Badges Badges Badges! How we gamified a conference

2016-06-27 11.53.01

Earlier this month I ran an exercise effectively gamifying elements of UCISA’s Support Services Conference in Leeds, and there are two blogs that I’d like to do on the experience – firstly how we did it (this one – it’ll be a bit dry, but I’ll aim to stick to *what* we did rather than offer much commentary) and secondly, what I learned from it and what I’d do next time(!). Neither will be a thought-piece on the merits and pitfalls of gamification – there are far smarter people out there who can provide that service.

Two things to acknowledge at the start. Firstly, I can’t claim credit for the original idea – that goes to Bob Booth at Sheffield. I was just lucky enough to be able to run with it. And secondly, on that theme, I enjoyed every minute and would merrily do it again, despite the fact it took a lot of work, especially at the conference itself. My thanks to the kind soul who described me as looking “spent” at the conference close!


I started thinking about this with the main objective of encouraging the actions/behaviours we wanted to see in the delegates. From a conference organiser’s point of view, what did we want people to do in the ~48 hours we had their attention?

  • Speak to each other – not just meet old friends, but new people like members of the organising committee and welcoming first-time delegates
  • Speak to exhibitors – our conference exhibitor’s sponsorship is really important to helping keep the cost of attending down as well as supplying things like wine at dinner
  • Turn up and pay attention(!) – especially given so much of the programme is actually provided by volunteers, not paid speakers
  • Get involved in the “back channel” – this conference has always had a lively “back channel”, usually discussions and observations shared on Twitter, but more recently on Padlet
  • Take part in social events – people needn’t only be here for the beer…

With that in mind we worked up a list of badges – yes, this all started (and in fact ended) on a spreadsheet.



We had ludicrously grand plans at the start. There were going to be badges EVERYWHERE and we were also wedded to the idea of generating more to put up around the venue after we arrived. Online badges, offline badges, badges scattered around Leeds… People who collected enough of a group of badges would get a “set” badge. It’s difficult to not look back and wonder if we were becoming obsessed (oh no, the obsession came later)…

Luckily, at the same time as we were working on the list of badges I was working with Bob to understand Credly – our badge platform of choice. Through experiments it became clear that the process of creating badges wasn’t going to be that straightforward. There’s no way to automatically award badges based on any kind of criteria, so that would have to happen manually.

So we scaled things back a bit…

One thing we did stick to was the idea of an “admin” set of badges. The aim here was to introduce players to the basic mechanics of the game.

  • People would claim a first badge through following a link (at which point they’d need to sign up) – this would identify them to us an introduce “badges” as a thing they “claim”.
  • The description attached to that badge would have a code which they would go to Credly to claim, introducing the main game mechanic – claiming using a code.
  • Having seen one/both of the above we would manually give them a badge, introducing the idea of getting badges for actions in the game itself
  • A code up at registration – delegates first code they can claim.

Badge Making

One of the challenges identified with Credly was the badge-making system. It was pretty rudimentary. By far the most attractive I’ve seen made on it actually came from Oxford’s John Ireland after the game had started – but even that lacked a certain artistic “something”, certainly compared to the examples shown on the Credly site itself!

Our effort - John's Effort - Much better effort!

Our effort – John’s Effort – A much better effort!

How were people doing it? It didn’t appear to be a paid-only option… The breakthrough came when I stopped looking and started seeing. It was there the whole time, the link to upload my own badge design!


A quick Google later and I’d made another breakthrough, discovering the excellent Canva – a free online design service that combines built-in elements like shapes, clip art and photos, allows uploads and puts it all together in a really intuitive interface. I can’t recommend it enough. It allowed me, with very little design ability, to put together what I (as modestly as I can) think are a really great looking set of badges.


Through The Looking Glass

The conference was themed around Through the Looking Glass – what inspiration and ideas can we find from outside of higher education? That meant a great programme featuring sessions from the likes of Councils, Schools and Utility companies – but it also meant a rich vein of literature for us to “colour” the event with. And best of all, from my point of view, John Tenniel’s fantastic original illustrations are all in the public domain!


This is where the bulk of the preparation time went – reading and re-reading Alice in Wonderland (interestingly no one seemed to notice the extent to which we considered the two books interchangeable!), then googling for quotes and trying to tie characters and quotes to the 45 badges we finally settled on before the conference.

Click through for PDF of all the badges

Click through for PDF of all the badges

Finishing Touches

We had badges and codes, now we needed players. After a lot of thought and consultation with the UCISA team we agreed on an email invitation to all delegates just before the conference. We had considered sending a badge credit direct from within Credly, but there were concerns about sharing data with a 3rd party we just couldn’t overcome. On reflection I don’t think it made a difference really.

I prepared a load of printed material – Committee notes, location signs, handouts, table sheets and more.

One last touch was the “real world” badges, which I put together with a friend who had access to the right equipment. I felt really strongly that there be some real-world manifestation of the badges, as an extra incentive to participate (though I was proven wrong). We would also have a prize for the most badges collected (I was wary of this at first, but it turned out okay) and a prize draw for everyone who spoke to all the exhibitors.

And finally, another spreadsheet! We’d stuck with the idea of issuing the “set badges” for avid collectors, to help provide a little structure – that was going to be a manual effort, so I’d have to track it.


The email went out to all the delegates a few days before the conference began and about 30 people signed up in the first 48 hours. Not bad, I thought. So, papers, badges and laptops (yes, plural) in hand it was off to Leeds…

Managing the Game

Dealing with the game on-site came down to three tasks (at least at first):

Firstly: Tracking badge claims – this involved regularly (very, very regularly) looking at this page on Credly and updating the spreadsheet which eventually haunted my dreams. I’m only slightly exaggerating. Each “Person claimed Badge” got a tick added to the appropriate cell on the spreadsheet. Fortunately, the Eduroam service provided was excellent – I think an earlier attempt at offering badges at an event in Birmingham had stalled because of wifi problems.

Secondly: Allocating set badges- periodically checking through to see if anyone could be awarded one of the “set badges” for collecting enough of a particular type. Giving them the badge meant another Credly web page and manually adding successful delegates to a list.

Thirdly: Handing out physical badges – people who completed the Admin set got a Mad Hatter badge, people who completed any other set got a White Rabbit badges, with invites to collect these going out with Set Badge messages.

The first one definitely took up the most time. Working through the list of claimed badges was arduous, and there was no easier way I could find. The list updated in a haphazard fashion – there was some kind of chronological listing that clashed with when I updated the page that I think caused issues and consequently some badges were missed. Fortunately, it was possible to cross-check claims by looking at the recipients and what they had, alongside who had claimed each badge.

By the game’s end on Friday morning, we’d gone from about 30 players Tuesday to 76 – making for a potential 3116 claimed/awarded badges. Keeping up was a challenge.

And we were about half way through the first session of the day when I added a fourth task – ad-hoc badges. While we’d dismissed the idea of creating badges to suit the venue and events, the sudden fire alarm and evacuation prompted a number of people to ask – could we have a fire alarm badge!


I obliged, starting what ended up being a spirited trade in what I had to declare “unofficial” badges, lest people get confused come badge-count time. This actually ended up being quite a lot of fun – I could have happily created dozens of new badges, but it would have diverted from the real game…

Unofficial badges

Some of the “Unofficial” badges, generated in response to conference events

Towards the end of the conference I tweaked my approach to the “set badges” a little – I was finding that quite a few people were getting all but one of the badges in the Admin and Conference sets (many missed the code hidden in the description of their very first claimed badge and some folk had problems pinning down at least one exhibitor), so I decided be a little more lenient on those sets.

Game Flow and Codes

We started with the pre-conference invitation email which kicked off the “admin” badge set. This was partly replicated with A4 pages scattered on the conference tables. We shared some getting-started tips for delegates on the conference Padlet, which included an extra code.

From the start and throughout the conference codes were available at reception when people registered, by speaking to exhibitors and speaking to committee members.

A code was given out at the “newbie” delegate induction – we also gave a piece of paper to newbies with a code to give to any returning delegates who introduce themselves.

4 badge codes were hidden in presentations – the first time one appeared it was fantastic to see the penny drop among the delegates, prompting a scramble for pens and phones!

We gave out badge codes for the hardy souls who were there for the start of proceedings on Thursday and Friday morning. Only 21 people managed to collect both…

Thursday’s Parallel sessions had sheets up with codes in the 4 venues and there were 3 codes scattered on tables across the room at dinner.

Finally, we were flexible about a few bits and pieces – in addition to the Fire evacuation badge, we added in a code which the great illustrator who joined us on Thursday incorporated into one of his drawings.

2016-07-07 15.40.40

We’d planned a couple of badges associated with the Treasure Hunt on Wednesday night, including one to be shown on the screen at Millennium Square, but things didn’t quite work out for those. We’d also planned on rewarding everyone who tweeted using the #ussc16 hashtag, and contributed to the Padlet – but we had to drop these because of the amount of work it would have involved. Being flexible and adaptable was a key lesson I’ll reflect on later!

Big Screen

Wrapping Up

So that’s pretty much it – from the initial idea, through developing the badges, learning about the supporting toolset, working with the theme, creating the “art” and other collateral, running the game through the conference and the flow of the game.

In addition to the physical badges people could claim, we awarded two prizes at the conference close. The first was a prize draw for everyone who spoke to all the exhibitors (everyone who had been awarded the I Met All The Exhibitors “set badge” – see my note earlier about people who struggled! – had their names written on bits of paper and a winner was drawn). The second was the fiercely contested “most badges” prize – and went to someone who’d collected 38 out of the 41 badges available and remarkably did so without cheating!

Watch out for the next blog – I’ll share some of the final stats, feedback and what I learned!


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