Badge based gamification: is this just the thing that education needs?

Before these trends get too overblown, I’d like to dissect and compare two terms that are on their way to becoming the next big thing in education: gamification and badges.

Gamification is a very broad term, that basically involves applying components of games to things that are not games, to make more addictive, enjoyable, and/or game-like experiences.  A very broad term, as there are many types of games with many times of components, that can be applied many other contexts in many different ways.

Badges are really an equally open-ended idea as I described previously. The term badges can mean anything from a boy-scouts style skill badge, to a leveling or ranking system, to simply adding points to an activity. I think there is value in separating out these different types of badges, but for the purposes here I will group them all together into any kind of tangible or intangible item received as recognition for proceeding through an activity.

How are badges and gamification related?

This answer basically varies from person to person, depending on their point of view, and how they view these two terms.  Unfortunately, I think too many people view these two terms as basically synonymous: gamifying education means adding all kinds of badges all over the place.  To others, badges are one way to achieve gamification, but there are other ways to gamify.  Finally, a third group sees gamification as one potential use of badges (another use being a certification system, as one use of Mozilla’s open badge initiative).

I’d like to offer a slightly different taxonomy of these two terms.  To me gamification is a series of principles, and badges are one tool that can be used to implement those principles.

Here’s the problem, though. Are badges the only tool than can implement gamification principles? No. Do all badges effectively incorporate gamification principles? No.

It’s these two “no’s” that make this situation really complicated.  Badges are neither necessary nor sufficient for gamification to take place.  They are just one tool that, when used the right way, can enable gamification.

This problem get even more complex when we look at typical grading structures in school.  These grading structures often de-emphasize several of the gamification principles offered by Gee.

But here’s the tricky part: Can you design a grading system that implements gamification principles?  Yes.  Reduce the stakes of grades to promote risk-taking. Use the grade as a feedback mechanism rather than a judge of performance, have kids build up to a good grade through well-ordered problem solving and iterative submission of their activity. So grades are not necessarily anti-gamification, it’s just the implementation of grades in 99% of today’s classrooms that is anti-gamification.

So what’s the point here? I dislike most gradings systems, and I like most badging systems.  But grades are not inherently flawed, and badges are not inherently good, both are just tools that can be used well or poorly.  The point is not what tool you are using, but how the tool is being used. Instead of picking a fight over grades versus badges, we need to ask the hard question: Is the tool (whether grades or badges) being used in a way that reflects gamification principles?

So, what makes a badge “good?”

Badges, as typically used in games, are one tool that can enable several of the gamification principles I described previously.  Badges are extremely task- and goal-oriented. There’s a competency that you need to demonstrate to get a badge; badges creates a clear goal.  Badges are also very safe environments for failure. It doesn’t matter how many times you fail; as long as you succeed eventually you get the badge. This also goes hand in hand with performance before competence. Typical school grades have an implicit “you need to know this at this time in this way,” whereas typical game badges have a “this is one of many things you can know eventually in some way.” I also think badges are more suited towards open-ended challenges that can accommodate one of many possible pieces of evidence. Of course you can grade an open-ended response, but grades work better with closed responses. And badges of course provide a structure to create identity through gaining a tangible recognition for the skills you have gained.

The fact of the matter is that structure behind your badge system is much more important than the simple fact that you use badges in your activities.

In fact, I’d argue that it’s the activity itself that really makes or breaks a learning experience, the badge is just the icing on the cake. Thinking of the activity as the cake and the icing as the badge is a really useful metaphor. If you messed up the batter, the icing can never compensate for a bad-tasting cake. But it’s also really hard to make an absolutely awesome cake without adding some kind of icing (but not impossible, flourless chocolate cakes, anyone?)

This silly analogy actually makes a really good point. A badge is to me just an amplification tool. It highlights and accentuates the good parts of a learning experience, increasing their power and effect. Badges can never make a bad activity good, they can only make a great activity awesome.


Hopefully I’ve made the point that badges are no silver bullet answer to education.  There’s no getting around using good activities, or for that matter paying a lot of attention to the structure behind your badge. We like to focus on tangible answers to problems, but there is no tangible answer that can, by itself and without careful use, improve education.  Badges are a tool, and like any other tool they require a lot of thought and hard work to be used effectively.

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