Can gamification be used to structure academic collaboration in a way that’s ethically and methodologically robust? By using game elements to structure user contribution as a form of non-remunerated work, gamification often elides processes of digital labor by making them seem fun. Here, participants in digital economies happily exchange hours of free labor for social and emotional remuneration.
What methods exist for using play to productively game the systems of labor into which scholarly and collaborative work figure? I’ve recently been trying to think through such methodologies here in the Maker Lab. Can gamification function non-exploitatively if it is deployed not to elide processes of digital labor, but rather to purposefully expose the methodologies and mechanics of the project to which one contributes? Such a deployment begins to transform digital labor into an emergent model for economies of contribution, in which gamified labor works precisely to make the contributor aware of the structures in which her work is implicated, therefore building a body of critical experience to draw from in future work.
In the world of gaming, a model for this critical play already exists in the form of speedruns, or orchestrated performances in which the player attempts to complete the game as quickly as possible. Such performances, whether achieved manually or tool-assisted, often expose and exploit the constraints of the game itself in order to creatively overcome the obstacles it imposes upon the player. These performances often use gameplay to make creative arguments about the actual structure of the game.
As a game-related practice, speedruns are all about exposing the algorithms that underlie the game world and then productively exploiting them. This process is, to my mind, what allows the speedrun to function as a potential alternative model to deploying gamification as a form of digital labor. The word “gaming” in this context does not suggest a process of making these methodologies game-like, but rather cultivating a critical practice of play that is meant to render transparent the economic and disciplinary structures upon which such work is based and—by extension—increase the effectiveness of one’s work.
In the Lab, we plan to test the speedrun as a model for producing versions and graphical expressions. By deploying a methodology that asks researchers to game the processes by which we determine and represent differences between witnesses of modernist texts, I hope we’ll expose ways in which such labor can be ethically transparent and methodologically sound. Our work, much like the speedrun as performance, will not only perform arguments about the different texts we examine. It will also allow us to critically think through the process of labor used to generate those arguments. If successful, this is a model that I hope will be useful for rethinking digital methodologies for scholarly research and communication. For instance, how can we game the social production of electronic editions? How can we game the course syllabus? I look forward to seeing what we discover.