Open Thinkering


Tag: digital literacies

Gamify or be gamified

Seven years ago, I wrote a post entitled Curate or Be Curated: Why Our Information Environment is Crucial to a Flourishing Democracy, Civil Society. I come back to it often, as it was a bit of a warning that, if we all outsource our news-reading and information-gathering to algorithms, then we’re in trouble.

I wrote that post at a time when Twitter was proposing to turn its previously “raw” feed into an algorithmically-curated one. It completely spoiled the social network for me, and my use of it has dwindled since 2014. It’s also had nefarious effects, amplifying hate and disinformation — as we’ve seen with countless examples around the world. Our democratic institutions are at stake.

Listening to the latest episode of It’s Not Just In Your Head, a podcast from two mental health professionals exploring how capitalism, I was fascinated by their most recent guest’s insights. Dr. Alfie Bown, a lecturer in Digital Media Culture and Technology at Royal Holloway in London, and author of a number of books, spoke eloquently about gamification in our everyday lives.

Gamification is the strategic attempt to enhance systems, services, organizations, and activities in order to create similar experiences to those experienced when playing games in order to motivate and engage users This is generally accomplished through the application of game-design elements and game principles (dynamics and mechanics) in non-game contexts. (Wikipedia)

What I found particularly interesting was Bown’s inclusion of social media in his tallying-up of everyone who plays “video games” around the world. As he points out, the feedback loops and rewards for certain types of behaviour on social networks certainly mesh with what we’d consider to be video game mechanics.

I’m a gamer, and have been most of my 41 years on this earth. The games I see my kids playing, though, are quite different to the ones I used to play at their age. There’s a very positive angle to this, as they’re a lot more positive and social than many of the ones I played when I was younger. But there’s downsides as well, and that’s what I want to talk about here.

As an example, I’ve played the FIFA football (soccer) game series ever since the very first one came out over 25 years ago. Over the last few iterations, instead of just being a particular team and playing against another player or the computer, it’s possible to create your own ‘Ultimate Team’. Having experimented with this again recently, I was shocked at how little time I ended up actually playing a football game, and how much time I was spending ‘grinding’ — i.e. doing things to unlock or upgrade things.

As Dr. Alfie Bown pointed out in the podcast episode, everything is gamified these days, from work to dating to shopping. It’s like everyone’s competing in a slightly-different ARG. So this post is a marker and a reminder for me that I can choose to gamify my own life, or have it gamified for me.

There are multiple ways to do this. One very simple one that I’ve found to be unreasonably effective is to use Loop Habit Tracker to define habits that I want to build over time. They could be exercise or nutrition-related, or something else entirely. Right now, I’m trying to do each of the following at least twice a week:

  • Go to the gym
  • Go for a run
  • Go on the exercise bike

Each time I succeed, I put a tick in the box under that day and activity, and it strengthens the habit.

Gamification is not something that is good or bad, in and of itself. For me, it’s all to do with whether you’re being controlled or manipulated into acting in a way which is in alignment with your values and goals in life. For example, I’ve found Duolingo useful for language-learning, and it includes a lot of gamification techniques.

As we enter a new year, I’m on a bit of a mission to remove unhelpful gamified elements from my life, and to add in ones which will help me flourish as the human being I want to be.

Sorry! The lifestyle you ordered is out of stock

Banksy artwork saing "Sorry! The future you ordered is currently out of stock"

From where I sit, the day after having my booster jab, I’m more than a little bit concerned about the level of anti-vaxxer disinformation swirling around me. Yes, I wrote my doctoral thesis on ‘digital literacy’ and I think there’s a level of digital illiteracy involved in all of this. However, there’s a confluence of a few things going on here.

The world is complex, so any simple ‘answer’ to what’s driving particular behaviours are likely to be at best incomplete. For example, I’ve noticed in my interactions with vaccine-hesitant or straight-out ‘anti-vaxxer’ middle-aged white men that there are certain metaphors and tropes that tend to be used.

The rabbithole goes deep, and quickly. It’s likely to be different for varying groups in society, but for those middle-aged white guys I’ve mentioned, there’s at least some pent-up economic frustration going on. I think they also may feel an overall decline in power. At the same time, with the Black Lives Matters movement, increasing equality for women, and wars/climate chaos causing migration, there are culprits for them to pin the blame on.

As a former teacher of the subject, I certainly felt that, until recently, history was the battleground. That’s still the case to some degree, but instead of arguing over representations of the past, we now seem to be arguing over the nation of current reality. Conspiracy theories are rife, and not limited to that weird guy in the pub that you sidle away from after he’s had a few.

If we can’t agree on the past and present, then I’m not sure how we’re going to agree on the future and what it can and should look like. There’s a modicum of consensus that we need to do something about the environment and biodiversity, but how that is going to be acted upon in a period of intense political turmoil is yet to be seen.

Looking back at my TEDx Talk from early 2012 with almost a decade of hindsight, it seems obvious that what started out as playful memes could and would be weaponised for division and political factionism. While my focus at that time was on learning and the technology that can enable it, I feel that I may have been naïve not to see what could have been coming next.

Yet, here we are. Digital literacy is low, political engagement is high. That’s a dangerous and explosive combination, as we saw with the attack on the Capitol building in January 2021. My concern is that we will reap what we have sown and that Big Tech, perfecting algorithms that “give us more of what we want”, will essentially tell us that the lifestyle that we ordered is out of stock, and this will fuel catastrophic rifts in society.

In the face of this, what I can do personally is small and seems insignificant. The same is true of the climate emergency. But individual actions can make a difference, when added together, and we shouldn’t avoid taking small steps just because we can’t take large ones. So, in 2022, having IRL rational and respectful conversations with anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists may be just as important as taking climate action.

EBSN podcast series on EPALE: Re-thinking Adult Basic Skills in the 21st century

I was interviewed recently for the European Basic Skills Network (EBSN) podcast. The focus was on the ways our understanding of literacy is changing as we deal with various digital opportunities and challenges.

Adult literacy, and basic skills in general, have become central to many sectors of EU policy from education & training to employment and social policy. The use of the term ‘literacy’ is expanding, different stakeholders understand it with regards to their own context, which leads to parallel interpretations. The increasing technological development and digitalisation trends in all fields of our lives, the green transformation, and the current focus on sustainability all contribute to the changing understanding of the term and our expectations toward it too, not to mention the influence of the ongoing pandemics that speeded up the adaption of digital solutions in adult learning.

The title of the current session is Re-thinking Adult Basic Skills in the 21st century and we chose this topic to allow for reflection on the changing nature of basic skills provision in the light of certain global phenomena that we all experienced recently. Our intention is to see how the understanding of basic skills training might have been affected by these processes. We present our sessions in two parts, firstly, in this unit we are addressing the notion of digital literacies while in the forthcoming part we will look into basic skills research, policy and practice.

We are accompanied by innovative educational thinkers, researchers, policy experts who will be our partners in analysing the constituents of adult basic skills in general. Our guest is Doug Belshaw.


We discussed the following topics in this podcast:

  • The impact of COVID on our digital behaviour: what lessons can we draw from this period of time? Is there anything that we should keep / let go / be aware of?
  • How can we create a balance between making digital skills training directed to individual needs and still applying certain standards?
  • Basic skills’ role to democratic citizenship: Lacking the necessary skills to read and write, calculate and more numeric behaviour, and especially applying digital tools consciously is becoming a must for all who wish to keep up with disruptive changes, crises, newly emerging policies in technology, social life, employment, learning etc.
  • Microcredentials, open badges: A tool that could turn out to be promising in making learning outcomes, training choices and acquired skills determined by individual needs are microcredentials.

It was fun! Hopefully the resulting audio is of use to someone or some organisation. The audio is also on the Internet Archive if it for some reason disappears from SoundCloud.