Achievement and Playfulness

Michelle Levesque is tearin’ it up with her rapid pace of blogging and it’s inspiring me to blog more myself.

Yesterday in her post Things I Have Done, she ruminated on different kinds of categories for achievement badges.

I personally have conflicted feelings about badges, and sympathize with something Jessica Klein mentioned in a blog post a few months ago:

My colleague Jack Martin and I participated in this local learning incubator where we told a story with twitter. It was a fantastic and fun day and we loved what we made just as much as we did making it. However, after the activity was over, a learning assessment team came over during our presentation of our story and gave us badges for our story. It somehow cheapened the experience that Jack and I had and sort of reminded me that, yeah this was about learning and grading–not the fun experience.

In Freakonomics, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner describe an Israeli day care center which decided to start imposing a fine on parents who arrived late to pick up their child. Rather than reducing the frequency of late pick-ups, however, the opposite occurred, because a moral incentive was replaced by a financial one. The fine made picking up a kid late suddenly seem perfectly acceptable (yet costly), rather than negligent.

This is my main concern with achievements of any kind: they have the ability to twist existing, healthy incentive structures–making stuff for friends is fun and earns you their gratitude–and replace them with less interesting ones–making stuff for friends earns you badges which will increase your earning power.

I’m not certain that badges would actually change things for the worse, of course; it’s just a concern of mine, and I think there are things we can do to help ensure that they add new incentives without taking anything away from existing ones.

One of the ways we can do this is by creating badges for things that don’t currently have any incentives.

Let me use an example from World of Warcraft. One day I was wandering around the desert when the sky turned red. I had no idea what was going on, but I kept walking; after several seconds, my screen was filled with flames and my character was dead.

This kind of thing happens often in massively multiplayer games: giant computer-controlled creatures wander the world and crush unsuspecting players who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. In this case, I had just been slain by Deathwing, the most powerful dragon in the game.

What’s really interesting, though, is that the instant I died, an achievement blazed across my screen: Stood In The Fire.

This achievement is significant to me because it turned an experience that’s normally frustrating into one that’s serendipitous, hilarious, and socially rewarding. It also communicated a few things behind the scenes:

  • Bad stuff happens to everybody. It’s okay.
  • You can gain recognition by doing some weird and unconventional things.

Achievements like these can infuse badges with a sense of playfulness that encourages experimentation, and make earning them feel like fun rather than like getting a report card or a Ship It award.

What might the analog be for Web literacy badges? How about achievements for things like…

  • not closing an HTML tag?
  • writing a CSS rule that never gets applied to a page because it’s overridden by other rules?
  • falling for a harmless phishing scam?
  • having your behavior tracked by the same company across 30 different websites?
  • putting a security vulnerability in your code?
  • making a web page that’s perfectly legible to blind people, but incoherent to those with vision?

9 Responses to “Achievement and Playfulness”

  1. Michelle Levesque Says:

    These are some great thoughts — gonna let my brain ponder them for a bit and we’ll see if anything useful comes out! :)

  2. Les Orchard Says:

    So… I’ve been working off and on building an open badge app. Interest never seems very high in it, so I’m usually more off than on.

    But, if we had a site with community sourced and community awarded badges, I’d love it if the universe of badges included exactly those achievements you list at the end of this post. Not sure how we’d detect those conditions, but it might be fun to explore

  3. mawrya Says:

    This reminds me of a story about an executive in training at a large private company. His boss was the owner of the company. The executive was working on his first “big deal” and, due to his naivete, made a small but serious mistake in the contract. When the dust settled, his mistake ended up costing the company one million dollars. News of the boondoggle spread quickly and soon reached the media. Shortly afterward, a reporter caught up with the owner as he was leaving the office, the disgraced executive happened to be leaving with him. “Sir!” Exclaimed the reporter to the owner, “Do you plan to fire the man who lost your company so much money?” Turning to the to reporter the owner smiled, “Fire him? Right after I just spent one million dollars training him?”

    It’s interesting that these badges are supposed to be an alternative form of diploma – the kind of recognition you are given for performing set tasks. In the work-a-day world people seem to have more respect for battle scars than for diplomas and certificates. Whenever I work on a project with others the badges they flaunt are not the things you would find on their resumes but war stories: the time they had to work all night after installing a update that destroyed the email server; the time they forgot to pack their power adapter on an international trip but managed to rig up something using the base of the electric kettle in their hotel room. Come to think of it, this would make a much more interesting resume.

  4. Johnath Says:

    When a member of fx-team breaks the tree with a bad check-in, or otherwise stumbles where they ought to have known better, their colleagues award them the Sombrero of Shame. Its current owner is listed in the #fx-team channel topic.

  5. Jess Says:

    I think that this is a good post- mainly because it speaks to the need for authenticity and openness in assessment systems. I often find that my students like assessment and badges when they know it is going to hit them, or if it is unexpected positive reinforcement (as in your WOW example). Although I like the concept of kinds of actions that you could badge – ultimately- I think that you are either coming off sarcastic or negative. This has to be handled carefully. While there are things to be said about turning a bad situation into a good one with play- I just don’t see this as ultimately being an approach that could be used across programs as varied as the offerings that Mozilla and P2PU are developing. That said, as Johnath writes- I think that having a Sombrero of Shame, or making someone wear a dunce cap or put money in the douche jar (like they have on the tv show New Girl) has some value from time to time.

  6. Atul Says:

    @Jess: Good points! I think you raise a good point about “how it is going to hit them”. Some of the badges I mentioned would be good as serendipitous badges similar to my WoW example, while others would be better as “premeditated” ones, where the student knows beforehand that they are doing something that will earn them a badge.

    An example of the latter is my first one, “not closing an HTML tag”: I think it’d be fascinating to have a lesson that actually has learners intentionally create malformed HTML and seeing how the browser renders it. This can lead to a lot of valuable outcomes, like getting an intuitive feel for debugging HTML. Most of the time webmakers spend communicating with their computers is debugging, so why not make a badge that teaches it in a way that also communicates the idea that dealing with buggy HTML is a normal part of webmaking?

    @Les: I agree. I think a fun badge service would be one that you describe. My only additional “dream feature” for a badge server would be some kind of “badge creator” functionality that makes creating the visual representation of a badge as much fun for non-designers as creating a character in City of Heroes.

  7. Les Orchard Says:

    Yeah, my blue sky goal for badge creation is to have a visual editor with things like:

    a) A fun badge creator with stencils, mad-libs, and less blank-slateness for people who can’t draw (like me)

    and b) A “help wanted” system where you can flag a badge as in need of help from someone who can draw

    http://decafbad.com/2010/07/badger-article/#section-92

  8. Les Orchard Says:

    Actually, a couple of more recent things I’d want to steal visual creativity tools from include:

    Google+ Creative Kit:
    http://mashable.com/2011/10/27/google-execs-are-scary-monsters/

    deviantART’s Muro:
    http://muro.deviantart.com/

  9. Do badges cheapen the experience? « Read Write Execute Web Says:

    [...] been giving some weekend brain-cycles to a blog post that Atul wrote last week about Achievement and Playfulness.  He links to a post that Jess Klein wrote about badges:  My colleague Jack Martin and I [...]