November 30, 2011

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?

© Atul Varma 2020