Badges?! We Don’t Need Your Stinking Badges!

goldstar1I may be in a distinct minority amongst gamification practitioners, but I generally dislike the way badges are used in most participatory, serious game contexts.  They are awarded as an indicator of past effort.  That is, a player has completed a specific task or set of missions, or maybe they have proved they have a certain skill — and so they are awarded a badge.  “Here you go —  gold star!”

Game designers use this as a motivator to get the player to perform more actions.  The danger in this strategy is that it attracts a certain kind of player.  Since badges of this kind only have meaning for the community of players, these sorts of badges are attractive to status seekers.  After all, a gold star for 5-year old Mary means nothing to the average person — but to “Mary’s Kindergarten class” — that gold star is a big deal.  So in games that use past effort indicator badges, oftentimes the most eager badge holders are essentially status-seekers.

Shirley Temple at age 6 in 1935 (photo by Marty Nederhandler)

Shirley Temple at age 6 in 1935 (photo by Marty Nederhandler)

I recently read a book about gamification where the author actually described this kind of badge as an “intrinsic motivator.”  I’d have to disagree.  A badge of this kind is actually an extrinsic motivator.  The badge and its meaning is coming from outside the behavior of the player.  It comes from the approval of others.  Someone who is truly intrinsically motivated doesn’t need a badge to show off or prove their skill.

The best games are those where the motivations to play are intrinsic.  The player feels fun or fulfillment or is totally engaged without the layering on of points, badges and levels.  When players are intrinsically motivated, they have tapped into and are being tapped for an immersive, involving experience.  The game completes them and they complete the game.

Girls playing double dutch. Playground. East Harlem. New York. 1998. © Bruce Davidson

Girls playing double dutch. Playground. East Harlem. New York. 1998. © Bruce Davidson

When that game is in the area of education or health or positive behavioral change, the symbiosis between player and game activity — whether or not points or badges have been awarded — is a beautiful thing to behold.  The play itself is the fulfillment.  There are no losers.

So back to the kind of badges that reflect status or completion of task.  (I’ve heard these called “Mastery” badges.)  One phenomenon Nuvana often sees is that players who are not motivated by these kinds of status displays, and those who actually abhor such ostentation, quickly disengage.  Low self-esteem learners shy away from contexts that openly rank them or differentiate them from “The Masters.”  Understandably so.  Without intending to, badges can identify and stigmatize outsiders.  By default, if there are Masters, then there are Losers.

If using these kinds of badges, be sure to know the community, what will motivate them, and most importantly, what will “de-motivate” them.  And then consider how to achieve churn (i.e. get engagement out of the bottom quartile).


This is not to say we disapprove of badges.  On the contrary, we firmly believe that badges have their place.  We take our inspiration from badges of the Old West.  Think about it.  A Sheriff in the 1800s displayed a tin star on his vest NOT to indicate what he had done previously.  His star gave him unique authority and rights:  he could wear a gun in public, shoot a cattle rustler on sight, deputize a citizen to defend the OK Corral, keep the peace.  A badge in that era meant privilege.

With Nuvana games, we prefer badges give the bearer rights, privilege and authority — to DO.  In other words, award a badge not necessarily for what a user has done;  instead, reward the player with a badge that incites them to generate more positive actions.  The authority to peer moderate, the right to create missions, the privilege of collaboration, rights of certain access especially at brick-and-mortar venues, connections to power ups, authority to unleash abilities.  Those are the badges that generate future actions and prevent players from resting on laurels.

Those are the badges that everyone wants — not just to flaunt — but to wield.  Those are the badges that don’t stink!

 — JvK


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