Badges? We don't need no stinkin' badges

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.
Written by Libe Goad, Contributor

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 Mint.com lets you set goals, and then offers a progress bar that fills as you progress. Healthmonth.com 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.

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