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?
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
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:
- They anchor our performance expectations higher
- Having goals increases our self efficacy
- Completing goals leads to satisfaction
- They create goal commitment
- They act as guidance mechanics and provide feedback
- They facilitate psychological flow through feedback
- The trigger social proof
- 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.
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.
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.
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.