Unlocking achievers

The events of the past week have conspired to shake this idea loose within my dusty innards. In fact, this post wouldn’t exist without a multistage chain of causality. Considering this post itself is about the interaction of links and commenting, it is in a sense shaped like itself. Observe:

To kick things off, my friend Carrie Brown reposted this story about World of Warcraft’s paywall approach as a potential model for newspapers to adapt (if not adopt). The points in brief:

  1. People will pay for interaction
  2. News as gaming: And gaming involves a hand in shaping content, much like Dan Gillmor’s idea of the read/write web.
  3. Reward readers via rewards and unlockables.

Another friend, Hans Meyer, followed up on Carrie’s post to build on the idea. Citing the original’s argument, that many news orgs ignore comments even while WoW users are paying in part for that interaction, Hans tosses out the suggestion of a system of medals or badges similar to what’s used in massively multiplayer gaming (and kindly cites my own argument about the collecting habit in the process). One might rack up achievements, he suggests, through posting, or through providing solid tips, or some other such system.

This idea got me thinking about how to reward those who participate while not creating barriers to those who are not yet on board. The ideal should be to encourage quality participation from all parties involved while at the same time remaining accessible to newcomers. In my gaming experience, the business of rewards takes two forms: Levels and achievements, so I’ll take a look at them as possible options.

This will not be you.

Option one: Levels, as in gaining levels through your accomplishments. To level (see noun #6 and verb #3) means the game has changed – you’re bigger, stronger now, but the challenges you face also tend to increase, so the level 5 gnome is playing a different game than the level 2 one.

The idea of levels seems interesting, but also harbors a potential problem: Levels give us something to aspire to, but they also may provide a reward to some at the cost of driving off others. Think about it: There are some who log in to WoW and see the level 70 necromancer with the epic mount and think “That’s what *I* want,” but there are others, perhaps many, who see that same guy and think “There’s no way I’ll have the time/resources/socks to do that” and head back to Bejeweled.

One more issue: What’s so special about that guy in the first place? Sure, in a game it makes perfect sense that those who pay their dues reap the rewards, but does it send the same message in news? Maybe the implication there is that this guy’s opinion is worth more than yours because he’s a regular. That’s not automatically bad, but it requires weighing rewards for the loyal with the potential of driving off newcomers.

You want this.

On the other hand, some people’s thoughts ARE better. Gawker’s starred commenter system – where the default is to hide the comments of commenters without stars – is an interesting example of this. Not only that, but starred commenters on sites like Gawker, Kotaku, and Deadspin can also boost the nonstarred by promoting them in the comment thread. Still feel bad for those unheard commenters? Go ahead and click the “show all comments” button – try it here – and start reading the unfiltered feed. You’ll shut it back off again, I promise; once you taste the nectar of a higher signal-to-noise ratio, forever will it dominate how you read.

If not levels, then, what? How about the Xbox alternative of achievements? Achievements are little things that are unlocked for little (and big) accomplishments – on Xbox they add to your Gamerscore. You rack them up, they show up on your profile, they make you feel good … and they have little to no influence on gameplay. Yet people pursue them, even sometimes cheat for them. What’s more, the achievement is an incentive for both the WoWer and the Bejeweler.


That’s because there’s a difference between levels and achievements as incentives. Levels, as mentioned, mean your game has changed, and that your experience is no longer that of some others. Achievements, on the other hand, mean demonstrated proficiency, not privileges. An achiever may look good, and there will surely be competition to unlock achievements more and faster, but at the end of the day they are an incentive that are less likely to daunt the newcomer.

Maybe it’s my Boy Scout heritage, but Internet achievements could function like merit badges. The only advantage gained is braggin’ rights, so any boost would come from the actions of the community rather than from an administrator or other power. They could be just as much an incentive as levels, but more democratic and less divisive.

(As a final note: It’s also interesting that the WoW forums themselves are grappling with a similar question: How do we allow maximum participation with minimal shenanigans?)