Monthly Archives: September 2011

Fear of a Badge Planet

On Thursday, September 15, two related things happened. 1) The MacArthur Foundation announced the 4th Digital Media and Learning (DML) Competition. 2) Mozilla Foundation’s Open Badges project entered early beta. Some other related things occurred around that time, too. Sebastian Deterding posted a somewhat damning critique of Gabe Zichermann and Christopher Cunningham’s O’Reilly Media book Gamification by Design. This last thing, while seemingly unrelated, complicates the perception of Thing 1 and Thing 2.

Thing 1 on its own is thrilling and exciting because it sounds the call for organizations, academic institutions, businesses, groups, students, even individuals to begin thinking about alternate ways to represent both personal and community achievement. This new approach toward achievement won’t focus solely on degrees or certificates but will seek to include soft skills like co-learning, collaboration, camaraderie, and community-mindedness. The DML competition hearkens a new way of thinking about performance that doesn’t rely on formal education or traditional methodologies.

Thing 2 signals a beginning, a break with the past, a series of possibilities and vast potential. Additionally, it may signal a sort of beginning of the end of formal education’s monopoly on acceptable representations of academic and business success: one that has dominated our culture for at least the last thirty years. With the introduction of the Open Badge Infrastructure, Mozilla is engaging the net in rethinking achievement recognition in an open source, open access, open education manner.

This all sounds good, so what’s the problem? The complication surrounds the term badge. Prior to social software like FourSquare, a badge was most likely something you remembered from your years in the Scouts system. No longer. Cue the ominous music as we conjure the dark arts of gamification. Ian Bogost calls gamification exploitationware. Elsewhere, he wasn’t even as charitable as that. Suffice it to say that it’s a touchy subject.

Deterding’s concerns about gamification—in a review that was roundly touted in game design circles as impressively well considered—are valid; however, gamification is not entirely worthless. Even Deterding himself notes this in his follow up to Tim O’Reilly. Perhaps what’s most important to realize here, though, is that Mozilla’s Open Badge effort is not a gamification of anything. Instead, the Open Badge system is an opportunity to reimagine personal communication of social representation. Think of it as an entirely new, authenticatable, verifiable, dependable means to an end: a brand new vision for the old resume/curriculum vitae. Consider the possibilities. Badge systems that, with some nurturing, will develop into a robust ecosystem capable of altering not only the current western educational paradigm, but possibly some sociocultural and economic ones, as well. (The rise of the Badge Class?)

This endeavor will empower individuals in ways that may seem impossible now. When learning can happen in a self-paced, self-motivated way outside of traditional formal systems, and when that learning can be formally recognized in a useful way, then change has great potential. By engineering a system that more accurately represents personal achievement, Mozilla is working toward addressing at least two long-standing problems: the inability of both formal education and business to capture vital, useful and relevant communication and interaction skills, and the failure of the educational system to keep apace with technological advancement. This project has the potential to radically shift worldviews while improving individual lives. If that’s what others are mistakenly decrying as gamification, then I say bring it on.

I’ve touched on the potential for change inherent in Mozilla’s effort. Over the next few months, I hope to expand upon our direction, our challenges, and our successes. And I hope that you’ll make the trip with me. I welcome your thoughts and comments. Let’s move past our fear of a badge planet and look out onto the vast universe of possibility together.