The Dark Side of the Digital Humanities – Part 3

By Patrick Jagoda

My remarks at the “Dark Side of the Digital Humanities” MLA roundtable (January 4, 2013) represent some preliminary thoughts and questions about games that I explore in much greater detail in a forthcoming essay (“Gamification and Other Forms of Play”) that will appear in boundary 2 in Summer 2013. My decision to include digital games in this conversation was not an attempt to claim the absolute centrality of games for the Digital Humanities. Additionally, my topic selection did not carry with it a necessary insistence upon a conflation between the “Digital Humanities” and “New Media Studies.” These disciplinary categories, and the boundaries between them, are porous. They are being considered and renegotiated by scholars through ongoing discussions.

For the purpose of the broad and inclusive conversation that Richard Grusin organized for MLA, I decided to work within a broad rubric of “Comparative Media Studies,” especially as it has been developed recently by Katherine Hayles in How We Think (2012). This inclusive category encourages conversations among scholars working in areas that include the materiality of print and digital productions (John Cayley, Matthew Kirschenbaum, and Jerome McGann); critical code studies (Wendy Chun, Matthew Fuller, and Lev Manovich); platform studies (Ian Bogost and Nick Montfort); technologically mediated forms of social interaction (Jodi Dean and Geert Lovink), information networks (Tiziana Terranova and Eugene Thacker), electronic literature and digital art forms (Katherine Hayles, Henry Jenkins, Mark Marino, and Stephanie Strickland); the philosophical dimensions of digital media (Alexander Galloway, Richard Grusin, Mark Hansen, Friedrich Kittler, and McKenzie Wark); the cultural implications of digital technologies (Lisa Nakamura, Tara McPherson, and Rita Raley); the educational affordances of digital technologies (Cathy Davidson, Nichole Pinkard, and Katie Salen); and so on. This category also allows us to discuss a number of projects that include data mining, social network analysis, digital editions of print works, historical simulations, electronic literature, digital art, game design, and much more.

During our MLA roundtable, I was interested in producing a provocation and, briefly, introducing what is likely to remain one major problem of and for the Digital Humanities: the problem of games and gamification. The text that follows reproduces an augmented (though very slightly so) version of my informal notes for this session. It is meant as a starting point for a continued exchange. Perhaps, like the beginning of a game, it can be conceived as an invitation to play.

In recent years, games have touched practically every aspect of contemporary life. This certainly has something to do with a colossal videogame industry that saw about $25 billion dollars of revenue in 2011 in the United States alone with approximately 183 million American “active gamers” (that is, people who claim to play digital games an average of 13 hours a week). Mobile gaming revenues rose from 462 million dollars 5 years ago to 1.2 billion this year.[i] Even with some stagnation in U.S. console sales this year, global digital game markets have also seen significant growth.

The expanding centrality of games, however, has also in many ways exceeded the realm of “gamers” through what is often called “gamification.” Gamification, a term that derives from behavioral economics, refers to the use of game mechanics in traditionally non-game activities. This buzzword emerged only in the twenty-first century but has already found its way into writing on business, marketing, psychology, and design. We have seen the structure and logic of games creep into consumerism, crowdsourcing, and social media applications. For example, the Chore Wars website, whose celebratory tagline claims that “finally, you can claim experience points for housework,” converts undesirable chores into a game complete with superheroic roleplaying and points that spur competition among housemates. Nike+ shoes use sensors to transform a tedious running routine into a daily contest by tracking statistics, assigning achievement points, and allowing users to interface with cute avatars. TaskRabbit provides an online space for outsourcing minor jobs such as grocery delivery to other users while motivating contributors through a leaderboard and a statistics tracker that resembles a videogame progress bar. Phylo, a game released by Jérôme Waldispühl’s team at McGill University, invites players to help researchers with a common problem in comparative genomics — Multiple Sequence Alignments — by participating in pattern recognition challenges. All of these sites and apps (of which there are many others) suggest that life in the early twenty-first century is becoming permeated by games. Especially throughout the overdeveloped world in which digital media, smart phones, and high-speed Internet access have achieved a ubiquitous status for many people, games have become an exemplary cultural form that serves as a prominent metaphor of success.

Gamification is increasingly becoming a problem of and, in some ways, a problem for the digital humanities. This is especially noticeable in the realm of education. Over the last two years, we’ve seen numerous instances of game-based learning, including how-to guides (Education Gamification Survival Kit) and charter schools with gameplay curricula (Katie Salen’s Quest to Learn and ChicagoQuest schools). Another ongoing initiative that has received a great deal of attention is the MacArthur Foundation’s “Badges for Lifelong Learning” that began as a Digital Media and Learning competition. Subsequently, the badges concept was adopted by organizations such as the Digital Youth Network: a Chicago-based “digital literacy program that creates opportunities for youth to engage in learning environments that span both in-school and out-of-school contexts.”[ii] The Digital Youth Network awards badges to youth who develop skills in technology, new media art, and social media participation. The game-like impulse to collect badges serves as motivation for continued learning and produces a “visual portfolio of competencies” for participating youth and mentors.

Adopters of gamification across different fields, including education, regularly proclaim it to be an unparalleled organizational technique. One leading proponent, Jane McGonigal, suggests that “reality is broken” and can only be saved through games that turn “a real problem into a voluntary obstacle” and activate “genuine interest, curiosity, motivation, effort, and optimism” among their players.[iii] Alongside beaming support for gamification as a cutting-edge panacea, however, there has been some resistance to this concept and its widespread application. Curiously, much of the criticism has come from game designers. Gamification has been condemned, in these circles, for adopting only the least artistic aspects of contemporary digital games — namely, their repetitive grinding and achievement-oriented operant conditioning. In a brief, polemical position paper published in The Atlantic, Ian Bogost contends that, above all, gamification is, in a philosophical sense, “bullshit.” Drawing from moral philosopher Harry Frankfurt, he explains, “bullshit is used to conceal, to impress or to coerce.” Gamification, for Bogost, engages in precisely this form of obfuscation insofar as it “takes games — a mysterious, magical, powerful medium that has captured the attention of millions of people — and makes them accessible in the context of contemporary business.” Condemning the rhetorical deceptiveness of the term, Bogost suggests the alternative term “exploitationware,” which decouples “gamification” from “games.”[iv]

For one starting point to this roundtable discussion, I hope this introduction to what we might call the problematic of gamification will suffice. As teachers, researchers, and university administrators, we’re bound to see many more instances of gamification in the coming years. Digital games will remain a major topic of both the Digital Humanities and New Media Studies. So they’re worth discussing. My own visceral reaction to the phenomenon has often been one of deep skepticism. Game-based badges or experience points motivate people to perform repetitive tasks but not necessarily to engage closely with texts or to undertake projects at a more complex level. At the same time, I’m also a game designer and a scholar of digital games. In 2010, I co-founded an organization called Game Changer Chicago (GCC) with Melissa Gilliam: a Professor of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Pediatrics and Chief of Family Planning at the University of Chicago. GCC uses digital storytelling and game-oriented methods to teach youth on the south side of Chicago about sexual health systems. We have focused on topics that include teen pregnancy, sexual violence, and socio-economic health disparities. In GCC, our team produces interactive graphic novels, card games, and Alternate Reality Games projects with youth for other youth to play. Through this work and the research associated with it, I’ve found that when games are well designed, they demonstrate many benefits. They offer players interactive contexts for thinking through and experimenting with complex problems in a hands-on fashion. Digital games enable multiple learning styles and engage players at several levels simultaneously through text, graphics, animation, audio, algorithms, and haptic feedback. They spur decision-making, enable roleplaying, and do many other things that exceed the addictiveness of point accumulation and victory that characterizes gamification.

So, I want to emphasize, games are not for me some categorical corporate evil (i.e., the ills of “gamification”) but a rich problematic within which many things still remain to be thought, felt, and processed. For this reason, I include games under Richard Grusin’s heading of the “Dark Side of the Digital Humanities.” I finish with three sets of questions that I ask as I navigate that darkness — a darkness that is, at different moments, terrifying and thrilling:

1. How should we think about games in the historical present when gamification is arguably not merely a local phenomenon (for instance, in business, marketing, or education) but increasingly the form that economic and social reality takes in our world? Does it make sense to “game” an educational system that is founded on inequalities in a world that already uses games as a dominant metaphor and method?

2. Do the benefits of gamified “badges” outweigh their potential to operate as a reductive form of behaviorism? Should we incorporate badges into our pedagogy? Can we imagine (as many educators, theorists, and organizers are already attempting to do) badges that move beyond the superficial level of short-term behavioral modification? Can we instead create an infrastructure that builds a desire for lifelong learning and material skills into narratives, journeys, and games that youth (especially those youth coming from flailing or failing school systems) find compelling? Should badges be part of that project?

3. How might we imagine what are called “serious games” or “countergames” as complicating gamification? I am not necessarily invested in either of these terms. However, along with scholar-designers such as Ian Bogost, Mary Flanagan, and Tracy Fullerton, I am committed to creating games that do not simply condition behaviors but encourage more complex forms of thought, speculation, and practice. For example, in 2012, along with my co-directors Katherine Hayles and Patrick LeMieux, I created an Alternate Reality Game called Speculation that explored the greed-driven culture of Wall Street investment banks and the 2008 economic crisis through a number of mini-games, collaborative narratives, and online forums. This game experimented with a design that was more speculative (in a number of senses) than didactic. This final question, then, is one that I ask myself on a weekly basis as I work on many projects that enable me to think and act through games.

[Patrick Jagoda is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at the University of Chicago who studies what he calls “network aesthetics” by exploring narrative, visual, and algorithmic approaches to interconnection.]

[i]      For information about the growth of mobile games, in particular, see:


[iii]      Jane McGonigal, Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World (New York: Penguin Press, 2011), 311.

[iv]      Ian Bogost, “Gamification is Bullshit,” Atlantic, August 9, 2011,

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