Just gaming – educational assessment and performativity

The use of technology-based games in educational assessment has implications for what is valued in education. The use of games shifts the focus away from seeking common understanding to strategic goal orientation or performativity.

Lyotard’s (1984) work on performativity provides a good basis for critiquing the use of games in educational assessment, for Lyotard, technology provides for

a game pertaining not to the true, the just, or the beautiful, etc., but to efficiency: a technical “move” is “good” when it does better and/or expends less energy than another. (p. 44)

This observation concurs with my own experience when completing a unit on corporate strategy in a university delivered business degree. The corporate strategy unit included the game ‘Ages of Empire’ as part of the coursework and unit assessment. This game did not address truth. For example, the weapons were not true in relation to laws of physics, and the progress in civilisations was not true in relation to understood history. That the game required me to ‘kill’ members of my opponents’ army did not equate to understood justice. Further, while the game used colours in the way that poker machines draws in the vulnerable, the game did not represent beauty.  Instead, the game focused on a strategic orientation towards vanquishing others in the shortest time. In these respects, Lyotard is spot on.

I became very good at the game ‘Ages of Empire’. At the final exam, a guy who I had earlier worked with in group presentations was randomly next to me on the game’s ‘strategic landscape’. As per the rules of the game, I annihilated him out of the game swiftly, and went on to win the game overall. I got a high mark for the course, but a potential friendship was lost. That is the nature of the gaming.

Habermas (1985) considers social action (action involving other people) as either communicative in seeking common understanding, or strategic in being goal oriented. Action can also be instrumental (acting towards objects). Educational assessments are generally communicatively oriented, in that they to try find how much a student’s knowledge is held in common with the teacher or educational system. Educational assessment can also be instrumentally oriented, for example in how well a student can master a technology. When acting strategically, as in a game, an assessment asks a student to act, openly or deceptively, against another student or computer agent. This later scenario is the most troublesome for me.

Educational assessment experts have been playing with game-based assessment for some time. Shute and Torres (2012) argue that game-based assessment support views that consider learning as goal oriented. Mislevy, Behrens, Dicerbo, Frezzo, and West (2012) also find principles of game design as compatible with principles of learning; particularly when it is framed around the structure of reasoning. However, for me, the question remains, what is being assessed.

While game-based learning and simulation environments make it possible to assess students’ interaction with complex systems (Frezzo, Behrens, & Mislevy, 2009), a concern remains that they will drift into performativity. That is, away from truth, justice and beauty, and into a performance maze where what is considered as performance is determined by computer programmers, and what is considered good performance is determined by input/output ratios. Performativity par excellence (Lyotard, 1984; Lyotard & Thébaud, 1985/2008). It evokes the dystopia of the films The Hunger Games and The Matrix (I haven’t seen either though).

The key philosophical thinkers in the latter half of the twenty first century were all profoundly moved by what happened in World War II. When we start to think about game-based assessment, we need to follow their lead and think whether we want students to learn when it is just to kill, or if we want them learn to kill as many as they can in a short time.





Frezzo, D. C., Behrens, J. T., & Mislevy, R. J. (2009). Design Patterns for Learning and Assessment: Facilitating the Introduction of a Complex Simulation-Based Learning Environment into a Community of Instructors. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 19(2), 105-114.  10.1007/s10956-009-9192-0

Habermas, J. (1985). The Theory of Communicative Action: Reason and the rationalization of society. Boston: Beacon Press.

Lyotard, J.-F. (1984). The postmodern condition: A report on knowledge. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Lyotard, J.-F., & Thébaud, J.-L. (2008). Just gaming (W. Godzich, Trans.). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.  (Original work published 1985)

Mislevy, R. J., Behrens, J. T., Dicerbo, K. E., Frezzo, D. C., & West, P. (2012). Three Things Game Designers Need to Know About Assessment. 59-81.  10.1007/978-1-4614-3546-4_5

Shute, V. J., & Torres, R. (2012). Where streams converge: Using evidence-centered design to assess Quest to Learn. In M. C. Mayrath, J. Clarke-Midura, & D. H. Robinson (Eds.), Technology-based assessments for 21st century skills: Theoretical and practical implications from modern research (pp. 91-124).

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