Gamification Contagion, Part One: Badges

We’re a culture obsessed with games. With multiple generations growing up with video games, corporations are adapting features usually seen in video games into other non-traditional use cases. They'll use these mechanics to entice the viewer to accomplish goals on their site or in the workplace. Most of them call it gamification. 

And most of them do it poorly.

Will Wright once called gamification mechanics a “kind of monosodium glutamate or crunchy flakes you can just add to any interface, application or service to give it a kick." Cognative researcher Daphne Bavelier called it “like eating chocolate covered broccoli." But why does it have to be this way?

I’ll observe games that use these "gamification" models at their best, and talk about why they were so successful. 

Symptom One: Badge Fever

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

The most obvious symptom of contagion -- the badge -- has been incorporated in nearly every major company's website requiring a registration. In his 2010 presentation Pwned, Sebastian Deterding calls badges "an infectious disease...spreading across the internet." Even my beloved, a site dedicated to video games, had a badge system each user’s account. Which got a bet meta...

The website trend sprouted around 2009 thanks to Foursquare, and badges were seen as an aggregate system on Xbox in 2005. Achievements on Xbox live, which allowed you to integrate all of your accomplishments into one score, arrived as the first time gamers could show off their profile to others using a badge-like system on a console. 

But one game devised this brilliant mechanic nearly a decade before. 


Gaming badges, in my millennial opinion, began their prime in Pokémon Red and Blue. In Pokémon, 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 Pokémon you trained.

Image from  Bulbapedia

Image from Bulbapedia

Pokémon badges were a brand-wide phenomenon.
You see this in all of the video games, trading cards and TV shows.In the TV show, fans watched protagonist Ash Ketchum earn his seasonal badges through valiant, yet difficult tasks, which he boastfully displays in every other episode. In the trading card league and video games, you, the player, had to earn those badges. 

Every badge carried a persona behind it. Each gym leader, given their own Pokémon type, had their own unique character. The diversity behind each badge assisted fans in picking their favorite Pokémon type, and more crafty players still design badges to show off in real life. 

But badges weren't a nominal symbol of progression. They represented a struggle, battle, and the skill of every Pokémon trainer. Any time that a player was thrown in a world where they needed to catch Pokémon, they knew need to obtain badges was right behind it. 

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

Pokemon badges restricted you, and it wasn't a bad thing.
Any well versed trainer who pulled their stronger Pokémon into a new game remembers it “not obeying you." You were lucky if your level 95 Charizard would obey your decisions in battle. It was not until you earned that final Earth 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 Pokémon over level 30, without the Vermilion Badge you couldn’t control that level 95 Charzard that you imported from your older game.  The Pokemon badge restrictions were a conscious effort implemented by Game Freak to properly manage a player's progression.

There is no conscious effort by large-scale gamification models to incorporate a restriction mechanic. In part because most users would rather quit a site than be forced to do a specific task for no real gain. And I'm not hoping for my internal company site to prevent time-off requests for not obtaining the "Blog Post" badge. It doesn't make sense for companies to create a restricting mechanic, since any more force defeats the purpose of "gamifiying" something. 

The Xbox achievement system doesn't have this issue, in part because the Xbox network isn't a game in itself, but a collection of many games. The division of smaller games make the achievement system easier to handle, and that limit also held up well in Pokémon. Which is another important point. 

There were only eight Pokémon badges. 

The Pokémon badges were very strategically placed within the game. No more than eight were needed. But now with everyone earning badges on every game and website 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 things. You’re not proud when you earn the “Tutorial Completion” badge. It would be more impressive to complete the game without gaining the tutorial badge. At least in that case, the absence of a badge is more praiseworthy than the badge itself, since only someone mischievous and skillful enough could complete a game while skipping the intro entirely

I firmly believe we’re open enough as a society to game on a corporate level. Although we may not be collectively prepared for the epic narratives or competition that consume most gamers, we can at least use game mechanics correctly in a purposeful way. Classic games like Pokémon Red and Blue is just one of the many games we can dissect to understand the importance of simplified, yet powerful game features. 

So let's cut the 50x50 pixel crap, and lets get on with real gaming.