Badges? We don't need no stinkin' badges

Badges? We don't need no stinkin' badges

Summary: Gamification. That's what describes what companies like Foursquare and Gowalla set out to do -- turn your everyday activities into a game, rewarding you with badges, points, or a higher spot on a leaderboard for doing banal things.

TOPICS: Mobility

So I have badges -- now what?

Gamification. That’s the 25-cent word that describes what companies like Foursquare and Gowalla set out to do -- turn your everyday activities into a game, rewarding you with badges, points, or a higher spot on a leaderboard for doing banal things like visiting Starbucks for your morning latte or, if your life is more exciting, going out on the town five nights in a row. All you have to do is 'check-in,' and you’ve been gamified.

The trend in its current form has been driven in part by social media games such as FarmVille and Mafia Wars. Games on Facebook (as well as other platforms) reward players with similar badges and points for performing in-game tasks such as planting crops or helping friends. This has helped these social media games rack up tens of millions of active monthly users, in part by combining the concepts of video game achievements with an old-fashioned sandwich shop punch card (although a recent drop-off in audience numbers for some social media games has led to a refresh of many of these mechanics -- more on this in a minute).

David Helgason, CEO of Unity, a company that produces game development tools, calls 2010 “The Year of Gamification.” And he’s right, gamification is everywhere. The Huffington Post gives readers badges for clicking on articles and sharing them. Personal finance site lets you set goals, and then offers a progress bar that fills as you progress. lets you set health goals for a month, and then turns it into game.

Next: Everyone's suffering from 'badge measles' »

From there other lite game mechanics, such as trivia games, leaderboards, etc,can also be found on the Victoria Secret Pink website, USA Network, and NBC. Let’s put it this way -- continue at this rate, and we’ll soon be able to get badges for going to the bathroom or tying our shoes every day.

And that’s why the gamification backlash has already begin. At Playful 2010 (a games conference held in London), speaker Sebastian Deterding calls the current state of gamification an ‘infectious disease,’ something akin to the ‘badge measles,’ and then lists numerous examples of sites with badges, including some of the examples listed above. A recent GigaOm post talks about how game mechanics just being tacked on to consumer experiences, with little regard for their appropriateness.

And while the sky may not be falling, there’s reason to heed these warning signs. With everything on the web offering some kind of reward, badge or whatever to visit and participate, consumers may start to assume ‘we don’t need no stinking badges,’ as a motto (to paraphrase the famous quote from ‘The Treasure of the Sierra Madre’ or 'Blazing Saddles' depending on your movie preferences). Now that you’ve earned a badge on HuffPo, then 10 badges on Get Glue and a few more on Foursquare -- well, what the hell does it all mean anyway?

Then there’s the deeper question -- is adding a badge mechanic in and of itself fun? Adding badges and scores are “the process of taking the thing that is least essential to games and representing it as the core of the experience,” says Margaret Robertson of game developer Hide&Seek (although game developers have their own reasons for promoting complexity in gaming).

This means that the easy way -- slapping a badge system on any old consumer product -- is losing its luster, if it hasn’t already. The way companies gamify sites will have to undergo dramatic change, and companies will have to learn how to add game mechanics to a site in a meaningful way.

One example of this evolution of gamification is actually in a game: Zynga’s FarmVille on Facebook. The company is learning -- after losing 30-some-odd million users in the past year according to AppData -- that players want to have a more meaningful experience than just planting some crops and posting messages on friends’ Facebook walls.

FarmVille on Facebook is getting gamier, adding characters, light storylines and quests.

Now, based on some trial and error in a few other Zynga games, FarmVille has slowly been beefing up with more traditional, and more involved, game elements, such as giving players missions that help guide the experience and adding characters with storylines. FarmVille, which once relied on Facebook wall posts to drive its success, now has to dig deeper into the gaming rulebooks to create a more compelling experience that will, hopefully, keep virtual farmers coming back for more.

Traditional game developers know that they need to keep a game fresh to hold players’ attention (see the World of Warcraft Cataclysm expansion due in stores on Tuesday). Foursquare and the rest of the gamified universe will have to learn to move past their initial experiments of turning everyday life into a game once audiences wear out the initial thrill of discovery. What’s next? We’re waiting. And it better not be any more stinkin’ badges.

Topic: Mobility

Libe Goad

About Libe Goad

Texas native Libe Goad resides in New York City and has spent the past decade covering technology and video games for publications including Blender, PC Magazine, Bust, Seventeen and Sync.

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  • RE: Badges? We don't need no stinkin' badges

    This is a great article. I work at BigDoor ( and we work with publishers to determine what out the best game layer experience works for them, badges are often only one part of that. Adding levels, points, leaderboards and virtual currency and goods for websites can increase user engagement, loyalty and monetization.
    • RE: Badges? We don't need no stinkin' badges

      @Carrie_P Thanks, Carrie. I'm sure we will talk/meet in the not-too-distant future.
  • RE: Badges? We don't need no stinkin' badges

    I think you really nailed the issue here with your comment "players want to have a more meaningful experience". Gamification doesn't provide that, it has to exist prior to game mechanics being brought into the picture. I work in the loyalty marketing space, and our industry has been using game mechanics for decades in the form of points, levels and rewards. Our problem is that the "games" we've designed just aren't that compelling and that needs to change. My company, Maritz, has partnered with Bunchball in the gamification space to take on gamification not just as a pedestrian application of even more game mechanics to the same old programs, but as a way to embrace true experience design for loyal consumers, just as a game designer does for their players. That will mean using these techniques to make consumer loyalty programs more interactive, social, competitive, goal-seeking, intrinsically rewarding, etc -- everything a great game includes. I agree we don't need no stinkin' badges, but there is absolutely something valuable in gamified interactions if they bring new levels of challenge and connection and -- dare I say -- FUN to experiences that currently offer little of any of that.
  • Gamification Encyclopedia


    Great article. We agree totally that the throwing of badges on everything without any depth or substance gives Gamification a bad wrap. For this reason we created the Gamification Encyclopedia at to open the topic for collaboration and discussion.
  • 100 points to Sebastian ...

    ... for coining the phrase "badge measles". I love it!

    You have a great insight in this article, which is that the core experience needs to be good, meaningful, and compelling on its own. No amount of game mechanics can rescue poor or thin content indefinitely. It can certainly provide a massive short-term boost, as we've seen in the check-in and social gaming spaces. But then, as you've clearly articulated, fatigue sets in because the core experience is shallow, and the churn starts. Which is why you're seeing the social gaming companies add more depth to their games, and why you're going to see the check-in applications start to experiment with adding to their "core". They have no choice.

    I really like Andrew Chen's "shark fin" model - that shows how massive growth masks massive churn. Until it doesn't.

    - rajat
  • RE: Badges? We don't need no stinkin' badges

    Is there an achievement for that?
  • Never found "gamification" appealing.

    I've played around a bit with some of the "gamified" stuff - but I don't like it. Honestly, leave the game mechanics to the games. 99% of the time, it's just more advertising for the brand's own products, and it's not even fun.

    . . . and even games are starting to go a bit overboard with it - achievements have become very popular, and many games go crazy about them. Too many achievements kinda dilutes the experience.
  • yep, agreed

    drop the gimmicky crap and stick to advertising games on their own merits ...

    .. kinda like [i]Wheel of Fish[/i] .. now there was a game show! (in keeping with the blog's title reference ..)

    [i]"Let's see what's inside the box ... Nothing! Absolutely nothing!! You're so stooopid!"[/i]