Having worked in game design during an era when the concept of achievements was fundamentally transformed, gamification and the increasing appearance of “badges” in various platforms is incredibly interesting to me.
The way that non-game applications are attempting to interpret the work made popular by Microsoft with the Xbox Live Achievements will definitely shape the future of the way we interact with software and services, but in many respects, I’m not convinced that companies are taking this achievement concept in the right direction.
Take Rypple, for example. For those unfamiliar, Rypple is social performance management software that, in simplest terms, aims to be the Facebook of the workplace but with a focus on communicating socially about employee performance. With Rypple, members of an organization can “publicly” give thanks to one another, monitor the completion of work-related goals, and effectively assess performance with simple tools and meaningful data, all with one attractive web app.
“Badges”, the increasingly-common colloquial term for achievements, abound in Rypple’s platform. Vector graphics dot the app’s many screens, and the graphics are very attractive. With Rypple’s “Badges”, the earning of achievements is enacted by members. One member awards another member a Badge when she believes the member performed the duties or activities outlined in the one-liner description.
The problem is that badges are awarded from one member to another based solely on a prescribed written description that theoretically aligns the badge with a company value important to the client. This, as far as gamification goes and in the terms appropriate to the medium, is an epic fail.
With Rypple’s take on achievements, “badges” are designed to be a key mechanism for distinguishing status amongst members of the platform, as your Rypple profile page enumerates the number and type of badges you’ve “earned”. In theory, this creation of status is good.
Status is a core component of gamification: creating a divide between members births comparison between them which subsequently births competition amongst them. The more competition you have, the more likely the behaviors that elevate status are to be repeated. Align status gains with behavior desired of the client company and bingo: gamification of the workplace.
But Rypple’s implementation is more reminiscent of OkCupid‘s “Gifts” than anything meaningful. The problem here is that these “status” symbols are awarded by non-quantitative and subsequently arbitrary means. The only guideline for “earning” a badge, in this context, is the small text description that accompanies the badge during the selection process. The onus is on the nominator, the person awarding the badge, and not the product itself to use the appropriate badge at the appropriate time.
As far as gamification goes, Rypple’s badges miss the mark. The behavior driven is unclear, and the entire system is, ironically, subject to gaming. Did the member earn the badge by performing the specified behavior associated with it or was he merely winning a popularity contest in the department that values the badge? There is no systematic way to know. That’s why, as a status symbol and a driver of desired behavior, Rypple’s badges just don’t work.
Achievements function effectively as status symbols if and only if there exists a uniform method of acquisition that is meaningful in the context of the application. I need to kill 10,000 bad guys to get this award, and generally I kill 100 bad guys per gameplay session. Upon earning the achievement, the accomplishment is clear—there is no room for interpretation around what it took to earn the badge and how significant the achievement is.
TPS Reports: Achievement Unlocked
In the context of a business, it makes sense then that if I generally file 10 TPS reports per work day, hitting a milestone of 10,000 is a fairly significant accomplishment worthy of both status and reward. That’s what Rypple wants to do, but its software simply doesn’t accommodate that level of sophistication.
Fundamentally, for achievements to work for both driving behavior and creating a sense of status, clear requirement criteria are required and the criteria must account for the gravity of the desired achievement. The more transparent the criteria, the more likely the desired behavior will be performed.
We see this in games that clearly show what the requirements for achievements are versus those that don’t. The argument for not showing achievement details is one focused on the natural exploration and discovery that can be, in and of itself, addictive. It is on this grounds that foursquare has been successful: its very much driven by the concept of exploration, and thus it follows that the platform’s achievements be hidden.
In a work environment, however, there is no benefit to exploration. Employees need clear goals, and gamification of the workplace can succeed in doing more than just appealing to senior leadership caught up in the trending technology buzz if and only if it is conceived correctly.
Clear goals, indication of progress and encouragement along the way, and meaningful rewards: these are the elements of successful workplace gamification. Badges sure are pretty, though.
Update: Rypple, following its acquisition by SalesForce, has issued something of a counter-statement which explains the rational from its perspective. Check it out on ReadWriteWeb.