Tag Archives: badges

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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Measuring the Immeasurable

Those of us who create behavioral change tools where the holy grail is adoption by academic institutions, non-profits, corporations, health and military organizations, the quest for legitimacy is a relentless task.  Fellow colleagues back in the 90s were simply called gamers.  Then came the millenium and we all got a nice promotion to “game designers.” But that was nothing when we somehow achieved a title bump to “serious game producers,” and then just recently, I heard an ARG serious game designer described as a “transformational game practitioner who impacts the digital media learning space.”  Now we’re hearing about “interactive architects building game-infused learning trajectories for core curriculum.”

Okaaay.  That just won’t fit on my business card.

All of this long-winded jargon provides gravitas to what was once considered a trivial pursuit.  A game.  No school superintendant or CEO or exec director in their right mind some years ago would have allowed a game in their institution.  A “game-infused learning trajectory” — yes.  But not a game.

What differentiates the two interventions?  Verifiable data.  Games merely entertain.  But a serious game lifts the learning environment.  And this lift must be quantifiable.

Lord Kelvin on an early “tablet computer”

In these contexts, you will often hear a well-worn saw generally attributed to the great 19th-Century physicist William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin, most frequently referred to as Lord Kelvin:  “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve.”  And thus, on the backside of most good learning games (and certainly, this is true of Nuvana games), you will see reams and reams of data generated by the activities of the players, and sometimes, the mentors.  Our new digital platforms themselves can’t help but generate the data given their mathematically encoded make-up.  It’s why researchers, academics and evaluators love the medium.  Every good digital serious game generates an endless outpouring of whos and whens and wheres and hows that are easily sliced and diced by age group, sex, demographics, racial profiles, economic class, geographic pinpoints, times of day, device used, and of course, type of gum chewed.

Where is this leading?  The holier than holy grail:  assessment.

If admin can tell by a player’s score, or level, or game outcome HOW they are doing relative to their grade, their work force, their disease cohort, their political grouping, their target market peer group — then the presence of that game within an institution is not only legitimate — it’s necessary.

Or is it?

If there’s anything that’s truly measurable in the last three decades of American academics and the U.S. workforce, is that we have an alarming dropout rate and an even more disturbing unemployment rate.  The years of No Child Left Behind and rigorous standardized testing which gave us a certain kind of thinker — for better or worse — has helped to generate these stunning results.

To cloak an SAT score, a STAR test, an employee assessment (can you say “urine test”) — in the sheep’s clothing of a “transformational game” — transforms nothing.  Most users see through that kind of inauthentic camouflaging.  Interestingly, the games that give one the most “reliable” data are actually “closed loop” games.  That is, there are right and wrong answers, and thus, results are verifiable.  But those make for very dull games when everyone is aimed toward the same outcome.

The most interesting transformational games, like life, are where there are many correct answers.

In fact, if you really think about it, it is those things that we CAN’T measure that improve us, by and large.  Spiritual fulfillment, fun, love, creativity, inspiration, friendship, familial bliss, meditation, relaxation, focus.  Enthusiasm for problem solving (and that is not measurable by getting the “right solution”).  These are all things that are hard to measure.  (Yes, we can measure activity that generates and surrounds some of those qualities — but, for example, is there a reliable creativity quotient?)  And yet, there is no doubt that when we immerse ourselves in these kinds of activities — we do feel vastly improved.

So at Nuvana, we’re of two minds.  Yes, we love data and we provide it.  But we also know that at times, it can be misleading.  That the games we want to make should also put the player on a path to improvement that has impact on what is generally immeasurable.  Immeasurable impact.  When that unquantifiable area is attended to, the “player” feels a wholeness that is generally missing in many of the institutions where they normally inhabit:  school, work, government, etc.  If the “player” feels improvement in that area, they engage and apply themselves more effectively at those quantifiable activities.

Improving the measurable is what all transformational games aim to accomplish.

Improving the immeasurable is the Nuvana secret sauce.

And by the way, about that Lord Kelvin guy.  A brilliant man.  But before you put too much faith in his little aphorism about measuring and improvement, just remember, he’s the scientist who wrote to the Niagara Falls Power Company: “Trust you will avoid the gigantic mistake of alternating current.”  And also predicted: “Radio has no future.”

— JvK

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Win State

If you ask a game designer, “What makes a game, a game?” — many will answer with some version of the following:  “If there’s a win state, it’s a game.”  And then you look at those activities that have a traditional win states and your list quickly bulges with the usual:  chess, WoW, baseball, tic-tac-toe, Angry Birds — the list of games is endless.

But then it’s easy to expand the list to other less traditional game activities that still possess a win state:  political elections, educational grading systems (“I’m in the top quintile!”), eBay bidding, war, dangerous medical procedures “Patient X beat the odds!,” foundation granting processes (“We won the grant!”), the human race (well there are always winners and losers in a race), and even love (“I am going to win her heart!”).

For better or worse, that parsing process has helped to fuel the proliferation of gamification.  Is it that I reside in West Coast Technoville or because we’re in this “space” — but it seems every day we hear the rallying cry of Gamification from some of the most unexpected quarters.  (I’d list some here, but even the most preposterous in conjunction with our tool makes some darn good sense).  Alongside this rush to gaming are the accessories and features that come with it, these new, shiny tokens of achievement:  badges.  New badging systems are cropping up like wildfire.  Some from traditional sources, like the scouting community which has always proudly worn their embroidered emblems on their ubiquitous sashes.  Other badges are attached to new systems and games in the digital media learning arena with a whole new set of graphics, titles and certifications — but all meant to be “worn” on virtual sashes over swelling digital chests.

With the Nuvana MVP, our users can import whatever badging system they prefer — or create their own, or use our default badge set.  That’s what certain communities need and demand.

But at Nuvana, we think it’s important to remember that there is a significant population of “active engagers” (our sometimes-used, less trivializing term for “gamers”) that actually hate badges and scores.  And that’s putting it mildly.  The ostentatious display of achievement only serves a certain kind of player.  The quest for badges and subsequent community admiration is in many cases, a turnoff to innovators, artists, out-of-box thinkers, and geniuses.  It’s also a turnoff to kids with already-low self-esteem who are one gold star-less day of becoming dropouts.  Do we really think that trading a letter grade for a badge or a snazzy score because a school is suddenly “gamified” is going to make a difference to that disengaged teen sitting in the back of the class with the hood over his head?

Marlon Brando and Woody Allen’s refusal to attend the Academy Awards to receive Oscars is legendary.  The greatest golfer of all time, Bobby Jones, the only man to win the Grand Slam, retired at 28, thoroughly uninspired by tournament play and the thought of winning more trophies.  Jean-Paul Sartre not only declined a membership to the Legion of Honor, he also refused the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1964 citing it went against his philosophy of how a true writer would behave.

What we strive for at Nuvana is to create games and tools that fit the unique ideals, principles and sensibilities of the organization that adopts it — and even more important, for the community it wants to engage.  You want a competitive game with high scores and badges?  Great, the Nuvana MVP can serve you.  And you over there — you want a tool that provides a thoughtful, collaborative journey without scores or medals?  Well, the Nuvana MVP works just as well for you too.

A deeper question might be, what does your community think a win looks like?

What we’ve realized over the years is that there is no one “win state.”  Belief in the One Win State creates too many losers.  The best definition of win state is derived through personal and/or institutional actions and behavior, and that individual’s or culture’s sense of achievement and quality.

I had the good fortune to go to an amazing high school that both my children were able to attend as well which embraced a controversial “no grade” policy.  Really.  You wrote papers, took tests — but there was never a letter or number stamped on the result.  Instead, assessment was a rich and involved process of self-evaluation mixed with detailed teacher commenting connected to an ever-present rubric.  The result?  There were no A-students.  There weren’t even D-students.  At least, they weren’t easily identified.  Still, every student knew where they stood — and the path they needed to follow.  This unique school fostered a culture of life-long learners who did not look to others for judgement and glorification, who were driven by a passion for inquiry.  A momentary failure was only an experience that deepened wisdom.  A so-called “success” was only a step on a path with many forks.

Rudyard Kipling’s words over the door to center court to Wimbledon are well known:  “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, And treat those two impostors just the same…”  Understanding those two lines will lead to a higher understanding of Win State, without doubt.  But do you know how Mr. Kipling’s poem ends?

“…If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!”

Totally committed action and relentless passionate engagement is the ultimate win state.  That’s why we at Nuvana believe…the New Win = greater good in the real world.

Any way we can get to that state, whether through a game or a collective journey where everyone is a winner — well, that’s our goal.

—  JvK

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Three little words.  Barely enough to make a sentence.  But for a mission statement, it’s a huge mouthful:  “Change the world!”

Right from the beginning, we felt that our team, our platform, and our efforts should aim to accomplish a higher cause.

Believe me, there were skeptics.  Even the first coders we first hired could barely contain dubious snorts when we told them world change was our goal.  And who could blame them?  Some of these guys had built websites for global banks, coded for some corporate heavy hitters.

But within hours after launching our first game and the site was going wild with amazing activity, one of those skeptical techies called us, screaming over the phone, “Are you looking at the site!  Oh my God, you guys were right!  We’re changing the world!”

And that’s why, after all these years, we keep at it.  Each time we launch a Nuvana game, we see the incredible effect of individuals and communities making an impact on each other and the world around them.  What’s become clear and why our aphorism reads:  “Change behavior – change the world!” – is that powerful and lasting change in the real world comes about because of human actions.  And to create action where there has previously been inertia, you have to change behavior.

That’s what the Nuvana tool is all about:  changing behavior.  We use it to engage the failing student in a subject she previously hated.  We use it to change the eating habits of an obese individual.  We use it to encourage the researcher to share best practices and collaborate with someone he previously thought was a competitor.  We use it to gather apathetic residents and turn them into concerned citizens that work together to improve their community.

What behaviors are you looking to change?  What actions are you looking to provoke?  What will the world look like and how much better will it be when you transform it?

That’s why we named the company Nuvana.  It’s the new Nirvana that we all make together.

—  JvK

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The Birth of Nuvana

Back in 2009, when Jeff and I began Nuvana, we held a brainstorm with our talented team of designers, technologists, educators, gamers, and all-around, hardcore doers.  Our office was pretty much a big, empty space dominated by a ping-pong table we used as a conference table with nothing on the walls except for two huge white boards.  In the corner of one of the boards, I wrote what you see in the picture:



“Change behavior — Change the world!”

It’s been our mantra, our mission, the guiding principle that has led Nuvana from birth to where we are now.

Believe it or not, in the ensuing years, we’ve never erased that scrawl from the board.  At times, we trace over those words when they fade or when someone’s new idea bleeds into that box.  But it stays on the board and it will likely remain:  to remind us why we’re doing what we’re doing.

Don’t get me wrong:  we love games and we especially love having fun which has helped us to gather the kind of cool folk that make up the Nuvana team.  But we all know on some level that what we are trying to accomplish is more than just amusement.  At its core, Nuvana is about constructing tools that change the world…for the better.  If that tool is wrapped in a game that is fun and engaging — wonderful.  But the tool below that candy-coating better be kick-ass.

In general, we believe there are three principles that create good tools:

1)  A good tool is powerful.

2)  A good tool is absurdly simple.

3)  A good tool is achievable.

Creating a tool for the field of digital media learning while adhering to these principles is what drives us every day.  Can we make our platform more effective?  Can we make it easier to use?  Can we make it more cost effective and more easily distributed?

Yup, it’s the old Better, Faster, or Cheaper conflict – take your pick.  In most cases, you only get two.

Well, with Nuvana tools – we want our partners to get all three – with the added bonus of a fourth benefit:  fun.

— JvK

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