4 Commandments of Achievement Design

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In a recent webinar I did with our Minister of Games, Robert Bell, I made an off-handed comment about achievements in games, specifically that an achievement that everybody earns automatically by going through a course isn’t really an achievement at all. I wanted to follow up on that and expand a bit on my philosophy regarding how achievements should (and should not) be implemented. While this is going to be slanted toward games, I think aspects of it apply to gamification of more traditional courses as well.

To start, let’s talk about what we mean when we say “achievements.” These are also called trophies, badges, awards, or a number of other things. They are most frequently called “achievements” because of Microsoft’s Xbox Live Achievements, which are probably the most well-known implementation of this type of system. Regardless of the name attached to them, they are functionally the same: a way of recognizing that the player/learner/participant has completed some specific activity that the game or course tracks. Some of these are cumulative awards (i.e. “defeat 500 enemies”) and others are one-time recognitions of specific accomplishments (i.e. “reach the summit of the highest mountain”).

In the case of Microsoft and Sony’s game consoles, there are specific rules regarding how many points of Achievements can be doled out to players by a given game. In cases where the award system is specific to the game, such as World of Warcraft, the only limitation is what the designers decide to track. Regardless of platform, there is not necessarily consensus on how achievements should be used in a game, and it can run the spectrum from a single achievement for beating the game to numerous awards for completing all sorts of different activities within the scope of the game. What I’m going to lay out are what I consider best practices for designing achievements. So listen up, ye mortals, while I deliver unto thee some commandments!

Commandment #1: Thou Shalt Make Some Achievements That Everyone Gets

I know, I know. During the webinar, I made a blanket statement. Despite this, I think it is OK, and in fact important, to have some achievements be tied to progress. Keyword: some. Milestone achievements help let the player know that he or she is continuing to advance through the main activity of the game or course and help establish that everyone participating is accomplishing something. That being said, no more than half of achievements should be of this type. I prefer 25 to 30 percent. The reason is that these types of awards aren’t really earned, and having too many of them actually devalues the achievements overall. Your users aren’t stupid. They know when they’re getting a medal for “participation.” The fact is that achievements are fundamentally about personal pride, and potentially competition (or, at least, bragging rights). Participants who don’t care about those things probably aren’t going to care about achievements anyway, so don’t design for the people who don’t care!

Commandment #2: Thou Shalt Not Make All Achievements Equally Difficult

This is subtly, but importantly, different from Commandment #1. We’ve already established that we want some “gimme” achievements, and that we don’t want all achievements to fall into that category, but by the same token, we also don’t want milestone achievements and “everything else” in one homogenous lump. Achievements should have different tiers of difficulty. At the base, you design milestone achievements that all participants will earn. Next, you have some achievements that most participants can earn without too much difficulty, simply by engaging with the experience as it is designed. Above that, you have achievements that will require some real effort, and so on until you reach achievements that require users to go out of their way or otherwise do something extraordinary to get them. It’s OK to have achievements that only a tiny percentage of your users will ever get, just so you can reward that most elite tier of participation, and it’s OK for achievements to be EXTREMELY hard (but not impossible), as long as my third commandment is followed.

Commandment #3: Thou Shalt Make Achievements That Are Fun to Earn

Every achievement should fundamentally reinforce the activities you want to promote. Yes, you can make an achievement about defeating a million enemies, but if defeating a million enemies is going to be a slow, torturous grind, don’t do it! Achievements should be used to encourage creative exploration, to get the user to try activities he or she might otherwise ignore or be unaware of, and to highlight cool features of the systems designed into the game. Achievements help promote features. For people who care about achievements, they influence, and in some cases essentially dictate, the way the user will play. Just as you want to choose clothes or a haircut that highlight your best traits, you want your achievements to help showcase your game to best effect.

Commandment #4: Thine Achievements Must Be Visible in Advance

Everything I said in Commandment #3 only works if users actually know about the achievements. While there are reasons to keep achievements secret in some cases (story spoilers, for example), for the most part, achievements should be visible, including how they are earned. Sometimes you may want to be coy and not get overly specific about the method of earning an achievement, but there should at least be a hint. Remember: the goal is to encourage exploration and to expose what is cool about the systems in your game.

Applying the Commandments to Online Learning

A lot of what I have said may seem very specific to games. If you’re trying to gamify an existing course, you may wonder whether these commandments apply. My answer is that if they don’t, you should probably rethink whether an achievement system is the right way to apply gamification in this instance. So how do you make them apply in a more linear course? Look at you course holistically and try to assess it as if it were a game. Are there activities that allow for varying degrees of success and failure? Are there (or could there be) non-essential “secret” things that would encourage your users to explore the course more carefully? Is the assessment portion pass fail? Can you track how many times it takes someone to answer a question correctly? If you answered yes to one (or hopefully more than one) of these, there may be a place for achievements in your gamified course.

Do you have a methodology for designing achievements into your course? Think I missed a commandment, or that one of my commandments is *gasp* wrong? Let me know! Thanks for reading!