Yahoo Research released a short study on what has become one of the most controversial mechanics in gamification: badges. Some people love ’em, some people hate ’em – but most of the arguments are based on speculation or personal preference. There hasn’t been much focused research done on their affect on people as a motivator as a whole.
For “Badges in Social Media: A Social Psychological Perspective” social psychologist/research scientist Judd Antin and Principal Research Scientist, Elizabeth Churchill collaborated to summarize what badges are in specific terms, and how they work in what they call the “5 Primary Functions for Achievements”. These include Goal Setting, Instruction, Reputation, Status/Affirmation and Group identification. They make mention that while badges strongly influence some users, some others are indifferent and in some cases even demotivated by the implementation of badges. The paper ends by concluding that more research needs to be done in different contexts to explore the circumstances in which badges are the most effective.
Badges are just one tool used in gamification and like any tool, there’s a right and wrong way to use them. Before trying to encourage users to work for them, developers need to take the time to see things from the user’s perspective. Are these badges fun? Are they strong motivators for the actions I’m trying to encourage? Are they well integrated with the rest of the system? If any answers are negative or unclear, the system needs to get reworked. Badges can be a positive element that draw users in and keep them coming back every time. But no one wants to play when the execution is sloppy or thoughtless. Antin & Churchill’s paper is a good introduction into really thinking about badges and not just slapping them on the surface of a site and calling it a game. The paper also cites from many other sources so you can branch out in your understanding of the user experience. You can download the study in PDF form here.