Many thanks to Sheryl GrantSunny Lee, and Carla Casilli, who again moderated a discussion across four times zones with aplomb, and who alerted me to Lucas Blair’s practical guide to game design, The Cake is Not a Lie, and Carla’s own ruminations on Badge System Design.

Last week I participated in the 9th of a series of webinars for the winners of the Digital Media & Learning Competition—a collaborative venture organized by a whole host of educational, philanthropic, and technology focused organizations, including HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory), The Mozilla Foundation, The University of California, The MacArthur Foundation, Duke University and The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (Whew!)

The focus of the competition is on designing, developing, and implementing Open Badges, which can be earned through online coursework and displayed on digital profiles (like LinkedIn and Facebook), and which accredit the incredibly marketable skills frequently gained from informal, self-directed learning. As you might expect, a project with so many stakeholders is ambitious, sprawling, difficult, and heart-poundingly exciting.

A nearly airtight argument against anyone still unconvinced that games can be good for you.

For this experiment to be successful, the badge systems that the DML Competition winners implement next year have to do a number of things at once.

The fist is pretty self evident: badges should only be earned after a learner completes a sufficiently rigorous curriculum developed by a trustworthy institution. Otherwise nobody will care when a learner earns a badge—least of all potential employers. And that’s why the DML Competition was sure to seek out applicants with brand name muscle, like Disney, NASA, and LessonPaths own partners, Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago & Northwest Indiana and Motorola Mobility Foundation. (View a complete list of DML Competition Winners and an overview of LessonPaths’ cooperative effort, My Girl Scout Sash is an App, for specifics.)

The second thing a badge system must do is a little more slippery—because it’s never really been done before. Each open badges team has to make sure that learners’ knowledge gain is accurately assessed. This assessment can take many different forms: multiple choice quizzes, short answer questions, peer review, and administrator tracking of learner behavior are just a few options, each with its own advantages and drawbacks. And so the technology partner for DML Competition teams (each of which is composed of a Curriculum Partner and a Technology Partner) are tasked with testing and iterating an interface to figure out what works and what doesn’t.

The third challenge with open badges (there are more than three, but these seem to me to be the biggest three) is concerned with engagement: how do we ensure an addictive learning experience that will attract continual new users and retain old ones? Figuring out the answer to this question is the key to the longevity of open badges, and the subject of more than a few blogs in the educational technology space. One solution that’s often invoked is Gamification—a 20 buck buzzword that simply means incorporating the appealing aspects of playing a game into the learning structure, which typically includes elements of competition, discovery, socializing, and achievement building (also called “leveling up”).

Nothing like impending death by radiation sickness to motivate perseverance.

But I don’t call Gamification a buzzword to detract from its significance—there’s quite a bit of evidence that game mechanics are extremely effective at increasing engagement. After all, Facebook gaming app developer Zynga counts their users by the hundred millions, and call me cynical, but FarmVille and CityVille are not much more than gateway drugs to a full fledged Facebook addiction. And this makes a lot of thought leaders in education curious if games couldn’t make real learning almost as addictive as milking virtual cows.

And THAT is what Judd Antin, user experience researcher at Facebook, talked with me and the other DML Competition winners about last week. Sure, Gamification CAN work, but WHY does it work? And what questions are important to ask when designing a badge system?

I’ll start with what Judd said he hoped we all took away from his talk, if nothing else, and then list the rest of his key ponts.

  • There is nothing inherently motivating about a badge—it’s what the badge means. And this means that motivation and user experience considerations are of the utmost importance when designing a badge program.
  • Context is key. Sometimes monetary motivations trump social and psychological rewards, and sometimes not. (Consider Wikipedia’s staggering success compared with Google’s defunct Knol, a crowdsourcing competitor that cut volunteer editors in on ad revenue.)
  • Online identity management is only going to get trickier. Linking a real person to an online profile seems absolutely necessary to me in order for badges to be useful (at least at our current pre-cyberpunk stage of human evolution), but Judd suggested that there’s a case to be made for ”persistant” identities that aren’t necessarily anonymous, but that can’t be traced back to the 3-D living person. And I tend to agree with him when Spotify alerts my Facebook friends that I’ve been listening to Bryan Adams for most of the afternoon. (Sherry Turkle’s book Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet was suggested for further clarity on the issue.)
  •  What happens after a badge is earned? The “what happens next” aspect is a neglected portion of the design process. Will an earned badge advertise effectively to both the badge earner and people not immediately familier with digital badges?
  • Gamification has a pretty bad rap. It’s easy for us techie types to get lost in our own dreams for the future of education and forget that the burdon is on us to prove that gamified learning is not a sloppy shortcut around traditional institutionalized learning.

Judd concluded by directing us to his research paper on the Social Psychology of Badges (available for download here) and dubbing himself a “pessimistic optimist” when it comes to creating a vibrant ecosystem of digital badges—which I found more than a little encouraging. After all, what else is a pessimistic optimist but a realist?

Beauty and accessibility are reemerging as guiding principles of game design.

Featured image via Judd’s webinar presentation. Hear more from him on his blog.