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What Video Games Can Teach Us about Badges and Pathways

Author: Lucas Blair, Chapter 7 in Digital Badges in Education: Trends, Issues, and Cases, By Lin Y. Muilenburg, Zane L. Berge

In many ways games and educational systems aim to accomplish the same things. Both are designed to move participants through an experience by equipping them with knowledge and skills. Both games and educational systems rely on goal setting, feedback loops, difficulty that scales along with participant experience, and incentivizing continued participation. Because of the similarities between the design and intent of games and educational systems it shouldn’t be a surprise that in many cases they reach the same conclusions about the best way to accomplish that intent. Video games have a big head start on the digital badge community utilizing badges and pathways. The gaming community just uses different terminology for them. In video games, badges are called achievements and pathways are called skill trees.

There are thousands of games that have used these mechanics when accounting for all platforms. The story of each one of those little experiments is filled with successes, failures, innovations, and evolutions. Not only have game developers had a head start, but they are building systems for audiences on a massive scale that is bigger than anything that has been made for digital badges. Ignoring this kind of information is folly, but so far we have stuck primarily to academic explorations of the psychology behind digital badges and limited our case studies to the systems our community has made in the past few years. We are reinventing the wheel when another industry is already making supercars.

This chapter is organized by achievement and skill tree design techniques with game examples that illustrate them. Because the vast number of games that contain achievements and skill trees as well as the limited amount of documentation on their designs, the majority of the examples in the chapter are taken from the author’s experience as a player and designer. This chapter is not meant to discuss every aspect of achievement systems and skill trees in games. Nor is it a complete picture of everything that is going on in all games. The examples in this chapter are meant to be a collection of exemplars that represent patterns in the game industry, good and bad design decisions, interesting techniques, and the impact they have on players. Digital badge systems can be made better by understanding what video games have done with similar mechanics and the lessons learned should be applied to systems being built today. This is especially true if badge earners are “gamers”, a demographic that according to the ESA (Entertainment Software Association) is 59% of Americans. They will be used to the mechanics but may be underwhelmed by systems that do not utilize what they are accustomed to seeing in games.

Before we dig in, a few definitions and a little history are in order. Every example of achievements in this chapter will come from entertainment games after 2005. That year is when Microsoft coined the term “achievement” and began using achievements in the Xbox 360 Gamerscore system. Many other systems and game services followed suit within a few years, including PlayStation trophies, PC game cloud platforms like Steam, as well as social and mobile games. Skill trees, the gaming analogue of badge pathways, are older than achievements. For example, the strategy game Sid Meier's Civilization featured a technology tree, the precursor to the skill tree, in 1991. Soon they were adopted by other genres like role-playing games (RPG). Skill trees in games are not a collection or ordering of achievements as we think of badges relating to pathways. Instead, skill trees are a mechanism designed to allow players to unlock skills and enhancements in games at a controlled rate as they progress through game content. Skill trees can be compared to badge pathways because they represent all possibilities to players in a game. This is the same way that a badge pathway represents what badges earners can achieve within a system as well as the order in which they should be earned. Skill trees also act as a goal setting and planning mechanism.


The differences between digital badges and achievements are mostly semantic. Each exists as an additional layer on top of some core experience they are meant to enhance. They represent a goal before they are earned and an artifact of the accomplishment afterwards. Also, they are both data rich and can provide important insights into earner behavior.

Achievements, just like badges, are awarded after certain performance criteria have been met, or when one or more tasks are completed. Most games strike a reasonable balance between achievements awarded for performance and achievements awarded for completing something. Many games, especially those that have a clearly defined start and end, also use achievements to mark milestones and show a player’s progress to their peers. For example, an achievement for defeating a boss in a game is something that every player who beats that game will complete. Players cannot skip boss fights, so the achievements earned for them really only serve as proof of progression. The educational equivalent to these types of badges would be for completing a grade or graduating. More performance-based achievements may also exist for the same boss fight; for example, killing a boss and not losing health or using a difficult strategy can earn a player an achievement. These achievements are more difficult and the expectation is that players will return to the same fight over and over again in order to earn the achievement, even though they have already progressed past that point in the game. This is beneficial to players because they can set additional goals for themselves after the core experience is completed. From the developer's perspective these require much less work to implement than creating new content. In education, badges that accomplish the same thing could be added at the end of a unit or semester to keep advanced students engaged. Players can also earn achievements through exploration of game environments or by collecting objects. These achievements are designed to increase playtime and encourage players to deviate from the main goals of the game. There are also achievements that are meant to challenge players by requiring performances that are above and beyond what an average player is capable of or at least interested in completing. These achievements can require flawless performances or rely heavily on luck, what players call RNG (random number generator). An example of this is the achievement “A Monument To All Your Sins” in the game Halo: Reach, which required the player to complete every campaign mission in the game on legendary difficulty without any outside help. Other achievements are difficult only because they require a lot of time to earn or “grind out”. These achievements usually have less to do with skill than a player’s willingness to do tasks over and over again. This can be seen in reputation quests in Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) games or in the achievement “Seriously...” in the game Gears of War. The “Seriously...” achievement required players to kill 10,000 opponents in ranked multiplayer matches, a feat reported to take hundreds of hours of gameplay to complete. In education badges that follow a similar design to these extreme achievements should be used sparingly. When used in games they are typically only earned by a very small percentage of the playerbase and do not improve performance in enough players to be useful.

Once the spectrum of achievement difficulty within a system is defined, the next logical question is how many increments should be along that experience. The number of achievements in games is often related to the amount of content. For example, according to, a popular World of Warcraft (WoW) information database, there are 3,113 character and 322 guild achievements in the game. WoW can contain this many achievements because the amount of content available to players is enormous. When deciding on the best number of digital badges the lesson taken from games should be to have enough badges to give earners enough choices so they can differentiate themselves but not so many that they are overwhelmed. Another consideration is the range of player ability, what is acceptable as “passing”, and what is expected to be the upper limit of performance. Strategies from games like using meta and incremental achievements that increase the time spent on achievements, are a technique that some digital badges are already utilizing. Incremental badges are badges that have the same general requirements but increase the difficulty in set amounts. This limits the number of unique badges that have to be developed and also scales well with player ability. Meta badges are badges that are awarded for earning full sets of other badges. These are designed to encourage players to obtain all badges and are also a good technique to group badges that are related. In education when badges are chunked into meta-badges the groups can often be tied to related learning objectives.

No matter how many achievements are in a system, almost all of them are awarded in recognition for something done well or completed successfully. However, some achievements are earned for doing something negative - for example, a player failing a certain number of times. Sometimes these achievements are perceived by the players as the developer playfully poking fun at them. Other times they can be an added annoyance to an already frustrating situation for the player. This is something that would be generally frowned upon in the digital badge world as well, especially in the realm of education.

However, another type of negative achievement that occurs in games may be an important exception to this general rule. Some games are punishingly difficult by design. Players are expected to perform flawlessly with very little margin of error and play levels over and over again because they fail so often. These types of games including Super Meat Boy, The Binding of Isaac, Dark Souls, and games from the “Roguelike” genre, let players know it is ok to fail. In these cases the framing and context that the achievements are awarded in is very important. For example, The Binding of Isaac has an achievement for dying 100 times. This is an interesting methodology for getting players in a mindset that failure is a celebrated part of the game and everyone dies. Another interesting example, from the game Dark Souls II, is the achievement awarded the first time a player dies, called "This is Dark Souls". This achievement sets the stage for a game in which players die hundreds of times to achieve victory. How different would a digital badge system for education be if it let earners know they will fail continuously and it is ok? These games teach us that badges in education for failure should be badges of honor and could be used to encourage risk taking and unique strategies if they are framed properly.

The social aspect of achievements is a major contributing factor to their popularity in games. Achievements can be shared in many ways in video games. Immediate sharing of an earned achievement takes place in some games when the requirements are met and the achievement is officially received. These notifications are broadcasted to anyone in the immediate area. In some cases, like MMOs, they are also announced to the player’s teammates or “guild”. A more permanent sharing occurs when a player’s earned achievements become part of their permanent profile and in many cases available for other players to see. This acts as a record of the player’s experiences. The collection becomes an additional identity for the player, especially when achievements are shared across characters or across games. This ties the accomplishments to the player and not the game character. The earned achievements are also an indicator of play style and past performance. This creates interesting scenarios where players exclude other players in co-op games because of their lack of certain achievements. “Link your achievement” is a common phrase in World of Warcraft seen by players before starting a PuG or “Pick up group” that comprises random players. The players use achievements as proof of capability. They want to be reassured that an inexperienced player is not going to be the weak link in their group. Players strive for efficiency and having to teach someone how to do something is an inefficiency that many players will not tolerate. In some cases this behavior creates a Catch-22 that prevents new players from gaining experience. This is a serious problem and has been present in World of Warcraft since the introduction of achievements; it is an important lesson for anyone implementing digital badges into group settings. The achievements players have are part of that their identity, but so are the achievements players do not have. This issue has been lamented by players in other platforms as well. In an educational setting where students tend to form cliques and exclude others it is important to consider the possibility of a badge systems making those situations worse. Another interesting phenomenon occurs when another layer of value is placed on achievements like the Gamerscore on Xbox 360. This system assigns a numeric value to achievements and the total value of a player’s achievements is called that player’s Gamerscore. This system is one more step removed from the original game content. Because of this, some players strive to maximize their Gamerscore by finding the easiest achievements possible across all games. The lesson for educators is to remember that students, just like players, will always find the path of least resistance in a system in order to accomplish a goal. Earners become focused on the “score” and lose sight of the experience the designer intended them to have.

Earning achievements in games is not limited to individuals. Even beyond a group of players working in a team to earn individual achievements, as described above, is another level of achievement where players work to earn badges for an organization of which they are a part. “Guild” and “clan” are terms used to describe a formalized collection of players who work together in a game. Some games have created achievement systems at this level of player organization within the game. In MMOs, like World of Warcraft, WildStar, and EverQuest II, guilds earn achievements through the efforts of their members. The actual achievement does not stay in the individual player profiles but instead is attached to the guild itself. The player’s association with the achievement is secondhand via their membership in the guild. Players can benefit from guild level perks that are unlocked by the success of their guild. The idea of guild-level accomplishments could be incorporated into a classroom to encourage cooperation among peers. In this scenario students would work together to accomplish some large goal that would be too large for any single student to achieve. For example earning an average grade above a certain threshold or completing large scale projects as a class.


Skill trees, as defined previously, are a collection of items that give players additional abilities and/or passive bonuses that can be unlocked while playing a game. The number of obtainable skills is typically greater than the number of skill points the player has to allocate. This creates several important effects on players. Firstly, it forces the players to decide on a play style or an approach by deciding what skills they obtain and the order in which they attain them. It also gives the players a sense of ownership over the character they are playing because of their involvement in its customization. Finally, because the skill tree is a map of possibilities for the player, it creates a goal setting environment where players decide on a “build” or an approach for which skills to obtain long before they have played enough to unlock them. This goal setting behavior is an incentive for the player to return. Several important design factors in skill trees can change the effect they have on players.

The arrangement of a skill tree, hierarchically and visually, is very deliberate and is much more than just an aesthetic design. How a skill tree is organized imparts information to the players before they begin to explore the game’s contents. The shape can imply how many alternatives there are or imply where a player should start and expect to end. It may show players they can be good or evil, stealthy or brazen, a character that works well in teams, or one more suited for solo play. Skill trees come in many shapes and sizes, varying greatly across genres. The turn-based strategy game Sid Meier's Civilization used skill trees, or “technology trees”, to visually show the progression of technology a civilization would experience as it becomes more advanced over time. These game timelines last from the Stone Age to the modern age and beyond. The game lets the players decide which technologies to invest in and then develop strategies based on the technologies they chose. For example, if a player’s civilization was close to the sea the player would invest in shipbuilding technology as opposed to a landlocked player who would not benefit from that technology. The tech trees in Sid Meier's Civilization were tied only to the specific match in which the player was involved. At the end of the game the tech tree resets and the player begins with a new tree during the next game. The lesson for badge creators is to not just focus on designing at the badge level but also at the system level where collections of badges become pathways. The system view and the information it conveys is often the first thing an earner will encounter. That structure should help earners make decisions and understand what they are about to participate in.

Skill trees became even more potent when they were attached to characters. This attachment, unlike the more ephemeral strategy game tech trees, gave the skill tree a permanence that through the game character became attached to the player. It gave players a sense of ownership and a sense of identity. RPGs like Diablo 2, which was published in 2000, used simple three-column skill trees for each character type in the game. Each column contained 10 skills or passive enhancements and was labeled to identify the focus of that particular column. This style is still seen today in games like Borderlands 2. Since Diablo 2’s release a multitude of RPGs have incorporated more complex skill trees with many organization types. Games like Final Fantasy X and Path of Exile use nonlinear, almost organic shapes that resemble mind maps. Their structures use the size and color of different nodes to denote relationships and hierarchy. Another RPG, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, uses constellations as its skill trees with each skill being represented by a star and different constellations representing different aspects of gameplay. Other genres, like action games, have included simple linear skill trees that offer the players limited choices, but still allow players to augment certain skills or identify a playstyle they prefer. This can be seen in the 2013 release of Tomb Raider. Another unique example of linear skill trees in modern games can be seen in Darkest Dungeon, a rogue-like dungeon exploration game, in which players use linear skill trees to upgrade the buildings in a small town. Buildings with more upgrades provide the player’s team of adventurers more effective treatment and items. When creating badge pathways it is important for designers to remember the sense of ownership earners will have over their decisions and how that will become a reflection of who they are within that context.

The size and pacing of skill trees is another important aspect of their design. If players move through skill trees too quickly they may be overwhelmed by the amount of new skills or the tasks they have to do to complete them. If they progress too slowly they may not feel their efforts are being rewarded. The frequency with which players unlock items is typically faster when they start an experience and slower the further they progress in a game. One of the justifications for this design is that players who are well into a skill tree are already committed to the experience and are likely willing to wait longer between achieving goals. Leveling systems in games are usually structured in a similar way. Skill trees are also paced so that the skills available to players are typically more powerful as they progress through the tree. This is done to ensure the game difficulty is balanced with player abilities. Another benefit of this design decision is that players desire more powerful skills. Placing those skills deeper into a skill tree requires the player to spend more time in the game. These design strategies are very similar to those used by instructional designers when designing a piece of curriculum. When creating badge pathways consider the rate at which badges will be earned and increase badge difficulty along the pathway in alignment with player ability.

Some games group skills together based on player experience. An example of this can be seen in the game Dying Light which contains clear labels for novice, adept, and expert level skills within the tree. The number of nodes in a skill tree is another important consideration. Some games have small focused skill trees with a limited amount of variability. An example of this is Tomb Raider which has 24 skills spread across three categories. This game also allows individual skills within a tree to be leveled up more than once, a technique that many games use to get more out of shorter skill trees. This unlocks more powerful versions of the same skill. Players also have the option of using a single point to unlock a node in the skill tree and then moving on to more desirable skills further along. At the opposite end of the spectrum is a game like Path of Exile, which has 1,325 skills that players can spend only 120 points obtaining. One reason for the difference between these two examples is that they are from different genres. Tomb raider is an action-adventure first person shooter. Players are not expected to spend hours analyzing an optimized build. The skill trees are meant to add a little boost to the player’s chosen playstyle and give them a few customization options, whereas Path of Exile is an RPG, a genre known for having more complex skill trees and a player-base that is expected to invest a good deal of time customizing their characters. Another consideration is how many times designers expect players to go through the experience also called “replay value” or “replayability.” A game like Tomb Raider will be played through only once by many players. So a solid initial experience is critical to the success of the game. Alternatively, in RPGs like Path of Exile, players are expected to make and remake multiple characters in an effort to find better strategies or experience the game in a new way. In some RPGs it is actually possible to have a build that will prevent players from completing the game, because the skills they have chosen make their character ineffective. The educational equivalent of this would be taking the wrong classes or learning the wrong skills for a desired career. This is why players spend a great deal of time planning, in and out of the game. Players accomplish this by using “skill calculators”, a skill tree simulator outside of the game, to experiment with different builds.

The player behavior described above, sometimes called “min-maxing”, or finding the optimal strategy or build, is worth further examination. This behavior challenges designers to build systems that do not have a single best technique, but instead offer players the opportunity to try multiple builds or strategies and still be competitive. The digital badging equivalent of “min-maxing” behavior may be finding the badge pathways that take the least amount of time or effort for the same rewards as other pathways. Alternatively, earners may find that one particular path has a better experience or is more rewarding in some way. If the majority of a population of badge earners is only experiencing a small segment of the available content, it could be problematic. Game players and badge earners often find the path of least resistance if given enough time. Also, the internet allows them to share those strategies. Games solve this problem by constantly adjusting the skills available in trees based on community feedback, play testing, and data collection.


The statement that “thousands of games” use achievements and skill trees at the beginning of this chapter was not meant to be intimidating. It was meant to be exciting. This chapter is a glimpse into the realm of achievements and skill trees in games. There are many other design techniques that the badge community can adopt and case studies that should be examined. Use the examples in this chapter as a starting point to finding those best practices and exemplars. Then do what game designers do: take the best ideas, make them your own, and improve upon them.


Essential Facts About the Computer and Video Game Industry. (2014). Retrieved June 28, 2015, from

Achievements. (n.d.) . Retrieved June 28, 2015, from

Games Referenced

MicroProse (1991) Sid Meier's Civilization, Publ. MicroProse.

Bungie (2010) Halo: Reach, Publ. Microsoft Game Studios

Epic Games, People Can Fly, Black Tusk Studios (2013) Gears of War, Publ. Microsoft Studios

Team Meat (2010) Super Meat Boy, Publ. Microsoft Game Studios

Edmund McMillen, Florian Himsl (2011) The Binding of Isaac

From Software (2011) Dark Souls, Publ. Namco Bandai Games

From Software (2014) Dark Souls II, Publ. Namco Bandai Games

Blizzard Entertainment (2004) World of Warcraft, Publi. Blizzard Entertainment

Carbine Studios (2014) WildStar, Publi. NCSOFT

Daybreak Game Company (2004) EverQuest II, Publi. Daybreak Game Company

Gearbox Software (2012) Borderlands 2, Publi. 2K Games

Blizzard North (2000) Diablo II, Publi. Blizzard Entertainment

Square (2001) Final Fantasy X, Publi. Square EA

Grinding Gear Games (2013) Path of Exile, Publi. Grinding Gear Games

Bethesda Game Studios (2011) The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Publi. Bethesda Game Studios

Crystal Dynamics (2013) Tomb Raider, Publi. Square Enix

Red Hook Studios (2015) Darkest Dungeon

DMU Timestamp: November 03, 2016 14:13

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