Gamification Contagion, Part 1: Badge Fever


Gamification Contagion – the gaming mechanic-obsessed culture.

We’re a culture obsessed with games. With the average gamer aged at 30 and with roughly 20 years of gaming under his belt, we can now say that multiple generations have grown up with video games at their disposal, and corporations are adapting the use of such mechanics to push users towards certain actions. Entire companies are basing their business model on gamification.
But most of them do it poorly.

Will Wright once called the gamification mechanics a “kind of mono-sodium glutamate or crunchy flakes you can just add to any interface, application or service to give it a kick”.  Another awesome cognitive researcher also once called it “like eating chocolate covered broccoli”. But why does it have to be this way?

I’ll observe games that do this well, talk about why they were so successful, and relay them to what others have seen in their own corporate environment, and why they suck (or sometimes don’t suck).
Every badge, level bar and ranking system drives me insane. Lets look at why.

Symptom One: Badge Fever

Pokemon games put the modern-day badge/achievement system to shame. Here’s how.

I might not need to point out why badges are the most obvious symptom of contagion, since every site we use has a badge system incorporated into its site.  Even, a video game focused website, has this game mechanic for each user’s account. It gets a bit meta.

Origins of badges on non-gaming sites point to Foursquare’s use of badges as its first use in 2009. But achievements on Xbox live, which allowed you to integrate all of your achievements into one score, introduced their system in 2005.

The one game that integrated badges in their mechanics, world and marketing system nearly a decade before was Pokemon’s Red and Blue versions.

Gaming badges, in my millennial opinion, began their prime in Pokemon’s first generation of games. We see in Pokemon that the badge’s role in-game was obvious; it demonstrated your progression throughout the game and proved your worth, granting you permissions to items and earning respect from the Pokemon you trained.

You may see this shallow idea of a badge easily seen in both the Pokemon game and TV show. Pokemon fans watched protagonist Ash Ketchum earn his seasonal badges through valiant, yet difficult tasks, which he boastfully displays in literally every other episode.

But the badges represented a struggle, battle, and true measure of skill for you the game playing Pokémon trainer. In all walks of Pokemon, badges measured you ability as a Pokemon trainer. In the video game, card game, TV show, any time that you were a Pokemon trainer who needed to catch Pokemon, you knew you need to obtain badges [OKAY maybe not in Pokemon Pinball].  

But the television show seldom highlighted the second necessity of badges, or rather, their absence.

Yet this didn’t completely diminish the value for Pokemon badges. Any well versed trainer who pulled their stronger Pokemon into a game remembers it “not obeying you”. You were lucky if your lvl 95 Charizard would listen to your moves in battle when you just imported him into your new Blue version. It was not until you earned that eighth badge that Charizard would finally obey your commands.

This meant you had to play the game completely through with properly guided restrictions, and badges were the symbol of this restricted progression.

Without the Boulder Badge, you couldn’t use Flash to get through Mt. Moon. Without the Cascade Badge you couldn’t control Pokemon over lvl 30, without the Vermillion badge you couldn’t control that lvl 95 Charzard that you imported from your older game.  The Pokemon badge restrictions were a conscious effort implemented by Game Freak to properly manage the progression of a player’s game.

There is no conscious effort by large-scale gamification models to incorporate such a mechanic. In part because most users would rather quit the site than be forced to do a specific task for no real gain.

--You now might think I am advising corporate gamification solutions to prohibit use on their site in order to integrate necessity into the badge concept. But this daft solution would stop users from using such sites entirely. You and I would also probably agree that corporate or minimalized social media sites wouldn’t and shouldn’t create a narrative behind each milestone you hit in their pre-made to-do list. --

And yes, you may be thinking of the xbox achievement system, and how the badges don’t have they key restricting dynamic to them. But the xbox live network is not a game in itself. Its a

And with everyone earning badges on every site imaginable, it’s easy to see why they are barely valued. Nobody is unique when everyone has the same badge for doing the most trivial of things. You’re not proud of a person for earning the “I competed the tutorial” badge. It would be more impressive to complete the game without gaining the tutorial badge. The absence of a badge in this case, becomes the badge of honor and skill, since only someone mischievous and skillful enough could complete a game while skipping the intro entirely.

I don’t think we’re open enough as a society to engage in gaming on a corporate level. Nor do I think the mechanics used in Pokémon would successfully make someone productive, but comparing the two could highlight some factors that should be avoided in games.

Cut the 50x50 pixel crap, and lets get on with real gaming.