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Are Badges Really All That?
by Sande Chen on 07/07/14 09:33:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

[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.


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Comments


Josh Bycer
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It's definitely an interesting craze that has taken over. I have friends who go completely crazy for steam trading cards and there is surprisingly big business now happening with buying and selling those cards.

Regarding achievements I think there is a fine line between something that is fun to do and something that is challenging without turning it into a slog. We've seen this in titles like Half Life 2, Payday 2, and others that feature weird or different achievements for doing something against the normal game design. Many people won't go for these achievements, while others will do it not because they're fun, but because of the challenge.

What are your thoughts on games that lock content behind these achievements or badges? With Payday 2, there have been debates over the act of attaching weapon mods (the ability to customer and improve weapons) to new achievements. While the achievements are given extra value, a lot of people are voicing their concerns over having to "jump through hoops" for meaningful rewards.

Jonnathan Hilliard
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a challenge, is fun

Nathan Mates
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Thought exercise: some badges/trophies/achievements are NOT really about gamification or getting users to do things. Some of these badges/trophies/achievements (some % per game, with the % varying per game) are all about data mining the end users.

Consider this fairly common use case: three achievements, one each for completing the game on easy, medium & difficult. It's normal when this happens to have users complaining that "I completed the game on hard. I should have earned the other two automatically." I'd say that what's happening is that companies want to measure how many players are completing the game on easy, medium & hard -- and adjust for next time.

Same with achievements for playing a certain way -- yes, some achievement hunters will go out of their way to catch them all -- but if you examine the general stats, companies can figure out what way actual consumers are playing. For example, Borderlands 2 -- among many games, but this is one I can recall off the top of my head-- has one achievement for using each character class's special power N times. Looking at the list of global achievement stats on Steam, it's pretty clear what the most popular class is, and what the least is.

This gives developers/publishers/etc not just the results of focus tests. Not just the vocal minority who bother to go online and use message boards. Actual stats.

Bob Johnson
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good point. You'd think they could just do all that with simple opt in/out data collection for improving future games blurb and most gamers would say sure. I guess this is (or could be) the sneaky way of doing that.

Ben Sheftel
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Game analytics are built into the majority of games these days (especially mobile), and don't require a popup to inform the user. Theres basically no reason to use achievements this way.

Bob Johnson
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..to me badges and achievements are overused and needless.

I can't stand them. Now I turn on a game and I get a badge. Hey you get the rookie of the year badge...(for turning on your console.) They've become annoying.

Or having to watch 2 minutes of badges and points and unlocks flash by for every round or level you complete........it's useless sensory overload.

I think it is a bubble waiting to burst. Hey consumers like this right?... let's give them more.... and more.....and more....until they hate it so much they stop buying our stuff.

To me we already had badges and achievement. Every level you completed was an achievement. Every time you shot down a hellcopter with an rpg was an achievement. Every time you take out the enemy just before they defused the bomb was an achievement. If you beat the final boss it was supposed to be the grand achievement. The few times I planted a bomb and blew up the target to win the game with 3 seconds left in a multiplayer match of BF4 Obliteration was its own reward.

That's what I lived for in terms of video game fun.

Now they put this artificial layer of bs on all of top of all this. And just threw mud at the wall and gave people a crapload of random mostly dumb stuff to do to get an award. I feel like it just leads to lazy game design. I feel like people don't even care about the game and tactics and strategy in a multiplayer game like BF4, but instead care about their level and points and awards and KDR ratio. It's bad enough a multiplayer team based game like BF4 had KDR in the first place as too many are a slave to that and not to the common team objective.


This stuff is even creeping into Nintendo games. I bought that 3ds NES remix digital download and every time I finished a little level I get 2 million points that are counted down and then stars and then something else like stamps if I remember correctly and then it slowly shows the next level that is unlocked. My reaction is to completely tune that stuff out and hope that they give you an option to turn it all off next time.

Theresa Catalano
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I agree. One of the most insidious trends in the game industry in the last decade has been achievements/trophies/badges. A lot of people are obsessed with them, but I don't think it's necessarily because they are "fun..." I think it's because people are goal oriented and competitive, and games cater to that mindset. And that's fine in moderation, but "badges" cynically encourage the worst aspects of our psyche, in the same way that theatres sell salty food to encourage you to buy drinks.

The idea that they encourage players to play a game in a new way and to have some new kind of fun is just a flimsy excuse, and we all know this. 99% of the time "Badges" are just padding for a game's content. They are the laziest form of content, and they basically add nothing except busywork.

What's sickening about "badges" is how homogenized they've become, how they've infested every modern game. It clearly shows the cynicism of the modern game industry.

Nathan Mates
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Don't complain about games having achievements/trophies/badges as if it's the developer's fault. When every published commercial game seems to include them, then it's probably less voluntary, and more like a .. requirement .. imposed on them by the platform. And if it's not voluntary, then getting angry won't really change things. You should celebrate those that do well within the constraints instead.

Theresa Catalano
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I hate this logic. Even if it's imposed by the platform, that doesn't mean we shouldn't complain about it. If there is enough outcry, it can certainly change! There probably won't be for awhile, but I'm happy to get ahead of the curve.

Nathan Mates
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Complaining to developers about platform requirements is going to fall on deaf ears. Complaining to the platform *maker* is the only thing that might change things. Or, as I said above, praising developers that do it well is more likely to produce a payoff.

I don't care enough for/against achievements to do work on this, but a blog post here calling out "good" (interesting/etc) achievements could spark ideas in others minds for future games.

Theresa Catalano
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I'm not really interested in calling out "good" achievements, because to me that's a contradiction. Games are like any other artform... to be good art, you have to subvert expectations and stand outside the norm. The only good idea I'd like to spark in others' minds is to try throwing away achievements as much as possible.

Saurian Dash
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I totally agree. I feel that "Achievements" are one of the worst conventions gaming has ever suffered and I wish they would just go away. I absolutely do not need a virtual pat on the back for each and every mundane action I perform in a game, it is patronising and incredibly irritating.

I hate the way this system actually dictates to the player what an "achievement" within a game is. Earning a stupid icon for performing a mundane task is NOT an achievement, it's a completely artificial, patronising layer of idiocy which has been superimposed over all of our games by people who don't actually know anything about skill-based gaming whatsoever.

The vast majority of the tasks I am being rewarded for "achieving" are actions I absolutely cannot help but perform during the game. Being rewarded for collecting an item I cannot help but collect, or being rewarded for passing a stage which you cannot help but pass is utterly ridiculous and redundant.

I actually stopped buying games for the PS3 because you couldn't turn those idiotic "Trophies" off. I went years without buying a single title on the machine and simply used it to play PS2 games. Every time I wanted a game I would buy the 360 version, purely because you can turn those annoying notifications off. I only started buying games again when Sony finally allowed notifications to be switched off, you still can't turn the stupid Trophy system off though.

If young kids and people new to gaming need a virtual pat on the back every time they do ANYTHING in a game, then more power to them. But at least give us gamers, who actually enjoy games for the simple pleasure of playing them, the ability to shut the system off.

I think the biggest casualty in this stupid "Achievements" fad is the notion of playing games simply for the enjoyment of playing them. Some people actually focus ALL of their attention on hunting down these meaningless "Achievements" instead of settling down and savouring the design of a game and engaging in their own journey to unlock their potential within it.

Michael Meier
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You should turn on your PS3 and update it, because you can turn the trophy notifications off and on now for several months now. Same deal with Steam and PS4.

Alan Barton
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@"badges, titles, or achievements"

I've changed my mind on these. At first I couldn't see the point of them. But then when I played games with them in, I kept finding myself looking at what new achievements I had won and I noticed I felt disapointed when I played and didn't get another one.

So I think they have a role to play in improving the feel of a game, but they are not core loop important, like for example leveling up etc..

Ian Richard
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They DO play a role. It's a psychological trick to make us FEEL like we've done something special and we're being rewarded. Even worse... they make us feel like we're not good enough unless we grind the game for hundreds of hours to get everything.

I'm not against the idea behind achievements because rewarding feelings are a good thing. But I am concerned because the system is ripe for abuse and more than a few developers do just that.

Alan Barton
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@Ian Richard: "They DO play a role. It's a psychological trick to make us FEEL like we've done something special"

That's why I said ... "I think they have a role to play in improving the feel of a game" :)

So I here by award you a "(+1) for stating what I said" achievement. ;)

As a player however, I would sooner have a level up, than an achievement, because a level up gives me more I can do in the game, whereas the achievement is just a cosmetic nice thing to have. So that's why I talked about effecting the core loop of the game.

Level ups and achievements are *not* however mutually exclusive. You can have both.

Theresa Catalano
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They are psychological manipulations, that's for sure. It's exactly the same as McDonalds putting chemicals into the food to make it more addictive. It does indeed work, but it's not exactly healthy, and in the end it leaves you feeling sort of empty. I'd love to see developers try thinking outside the box for once, like about ways to make a game fun *without* any form of achievements.

And for that matter, not every game needs to have level ups, either.

Alan Barton
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@"not every game needs to have level ups, either"

I never said they did. Some of my favorite games are some of the oldest games, as they were pure fun. But unfortunately these days, if a game is released that is simple, it can often be accused of being overly simplified, as if that's a bad thing. There does seem to be a pressure to overly embellish games these days and these embellishments (like achievements etc..) are then sold as features and the games with the longest feature list is portrayed as best.

Theresa Catalano
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I agree, in the game industry there is a lot of pressure to fit in with how you're "supposed" to make games. What we need are more game designers that are bold enough to go against the flow.

Brandon Shelton
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I used to care more about achievements than I do now, but even still sometimes I will put in the effort to unlock mindless or stupid ones, depending on the game. I unlocked all the achievements for Dark Souls II because it belongs to one of my favorite series of all time, and getting all the achievements is a way to demonstrate my adoration of that game/series. I also did the same for Dark Souls, but not in the case of Demon’s Souls because that game has some truly awful repetitive grinding requirements for unlocking them all; one thing is true about achievements: they can really highlight the weak areas of a game's design. I also have to concede that if achievements did not exist for Dark Souls II, I seriously doubt I would have actually put in the effort to beat the game 3 times and find all the spells; I probably would have been content beating it once or twice and calling it quits.

David Cummins
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My view is that badges are fine if they encourage the player to experience more content, or to play in a way which is more challenging. For example finding hidden content, taking time to smell the roses in areas that may be rushed through, uncovering interesting enemy strengths/weaknesses which might be missed in certain play styles, showing a side of the game to be deeper than players might assume, or just "i dare you!" type challenges.

However I'm against pure "do this X times" or "get rewarded for completing this completely normal and necessary part of the game".

Sam Stephens
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I really don't understand why some people see achievements and trophies as the bane of video gaming. Sure, it's kind of frustrating how obligatory they've become. In the end though, they are at worst unnecessary and ignorable and at best, they can add additional challenges to the game. Half-Life 2 (and it's episodes) feature some of the best implementation of achievements. Trying to complete Episode One's One Free Bullet achievement requires a complete rethinking of the game. Episode Two asks players to carry and keep track of a small lawn gnome across large vistas and chaotic battles. There are plenty of other great examples from those games and many others. As a completionist, I like to see games from every angle and experience all of the challenge they have to offer. Achievements are a great way of encouraging this kind of layered challenge.

Ian Richard
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For the same reason many people are against the MMO level treadmills, the Diablo slot-machine inventory, and F2P anything.

At it's BEST it's a form of psychological manipulation to make the players spend more time with the game without adding real content. It can theoretically make the experience better... but it can also be seriously abused.

I'm not as against any-of-the-above as many people, but I am concerned about trends I see. Specifically, things like Steams "Playing Card" system where they collect real money for fake goods... with artificial rarity... and have no use except appealing to my inner completionist.

That just seems dirty to me.

Sam Stephens
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"At it's BEST it's a form of psychological manipulation to make the players spend more time with the game without adding real content."

Manipulation huh? I'm sorry, but this statement brings little understanding of actual human psychology to the conversation. You are using so many loaded and undefined terms here: "treadmills," "slot-machines," "manipulation," "real content" "dirty." As I said before, achievements create layered challenges within the game space. It's no different than green stars in Super Mario 3D World. What part of our psyche do achievements tap into? Is it some behavioralist concept like Skinner's Box or Pavlov's conditioning? Probably not because there's no gain or associations being drawn. As far as I know, most people who own an Xbox don't even completely understand what a Gamerscore is, let alone care about it. Many people often bring up a lot of passing references to psychological glib when discussing things like achievements and RPG-leveling systems, but don't back up their statements with any psychological knowledge and terms.

"I'm not as against any-of-the-above as many people, but I am concerned about trends I see. Specifically, things like Steams "Playing Card"

Achievements are nothing like the system Valve has set up with Steam. Nothing of actual physical or monetary worth goes into getting achievements and nothing comes out of it. Therefore any value drawn from them is completely subjective. Achievements can bring another level of challenge to a game. Since challenge is at the core of what games are, we shouldn't just write them off.


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