Looking at Sarah Smith-Robbins’ post at Educause on Gamification and Higher Ed, I find myself wanting to scrap with her about the elements she highlights in her characterization of “game” as a concept. That could have something to do with having just spent a week in my own games course looking at how Huizinga, Caillois, and Koster define game (or play).

But a few things stick in my craw:

  • There is no mention of “rules” or “system” as a fundamental characteristic of games, even though this element is central to many definitions of games one might find in theories of games. (The Wikipedia entry on game is helpful here.) It is surely possible to read between the lines of her description to deduce their presence — “need to achieve”; “necessary to reach (the goal)”; “obstacles” — each of these phrases implies some kind of outside force constraining the play of a game.  But if the goal is to “identify…basic characteristics,” then this point needs to be at least addressed.
  • “Every game has a win condition” – What about Tetris?  What about PacmanThe Sims?  Playing house?  There have certainly been some game theorists who’ve wanted to call the latter two “simulations” instead of “games.”  But overall it seems more prudent to speak directly in terms of “incentives” or “rewards” as a fundamental condition for games, and a “win condition” as merely a possible one, since there are many games whose incentives simply encourage more play, and the decision to stop playing comes from factors largely external to the game’s mechanics.
  • “Games come in two basic flavors” – She refers to collaboration and competition here.  Again, these are extremely common elements, but they do not cover all kinds of game play, but rather certain (or most) kinds of social play.  Still, other forms of game play, especially those that take place within a system that is self-perpetuating (such as one driven by a computer through code) need not include either dimension.  A more useful over-arching term here might be “conflict,” though of course that does not capture the element of collaboration.

The reason I raise these as issues are two-fold.  First, using a loose definition (or set of limiting characteristics) for game makes an argument about their similarity to higher ed potentially problematic, since the core analogy rests on a loose “foundation.”

Second, thinking about higher ed as like a game with a more precise set of limiting characteristics, such as the ones above, actually helps make the analogy more apt.  “Rules” abound in the bureaucratic systems of higher education, and students not only might be, but readily admit to”gaming” those systems: dropping course they don’t think they can “ace” because they “can’t be taking a hit to my GPA right now”; wondering whether “this will be on the exam”; even cheating are all forms of student awareness of and decisions to “play” according to the implicit rules we as educators teach them through the structures of the systems we officiate (and thinking of ourselves as referees and umpires of these higher ed games makes a lot of sense much of the time).

We provide them with a series of incentives that encourage certain kinds of behaviors and discourage others, and while many of our players make it to the objectives we dangle in front of them, many others do not.  Could this be because, as Raph Koster writes, “when a game stops teaching us, we feel bored”?  For Koster, the core element of all games is learning: a puzzle, pattern, or problem is presented as defined by the game’s rules, and we freely choose to engage with that system in order to learn how it works.  The best games are those that teach “everything the game has to offer before the player stops learning.”  This might be an excellent way for us as educators to express our own goal for our students (if we recognize that our hope is “winning” the game of higher ed will lead to an urge to start the new game of “lifelong learning).

Ultimately, I don’t think there is much the author and I would argue about regarding the goals of her post: we ought to seriously consider changing the fundamental structure of higher education, and looking at games as a metaphor or analogy for how to do that better makes great sense.  Her list of practical suggestions for doing this are also solid.  But if we don’t start on a solid foundation of core elements within that analogy, especially by recognizing the work other games theorists have done, then our argument will lose much of its rhetorical momentum right out of the gate.  If that happens, we might lose the race to educate to apathy, frustration, or cynicism.