In The Lab


Another Gold Star, FTW: A Look at Achievement Systems

Do you remember the chart your teacher had on the bulletin board or hanging right off the front of his/her desk? It was the one that had the gold stars for when you got a 100% score on your weekly spelling test. Do you remember that feeling of achievement when you earned a new star? Did you feel motivated to do well on your next test just so you can get another star?

During my study and practice of elementary education, there was a drive to create experiences where learning was driven intrinsically. We want students to engage in learning because the learning itself was motivating to the student. As educators we strive to facilitate experiences where the content is so rich, the activity so engaging, and/or the skill so problem solving that students are motivated internally to continue to learn. Arguments are made that achievement systems such as the gold star, grades, and other extrinsic motivators are less effective and desirable for inspiring life-long learners. When I taught 5th grade, I certainly strove to foster intrinsic motivation as much as possible; however, admittedly did use extrinsic motivators as well. Like the spelling test stars, I had students track their daily speed math achievements whenever they got a perfect score as an added layer to help make doing math quickly, fun.

Whether it is the top score in Pac Man, bonus programs in business, or your 3rd grade teacher’s star chart, achievement systems can be powerful external motivators. With the growing trend of social features in game design and in web services, there has been a growing buzz around such motivational systems. These systems represent an interesting design and technology strategy to consider when trying to foster users to do something and engage with a product and experience continually.

Awards and progress in gaming, video gaming in particular, are a critical component of game design. Finding a piece of the Tri-force in the Legend of Zelda is a accomplishment that drives the player to continue his/her quest further and inspires feelings of adventuring and accomplishment. Early on in video games a score was awarded to a player to keep track of how well he/she had done both personally and in comparison to others. As games have evolved and become more complex, game makers have developed new ways to track play and build on competition and status to make players have additional motivation to continue playing.

As part of Microsoft’s Xbox Live online gaming service’s evolution, they released a universal system that connected actions made in a game to achievements and points that are awarded to the player. As players play, they gain more points and more achievements. This system creates a social capital for Microsoft’s online service. Players are motivated to gain more achievements and points to showcase status on his/her profile. This system adds a layer of external motivation beyond a single game experience that has proven to not only have had an effect of adding value to Microsoft’s online service but also has led to increased sales of and satisfaction with games on their platform.

Online discussion boards have long had leveling systems to distinguish avid users. Users whom post a lot go up in level, increasing their status and community importance. Social networks have built on this system significantly. MySpace and Facebook display the number of friends you have. LinkedIn showcases the number of contacts and references you have as well as how many questions you have answered. Twitter displays your total number of followers and more recently the number of lists you are on. The relative newcomer, Foursquare, showcases an approach that employs the external motivators of status based on activity in a social system with the achievement motivators represented in game design. The combination for them has proven to be unquestionably effective.

Foursquare is a location based check-in system. The actionable goal of the tool is to get users to check-in online when they visit various locations and to store related user and GPS data that help to showcase locations and connect people to them. So to create a design solution that helps to communicate and inspire users to engage in this action, Foursquare tracks and presents how active you are, they make the experience social through connections with friends on the platform leveraging integrations with Twitter and Facebook, they create a means for businesses to claim their location and offer promotions; however, none are so distinctive as the mayor and badge system that they use to make the tool fun both in groups and more importantly, solo.

Check in often and more than others over time and you can become the mayor of that location for all to see. Like the Xbox Live achievement system, when you accomplish certain goals like your first checkin you get the “Newbie” badge. After you check in at 10 different locations you earn the “Adventurer” badge. Both of these examples can be achieved solo and there are many others like them. There are a few like the “Swarm” badge that requires 50 people to check in at the same location within a given period of time all flash mob-like. The badge and mayoral systems have made the check in fun. This external motivation has promoted continued use of the tool and this is only enhanced by the social aspects that come when friends use the tool together.

Foursquare iPhone Badges Screenshot

In our work with non-profit organizations we are seeing a growing number of them building tools if not applications to engage communities of constituents to address their missions. With the prevalent and successful examples of extrinsic motivational approaches to increase engagement noted above, it should be of no surprise that these same organizations are considering these approaches strategically in their solutions.

In a recent project of ours we worked on an achievement system with our client MOUSE. MOUSE serves underserved middle and high school students across the country by providing them with learning experiences, tools, and opportunities to engage in the field of technology. Students work in squads providing IT services to their school, they participate in technology seminars and events, do internships, and create projects learning about robotics, electronics, and serious game design. is a learning community that is the home and hub of much of MOUSE’s program.

Together with MOUSE, we designed and developed a “Wins” system that ties key actions on the website such as commenting, blogging, closing support cases, and completing certification curriculum modules with achievements and user points. Our goal, like Foursquare, XBox Live Achievements, and our favorite elementary school teacher, is to add an extra layer of fun, personal, and social motivation to the engagement design mix. Students whom are active gain points and “Wins” badges are added to her/his profile. It is our hope that this will inspire further individual engagement in the MOUSE experience as well as prove to identify student role models and leaders in the MOUSE network. I very much look forward to having an opportunity to assess key performance metrics over time to see what kind of impact this system will have.

MOUSE User Profile Screenshot

When designing social networks, applications, or any interaction where you want to engage a person to take an action, consideration for extrinsic and intrinsic motivation is a part of that design process. Ideally:

  • a social network will be great if what is shared and the connections made is valuable to the individuals;
  • an application will be useful if it simply solves a problem easily;
  • and a donation will be made because the cause connects at a personal and emotional level with the donor.

These types of intrinsic motivators are essential and arguably most desirable; however depending on your goals for your product, campaign, and/or network, an added layer of extrinsic motivation such as achievements is certainly worth exploring as part of your overall engagement strategy.

Design MOD-Lab Project Technology


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