Badges and the falsely true.


I’m currently trying to devote some thinking, reading, and, hopefully, writing to matters of individualism (as my last fledgling post indicates). However, I’m having a hard time letting this newly hatched HASTAC badge thing go. I challenge you to read this, for instance, and be anything other than stupefied.

Now I read, courtesy of @ibogost, of those who have signed on board the badge hunt. Such endorsements smell less of science or knowledge than they do political expediency. If Al Gore can keynote a gaming conference, then the Secretary of Education can pin on a badge. If Jane McGonigal can vibrate goodliness on the Colbert Report, then O’Reilly Media can publish a faddishly populist policy of gamification.

There really are so many issues afloat here that it’s hard to pick just one. But I want to focus on the badge thing.

Let’s go back a bit.

From the nineteenth century onward, social philosophers (Marx, Engels, and the like) have discussed a “false consciousness” pervading (then) modern society that, in brief, transforms individual perception (particularly of the self) in service of the state. The big problem with this false consciousness, however, isn’t necessarily that it serves the state, but that it is false: what the individual perceives (and, through perception, comes to believe) is something other than what really is. (Subsequently, of course, there have been lots and lots of questions about what really is, but I’m not going there at the moment; I’m just talking about badges.)

Badges are, in truth, false. That is, when you accomplish the goal of tilling the soil and feeding your family, it is true that your family (and you) get fed. When you do that in Farmville, you get a badge (figuratively speaking) indicating that you (and perhaps your family) have been fed. This is false.

When you read George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, you get (at worst) some knowledge of narrative, plot, character, and language. When you read Game of Thorns in Sims 3 Ambitions, you get (at best) a badge (again, figuratively speaking) that indicates you have improved your writing skill. This, too, is false.

The HASTAC idea, as I understand it, is that you will be more likely to feed your family and gain knowledge and whatnot if you get a badge for doing these things. Yet to accomplish a task in order to receive a badge is very often in games to accomplish that task falsely.

In making this claim, I note that the falseness of badges — prominently including the falseness of the accomplishments for which they are awarded — is perfectly acceptable within games. In fact, it is required.

Bernard Suits in The Grasshopper (1978):

To play a game is to engage in activity directed towards bringing about a specific state of affairs, using only means permitted by the rules, where the rules prohibit more efficient in favour of less efficient means, and where such rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity. (pp. 48-49)

From this point of view (one I share), if games require achieving game goals with “less efficient means,” then these goals are “falsely” accomplished in the sense that, if these goals were not game goals, they would be accomplished with more efficient (and therein more “truthful”) means. Realizing this, Suits also admits a sort of false consciousness for game players: a lusory attitude.

the lusory attitude is the element which unifies the other elements into a single formula which successfully states the necessary and sufficient conditions for any activity to be an instance of game playing. (p. 50)

Without a lusory attitude — i. e., a false consciousness in service of the game — game accomplishments are revealed to be false accomplishments. With a lusory attitude, however, game accomplishments — and all accompanying game rewards, including badges — seem truthful (or, at the very least, truthful enough).

This means that game rewards (e. g., badges) — just like Suits’s game goals and game attitudes — are appropriately and justifiably “falsely true” in a game context. And they are justifiably falsely true for a good reason: so that game players can, among other things, experience the unique aesthetics of the falsely true and all the (still somewhat mysterious) benefits that entails.

Outside of games, however, game rewards (e. g., badges) are another sort of false entirely. In order to be motivated by badges outside of games, instead of adopting a lusory attitude, as games require, that allows for false things to be represented as true, we must adopt an attitude that allows for true things to be represented as false. And, in forcing us to do so, those who promote the use of badges outside of games — especially in educational contexts — promote a dangerous sort of false consciousness.

This consciousness would have us either demean and devalue learning and knowledge and therein make these unworthy of accomplishment without the incentive of the badge, or else indiscriminately link the value of learning and knowledge to the value of the badge, so neither can be valued without the other. The HASTAC leadership does not appear to wish the first consequence of promoting a badge-based education, but seems comfortable with the second.

“What we do not grade…are most of the things employers most want in future employees. At present, education, including higher education, doesn’t have a system for measuring or counting those things. That’s why a number of us have begun to investigate badging” | Cathy Davidson, again from here

Thus, rather than represent the peculiar aesthetic quality of “falsely true” accomplishments (as they do in games), the HASTAC badges would represent the more common qualifications of social authority. Those who learn would not merely learn to comply (which might be, upon occasion, useful), they would learn in order to comply and, more ominously still, they might, according to the rule of the badge, learn only in order to comply with what “employers most want.”

This rule of the badge is not unprecedented, by the way. A scarlet letter is a badge of this compliance sort (indicating non-compliance in this case), as is the police officer’s badge of authority and, simultaneously, compliance with that authority.

From this point forward, then, I am more or less in agreement with Reid’s analysis: Badges are about “making things count, commodifying life and passion in the context of a marketplace of education and expertise.”