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Congratulations! You’ve Won a Badge!

How awarding badges engages your audience

As I slowly restart my blog writing again, I felt that perhaps I should touch upon one of the fundamental expectations that people have when they hear the term gamification; namely badges.

Many of you probably recognise the acronym PBL in relation to gamification, the Point, Badges and Leaderboards and associated description that appears in every article or blogpost when you search for “What is Gamification?”.

Badges are a very small part of the overall offering that the process and methodology of gamification can contribute to improving audience engagement for a service or product. And badges are also only an element of the motivational lever of esteem.

That said, what is a badge then?

Well, a badge is a visual indicator of something, it is a sign that signals a meaning. The question of what is a badge is a function of the higher degree question which is what does a badge represent? And what badges represent is what I want to explore in this article.

One of the reasons I felt I should write about badges is the fact that recently I’ve seen how badges can be done correctly and also how they can be done in a very wrong way.

If there is one thing, I want you to take away from this piece, then it is that badges should not be used excessively and without any inherent value. If every action that your user or audience member takes awards them a badge, then the overall value of the system will be worthless, not to mention the value of each badge.

Think of it this way, the effort that was put into the visual representation of the badge and the work associated with that badge, should in some way be reflected in its value.

So, what I’d like to cover then in this piece is:

  • Value – how badges should have both a personal and social/collective value.
  • Investment – how the investment of time, money and effort is represented by the badge.
  • Acknowledgement & Representation – what the badge acknowledges and how it represents the inherent value.
  • Psychology – what the psychological underpinnings are of good badge usage.
  • Examples – and finally a few real-world examples of where the mechanic and element of badges have been used very effectively.


I wanted to start with the concept of value when discussing badges, as this is the single most important aspect of using badges.

When you use badges as an element for your (gamification) project, then they must have an associated value. I’ll go over the direct psychological underpinnings for value later on, but for now, understand that the represented value of the badge must convey and be understood by the user that receives the badge as a reward.

And the represented value of the badge has two aspects to it, first is the personal value, the value that the individual ascribes to the badge themselves. And then the second is the social or collective value, the value that everyone else ascribes to the badge, as a reflection of its overall inherent value. The collective valuing of the badge has a distinct influence also on how the individual will decide to place their value on it.

The personal value of the badge is down to each individual. At a fundamental level, you as the gamifier cannot overtly influence this. If a person has invested time, effort and more into an activity and they receive a badge for it, then the value that they place on that time and effort will be reflected in their perspective of badge. You as the awarder of the badge influence this to the extent of how difficult you made the task and how much support was given.

The social or collective value of the badge is the value that you and the wider community ascribe to the badge. In essence, this is a social contract that everyone understands. The initial value position of the badge is set by you, the gamifier in this case, if this value is understood then everyone who takes part in achieving the badge will have entered that social contract. As long as everyone understands, then the individuals who gain the badge will also add value to it. And as long as each of the individuals interacts with other members of the community who are part of the contract, then the overall value of the badge will be maintained or increased.

There is of course the case where the value of the badge decreases due to these interactions, but then the initial value that you placed on the badge did not adhere to the effort or time that an individual invested. What I mean by this is that you could view the use of a badge and its inherent value the same as a currency and what it is backed by. Currencies used to be back by gold, and nowadays they are backed by the relative power of that nation’s economy. Badges work in a very similar fashion, like currencies, which are important to the people in that nation, must have a value. If you do a full work week, put in the effort and the currency at the end is inherently worthless, it will be worthless to you as well, and your continued motivation to do more work will also diminish. If the currency is very valuable due to your nations economic strength, then your motivation to get more of that currency for the effort required will also be increased.

I will admit that this is a very materialistic and ‘carrot-and-stick’ metaphor for how badges work, but the fundamentals remain the same regardless.

Investment & Representation

Investment is the effort, time, money, etc… that was put into achieving the badge. It is the quantifiable aspect of what you had to do to get the badge that was awarded to you. In essence, this is what gives the badge the value that people ascribe to it, both the personal and collective value.

If the badge reward is in line with the investment required, then the value that you and others have ascribed to it will be correct. Saying that is easy though, the question that immediately pops up is how do you represent the investment value of the work needed in the badge that is awarded?

The badge needs to conceptually and visually evoke the level of time, effort and work that was invested into it.

For example, you go on to a website and you decide to join the email newsletter mailing list. For this action, you receive a badge that is represented as a golden shield with sparks and the title Super User with A+ added to it. You will likely be impressed, but the value of the excessive badge will be relatively low, especially if the next thing you do on the website is answering a 30-minute quiz and for that, you only get a silver badge, with nothing on it.

What I’m trying to point out with the example is that when you are doing a badge, the concept and the visual must align with expectations as well as the cultural understandings and comprehension of the inherent system in which it appears.

As a basic function, the badge is an acknowledgement of the effort and represents that effort. People will therefore identify with the visual of the badge for the representation of the effort that they placed in it.

What should happen then is that everything that the badge presents visually, as a sign, should be representative of what amount of effort went into it.

The reason I am repeating this in several ways is because it is important. A lot of thought should go into the visual presentation of a badge, especially if you have a long-term plan for a great many activities that all have an associated badge reward.

Essentially what you need to follow is that the lower the effort required, the less visually impressive the badge should be. The higher the effort, the more visually impressive it should be. This sounds like it’s obvious and many of you reading this will likely also think, “well obviously a lot of work needs a spectacular badge”. Unfortunately, the reality is that often when implemented, due to time or money or creative vision, the badges either become over the top for everything or they become generic with minor variations for everything.

Next to the visual representation of the badge, it must also adhere to a system of scarcity. Easy badges should not be visually impressive and should come quickly and easy, the badges for more complex and challenging tasks should visually explosive and very rare and difficult to get.

The visual nature and the scarcity of the badge will also then add to the value that the badges get ascribed. Because of this, the attained badge will also convey a level of status for the individual personally and socially. It will signal how far they have come, and all subsequent badges should then also be a promotion of status on top of the badges already received. This illustrates the progression of the individual to themselves and the community.


Everything to this point of how the individual and society perceives the badge comes from a few psychological effects that the majority of us experience.

The two main psychological effects are the Endowment Effect as stated by Vroom, and the Trophy Effect as stated by Bühren. A very brief explanation of each effect respectively is that one details how we overvalue something we own and disproportionately fear losing that which we already own. And the other is the fact of being successful in a competitive arena increases our willingness to accept the reward presented to us.

The endowment effect with badges is quite important because it also connects with the sunk cost fallacy. That because we have invested so much into it, we will (over-)value the badge. And we will even defend the amount of effort invested into it for fear of losing the value associated with it. Fear of loss isn’t always that it will be taken from us, but also that the reward will be devalued.

The trophy effect is that once we are in the environment and have invested effort into the system that will award us a badge, we are far more willing to accept it as the reward and representation of the work done, than if we were not part of the system. Again this sounds like an obvious statement, but it reinforces the fact that badges need to increase in conceptual and visual value as a person progresses through the system. Initial entry into the system will have low investment and willingness, therefore initial badges should align with this. Being deep in the system will have a higher investment and willingness, therefore a more flamboyant badge is needed to align with this.


For a very concrete example of badges and of all that I have spoken about so far, we don’t need to look much further than any military in the world or any formal martial arts school.

The current aesthetic expectations of modern society require that we create visually exciting rewards, but the effect of the value and status that a badge can convey can also be achieved with a well-structured and thought-out system.

An example of this is the army, its badges system is very well known, understood, well structured and the effort required to get each subsequent badge is determined by a predetermined system that the entire community (the army and nation) take part in. As a simplified version of the example, you can start as a basic soldier, which has no rank and no visual representation. We then move on to a private, then a corporal, sergeant, officer ranks of lieutenant and so on, until we reach general and multiple stars within that.

Each level or rank requires more time and effort, and each rank is becoming increasingly rarer to achieve. The same is with martial arts, we start with a white belt, then yellow until we reach black and ranks within that. There are far more white belts than there will ever be black belts.

And with each example, the badges are not extravagant, the military symbols and martial arts belts are very simplistic. But the understood value and investment in each is extensive, and therefore the importance is recognised by everyone in the system.

Final thoughts

To continue with the theme of captain obvious, all of this should hopefully sound very obvious to you. The structure you create for your badging system should follow that of a pyramid, large base, singular tip. If it’s upside down, then you’ve created something else, it may not be wrong, but it’s not what we’re looking for.

When designing your badging system, also always repeatedly ask yourself this main question: What will this badge mean to my audience?

How difficult or complex you make the challenge to achieve the badge indicates a relative value of that badge, but how will your audience perceive it? One way of doing this is by doing playtests and test runs of the system, get some real feedback. And once it’s implemented, get continual feedback from your audience and tweak the system that you and they go through it.

With regular feedback, you will be able to iterate on a system that has the right value that aligns with the right visual representation of the invested work.

And finally, until now I’ve spoken of what is mostly the psychology behind badges, but a recommendation for implementation is that you should figure out a system of automation for badge awarding fairly early on. If you do not, and you implement your system without an automated function, then you will have the pleasure of doing it as a full-time job and manually assigning badges to your audience as they go through the content you have provided them.

So, badges may be a very small part of gamification and audience engagement techniques, but if they are done well, then they can have a very powerful effect on your audience. If they are done badly, then that effect can be very destructive and you may not be able to recover from it.

My final word of advice, therefore, is then, if you do decide on using a badging system, take your time and do it properly, don’t rush it. It’s already been done by so many others, so you may as well put the work in so that you have something that stands out. Remember, it’s better to be memorable!

I hope that this piece has given you some food for thought and helped improve your own methods or at least offered a different viewpoint to consider.

Do check out the other posts on æ, and do leave a comment or contact us if you have some ideas of your own that you wish to discuss or if you would like to see other topics discussed.

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