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Why "Achievement Unlocked" Works

by Ben Sim on 11/28/16 09:44:00 am

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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.


If you play any game now be it on your phone or on your desktop, in-game mementos such as trophies, badges and special edition skins are commonplace. "Achievement unlocked" is no stranger to the world of gaming. Not to mention the holy trinity of "points, badges and leaderboards."

The real question is why does this feature work? What is it about virtual mementos and trophies that drive people to perform the same behaviour more frequently and with more engagement?

To answer this, we must take a short look at a 2015 study conducted by Juho Hamari titled, "Do Badges Increase User Activity? A Field Experiment on the Effects of Gamification." It was published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.

The study revolved around a website called, a site that helps users find one another so that they can rent, sell, or share things like products, services, or physical spaces.

Sharetribe is community focused, therefore it prefers its user to engage with one another in the marketplace and share valuable information.

The researcher, who wanted to understand the effects of gamification on human behaviour, started to add achievements and badges to the site. It would appear on the user's profile. The sample size was nearly 3000 users. Almost half of them were users of the platform for more than year before the badges were added. Another half were users who registered after the badges were added.

The results?
More users were engaged and frequented the site than they used to. As expected.

The study suggests quite a few psychological reasons why gamification has such an effect on user activity and engagement. To simplify, among the reasons are:

  1. Games create goals for us to reach
    Goal setting is a very powerful tool for driving human behaviour. Our cognitive abilities to focus on just the task at hand is what gave us the natural edge over the other species in the kingdom. Creating concrete goals and levels to achieve satiates this drive for focus and the need to achieve.
  2. Achievement leads to satisfaction
    It is no secret that the level of satisfaction is much greater when one achieved something through effort compared to being given something without friction.
    Achieving such feats releases a “feel-good” hormone called dopamine. The same hormone is present when one eats, falls in love or exercise.
  3. The mechanics provide guidance through feedback
    As one goes through the tasks and realizes a particular method doesn't work, that method is noted as ineffective. Games have an in-built guidance as to how the game progresses. Informing the user that there are "2 badges left to obtain" provides a clear path for them to follow through and know when they are about to achieve their goals.
  4. Social proof sets the norm
    Examples of social proof in non-gaming environments include testimonials, lines of people queuing up for the latest smartphone, and pictures of the new restaurant downtown. Social proof is highly influential as it dictates most of people's judgements as to what is acceptable. When a user sees many others achieving high ranks, that user will be led to believe that not only is it possible to achieve such ranks but that it is also normal to do so.
  5. It provides a platform for comparison and competition.
    The need to measure up is present wherever we stand. Yardsticks, benchmarks and standards were established for this reason. When users see other users rank higher than them, they would compete to see how they rank in comparison to their peers.

The workings of gamification are clear. It taps into our innate need to progress, achieve and compete for what we feel is worthy of our efforts.

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