Why Do Achievements, Trophies, and Badges Work?

At this point in human history we take it for granted that badges, trophies, achievements, and similar rewards are baked in to most gaming systems. “Achievement unlocked!” is a punchline that can be swapped into any situation where you get a little something for doing what you (presumably) were already going to be doing. They’re also part of the holy trinity of “points, badges, leaderboards” of gamification, which applies game systems to non-gaming activities like work, shopping, or philanthropy.1

But …do they work? That is, does rewarding or promising to reward player behaviors with achievements, trophies, or badges actually get people to engage in those behavior more? Does it get them to play the game more? Has anyone ever actually studied that?

badge

Well, yes. Sorta. I recently read an article in the journal Computers in Human Behavior by Juho Hamari entitled “Do Badges Increase User Activity? A Field Experiment on the Effects of Gamification.” 2 In it Hamari worked with the people behind www.sharetribe.com, a website that helps users find others to whom they can rent, sell, or share things like products, services, or physical spaces.

Sharetribe is very community focused, so it really wants users who log in regularly, participate in markets, and provide important information to other users. So the researcher wanted to see if adding achievements –in the form of badges displayed on user profiles– would help increase these kinds of user activities. To do that he conducted a field study of almost 3,000 actual website users. It was also longitudinal. About half the data covered users who registered up to 1 year before the badges were added to the site while the rest covered those who registered after badges were added.

To cut straight to the chase, Hamari did indeed find that adding badges to the website had the intended effects. It increased the likelihood that any given user would use the website to “post trade proposals, carry out transactions, comment on proposals and generally use the service in a more active way.”3

A Sharetribe badge, which also doubled as nightmare fuel.

A Sharetribe badge, which also doubled as nightmare fuel.

That’s cool (or disconcerting, depending on your perspective) but the part of the article that I actually found most interesting wasn’t the results. It was the section discussing the theoretical underpinnings of badges reasons why they might work. These reasons seem completely applicable to video games.

Eight potential reasons why badges, achievements, and trophies might work are:

  1. They anchor our performance expectations higher
  2. Having goals increases our self efficacy
  3. Completing goals leads to satisfaction
  4. They create goal commitment
  5. They act as guidance mechanics and provide feedback
  6. They facilitate psychological flow through feedback
  7. The trigger social proof
  8. They trigger motivating social comparisons

Let’s briefly drill down on each of those.

1. Achievements Anchor our Expectations

The anchoring effect happens when a high or low number out of the gate causes us to fixate on it and use it as a point of reference for considering how high (or low) other values are. Think of the classic “lowball” offer in negotiating the price of a car. A low number as the opening offer causes the seller to focus on that number instead of whatever price they previously had in mind. This often results in a lower final price paid.

Achievements that communicate high scores or other numbers might anchor a player’s expectations about what is a reasonable score (or whatever) to shoot for. Even if they try to adjust their expectations down, they won’t be as low as if there was no anchor set by the achievement. Which leads us to…

2. Achievements Increase Self Efficacy

Hearing that a goal (as set by an achievement) is possible for us and people like us makes us more likely to think that we’re capable of reaching it.4 This is a concept in psychology called self efficacy —belief in our own efficacy or ability to do something if we try. This is probably true to the extent that we think a goal is reasonable, as opposed to ridiculously difficult.

3. Earning Achievements Is Satisfying

As Hamari notes based on previous research about goals, “the completion of goals leads to increased satisfaction, which in turn leads to increased performance within the same activities.”5. If we reach a goal and enjoy the boost in self efficacy that it creates, that feels good. And since we like doing things that make us feel good, we’re more likely to pursue similar achievements in the future to get the same reward.

you win

4. Starting Progress Towards Achievements Creates Commitment

When goals are specified in very specific terms explaining what you have to do and how many times you have to do it to reach them, it increases the chances that people will reach them.6 Achievements that specify “Kill 3,000 zombies” are much more likely to lock players in to shotgun the undead than just general instructions to kill zombies until the credits roll.

soap_box_card

I’ll also note that if you make players feel that they have already begun progress towards an achievement by the time you present it to them, you will increase their commitment to reaching it.7

5. Achievements Guide Players and Provide Feedback

Not to overstate the obvious, but achievements often confer information about what is expected of players in the game. An achievement unlocked by finding all the secret areas or maximizing an NPC’s affinity rating tells the player that there ARE secret areas to be found and that the NPC affinity mechanic exists. Furthermore, if the achievement system is set up to indicate progress towards these goals, it tells players how much of the game’s possibility space they have explored.

6. Achievements Facilitate Psychological Flow

Psychological flow is a state of mind characterized by engagement with an activity that’s in the sweet spot between effort and ability. We generally want flow and players are motivated to pursue it. Getting feedback on how well you’re doing the task (or if you’re doing it at all) and good, accurate, and timely feedback is critical to achieving flow. To the extent that achievements facilitate that kind of feedback and thus psychological flow, they will be motivating.

7. Achievements Trigger Social Proof

Social proof is a term often applied to situations where we look to the opinions and actions of those around us in order to answer questions or form opinions. It’s so powerful that it can cause us to disbelieve our own senses. It can also causes us to pursue activities if we think that other people are also engaging in those activities or pursuing those goals. Thus, if an achievement system tells us that everyone is completing a certain side quest or playing with a certain loadout, social proof will lead us to believe that it’s not only possible, but that it is in fact normal for all players to do the same.

conformity_experiment

Because, as psychologist Robert Cialdini notes, “We view a behavior as correct in a given situation to the degree that we see others performing it.”8

8. Achievements Trigger Social Comparisons

Leon Festinger’s social comparison theory9 holds that we want objective information about our performance, and lacking that information (or a suitable context to evaluate it in) we will seek to compare ourselves to meaningful others. Viewing the achievements and badges earned by other players is a convenient way to do this kind of benchmarking. If I see that you earned an achievement, I am also motivated to try to the degree that I think that you and I are similar on attributes and skills necessary to do so.

So, again, credit goes to Juho Hamari for summarizing the points above. I hope more people take on the task of doing targeted research to expand our knowledge of how and when each of these factors works in practice.

achievement

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Footnotes:

1. For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to use the terms “badges,” “achievements,” and “trophies” interchangeably in this article. You know what I mean.
2. Hamari, Juho (2015) Do Badges Increase User Activity? A Field Experiment on the Effects of Gamification. Computers in Human Behavior.
3. Ibid., from the abstract.
4. Bandura, A. (1993). Perceived self-efficacy in cognitive development and functioning. Educational Psychologist, 28(2), 117–148.
5. Hamari, 2015
6. Ling, K., Beenen, G., Ludford, P., Wang, X., Chang, K., Li, X., et al. (2005). Using social psychology to motivate contributions to online communities. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 10(4).
7. Nunes, J., & Dreze, X. (2006). The Endowed Progress Effect: How Artificial Advancement Increases Effort. Journal of Consumer Research, 32(March), 504–512.
8. Cialdini, R. B. (2004). The Science of Persuasion. Scientific American, (February), 76–81.
9. Festinger, L. (1954). A Theory of Social Comparison Processes. Human Relations, 7(2), 117–140.

2 thoughts on “Why Do Achievements, Trophies, and Badges Work?

  1. Always lovely to find out an article from you 🙂 .

    This got me thinking about the following question : If you reward people for doing some actions, how many of them are going to do that for the rewards mainly and skip the details? Eg. How many of them will post more comments to get the points but post lower quality comments? Does this become an issue on the long-term? How likely would it be that you end up with a gazilion players adding low-quality stuff that makes new players unlikely to come? How to prevent this? (I read the article somewhat, seems like they did count the amount of transactions and other stuff, but not the quality of comments)

    Also, what about the guys doing actions for the rewards, but that do not like doing them? Like logging daily. I like to get points and stuff, but sometimes I keep doing stuff a long time, get burned out and only then notice that I never had fun doing that to begin with. Are the overall benefits balancing out those guys?

    • The idea that behaviour influences self-perception possibly comes into effect here? i.e. if my behaviour is logging in every day to comment, I will start to think of myself as a member of this community. And then maybe my behaviour will adjust to reflect what I want the community to be.

      Upvotes on comments would also help influence the quality.

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