Identity in Games
Role-playing. Role-play is easy to identify in games. Any game with a protagonist involves the potential for role-play to some degree. The more-developed the backstory and personality, the greater the role-playing opportunities. For example, Mario is a fairly flat character with limited background for context, so the amount of role-playing is limited. Batman is a character with a detailed personality and rich backstory and provides a greater opportunity for role-play.
Yet while known characters like Batman have the benefit of detail and depth they run the risk of narrowed appeal (what if I don't like the Batman character?) Games like Fable and Mass Effect take the approach of setting up a detailed backstory but leave the specifics of personality wide open, sacrificing possible depth for breadth of appeal and potential replay -- e.g. next time I'll try it as a jerk.
While there is a lot of overlap between concept of identity and the concept of choice (the opportunity, in games, to make decisions we normally wouldn't) I think the distinction is: we role-play for the opportunity to feel what it is like to have a different identity; in a way, to let the adopted identity dictate our choices. When I, as Batman, have the Joker at my mercy, I let him live because that is what my adopted persona, Batman, would do.
In other words, if I'm playing the game doing everything I would do, I'm exercising my choice, if I'm playing the game doing everything my character would do, I'm role-playing.
In interactive online multiplayer games, the distinction between "real" persona and "imaginary" persona can become blurred. If there are people who know you only by a game persona and treat it with complete seriousness, that persona is arguably just as "real" as any other, and I believe this sense of validation constitutes a very powerful draw to engage in a virtual context.
Social Purpose. Any game involving teamwork involves some amount of social purpose. Everyone on the team is working together for a common goal. Everyone provides value to the team and typically it is in the best interests of the team to look out for its members.
In the context of a soccer team, the value provided may be skill in shooting, passing or defending. In a less defined context, such as that of a schoolyard clique, the value provided is that ineffable attribute known as "cool". By being cool, the individual helps to make the group cool.
In some games, everyone on a team has basically the same role. An example might be a pickup game of Counter-Strike, and in such a game it's not unusual for teamwork to be limited to simply sharing a common foe. In these cases value is measured along the same terms for all players (e.g. kills) and the "teamwork" is in constant danger of degrading into a competition between teammates to demonstrate the most skill.
In other games, players have different roles with different available abilities (such as classes) and working together involves strategic cooperation. World of Warcraft raids, for example, can be highly organized with different players absorbing damage, dealing damage, casting modifiers, crowd-controlling and healing.
The role a player chooses not only gives them value in the eyes of the group, but it can also say something about who they are. Are they a player who seeks glory, attention, authority, or gratitude? In many ways, the value you choose to provide sets the basis of your social identity -- the tone of your interactions with the rest of the group (e.g. I'm a healer, I take care of other people).
Role-playing. In order for players to role-play, they must be given the means to express identity. How can identity be expressed? Profiles are a great place to start -- pictures, interests, anything that allows for self-expression -- but even more important than stating an identity, is proving it. Players need points of interaction. They need polarizing scenarios. Disagreements, when handled civilly, can be a good thing; they let players take a personal stance and express an aspect of their identity.
Commemorating choices. In virtual environments, just like reality, people desire means of demonstrating or expressing their identity. In video games with avatars, gear worn and abilities wielded tell a story of choices made that other players will be able to read.
Non-game environments are no different and there is value in commemorating choices in a way that can be "read" by other members of the community. Badges and trophies can fulfill this need, but only if there is value in the underlying choices and behaviors. There is no point in commemorating choices that users don't recognize as relevant.
Social Purpose. If role-playing is anchored in opportunities to express identity, social purpose is anchored in opportunities to prove worth. This means interdependencies between community members are needed. A game like FrontierVille uses simple forced 'gifting loops' to artificially create this effect and it seems to work, at least with a particular audience.
The reason that this mechanic might feel forced and spammy to those outside of the target audience is its lack of specificity. In FrontierVille, anybody with a Facebook account and a free moment of attention can fulfill a need for hand-drills or paint buckets. More sophisticated audiences will demand that cooperative skill measure more exclusive talents.
What's important is identifying what your audience values; if you're a Facebook user, it's attention, if you're a Call of Duty player, it's kills, and if you're a Question and Answer forum user, it's accurate, detailed answers.
Commemorating Value. In the real world, things like driving an expensive car or wearing expensive clothes are explicit expressions of success and, for many of those who are successful, a balance is struck between modesty and tasteless gloating. In a virtual community, such as a game, the concern for modesty is largely deferred to the system itself; if displaying status is the default, it's less likely to carry a "gloating" stigma. Think of a military officer with a host of badges on his jacket; within the context of the military, such a representative display of status is not immodest.
Aren't badges kind of simplistic and out of context?
Possibly, and wherever there is an opportunity, indicators of identity and value should be integrated into the pre-existing context of your game or site. Yet that said, there's nothing inherently wrong with a lack of subtlety, just as long as the choice or value being expressed is meaningful.