Games, Badges and Learning

David Theo Goldberg’s recent post, Badges for Learning: Threading the Needle Between Skepticism and Evangelism, is a worthwhile overview of the current thinking on what role “badges” might play in promoting better learning. He summarizes the debate within the learning sciences over badges as the age-old conflict between Kantianism and utilitarianism and tries to strike a middle ground:

Badges in short are a means to enable and extend learning. They need not be behavioral lures so much as symbols of achievement, expressions of recognized capacity otherwise overlooked. As with any means they can be mistaken for ends in themselves, but there is nothing intrinsic to badging that will inevitably make them so. And dismissing them out of court because they just might motivate learning for questionable reasons, as Cathy Davidson rightly suggests, is to do so at the peril of a good deal of learning they do well to prompt, promote, even proliferate.

Of course, all of this could just as easily be said about grades – don’t some children pursue “A”s as an end in themselves, while others simply enjoy learning, while others (too many) actively disdain good grades? To ignore the fact that badges have some intrinsic attraction for players-cum-learners is to miss one of their main strengths. Of course, that attractiveness can wear off over time, especially if players begin to sense that the badges are being used for not-fun purposes (say, grading).

In our experience with badges – and gamification in general – at iCivics we’ve found a substantial increase in player engagement with our learning games. Just look at the simplest metric, average time on site, and how it leaped after we added badges, points, and other gamification elements:

Effect of gamification on average time on site

Last month (February 2012), average time-on-site was 7:20 as compared with 5:40 in February 2011. That’s a 29% increase in time spent interacting with our games and other resources! It excites me to contemplate what might players be learning in the extra 1:40 that gamification helped create.

In videogames, badges (or “achievements”) can serve extrinsic functions such as summarizing complex stats down to something developers can analyze and use to tweak their games.* But to leap that far ahead in learning games seems premature to me — there is so much more we should be exploring in terms of how badges can motivate learners to experiment or try new things. Badges have been key tools for game designers who want to increase replayability, or who simply want players to experience more of the game they so painstakingly created.** And if our goal is to foster learning, isn’t there something great about rewarding exploration and experimentation when so much of the rest of our society instead punishes failure?

* See the latter half of this analysis of the psychology of badges on IGN by Rick Lane.
** See, specifically, the “Skate this Way” and “Uncharted Territory” purposes of achievements in this thorough Gamasutra piece on achievement design by Mary Jane Irwin.)