What makes a badge valuable, desirable, or motivating? It seems that the answer may be a bit counterintuitive. I propose that there is a “Badging Paradox” currently at work. When planning a badging system, leaders are focussing on the badges themselves when in fact the more a system focusses on the badge, the less valuable the badge becomes. I see four levels at which badges accrue value. We will start with at the lowest level and work our way out.
The Award- The lowest level of value is that of the awarding of the badge itself. The instant the badge is awarded, there is a feeling of accomplishment. This moment can be slightly motivating for many reasons. Maybe the badge looks cool or it may cause interest from others at the time of the disbursement. It may also induce feelings of pride or catharsis. However, this is short lived and when the initial reactions dissipate, the badge is just a badge.
The Effort- Zooming out from the badge we see the work which the badge represents. The work and learning on the way to earning that badge is more valuable than the badge itself. Even without the badge, learners can take pride in their actions. If the work is not difficult or something to be proud of, the badge loses value for the recipient.
The Person- One level up, we see the badge as a smaller part of a whole. Although one badge may seem small when compared to the accumulation of all the other badges, every badge serves to reinforce every other as they create a visual panorama of acquired skill. Each piece of learning, each new skill, means more when you add it to the menagerie of talent that has been accumulated by each individual. The whole of this portfolio, just as with each person, amounts to more than just the sum of its parts.
The Community- The fourth level and the most important is what the badge represents within the community. The issuing institution sets the consistent requirements for attaining each badge. That means that everyone in the community understands and respects the work done by that learner. When the badge, and more importantly the badge collection, is displayed, there should be a shared sense of accomplishment. This is the level that most systems overlook. If the issuing community does not publicly recognize and celebrate the status and achievements of its participants, the badges lose a large portion of their potential value.
*Beyond?- Taking it one step further out, badges tend to lose value because, once you leave the community, the badges may not be looked at with the same reverence. It is difficult to make our badges worthwhile in the realm beyond our specific badging communities. We can attempt to extend our community and create a larger unified badging culture like the Scouts program has done. Yet even in this organization, when a scout exits the program, the badges still tend to lose value in the greater community.
The Paradox: Badging works not because learners receive badges. Badging motivates learners through what the badges represent: an award, effort, a person, and a community. The less focus we put on the badge, the more the badge means in the context of the community that values it. Earning a badge may be rewarding for some, but status in a community is highly motivating for all. Less motivating badging systems focus on the rewarding of the badges themselves. Truly effective badging systems focus on a culture and community of diverse learners.
Want to read more about Gamification? Check out the Insert Coin Series which details best practice for educational gamification.