Gamification: The Psychology of Patches, Badges and Achievements

Authors Note: All frameworks have moved to a new home at Strategy Umwelt. Please join me at this new platform for a revised list of mental models, strategy frameworks and principles

Before we get too deep into the topic of Gamification, let's get some context by looking back in time to the American Civil War.

Legend has it, in the summer of 1862, the Army of the Potomac's Third Corps Commander, General Philip Kearny stumbled upon a group of Union officers lounging under a tree. Being a strict disciplinarian and assuming the men were part of his own regiment, he immediately started to chastise them for their laziness.

The men immediately jumped to attention, and after Kearny finished his rant, one of the men meekly raised his hand and pointed out that they were not actually part of his brigade.

Kearny immediately turned into the proper gentleman and apologised. He stated that he would take steps to ensure he could recognise his own men hereafter, coming up with a simple solution in having his soldiers place a piece of red cloth on the front of their caps.

This simple uniform augmentation became known as the "Kearny patch", and it proved such a successful tool for commanders that within the year, Major General Joseph Hooker ordered the entire eastern army to adopt it. 

The Kearny Patch.

The Kearny Patch.

As the war wore on, the patch system started to evolve in interesting ways, depicting everything from the persons unit, their role within the military organisation, or the many programs a person might be charged with. The modern system of military insignia had been born.

The Black World of Patches

In Trevor Paglen's fantastic book "I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have to be Destroyed by Me", the author explores the edges of the secretive 'black world' of the Pentagon, and the many hidden programs that exist in the shadows. 

It is a fantastic eye into the covert institutions that are involved with a huge number of secret projects, mainly centerd around the infamous Area 51 base and Groom Lake facilities. Irrespective all of the alien and fake moon landing conspiracies, this location was involved in the development of the United States advanced stealth jet programs and secret underground nuclear tests. 

In the course of his research for the book, Paglen noticed a very strange thing - although these were extremely classified projects, the soldiers or technicians who worked on them often wore distinctive patches commemorating their involvement. From Paglen:

"If the symbols and patches [contained in this book] refer to classified military programs, the existence of which is often a state secret, why do these patches exist in the first place? Why jeopardise the secrecy of these projects by attaching images to them at all - no matter how obscure or indirect those images might be? Why advertise the fact that someone might be involved in black projects, even with words like "I'd tell you but then I'd have to kill you," or "NOYFB" and the like? No doubt, the short answer is itself some sort of variation of 'I'd tell you but I'd have to kill you.""

So back to our Kearny example. Once the patches had begun to be worn by the soldiers, commanders started to notice an increase in pride amongst the soldiers wearing them. Like future sports fans wearing their team colours or street gangs and their complex tattoos and gestures, the patches told the world that you were part of something much bigger than yourself, and spoke to a deeper camaraderie.

In the black world, military leaders quickly realised that patches actually made the people wearing them more likely to preserve the secrets of the unit. It advertised that the person had secrets they were not allowed to talk about, and that membership to this 'secret society' created an extra incentive to keep their mouth shut. Being part of a group meant you didn't want to risk the group.

Our Tribal Past

When humans first evolved, we essentially took on a tribal pack animal mentality. We banded together as small groups of people (the so called Dunbar number), living in status conscious hierarchal communities.

The main function of this was survival. A group working together could amass resources like food, procreate, and defend against animals or other warring groups.

Our desire to be social and group dynamics are actually just an echo of this behavior in our genes as a mechanism for survival. Rejection and subsequent ejection from the tribe was akin to a death sentence in early man, due to the immediate cut off from resources. We really want to ensure we remain cohesive with the group through reciprocal altruism or else we risked pain and death.   

On the other side of the coin to this we partake in individualistic competition and self-advancement, mainly in the desire to achieve higher status. Being higher in the pecking order within the tribe would mean better access to sexual partners, greater physical protection and access to more resources like food.

This then is the key to the discovery of patches in the military. A patch denotes you to a particular group (or tribe). This drives a sense of belonging or socialization within that group. And increased group identification triggers increases in cooperation and collaboration between its members in order to achieve a common goal.

Patches or badges therefore allow the following within a group:

  • Goal Setting - Challenge members to meet a mark that is set for them
  • Instruction - Guidelines on what types of activity are possible within a given system (e.g inform new users)
  • Reputation - Information to allow reputation assessment of a persons interests and engagement levels, and their skill-set and expertise
  • Status / Affirmation - An advertisement of one's achievements and past accomplishments (without necessarily bragging)
  • Group Identification - Communication of a shared set of activities that bind a group around a shared experience 

Patches in Marketing: Gamification

Back to the present, the most common expression of patches in Marketing & Advertising has been through the theory of Gamification.

As a definition, Gamification uses game like mechanics in a non-game context to reward task completion. Often this is expressed as a virtual item such as a patch or badge, or in a real world reward like a coupon.

We have already established the theory behind patches from a group dynamic perspective, however there is another factor in play when it comes to Gamification - the psychology of motivation.

Motivation in Games

When a human receives a reward for completing a task, we engage the opioid and dopamine systems which causes us to feel pleasure. Akin to doing a bump of cocaine, this release makes you feel good. Conversely then, this leads to greater motivation to continue the task to achieve this pleasure.

Psychologists divide motivation into two types, called extrinsic or intrinsic motivation.

Extrinsic motivation describes external factors that create motivation, like being rewarded with money or grades in school.

Intrinsic motivation describes internal factors, like your own desires, interests or enjoyment in a task.

The best examples of motivation through Gamification tend to utilize both of these factors. Take for example the fantastic 'Zombies, Run' App, a serialized story that can only be heard when you are engaged in running. This facilitates your intrinsic motivation to exercise and be healthy by offering extrinsic motivation through badges, achievements and the desire to keep following the engaging storyline.

The Zombies, Run application.

The Zombies, Run application.

Gamification and Flow

One of the biggest detractor arguments against the power of Gamification is that it more often than not drives short term bursts of adoption, but rarely drives long term behaviour as a result (an example provided is the high churn rate on apps like Foursquare). One way to try and reduce this drop off is through an understanding of the concept of Flow.

Flow science is a theory developed by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to describe an optimal state of intrinsic motivation, where the person experiencing it becomes completely immersed in the task they are conducting. It is often characterised by the person losing touch with physical feelings, the passage of time and a drop in ego.

While Flow is great, it is really hard to achieve. The main reason for this is while people love to be in control (or the point where they have overlearned a skill so that it is automatic and ingrained) they hate boredom.

The problem here is that over time as we acquire new skills, we inadvertently move into the relaxation or boredom state as we get better at it - the novelty has worn off. With Flow sitting between Arousal (the anti-boredom) and Control, you need to ensure that any type of Gamification walks the line between the two in order to have lasting value. Simply blindly handing out badges or points or not evolving the experience will be a losing strategy.

Achieving Flow.


  1. Gamification is a great way to connect a group of people together around a common interest (a tribe), provide guidelines on what is possible within said system, and provide a carrot and stick way to motivate people into completing tasks.
  2. Blindly handing out patches, badges or points however will not drive long-term behaviour because people become tired and bored easily. Successful Gamification techniques need to adapt to customers growing skill levels and tread the fine line between certainty and uncertainty to deliver long-term value.

This post continues my series on Mental Models.