If you grew up in the UK you may remember Panini sticker albums that encouraged kids to collect stickers of their favourite soccer players (I believe in the US the equivalent would be baseball cards). As you collected you filled up your album and traded cards with your friends in the struggle to complete the full album. Every week when I got my pocket money I went down to the newsagent to buy packets of stickers in the hope I would get that rare one that had so far eluded me. I wasn’t alone as thousands of kids did the same, the strange thing was I didn’t even like soccer! I never have liked soccer and loathed watching games or even talking about it – and yet I was addicted to collecting the stickers.
This is a great example of how strong the power of collecting is for us. For me it overruled the fact that I had no interest (and in fact quite a dislike) for the subject matter and got me obsessed with completing my set. I also collected novelty erasers but this was a more freeform collection and it didn’t awaken quite the same obsession as the soccer stickers. In fact the mechanisms set-up by Panini, and other similar companies, were very clever indeed and it is these techniques that are being used more in gamification projects.
There has been quite a lot of research carried out on the psychology of collecting (a good example is this one from The National Psychologist) but mostly it has concerned the area of freeform collecting. I call freeform collecting the urge to collect things like erasers, marbles, clocks, cars, hats, teddy bears, postcards and so on. These are freeform as they have no limit to the collection and would initially be based around the interest in the topic or object being collected.
Freud’s view on collecting
“[Freud] postulated that collecting ties back to the time of toilet training, of course. Freud suggested that the loss of control and what went down the toilet was a traumatic occurrence and that, therefore, the collector is trying to gain back not only control but “possessions” that were lost so many years ago.” (Source)
More structured form of collecting are what interests the ‘gamifaction’ and this is demonstrated in example of soccer stickers. This type of collecting has the following features:
- There is an achievable goal that is being moved towards (e.g. completing the entire sticker album);
- You can see what your current progress is towards that goal (e.g. the filled versus blank spaces in your sticker album);
- The scarcity effect is used (e.g. some stickers are harder to find than others);
- Status (e.g. the status of your collection effects your own status amongst your peers);
- Group identification (e.g. getting a sense of solidarity with other collectors).
Together these form a very powerful system for motivation. Currently one of the most common appearances of the collection technique for motivation is the awarding of ‘badges’ as virtual rewards. In 2002 Microsoft introduced badges in their Xbox Live service and now you can see similar systems in Foursquare, Gowalla and even Wikipedia.
Badges are really virtual goods which can be awarded when the user achieves a certain goal or completes a specified activity. There is nothing new with this, as anyone who was a Brownie, Cub, Guide or Scout would tell you, but there is a lot of debate over the efficacy of such badge systems within gamification. Do you really care about a badge that has no value in the real world? Well this is misunderstanding the use of badges. Research has been carried out which shows that the fun and interest in striving towards a goal is often the primary reward (Ariely & Norton, 2009). Therefore as long as badges are the embodiment of going through a good experience it becomes a symbol and not a reward in itself. Most of the controversy at the moment is actually a criticism of organisations who are applying the badge system incorrectly rather than claims that the psychology behind it is flawed.
Linear badges – These are badges that are given for carrying out a direct task (e.g. checking in at an Apple Store)
Orthogonal badges – Here the badges are awarded for cross-cutting activities (e.g. completing three direct tasks within 30 minutes)
If you are interested in added a level of collecting to your business then the first thing to think about it what tasks will your customers be doing that they will want a symbol of achievement? It’s best if these items link to your customers’ reputation and also reinforce the content of your service. Think back to the days of the Scouts and Guides, when you got your badge it was because you earned it and wanted to show that you had achieved something. Just giving badges away without this underlying factor becomes a little empty.
In 2011 Antin and Churchill studied the psychology behind badges in social media and concluded that actually if a badge system is badly implemented it could actually be harmful for motivation. Interestingly they end their research by announcing that their future research will focus on the difference between badges awarded by systems (e.g.Foursquare) against those awarded by fellow users (e.g. Wikipedia). Would getting an accolade from a peer be more powerful than from an automated system?
Some further reading:Gamification