Meanification and Crowdscafolding: Forget Badges

I hate the words gamification and crowdsourcing. They are demeaning. This is particularly problematic because I actually think the ideas behind these terms are transformative. I don’t like that they frame our activity in terms of commercial exploitation (of the two crowdsourcing is particularly problematic, gamification’s sins are much more focused on the idea that we can get anyone to do anything if with game mechanics). To this end, I was thrilled to see Sebastian Deterding give this fantastic google talk about the key things people are missing out on with the idea of Gamification. This view also rings very true with a recent post from Tom Morris, who proclaims that he is not an experience-seeking user, but a meaning-seeking human person. I encourage everybody to drop everything and watch this whole video and read Tom’s post.

Meaning is What Matters:

There are a lot of smart things that Deterding is doing here. Among other things I like that he is grounding his discussions in games and play from childhood. I think he is dead on in terms of the importance of experiences being meaningful, and offering opportunities for mastery and autonomy. For those who are paying attention these ideas are fundamentally connected to some of the most important of the 32 principles of educational psychology that Jim Gee discussed in What Video Games Have to Teach us about Learning and Literacy.

With this said, the key factor here is meaning. My interest in games and learning led me to explore online communities in which game players are becoming game designers. Specifically, I had looked at web communities arranged around modifying the game Civilization and creating role-playing games with RPGmaker. As I have reflecting on this work, I have been struck by the fact that there is very little play in these spaces. Instead there is a ton of people taking on and accomplishing all manner of work that they find meaningful.

There is far more work than play on

In my four years leading outreach for Zotero, a rather successful open source software project, I saw hundreds, if not thousands of people commit themselves to helping to improve the software. In many cases, individuals came to the software development community with limited technical skills and abundance of interest and through guidance with individuals in the projects forums developed very valuable technical proficiencies with things like JavaScript, and some ideas about metadata standards.

In these two very different kinds of environments, communities where young people chat about making video games and a community where graduate students and researchers work to improve a software project, I see a few important commonalities. In both places, individuals are committing to challenging projects that require significant time commitments and which require them to develop new technical competencies. In this respect, the communities of game makers are much more akin to open source software communities than communities of game players. People’s commitment to involvement in both kinds of communities is not simply about fun, although participating and working toward goals is rewarding. Participants seem to be much more driven by a desire to contribute to projects that they find to be meaningful.

Contributing to Something that Matters to You:

Everyone interested in this topic should spend a bit of time reading this post about why people participate in Galaxy Zoo. While “fun” does show up as a theme, nearly everything else on the list of reasons has to do with bigger issues. People participate to contribute to science, because of their passion for astronomy, because they get to experience the beauty of nature. These people are participating in this project because it is meaningful to them. The work of the project matters to them. The game mechanics which the project elegantly employes are important, but they are only important because they scaffold players into the work of science.

Scaffolding People into Roles Where The Can Contribute

In the Vygotskyian tradition of thinking about learning the idea of scaffolding is an important concept for how action, thinking, and learning work. At the core, the idea holds that individuals can accomplish a wide range of tasks if they are provided the cognitive or instructional scaffolding to operate in that specific domain. Citizen science projects, like Galaxy Zoo, or, capitalize on this idea by building systems that let a user jump into action and rapidly begin contributing to the work. While some games, like avoiding the cracks in the sidewalk because you are pretending they are lava, take something simple like walking and make it complicated, Galaxy Zoo and take something impossibly complicated, contributing to the cutting edges of scientific research, and scaffold an end user into activity that allows a user (user itself ends up feeling demeaning too, should we say participant?) to make a legitimate contribution.

In this case, both gamification and crowdsourcing for the public good is less about making something fun then it is about providing the scaffolding that allows those who have not been professionalized to make meaningful contributions to knoweldge. In the process, people contribute to something they care about and simultaneously pick up and learn more about the thing that they care about.

So, Are We Skinner Bots or Flow Seeking Meaning Makers?

The central question here is actually about human nature and the kind of psychology we operate on. I explored some of these ideas last year in a post on The Interest Driven Curriculum. Do we want to work toward a world where people are thought of as Pavlovian dogs salivating at the opportunity for badges, or do we want to believe in a world where everyone yearns for the opportunity to be a part of something bigger than themselves? I suspect that even those who see the crowd as something they can outsource to are already running out of time. We all want to be a part of projects that matter to us and games can teach us a lot about how to bootstrap people with interest in an activity quickly into a role where they can make a meaningful contribution and crowdsourcing offers the potential to distribute those opportunities to all manner of fields and disciplines to anyone who has an Internet connection. If, when you say crowdsourcing or gamification you are talking about something rooted in behaviorism, I would posit that you are engaged in exploitation. If you want to use these terms as shorthand for inviting participation in meaningful and rewarding work I will whole heartedly cheer you on.



  1. Thank you, Trevor, for the pointer to Sebastian’s talk and your sober appraisal of the gamification trend. I hope that folks in the university become less interested in the commercial concept of games and more interested in the artistic concept of them. We could learn a lot from games such as Civilization, Seven Cities of Gold and Dwarf Fortress as far as representation of cultural processes, and none of it has to do with convincing people to do tedious tasks through bribery with virtual goods of virtual camaraderie.

    1. frankly, I wouldn’t turn to Civilization as as a representation of cultural processes. The game is built on 19th century anthropology theory (radical diffusionism, unilinear cultural evolution) – theory that was generated in the framework of colonialism and has long since been abandoned by anthropologists and archaeologists.

  2. Trevor-

    Great post. I suppose I was most struck by this statement: “As I have reflecting on this work, I have been struck by the fact that there is very little play in these spaces. Instead there is a ton of people taking on and accomplishing all manner of work that they find meaningful.”

    This kind of meaningful work, as you call it, seems also to be meaningful play. It’s a process of learning (and teaching) that is happening in these communities, and while, yes, it is work, I think it can also be seen as play. They are playing with ideas, with games, with the processes in and around them, and I think that while this is not the act of playing the game, as we typically think of it, I do think it can be considered a form of play that goes beyond the game and incorporates it into their real-life actions. So that, instead of thinking there is little play in these spaces, we can think of the work, as you call it, a form of productive play.

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