School of Bioshock

You probably didn’t notice this happening, as you read my previous posts, but I’m drawing ever closer to the point where my abstruse Homeric epic into Platonic philosophy classics stuff will at last intersect with my pragmatic practomimetic learning stuff.

(Certainly you didn’t notice as you didn’t read my previous posts, but I recommend them (of course I would) as way of figuring out where the heck I’m coming from. Blog posts are great for letting readers take the temperature of discourse on a given subject; they’re kind of terrible at giving the rich context that humanistic inquiry really needs to prove its worth. That’s a “play the past” issue in and of itself, I think, since we’re all aware these days that we’re in the ludic century, and whatever the story is with “Digital Humanities,” it’s playful humanities we’re all looking for: is there a way to do playful humanities and keep that rich context? If the humanities are the disciplines that do contextual analysis of our cultural heritage, “play the past” is pretty much a gloss on that whole can of worms.)

Anyway, I bet you didn’t think I could connect classical video games with classroom game-based learning through Bioshock.

Here’s the thing, though. If we take Plato seriously that the best learning comes from seeing through the closed mimetic system we live in, that it comes from beginning to enquire as to how we can change that system’s ruleset, we need to find a way to do what Bioshock does.

So what does Bioshock do?

Here’s the claim I’m going to make: the much-discussed ludonarrative dissonance that either constitutes or imbues (depending on your perspective) Bioshock’s ethical system does not rob the game of ethical meaning, but rather enacts a decisive and meaningful disruption in the player’s performance of the cave-culture-game. That disruption, I claim, has the power to bring about in the player of Bioshock the same sort of ethical reflection enabled by Republic.

From the standpoint of the humanist critique of the institutions of learning in our culture–you know, school–Bioshock teaches us both how not to do game-based learning (GBL) and how to find our way to a GBL that gives us nearly magical affordances in the classroom in place of the chocolate-covered broccoli on offer from the gurus of gamification.

So what I’m going to try to get going here is a Bioshock-based defense of practomimetic learning against the charge of gamification. There’s a moment in Bioshock, which I’ll discuss fully in my next post, when the player’s control gets taken away and then given back to him or her in such a way as to show that control to be meaningless. I’m going to argue that rather than using game-elements to reinforce the existing ruleset of school (that is, gamifying), we need to use them to re-design that ruleset so as to expose its inadequacy. I’m going to argue that giving points and badges is the opposite of game-based learning of the kind we see in Bioshock.


  1. Agh, Roger! You have piqued me and now I dangle. Definitely interested to hear your take in full.

    Just floating this out there, not sure if I believe it: corporate Gamification is to the 2010s what Synergy was to the 80s and 90s.

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