Video Games, Pathways, and Badges

Digital Badges in Education

Chapter 7 (‘What Video Games Can Teach Us About Badges and Pathways’) in Digital Badges in Education: Trends, Issues, and Cases is written by Lucas Blair, someone who I know from my work at Mozilla. As his LinkedIn profile states, his PhD “explored the use of video game achievements to enhance player performance, self-efficacy, and motivation”. 

In this chapter, Blair looks at the similarities and differences between ‘skill trees’ in video games and ‘pathways’ used in the Open Badges ecosystem. He warns that the 59% of Americans who self-identify as ‘gamers’ may be “underwhelmed by [badge] systems that do not utilize what they are accustomed to seeing in games”.

Explaining skill trees, Blair writes:

Skill trees in games are not a collection or ordering of achievements as we think of badges relating to pathways. Instead, skill trees are a mechanism designed to allow players to unlock skills and enhancements in games at a controlled rate as they progress through game content. Skill trees can be compared to badge pathways because they represent all possibilities to players in a game. This is the same way that a badge pathway represents what badges earners can achieve within a system as well as the order in which they should be earned. Skill trees also act as a goal setting and planning mechanism.

Equating ‘boss-level’ progression achievements to badges for completing a grade or graduating, the author lists some other ways that games earn achievements which could be translated into the badge landscape. For example, achievements are earned in video games for:

  • Exploring the game environment
  • Completing (sections of) the game on a harder difficulty setting
  • Collecting a lot of something 

These often leads to ‘meta badges’:

Meta badges are badges that are awarded for earning full sets of other badges. These are designed to encourage players to obtain all badges and are also a good technique to group badges that are related. In education when badges are chunked into meta-badges, the groups can often be tied to related learning objectives.

In the Open Badges ecosystem, there are very few (if any) ‘negative’ badges, as these are likely to be rejected by the learner, who is always in control. However, as Blair explains, some achievements in video games explicitly reward consistent failure, showing that persistence is part of completing the game.

For example, The Blinding of Isaac: Rebirth has an achievement called ‘The Scissors’ for dying 100 times. This is an interesting methodology for getting players in a mindset that failure is a celebrated part of the game and everyone dies. Another interesting example, from the game *Dark Souls II*, is the achievement awarded the first time a player dies, called ‘This is Dark Souls’. This achievement sets the stage for a game in which players die hundreds of times to achieve victory.

There is much to like in this chapter, including the section where the author talks about the unintended effects of achievements on players, who want to be ‘successful’. Gamerscore on the Xbox 360, for example, “assigns a numeric value to achievements” in a way that is a step removed from the actual content of the game. “Because of this, some players strive to maximize their Gamerscore by finding the easiest achievements possible across all games.” As Blair notes, this is a reminder that some (most?) learners are likely to find the path of least resistance in any given system that points towards a goal.

Some achievements in games such as World of Warcraft and EverQuest II are achieved individually, but displayed collectively, as part of a group or guild. “Players can benefit from guild-level perks that are unlocked by the success of the guild.” This could be incorporated into the classroom to encourage cooperation and collaboration among peers. 

Returning to skill trees, Blair notes that they constitute a “map of possibilities for the player”, a “goal-setting environment where players decide on a ‘guild’ or an approach for which skills to obtain long before they have played enough to unlock them.” A favourite of the author (as I have seen him present on this) is the skill tree from Path of Exile, shown below:

Path of Exile skill tree

This uses “nonlinear, almost organic shapes” resembling mindmaps. The takeaway from these kind of complex skill trees, notes Blair, is that:

When creating badge pathways it is important for designers to remember the sense of ownership earners will have over their decisions and how that will become a reflection of who they are within that context.

Skill trees can represent different levels of ‘pace’, meaning that difficulty levels need to be balanced with player skill. “These design strategies,” notes Blair, “are very similar to those used by instructional designers when designing a piece of curriculum.”

Game designers know that they may not get a skill tree correct first time, so they are “constantly adjusting the skills available in trees based on community feedback, play testing, and data collection.” Badge system designers should do likewise.

As both a gamer and badge evangelist, I found this chapter fascinating. Badge system designers (myself included) have a lot to learn from the world of game design!