an interactive video game designed to decrease HIV risk by teaching minority adolescents sex, drug and alcohol negotiation and refusal skills. The game will be adapted with input from minority adolescents, and collaborators with expertise in positive youth development, social cognitive theory and self-efficacy, prospect theory and message framing, software and artificial intelligence development, and commercial game design.
My first question is, “Who?” Who are they working with? Which commercial game developers? Will they be part of the whole process or brought in at the end and told, “make this please”? Gamification, in its weak form will fail. In some cases it may appear to succeed, but for the same reasons that Edutainment succeeded, a little less lame is better than just lame. The long term will demonstrate that failure.
I’ve come to like how Ian Bogost, Simon Ferrari, and Bobby Schweizer write about it in Newsgames that journalists and game designers both share procedural literacy and can learn from one another. I like it because it is a two way epistemic street. It means that you need game developers interested in and committed to these new initiatives and people in those industries committed to supporting what game developers bring to the table. Its the first nuanced approach I’ve heard about bringing games into new arenas. Too often I hear game developers working in these new arenas that they’ve simply thrown up their hands and are supplying what they’ve been asked to create, even if in many cases it isn’t even a game.
I look at many of the current “contests” to “make a game about X,” and wonder if it is done with real interest in mind, or a kind of lame crowd sourcing of what should be real partnerships between industry and academia or government and industry. Of course it isn’t always the case, but more often than not, I wonder.