Badges In Wonderland – 10 Things We Learned Gamifying a Conference

Following up from my earlier blog on the “how” of gamifying the UCISA Support Services Conference (USSC16) in Leeds this year, here’s (finally!) the notes on what I learned from the experience – things that worked, things that didn’t work and things I’d definitely do if I had to do it again!

Note – apologies, I’ve used the term “credit” and “badges” interchangeably throughout this blog. The idea, taken from Credly, is that Badges are the manifestation of credit that you have been given or claimed.

1. Have a Theme

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Work with a strong theme and use it to tie together things like credit names and any imagery. This will give a nice coherent feel to the experience, link the games to the conference content (rather than making it feel like something “tacked on” to the event) and help inspire game content.

If the event doesn’t have a nicely developed theme already then work with the organisers to come up with something you can still use to tie it all together. I feel this is a really important aspect and possibly critical to running a game at all – it doesn’t just put “flesh” on the framework of your game, it provides a more engaging experience.

We were lucky that there was already a well-defined theme for the conference – Through The Looking Glass, with all the Alice in Wonderland material that came with it. This worked really well for the game, offering both visual (critically – public domain!) and text collateral that we could use to add colour. It also made for a great general conference theme.

2. Consider your Audience

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Another critical question, what will your audience make of it? What might seem like an entertaining exercise for the party animals who came along to Leeds might not work with a more straight-laced crowd.

Consider if there are any indicators about the audience that might help you decide how to approach things. For example, how common is social media use amongst delegates and what is the tone? I believe that Twitter engagement was a good predictor of participation for us, where both the proportion of delegates who were active online was high and the general tone of tweets was fun, verging on playful.

This wasn’t a subject we thought about very much – the decision to introduce gamification was done and dusted when I started helping – but it should be considered, not least because thinking about this will also feed into the next point…

3. Plan for Intent

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Remember the aim of the game isn’t (just) fun! Seriously. You’re doing this to encourage certain activities and behaviours amongst event delegates.

Think through what you’d like to encourage. What serves your goals as organiser? For us a large element was encouraging interactions – between delegates, between delegates and exhibitors, engaging online… Once we satisfied that requirement we felt free to add some bits around the sides that were a bit less driven and more fun, such as credits that could be claimed at the dinner and for making the session starts first thing in the mornings (I said they were party animals).

Think also about your audience, what they will value and what they will consider important from your event. If you can offer some elements of your game that overlap with their objectives for the event, then it will help drive delegate participation.

4. Understand the Programme and the Geography

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Study the event programme carefully for content ideas, credit opportunities and participant behaviours you want to encourage. Where can the game be invoked to drive participation and be not just another “layer” to the programme but an integral part of it?

For us I think hiding badge codes in people’s presentations was a great idea. I was sat at the back of the room when the first one appeared in Bob’s presentation and watching the audience first realise what they were seeing and then frantically scrabble to photograph or write down the code was a wonderful moment!

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Look for opportunities to communicate about the game. I think we missed a trick not having a good plan around communication and much of it (particularly the getting-up-and-speaking bits) were uncomfortably improvised at several points. We could have presented it much better with a little planning.

If you can, take a look at where your event will be taking place. Consider how people will move around and where you might want to place any credit claims in the venue. You’ll be able to spot any physical constraints you need to take into account, as well as things like how an A4 sign might look compared to A3 etc… I just rocked up to the venue with a random selection of printed material and hoped for the best – but with a little knowledge and planning I could have put together something better looking and more appropriate for location/surroundings.

5. Understand Your Platform

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If you’ve known me for a while, you might recall that a few years ago I did a whole thing on Idea Management and Innovation. One of the points I made about that was that the platform you use to support and enable an idea management exercise was one of the less important aspects of driving innovation – the same is true here. What platform or provider you use for issuing and verifying badges isn’t important.

What IS important is selecting based on how it supports how you want to run your game and then understanding how it works from both “back office admin” and “player” perspectives, as this may offer up opportunities you hadn’t considered, as well as constraints you might need to take into account when planning your game.

Using Credly as our badge issuer came very early in the process for us and learning its functionality and limitations as we planned was a key factor in how we developed our game. Even once we’d thought we had it cracked, simple things like adding badges and uploading images revealed new issues that changed the game slightly.

Administratively we made our lives more complicated than perhaps they needed to be, as we didn’t realise until quite late on that our idea of issuing “set badges” for people who gathered all of a type or theme of badge was going to mean a lot of work during the conference and would have to be manually tracked, one claimed badge at a time.

A better understanding of the ways Credly worked might also have helped make the player’s lives easier too. It was only on the first morning of the conference that, having built a game around codes that needed to be entered into a website, we twigged it could be done with QR codes (as claim codes can be embedded in URLs) – making the process of claiming a badge significantly easier for mobile players!

6. Be Realistic

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Don’t go nuts! Hundreds of badges to collect devalues each action or interaction required to claim the credit and may be off-putting to participants who would otherwise consider gamification to be a fun and useful extra layer to your event.

Be mindful of what you want to achieve, your audience and the constraints you’re working with to put together something that adds value and colour, not creates an imposition.

We started off with outrageous ideas of badges pretty much everywhere, even behind the hotel bar. As we learned the constraints we had to work with and formed a better idea of what gamification of an event like a conference should involve we whittled this down to a more manageable list, but we could have gone into the event with upwards of 80 credits for people to claim.

I’d need a little more experimentation to work out a comfortable number of credits for a game, but from USSC16 we had:

  • 40 badges claimable (minus abandoned ones, plus ad-hoc ones)
  • 75 participants from ~120 delegates – 62% engagement
  • Claiming 1282 total badges
  • 44% of participants claimed over half the available badges
  • Over 2 days of events

Somewhere in there is, perhaps, a formula or rule of thumb for game size, like having 20 badges per day of event, or 1 badge for every 3 delegates.

Certainly you should aim to spread out opportunities for credit claiming over the event, both through the volume of credits to claim and when credits become available to claim in the first place. A game everyone wraps up in the first few hours isn’t likely to have added much to your event!

For example, meeting all of our conference exhibitors (a key behaviour for us) would take delegates time in the breaks between sessions, meaning they would only be able to claim all the credit for meeting them over the duration of the conference. We also made badge codes available at various points of the programme, not just in people’s presentations, but for things like making morning sessions “after the night before”, keeping the game going until about half-way through the last session of the conference.

7. Introduce the Game

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Think about if and how you might introduce your participants to your game and its game mechanics. Just as video games start with a tutorial level introducing the fundamentals and controls, you might want to do this too. But be clear about how and when you’re doing this for your participants, so they understand that you’re trying to teach them.

We attempted this, with our first set of badges being awarded by inviting participants to Credly (to get them signed up), getting them to find a code in the description for the first badge (so they understand they use codes to claim badges), offering a code at the conference registration (so they understand they can find codes around the venue) and then giving them a badge manually, so it doesn’t come as a surprise when we do it again.

On paper this felt fine, but we could probably have made it more transparent both in advance and during our “training level” that we were showing the different means through which they could claim credit. Most tellingly, only 32 of our 75 participants found the code hidden in the description of the first badge – it wasn’t clear they had to look for it (and Credly made it an extra click away).

8. Real Life Mementos

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I felt really strongly we should offer physical rewards to go with the online ones, so I called in a favour and sourced some real-world badges to hand out to participants who completed certain tasks…

But, despite sending out invitations to quite a few people, I came home with a looooot of badges.I won’t pretend to know why. And while those who did collect their badges were very keen, I was quite surprised that more folk weren’t interested.

I’d do it again, but I probably wouldn’t do so many! On the other hand the conference award for “Most Badges”, about which I’d been uncertain, saw some almost rabid competition.

The lesson here? Do something real-world and tangible for people, but use your judgement (and understanding of the audience) about what.

9. Plan, Test and Test Again

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Bring everything together and think through how it’s going to work on the day. If I have one regret about playing a part in this, it’s that I was so busy “running” the game that I actually missed out on quite a bit of the conference – in fact many of the things we were encouraging our delegates to do, I didn’t have enough time for myself!

If I’d taken the time to do a dry-run I’d perhaps have seen how much work was involved and either scaled things back, or got some extra help. Do this yourself and make sure you’re clear on roles and responsibilities in advance.

10. Be flexible

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You’ve considered, you’ve planned, you’ve prepared, you’ve tested… But remain flexible, avoid limiting yourself to a very fixed game or you may miss opportunities.

We changed some of the terms of the game at a couple of points, beginning with unofficial badges which reflected events during the conference, giving the feel of a game linked and integral to the proceedings. If you do this, be clear about whether or not they “count” towards any kind of competition you’re running! Also ensure you share them broadly – Twitter saw a healthy market in unofficial badge codes, but that obviously left non-Twitter users at a disadvantage.

We also took bits out of the game when it looked like they either weren’t going to work or were actually working against our participants. For example, it became clear part way through the conference that most participants were having problems speaking to one of our exhibitors, so I relaxed the requirements for the “met all the exhibitors” set badge to acknowledge this.

But all changes like this should work in the participant’s benefit, under no circumstances disadvantage people or they will feel cheated and lose interest!

***

Those are my tips on gamifying a conference, probably best enjoyed alongside my previous notes on how we did it.

I feel I should add an eleventh – which is to have fun. From the planning through to handing out the “most badges” award at the end of the conference (and even though it was a pretty full-on job at points) I really enjoyed myself and found the whole thing to be very fulfilling!

ucisabadgesml Special secret bonus if you made it all the way to the end!

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