Keramidas: yay; Bogost: okay.

Keynote speech at 2015 CCCC by Adam Banks

In his article, “Persuasive Games: Exploitationware,” Ian Bogost grapples with (rants about) the political consequences of the rhetorical decisions we make in how we describe designing games for learning. In order to get a sense of the way in which game design is a radical departure from “many of the practices of industrialization that gamification silently endorses,” it’s useful to pair his discussion with the more in-depth attention to questions of design and pedagogy that Kimon Keramidas provides in “What Games Have to Teach us about Teaching and Learning: Game Design as a Model for Course Design and Curricular Development.” But first, for those of you who are reading this to get the gist of the articles, I’ll summarize Bogost’s beef with “gamification.” As implied above, gamification according to Bogost involves applying an abstract, therefore vague, concept to an already-existing set and structure of practices (in this case, pedagogical practices) instead of creating a new system. A new system, my best guess suggests, would involve reorienting pedagogy from what Freire called the “banking concept of education” (Freire 72) to designing a learning process through encounters in and with a context.


This seems to be the main difference in a game-design system: that of switching from the priority of a teacher-expert passing knowledge to a student to that of a student using the teacher as one of a number of tools in a rewarding, stimulating, and challenging learning environment designed by the instructor. This learning process, I gather from Keramidas, depends on the student making decisions and learning how to make better or wiser decisions in a context that periodically gives them “value assigned” outcomes and opportunities for “meaningful play.” This is what Keramidas has described as a learning environment compatible with game design. Using Jesper Juul’s definition of a game, he outlines the elements of game design that parallel, in some way, course design and learning environments; and those that could parallel game design more than they currently do; or that differ in an important way. Regarding difference, for example, Keramidas notes that games are isolated from real-world consequences for the player unlike the learning environments that explicitly prepare students for their activities beyond the classroom. These “non-negotiable outcomes,” for Keramidas, add to the relative worth of classrooms over games.


Keramidas is careful to point out that, in many ways, the description of a game, and its individual essentials, is already compatible with contemporary pedagogy. Like games, learning environments have rules that set these spaces apart from others. They have variable, quantifiable outcomes. They have “value assigned to possible outcomes,” such as grades or new challenges. As in both games and learning, the “player” must exert effort to get anything out of the process. However, they don’t necessarily have play: certainly not enough of it. Play, in this context, involves much more than having a light-hearted attitude or a variety of low-stakes, creative activities. Drawing from Salen and Zimmerman’s Rules of Play, Keramidas stipulates that “meaningful play” includes multi-player interactions, an emphasis on interactivity in general; having tasks/work that are/is relevant to the next and future activities, as in the case of multi-staged assignments, and opportunities for the “player” to make choices. Keramidas also asserts, through Salen and Zimmerman, that the rules (or rule makers) of the learning environments could learn from games by including more student-led learning and more opportunities to negotiate outcomes and assessments for assignments.


If any of you are involved in the College Composition community, and if any of you have attended a Conference on College Composition and Communication, you already know about and put into practice the principles listed above, and you’ve probably done so without thinking about games or gamification. That’s why it’s surprising that Bogost characterizes the compositionists at the C’s the way that he does. Tweed and patches and twin sets? I don’t know what lenses he was wearing. Teachers come to the C’s dressed like they’re looking for a hip publisher or a “conference boyfriend.” He implies that it took them forever to catch on to his ideas, but compositionists have emphasized play and interactivity since the 1970’s, and books like Geoffrey Sirc’s Composition as a Happening (2002) and Jody Shipka’s Toward a Composition Made Whole (2011) trace and revise some of that history without ever even mentioning Ian Bogost.


Perhaps this historical precedent is why the conference organizers gave him one of the most prime spots for presenting—the second session of the first day. I was dismayed that Bogost took a long-time allay of responsive, interactive pedagogy with multi-staged assignment sequences, teacher-student collaborative assessment rubrics, and multimodal compositions that emphasize rhetorical decisions over mechanics, and turned this community into a straw man for his complaint about “gamification.” He must have been referring to the administrators (perhaps not present at C’s) who determine the budgets for those rad WPAs (writing program administrators) who provide the space and resources for composition classrooms to be some of the most playful and interdisciplinary spaces in the university. If we are to use criteria drawn up by Keramidas and Bogost, compositionists already are game designers. We are also extremely conscious of the real-world, non-negotiable outcomes and consequences of our courses, and therefore of our curriculum design. So, what kind of game is this? Calling compositionists the traditionalist keepers of poor practices? Perhaps it took him so long to get a spot at our conference because he didn’t bother to learn about it, or about us.





3 thoughts on “Keramidas: yay; Bogost: okay.

  1. Sara Vogel, PhD. (she/her)

    I love how my first impulse about these two articles is the polar opposite of yours! I found Keramidas’ article a little vague, while Bogost’s critique spoke to me.

    It’s great to read your post and to get some of the context for Bogost’s speech and later comments. It is frustrating that he would mount his critique at a conference of folks who are truly innovating in the ways they teach writing, already applying some of the principles of game design to make their classes meaningful and interactive for students. Perhaps his critiques should have been voiced in front of a different audience — marketing execs, admins, etc. Even if his “exploitationware” rhetoric is melodramatic, I do see where he’s coming from on “gamification.” Too often, the most reductionist principles from game design and gaming are applied in classrooms and educational settings without much thought to the whole system. I remember at the CUNY Games conference 2 years ago, one of the guest speakers talked about how gamification is like “dipping broccoli in chocolate.” There’s something students don’t want to learn? Give them some points and badges and prizes! Over the years, I’ve watched several organizations attempt to “gamify” and badge their afterschool programs for youth. Just as Bogost writes, to do this properly is a real struggle. What skills and knowledge should we badge? What artifacts are needed to prove students earned the badges? How do we keep track of badges? How do we make sure students care? How do we build badging as a practice into the fabric of our programs so it doesn’t feel to educators like another thing they have to do?

    The fun part of games-based learning for me is not in the badging and the achievements. Keramidas offers some other ideas: our classrooms should have rules and student choice, outcomes that vary in value and depend on the amount and kind of effort you put in. Students should be able to experiment and see the relevance of activities to their lives and cultures, etc. Important, but I don’t think those tenets are very new to educators — as you write, professors do them already. Even though Keramidas thinks Gee’s work doesn’t lead to concrete strategies for educators, I found many of Gee’s principles more unique to gaming, and more novel. Gee writes about how the game Pikmin encourages the child to think of him/herself as an active problem solver who persists after making errors, and to view errors are opportunities for reflection and learning. This “try and fail, try something new, fail in a different way, try again…” approach is embedded not just in game play, but in game design’s “think, design, playtest, change” iterative cycle. As soon as I started designing games with students, I began viewing the curriculum I wrote through the same iterative lens. The first time I did a lesson was always a “playtest” and that freed me up to think about how to make it better for the next iteration. I wonder how this approach might be applied to drafting writing pieces, completing problem-sets, and other assignments in higher education? Gee also writes about how games allow people to take on, customize, and explore new identities in a safe space — asking students to do the same with discipline-specific personas is another way principles from game-learning might be applied.

    Looking forward to talking more in class,

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