Principles of motivational badges 1.0

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the use of badges as a way for learners to gain recognition for their achievements, because they’ve come up on a couple of projects I’m working on. While, in principle, I’m very much in favour of an open, flexible assessment system such as badges, I do have some reservations to their use.

An academic colleague surprised me last week by saying “badges are a terrible idea, they’re for children, my students would think they were back in primary school.” Now this is a colleague who I had seen the evening before taking part in a ‘who can make the best napkin hat’ competition, so I know she’s certainly not averse to games and playfulness. She’s got a point: badges – like game-based learning – won’t appeal to everyone and may demotivate many students, but that’s not a reason to disregard them wholesale, more a call to thoughtfully consider how to use them to best effect.

For a gamification project I’m working on, drawing on research on games and motivation (as well as a fair amount of game playing), I’ve created some principles of badge system design for learning. These are really a first attempt, and I’d really appreciate any comments, feedback, suggestions, and additions.

  1. Simplicity. Don’t try to encapsulate too much information in a single badge. A 2×2 (type and level) matrix is sufficiently complex. Each badge can then have a clear, uncluttered visual identity.
  2. Variety. Provide a large number of badge types, so that different learners on the same course can develop completely different badge sets but can still identify as part of a group. This allows for exploration and identification of possibilities.
  3. Exponential progression. As learners move through levels, badges should become increasingly difficult to achieve. Early badges should be gained quickly to give learners a feeling of mastery, later ones should take longer and be more complex.
  4. Fairness and clarity. Is is crucial that badges are perceived to be fair, so that the criteria for achieving one is clear and transparent (not necessarily before it is achieved).
  5. Surprise. The unexpected can be a massive motivator, so create badges that are not known in advance (but are still fair and clear why they were awarded in retrospect).
  6. Achievability. Each subsequent badge should build on previous ones to be seen as achievable, yet still challenging.
  7. Collections. Humans like to arrange things into sets and complete collections, so grouping badge sets into collections can add another motivational layer (but with associated complexity).
  8. Humour. Not all badges have to be serious (my colleague might disagree with me on this one).

As with any game-based element, I believe that badges can be used to motivate some of the people some of the time, if used thoughtfully and purposefully. My concern is that when they’re used ‘because we have the technology’ that they may end up actually pissing students off rather than motivating them. I’m going to finish with a quote from Werbach (2012) who reminds us: “don’t mindlessly attach extrinsic motivators to activities that can be motivated using intrinsic regulators.”

Werbach, K. (2012). For the win: how game thinking can revolutionise your business. Philidelphia, PA: Wharton Digital Press.


  1. Peter Whitton (@pete_wh)

    Re Collections, kind of off topic
    Collectors have a range of motivations:
    1. The thrill of the chase/hunt – trying to track something down that you really want can be difficult if the item is rare. The internet has ruined this!
    2. The idea that a collection can never be complete. Collections that are too easy to achieve are pointless (IMO)
    3. Collections often have emotional resonance rather than physical value and remind the collector of a certain time, place or feeling
    4. Arranging, cataloging, sorting and organising – some collectors love to show off their stuff
    5. Comparing collections. Sometimes for interest, sometimes to find out who has the most or best or rarest item.
    6. Camaraderie amongst collectors being able to speak at length with someone who shares your passion is always exciting
    7. Feeling connected through the collection (e.g the autograph hunter may feel closer to the celebrity because he/she owns the signature)
    8. As memento of events

  2. Katie Piatt

    I think your principles make a lot of sense, although I’d question how 5 and 6 work together….hard to see something as achievable if you don’t know what you are supposed to do.

    The interesting question for me, as you raise at the end and as your colleague pointed out, is how many of the ‘some people’ do badges actually appeal to? This is what we’re exploring through our InfoBadges project at Brighton. Taking a group of 100 second year students (average age 19), how many are actually motivated in any way by the desire to collect badges? Our main measurement is how often they visit the page to check on their badges. At the moment is seems around 60% have checked at least once, but only 20% have looked more than twice. Early days for this project but watch this space!

  3. nicola (Post author)

    Thanks Both.

    Katie – I agree that there’s some tension between achievability and suprise, but perhaps they are simply different types of badges, and may we just need to say that badges that are known in advance need to be percieved as achievable? Your project sounds excellent and timely and I look forward to seeing the results.

    Pete – Thanks for the thoughts on collecting. As a ‘non-collector’ it’s good to get some insights into the motivations of collectors, and I wonder how many of these aspects could be relevent (or applied) in a gaming context? However, I still do not – nor will I ever – regret donating your Mojo collection to Oxfam.

  4. Penny

    Nice read! I agree with Katie. Looking at video games – the best motivation arises from The thrill of the chase/hunt in my opinion. Humans seem to have it in their genepool to collect, chase and hunt.

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