Achievement Gained! – You opened this page!
Everyone has seen achievements and/or badges in video games or in many applications online by now. They have been around for quite some time but they have become truly omnipresent these days. Their first usage was mostly integrated into the games themselves but they have become so common that Playstation, Xbox and so on, offer entire interfaces for developers to use to allow these achievements to be displayed and shared for others players’ viewing pleasure. They have also been a staple of sites such as Newgrounds where developers of Flash games can add achievements to the site for unlocking. Other, more recent applications include sites like StackOverflow that uses badges to encourage productive participation in the community. But what effect do they actually have on players? Why do they have a beneficial effect on the enjoyment of a game? Achievements and badges have also become the most prominent gamifying element currently in use (often also the only one). Because of this convoluted nature, I’ll likely only discuss these elements once. The internet is stocked with papers and information concerning the theory behind using these for gamification and its applications.
Badges and achievements can be seen as one similar phenomenon, simply with a slightly different name or execution. The social psychology behind them, however, is nearly identical. The paper “Badges in Social Media: A Social Psychological Perspective” (Judd Antin and Elizabeth F. Churchill) investigates this psychology and I will attempt to summarize what the elements are that make these surprisingly effective. Naturally, the functions served by certain badges depend entirely on the activities it is related to and what behavior it rewards. The paper proceeds to discuss archtypes of functions.
- Goal Setting: Naturally, this is the first function you think of when regarding achievements. Badges often come with some sort of description on how to achieve them, or even a mere hint to make it harder for players to figure out what exactly they need to do to achieve this goal. Often times, trying to reach this goal and eventually attaining it to get the badge will make the goal seeking the primary reward itself, not the actual actions that were taken to achieve it.
- Instruction: A perhaps secondary function of badges is to provide a more entertaining way to tutor users on how the application works. This is often used in video games where achievements are given when players try out very basic actions such as destroying a large enemy for the first time, among other applications.
- Reputation: Achievements and badges can also can also provide information on a particular user’s interests, expertise, past activities and so on. This means that a person’s badges can give you an idea of the individual and their trustworthiness or that of their uploaded content. Similar, older methods include a system where users can give others “thumbs-up”, making those with a lot of those positive reviews more respect and their opinions will hold greater sway.
- Status/Affirmation: Naturally a very obvious application of badges and achievements. This is especially common in video games of a competitive nature where past accomplishments can be revealed to other players without appearing like a braggart.
- Group Identification: Depending on the nature of the application the badges belong to, they can also give insight into the opinions and the likes and dislikes of an individual. Glancing over badges can make it much easier for people to find like-minded users.
Do they work?
There seems to be a current trend in gamification to regard achievements and badges as the sole workable product to come out of the research. It seems to be the common interpretation that, once you add a badge to something, it will magically become fun. These elements have no such hold over people and can be just as interfering as they can be rewarding. I found a good example of this in the paper “Orientation Passport: Using gamification to engage university students” (Zachary Firz-Walter, Dian Tjondronegoro and Peta Wyeth). As stated in my previous blog entry, the Orientation Passport was a system created through gamification that would aid new students in finding their way around the new campus, meeting new friends and learning about the various facilities at their disposal. To that end, achievements were used to try and urge users to go out and explore. However, the results showed that not every activity was appreciated, or even effective in its goal. One of the far less effective methods were the achievements received through answering questions on a variety of subjects. Often, the answers could be guessed, taking away the need for any effort as only a few tries would yield the achievement. This also displays a significant downside to achievements when collecting them begins to overrule the primary goal that they were created for, which is to help students find their way. Another failure came in the form of the Event List, which is basically a list of events that the users could attend. Many simply went to the event’s location, scanned a code that had been posted there, got the achievement and left. The achievements were also given when users attended one, two and three events respectively, making most users attend only three in total, just to get the achievements, instead of going to more, or even those that remotely interested them.
This directly addresses something I mentioned in the last blog post, where the line between a game and a gamified application is blurry and can easily be crossed. Because users were simply doing the activities for the sole purpose of getting the achievements, the application became a game about collecting badges, instead of learning about the campus, which took the back seat. This is not the purpose of gamification, but is also very difficult to avoid due to the powerful effects achievements can have, as discussed above.
One last remark I would like to make on this subject is that both papers, as well as a few other discussions on applications of badges specifically, missed a very important psychological reason why these badges work so well. People have the urge to collect things. It can be seen in a variety of entertaining hobbies from collecting stamps, playing cards and even bottlecaps to completing a video game 100% by collecting all the weapons and upgrades that can be found throughout its game world. This urge can easily translate to wanting to see that 100% achievement rate for a certain game or application title. This is a double-edged sword as it closely relates to the problem the above discussed application had. On one end, it makes achievements extremely effective as many people will want to have all them on their list and spend a lot of time and effort into doing so. On the other hand, however, the goals of that game element will no longer align with the goals of the application as people will be performing activities for the sake of the achievements. If the achievements are designed in such a way that game rules will be enforced that will make people see events and activities through to the end (perhaps as simple as giving these achievements near the end of the events), then this effect can be mitigated or even prevented. But does that make the badge or the completed event the reward?