Ultimate Gamification, via Stack Overflow

As a technology analyst, I used to write about social media software: software that allows social media marketing people to measure, monitor and manage employee or user engagement with dynamic, published content.


Well, at the time, it wasn’t a yawn: about 5 years ago, the space was spanking new and the tools that emerged were brilliant and fascinating to anyone in marketing.

Imaginary and Arbitrary

A special subset of this software is gamification: software that allows companies to create a system of different ranks, rewards, titles, points, stickers, or badges, along with lists of requisites and accomplishments that need to be completed before the digital goodies can be awarded.

When used internally, employees would somehow feel rewarded for generating a certain level of social media activity, or completing various steps in an internal training course. The badges would reside next to the employee’s profile in a corporate Intranet, giving a sense of empowerment (Perfect in a post-downturn economy in which bonuses or raises continue to be scarce).

When used publicly, such as for online communities, members would gain a sense of accomplishment, and other members would consider these superstars experts in what it is they do.

The problem is that most badge or gamification systems simply don’t work. It’s all arbitrary, with no real rewards. Let’s face it, does anyone know off-hand their most recent badges or mayorships on Foursquare (excuse me, Swarm)?

My stickers on the Swarm app. My stickers on the Swarm app.

At least with the Employee of the Month program, you might get a free gift card from your boss. Plus you could add it to the Awards section of your LinkedIn profile.

Change of Heart

My opinion of badge systems changed when I started spending quality time with Stack Overflow, a programmer’s best friend. I happened upon their badge page and was shocked to see 89 badges in 6 categories!

This is ridiculous, I thought. No one is going to care about this.

But I was wrong.

Badges are the heart and soul of the reputation management of Stack Overflow. The editors, reviewers, and managers of Stack Overflow clearly take things very seriously. Other programmers I’ve met constantly complain about Stack Overflow, how nearly impossible it is to move up the rankings, but there’s a reason for this.

In short, the gamification of Stack Overflow works because the intent of the site’s users is correlated with economic value:

  1. Experts regularly answer questions on Stack Overflow so as to increase their reputation, thereby creating a living document of their expertise and professional background. This helps if that programmer is looking for a new job or is a consultant seeking new, higher-paying projects.

  2. For those who just want to get their questions answered, either by posting them or performing searches (“Google the error message”), you won’t waste your time utilizing a solution given by an expert with a lower ranking. You can have your problem solved and get back to work quickly, saving time and your reputation. This has a direct consequence for the work you do for your team, manager, or client.

The Answer Badges on Stack Overflow. Answer badges on Stack Overflow

Can you imagine the disappointment and failures if the system wasn’t as difficult and complicated as it is?

Given an industry of half-baked gamification efforts, I hesitate to associate Stack Overflow’s systems with that of the larger industry of social media and community management software.

However, Stack Overflow is the perfect example of how gamification can work for everyone’s benefit. (And to be fair, it’s not all for economic benefit: altruism does exist and is rampant on the site.)

Oh, and in case you’re interested, my reputation on Stack Overflow stands proudly at 26:

Jake's Stack Overflow Profile