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[This blog entry originally appeared on Game Design Aspect of the Month for the topic, Gamification.]
While working as a game designer, I've had to come up with a lot of badges, titles, or achievements. A badge or achievement can be a delightful surprise, especially for players who don't go out of their way to collect every badge. And badges are a great addition for completists, who now get to go through the game again but with an entirely different aim.
Badges are cool if they make the player look at the game another way and encourage exploration. Badges can track progress and indicate to others how many times a player did an awesome video game feat. It's all part of our instant infographic world. But badges are not so cool if they're for lots of repetitive actions (like clicking a button) or paying money into the game. Well, that just shows how much time you've wasted or how much money you've spent, possibly...
Gamification gurus extol the use of badges and sure, people will do things for bragging points. While status is important, I'm not utterly convinced that badges would motivate someone to do something s/he doesn't want to do. For instance, if a hotel placed me in a room the furthest away from the elevator and told me I would get the badge of "Hall Strider" for walking down a particular hallway 10 times, I don't think I would care too much about that badge... unless of course it came with an economic incentive, like 10% off my hotel bill.
Most of the time, in real life, badges or titles are tied to economic or social motivators. Getting "Employee of the Month" can translate into better performance reviews and a raise. And with each move up the corporate ladder, you get a new, distinguished title. If you get other badges or titles at work unrelated to economic incentive, it's probably all in fun, some kind of in-joke among co-workers.
If you're aiming to be Mayor of an establishment on Foursquare, it could be for the discounts the place gives to the Mayor, like any business would give to a frequent customer. Or it could be a social rivalry among friends. If suppose a celebrity went on a talk show and declared it cool to get "Hall Strider," I bet the hotel wouldn't have any trouble getting people to accept that room now that the badge of "Hall Strider" has social status. No doubt people would aim for "Hall Stalker" and further.
Yes, designers can successfully incorporate these social rivalries and instead of economic motivators, give gameplay motivators. Badges can be fun elements, but badges in itself do not equal fun. Just because there are badges doesn't mean people will want those badges. If your gamification effort is based upon giving out badges, then take a look at the core activity and ask yourself, is this fun? If you're giving out badges for something completely not fun like undergoing root canals, the simple act of giving out badges or smiley stickers is not going to drive up demand for root canals. That's when it might be a good time to re-evaluate the project and see how gamification, not badges, can help you.
Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.