Spurred by Saint’s blog about incorporating achievements into the GIO website, I felt the need to create a separate meta-blog on the same topic. I don’t want badges. I think in the end, it is a very bad idea. I don’t say this to devalue the thought and effort of those proposing the idea or because I like debate. I’m saying it because I honestly feel badges are the very last thing this community needs. On the other hand, who doesn't like the idea of "mutually equitable ubiquity on the premise of purpose driven reciprocal exchange," or rather a  system that benefits groups and individuals through positive interaction by way of a universal reward structure - I did at one point, but have rethought my position and I think it's worth sharing.

Years ago, I was a member of another website named Newsvine. Some of you already know this about me; it is where I developed my interest in writing. Back then, most of my writing was political (and it was just as acerbic, if not more).  In those days, “gamification,” or implementing badges and achievements on sites was still a budding concept as many sites were turning to “user generated content.” It was a win-win for these sites because all they needed to do was sit back and allow users to fill pages with things visitors would love to read. The setup is a perceived mutual exchange that favors the website more than the user –writers had free bandwidth to use to write and sites got free content. At the same time, these sites would generate ad revenue based on the number of visitors reading the blogs of unpaid authors. The justification was that these blogger, or “citizen journalists” were not professional writers and therefore did not write to the same quality and consistency of a “real” journalist (which isn’t entirely false). 

As with any community-based site, the community attempts to better itself and gain a bit of control over their realm of contributions; responsibility without authority ends badly. Naturally, community members will eventually devise plans to introduce various incentives to increase retention and many modern communities will try and incorporate a way for users to display their accomplishments on the site. There’s no harm in that right? People should be able to take credit for things that strengthen a community and doing so gives other ambitious users a goal. A win-win, agreed?

I personally feel that the path to success with the idea Saint and Born4This present  more difficult than currently realized. I think that in their idea they miss the pitfalls for what they are. In this case they don’t seem to have thought about the value of the achievement over time, the divisiveness between those who have and those who don’t, honor vs. obligation, and the measure by which an achievement is given only aims to increase quantity and not quality.

Don’t get me wrong, I love that the idea has presented itself and the effort Saint and Born4This are taking in thinking about. I took a similar stance to Saint in 2009 and presented my idea to the Newsvine community. Now, years later, I’ve come to realize that had my idea taken flight the mess it could have created.I'd also like to add that I'm not writing this to "shoot down" or poke every hole I can think of in the reasons for a reward system, but spurr discussion that might weigh the cons against the pros so that if a reward system is implemented, it will be after serious consideration to more than "what we get."

“Gamification” is perfectly fine if (and only if, in my opinion) the objective is a short-lived numerical run to encourage rapid growth; 50,000 users can play snatch-n-grab every month in rotation, but what will they do or where will they go after that? More to the point, what will happen to user retention once the reward system resources are used up in the eyes of the user?

Usually, users will flow to the next site that offers the same thing in a different package. Clearly this isn’t a community that desires high turnover and I would prefer to think the staff of Game Informer place value on the user base, and since users come here without the reward incentive, I see no logical reason to create one that would serve to instill the desire to find it elsewhere later. .

Back in 2009 when I joined Gaminformer.com (at its reboot) there was a huge clash between “old heads” and new users. The last things we need are groups of people running around feeling entitled because they have some silly badge, or in an attempt to get a silly badge make generally worthless comment (“first!” comes to mind here).  There is no way the idea and practice can measure objectivity and substantive participation so the mechanic must default to a number of posts made, or how many people vote a comment up or report it for an infraction.

The concept of voting was to indicate objectivity, but people most often use it to agree with something written or to give written comments a general approval, thus it becomes a tool for subjectivity. Some may argue that to combat subjectivity, moderation of the tool take place but how can anyone truly be subjective given the type of comments people leave? The system becomes fascist at that point, clearly not an ideal construct.

A prime example of this is the star rating on blogs - if people disagree with what it written they rate it low, whereas the actual purpose is to rae it based on how well it is written or if it covers solid points. If you look at this blog's star rating, there's no way to tell if it rated based on the merit of the blog or whether someone just disagrees with what I've said.

The biggest caveat will reside in a sub-layer of subjectivity, and was presented in a comment to what I wrote on Newsvine.  Badges gives the appearance that as a community we’re striving for social acceptance, that we turned our focus not to substantive and constructive participation out of a desire to see a better community, but to materialism and envy of the intangible. Are we so insecure we need to have a badge to display community worth? Does the ability to “earn” a badge elsewhere necessitate the same here? We cannot on one hand strive to be taken seriously and say that our passion is something to be respected, and then turn around and dangle a carrot in front of the user just to make them run on a wheel . If you truly want the hamster to stay on the wheel – build a better wheel.

This is the same problem games have with the introduction of trophies and achievements – They amount to nothing and most people stopped caring for them because they’re not functional beyond the game. And, they require someone take the time to care enough about what you’ve done to look with the only reason for looking is to be that *** that has to “win” at things in which there’s no competitor.  Why foster that kind of attitude?

Similarly, badges blur the line and will conflate the method of participation, not unify the community. If you want people to stop, stare, and clap/boo with approval/disapproval – go to Hot or Not or Rate My Poo.

The next problem is that it can be divisive. As was made painfully obvious to me in the beginning of my first stay here in GIO, not everyone is going to use GIO equally or take from GIO the same things. I rallied very hard against divisive attitudes and other non-standard methods of operations demonstrated by others – and lost (a few times). Some users are here simply to get “news” and leave light comments on staff topics. Others come for the forum discussion, reading the blogs, writing reviews, etc., and take the full experience of what GIO offers. Setting up a system of badges leaves behind the group of users that don’t choose to participate on the same level as other users by not differentiating between people who choose not to participate and people who just suck at participating. The public will lump the two in the same group and those who choose not to participate will have a stigma they do not rightfully deserve. As I said, this same divisive attitude was painfully obvious. Old users would complain about new users and the “problematic nuisance” they had become, the disruption to the site in their wake, or their inability to take a joke (usually an inside one that the new users was unaware of), etc. Badges will present the same kind of attitude where new users will be discredited based on the lack of badges. I would like to say I believe the community would not behave this way, but I can’t read the future as well as I can the past.

If people are motivated in a community to act for an award, it becomes obligatory, thus arbitrary. Think of it like this – The United States military is the greatest military on the planet because we have one of the few military forces that still fill its ranks with volunteer citizens. The best people for a job are the ones that show up because they want to do it, not the ones that want a prize.

A badge system only tracks accountability and the completion of a set of prerequisite tasks, not the quality of the task done. In the end, the community will see an influx of “fail” with little or no increase in “win” and though there’s a balance in that concept, it’s clearly not the objective.  And, even then, a badge doesn't represent a common opinion shared by all, but of a select few that deem whatever content presented worthy of praise. It does however; represent a standard action anyone can do regardless of value and in that, there may be some good, but is heavily outweighed by the negative potential and side effects of the bad. It makes little sense if taken as part of the big picture. If we stop treating community interaction like a game, maybe people will take it seriously and stop trying to “Win the internet.” I vote taking that route prior to thinking of incentivizing our experience. Better yet, lets pool our collective resources and come up with site-wide features that developers could work on to enhance the existing experience rather that worry about faux new ones:

  • Blog Linking at a user level
  • Better notification (or notification at all) in reference to comments and replies outside of the forum
  • Designated, sanctioned  groups that foster positive interaction among new users
  • Increased control over group creation
  • Ability to follow blogs of selected users and display them on our user dashboard

To name a few…