Gamification, Bullshit, and Teaching History

Ian Bogost is always interesting to watch. He hit the blogosphere recently with a strong declaration that ‘Gamification is Bullshit‘, where bullshit

is used to conceal, to impress or to coerce. Unlike liars, bullshitters have no use for the truth. All that matters to them is hiding their ignorance or bringing about their own benefit.

Gamification is bullshit.

He’s taking aim at marketing, for the most part; ‘gamification’ being a tool to facilitate exploitation; gamification a pervision of what makes games ‘mysterious, magical, powerful’.  Google ‘gamification is bullshit’, and you’ll find at least 268 000 results. Clearly, he’s touched a nerve.There were 99 comments on his post as I write this. But I think he’s wrong, at least as far as education is concerned. Isn’t that what Play the Past is all about? Or at least, parts of it? I wrote a post not long ago called ‘Gamify My Historian’s Craft‘, where I described a simple achievements system and leaderboard. The aim of my ‘gamification’ was to encourage students to step beyond the formal assessment exercises, to pursue tutorials and activities of their own free will that enhanced the course content. It was quite successful, and darnit, I’m doing it again.

Over at TerraNova, Tim Burke writes with regard to gamification bullshit,

When the talk turns to serious games or games + learning, a similar move is often visible. The people drawn to gamification in this sense are drawn to it because it makes them look like they’re doing something to improve their yields, reach the unreached, learn that last stubborn group of the unlearned, mobilize the unmotivated. Gamification here is both alibi and life-preserver. It explains why there is something still to be done (we haven’t used games! which is why people don’t buy our stuff/take their medicine/learn their math/smash the state!) and why you should keep the gamifier in the picture. (Do youknow how to make a game, Mr. CEO/university president/non-profit manager/Marxist theorist?)

But these are waves that wash up on the beach. When the tide recedes, the sand is still there.

What’s the sand of gamification? What will be left when this too has passed like the once-universal faith that we would all one day live and work in Second Life?

…so are those of us who employ game mechanics in our teaching of history just caught up in the latest fad? Are we pursuing a Holy Grail for engagement and deep learning we’ll never reach?

Are we wrong?



  1. Shawn, I’m glad that you’ve brought up this conversation here. There have been two very recent discussions over on Google+ about ‘gamification’ versus ‘game-based learning’. I think, as educators, it is important that we figure out how to separate ourselves from what ‘gamification’ has come to mean in the general public: glorified sticker charts — extrinsic motivators which have proven, time and time again, to have no lasting effect on intrinsic motivation.

    Here is the most recent public conversation on Google+:

    1. I would leave a really clever comment, but since I don’t seem to get little stars or thumbs up or the ability to become a “Level 2 Play-the-Past comments poster” I really don’t see the point… 😉

    2. Hi Kevin,
      Thanks for the link to the Google+ discussion! The distinction between ‘gamification’ and ‘game-based learning’ is important. As Bogost points out, there’s something about -fication that just doesn’t sit right. I’ll dig through that conversation; as soon as I remember my login details, I’ll even join it.

      My gold stars in my historical methods class are tied to bonus points for the final grade. I suppose that’s reasonably intrinsic, for students whose prime motivation is to get the grade at the end of the course… performance/participation in my achievements correlates pretty nicely with performance on the ‘regular’ assignments. Perhaps all I’ve done is just added another level of homework. Hmm.

      1. Shawn, I’m going to split some major hairs here. 🙂

        “My gold stars in my historical methods class are tied to bonus points for the final grade. I suppose that’s reasonably intrinsic, for students whose prime motivation is to get the grade at the end of the course… ”

        If they are being motivated to gain achievements for bonus points to impact their final grade then that’s the definition of extrinsic motivation. They aren’t being motivated by a desire to dig deeper into the material, they are being motivated to enhance their grade.

      2. I think that Kevin makes a great point here and it is more than just splitting hairs when talking about whether points cause deeper learning or whether it is just a chance for students to gamify their grade. One of the articles that Bogost points to somewhere in this ongoing debate is by Margaret Robertson. She notes that games are not about making simple tasks that reward points but aboiut generating complex systems that encourage investigation, engagement, and achievement. She writes that while points are useful in games they aren’t what is important in game design:

        “Games give their players meaningful choices that meaningfully impact on the world of the game. Deciding to run two miles today rather than one, or drink two liters of Coke instead of four are just choices of quantity. Deciding to dump my sniper rifle for an energy sword is a meaningful choice. It’s going to change how I move, who I fight, when I run. It’s literally going to change whether I live or die, and that – for which I thank the stars – is currently something Nike and Coke can’t match.”

        I think this is very important to remember the difference between games and points because so often we add simple game techniques to curriculum to add gaming qualities to them and end there. But really thinking about game design and learning requires a fundamental change in the structure of pedagogy to motivate meaningful choices that are very different from the ones that dominate the educational landscape. Once we start pulling apart those old education tropes there is a lot more possibilit for the mechanisms that really make gaming compelling to work in educational settings.

        I’ve added a link to the Robertson here as well as a longer more thoughtful by Bogost about this in Gamasutra and in some shameless self-promotion a link to a journal article I wrote about this in Currents in Electronic Literacy:

        Margaret Robertson, “Can’t play, won’t play,” Hide&Seek – Inventing new kinds of play, October 6, 2011,

        Ian Bogost, “Persuasive Games: Exploitationware,” Gamasutra, May 3, 2011,

        Kimon Keramidas, “What Games Have to Teach Us About Teaching and Learning: Game Design as a Model for Course and Curricular Development | Currents in Electronic Literacy,” Currents in Electronic Literacy, 2010,

  2. Yes, you’re quite right. Hair duly – and appropriately – split. 😉

    On the other hand, they did sign up for my class in the first place…

    There is an argument that we have to push students, and extrinsic motivations are perfectly fine for that, no less valid for being extrinsic. So if I reach those students who wouldn’t otherwise do an extra tutorial in palaeography, or learn how to create a simple layer on a map, then it’s all good.

    At the end of my class, the best students powered through the ‘extra’ work, the ‘achievements’ (egs “Palaeographer level 1”; “The Critical Thinker”), and most of them did it from the intrinsic interest in the tasks set. For the middling students, it was a mix of both.

  3. I’d like to point you to another conversation on the same topic:

    I read somewhere [citation needed] that extrinsic rewards has a negative correlation with intrinsic motivation because the intention of doing a task (learning) is superseded by the desire to work towards the reward. This is also one of the criticisms in Khan Academy’s mechanics where students was “gaming” the system by breezing through lessons just to get the achievement.

  4. Just teach the class regular, but have some games, war-games on the shelf behind you. If they show interest, then you have a lunchtime or after school club for the games.

    1. In my first year seminar class on digital antiquity, we are in fact going to look at board games with an ancient twist, as a way of thinking more deeply about video games. In my Historian’s Craft however I have 120 students in a lecture hall. It’s a required course for the department, so I feel an obligation to address not just my own pet projects but also the various methodologies and approaches employed by my colleagues – which is why I turned to voluntary gameful techniques to round out the syllabus.

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