contact us

Use the form on the right to contact us.

You can edit the text in this area, and change where the contact form on the right submits to, by entering edit mode using the modes on the bottom right.

20 Grove St
Somerville MA, 01609
United States

Game Design On Demand. Building mobile games for spaces. Museums, games, education and other great adventures.


Building mobile games for spaces. Museums, games, education and other great adventures.

Filtering by Category: Game Design Thinking

Badges and Gamification

Kellian Adams


 People often ask me about "Gamification" and "Badges", two words that make any game designer cringe. Badges are the most visible but reductionist and often harmful version of an otherwise complex study. "ification" or "ify" usually suggests that something is NOT something and you're shoehorning it to make it that.


A dead giveaway is that nobody who works with AAA games or high-quality games talks about badges or gamification. Why? because those things are already fun. You don't need to "ify" Portals, it's already a pretty fun game. Is education so impossible that we have to "funify" it rather than just make it fun? Why do we need to hack education and culture with gimmicky level ups rather than just make it engaging? I think that's lazy on our parts. We want to teach the same old way we've always taught (even though kids in today's world respond to information in a totally different way than they ever have) but we'll throw them a bone and give them a meaningless prize for slogging through our bad design. Shame on you, gamification. We don't need to "gamify" education, we need to bake fun, engaging, interactive strategies for teaching right into the heart of it.

Bieber badge
Bieber badge

As for badges: I do have some experience. We had badges at SCVNGR and while SCVNGR had a lot of good parts to it, the badging was totally useless. One time we sent out a "Kim Jong FUn" badge and everyone got it for no reason...which pretty much undermines everything. I'll never forget Jeff Kirchik on calls trying to explain to Universities why he had the "Justin Bieber badge ("So on this screen are my badges... I didn't actually earn the JB badge... in fact I don't know why I have it. In fact I hate Justin Bieber.") I think to be successful, badges have to serve one of two purposes: either they show progress/success or they build community. Most badges are just progress bars essentially- it's just a more colorful way to show people that they succeeded. SCVNGR badges failed because we really gave them out randomly-- they didn't mark any sort of success or mastery or progression.  


I think one group  that works with earned badging well is CodeAcademy ( It's challenging content and they show you a nice grid of what there is for you to learn- it's essentially a curriculum but it looks like badges. Every badge you win gets you closer to being able to actually have a marketable skill. I hear DuoLingo does that as well (I haven't played its recent iteration) but the badges mark your progress on learning a marketable skill- a language. I think kung-fu belts are another good way to see this. Or grades. Alone, the belts are just a colored strip- the grades are just a letter. They're only worth something if everyone agrees that these random symbols can represent that the user has achieved mastery on some level.

The other type of badging is community badging like FourSquare or Ingress. FourSquare was interesting because you knew the other players (usually). You could steal badges from them or compare badges. Girl Scouts have a similar dynamic. You all work together as a community to get that badge and you display it publicly so everyone can see how much you belong. The badge doesn't necessarily show mastery of a topic as much as it shows the amount of time you've spent with the community. Ingress also has a sort of social-badge system where you level up and when you're a level 8, you can do all sorts of extra stuff. Level 8's help level 1's and level 1's work hard to become level 8's so they can hang out with the cool kids. (SCVNGR wanted to be a social badging system but it didn't work because players weren't a close-knit community and a lot of the badges were given at random.)

The trouble with badges is that it's usually a colorful band-aid that people put on bad design. People don't care about badges, they care about success and community, which can be represented by badges. This quick article I thought hit it spot on: In 2014, Gamification isn't working the way they  thought it would, mostly because of MEANINGLESS POINTS AND BADGES (it took them this long to figure this out?):

I think it really hit a nerve with those of us who've been saying for years that good game design is just good educational design.

After a while even FourSquare got smart and realized that their badging/gamification system wasn't the right approach to achieve their user and business goals:

Badges and Gamification are good in that they maybe interest people who wouldn't think about games and playful design otherwise. It's a great gateway but it's only an entry. The trouble comes when people insist on making the gateway the practice itself. I HAVE to have badges. I want to tag "gamification" onto this system and not change anything else at all. There are situations where badges and gamification are what's needed but best to go through a solid design process first and figure out that it's actually what you need. I'm all for the terms to bring people into the practice of playful design but once you're through, keep an open mind! There's so much more to game building than Badges!!

No budget? No excuses! 12 game prompts for limited budgets

Kellian Adams


I love museum games. But I often hear "We have zero budget and therefore, we can't build anything." I see why people would think  you can’t have playful, interactive experiences for your visitors if you’re not a large organization but I hate hearing it because it is just completely and absolutely not true.

Meaningful play can absolutely be built with no budget at all. All it takes is a little bit of time, some clever ideas and a willingness to test prototypes. If your visitors like it, that gives you the momentum to try again- and again- until maybe your board takes notice and says, “hey! Visitors are really responding to this, why don’t we give you some help?”

In fact I bet can think of a dozen ways that you can be building playful interaction in your museum even with no budget, a small collection and being short of staff. Do you dare me? Well then… challenge accepted. Here are 12 FREE things you could be building right now for free to make your space more fun and interactive.

1. Choose your own adventures:


Remember those awesome books where you get to decide where to go next? You can make those with a paper and pen. “There are reports that X museum is being haunted by the ghost of X. You’ve been recruited to investigate. Enter the main parlor. If you investigate the cabinet, turn to page 2. If you pass through to the dining room, turn to page 5”. If you’ want a digital version, check out the wonderful (and free!) Quest and write a computer-based choose-your-own text adventure.  Let visitors play through the settings of your paintings, time periods, through the perspective of one of your historical characters or from the point of view of an atom.

2. Clipboard games:

Leave behind clipboards with paper and a pencil tied to a string. Let people leave (respectful) messages, questions or observations for other visitors. Have them draw pictures of artifacts and let others guess what they drew. Use it to create an “exquisite corpse” game where they start a story about an artifact or historical event, fold the page over and let other people continue it. Put your exquisite corpse histories on FB, your blog or your website. (The Baltimore Art Museum is doing a great job of this on their blog Lots of stuff can be done with clipboards!

3.  Twitter games. 


Take a close-up pictures of your artifacts and let people guess what they are. (This was one of the Smithsonian’s favorite games for a while.) @Midnight is doing an amazing job of twitter games right now with “Hashtag wars” where they give challenges like “#sadtoys” (answers: Strangers with Candy Land, Really Really Really Hungry Hippos” Museum hashtag wars? For instance, #failedarttoys. (possible answers: Jackson Polluck Rubik's cubes...Rothko paint-by-numbers)

4. Game Jams!!

Don’t want to build a game? Let your visitors do it for you. Set aside 48 hours and challenge your visitors to create the best scavenger hunt, choose-your-own adventure or interactive tour of your space. We just ran Edventure Builder game jams with kids at the Field Museum and the Harvard Museum of Natural History with some great results! The MIT Museum had an excellent board game jam as part of the Cambridge Science Festival. Set aside a time invite familes, arm them with a bunch of junk and a piece of cardboard and you might be surprised what they come up with! The best part is that they bring other visitors back to your space to play their games.

5. I spy


The Getty is running a great digital version of ISpy called Switch but Gore Place in Waltham Mass is also running a fabulous, simple paper-based version with questions like “find a chair back that looks like this”. You can create your own “switch” with simple digital pictures, some photoshopping and a printer.

6. VTS is a GREAT GAME! 

Challenges to help people look at art, and they’re also good play. Give folks a clipboard with questions on them or add them to whatever platform you have to deliver content. “Name as many colors as you can in this photo until you run out. Whoever gets the last one wins.” “What is the person in this picture thinking?”

7. Themes: 

Follow a theme through a museum- this is really fun because when you have a hammer, everything is a nail. If you send people through your space all looking for different things: eyes, pyramids, eagles, skulls, the color red, even you’ll be surprised how much they find.

8. Photo hunt: 

If you can have pictures taken in your collection, there’s a lot of fun that can be had with that. Give people a list of photos that they have to take during their visit but make it super vague: The Bluest Blue, Me and My Fine Arts Doppelganger, Me and Elma Mae— see what they come up with and encourage them to send you their photos. Post them on your FB page and give prizes for the photos with the most likes.

9. Timelines: is a great place to build (free!) digital interactive historical timelines. Feeling non-techie? Create your own post-it note timelines near your exhibits and let your visitors add their own. Add a clothesline with some pins and put out index cards for visitors to add a new event to the timeline and clip it into the line. Start with something you’d like to add in 1: Louisa May Alcott is born….. (empty space) 20: Louisa May Alcott Dies. Encourage people to fill in the blanks and rearrange each other’s input as they add to it.

10. Borrow and share:


Museums are building great stuff and more often than not, they’re building it open source to share with YOU! Look around to see what you can use from other museums before you reinvent the wheel. The MoMA’s “everyone’s a critic” is open to use: (In fact they just tweeted yesterday “use this in your museum!”) Incorporate existing games into your museum experience like “Play Brave” missions or “Ingress” locations.

11. Abuse college students

If you’re in New England and you don’t have a student intern in your space well then you’re not utilizing your resources. Even if you’re not in New England, I would wager there’s probably a college or high school closeby with intelligent young people who would love to build their resume by making something fun for your organization. Reach out to these organizations! I find it’s best to be very targeted: if you say “we want a game”, you may get a lot of starry-eyed post-teen writers. But if you go to a professor and say, “We’re a respected cultural organization, we’d like an experimental history game for families to play in August and it needs to be paper-based. Do you have any crackerjack students who could play with it for credit or a resume builder?” then see what you get!

12. Cannibalize other games

I think the folks at the incredible Fablevision said it best (and I steal their line all the time) “the best games have known game dynamics and market-quality graphics.” We might not be able to get the market-quality graphics with our time and budget but we can give folks a twist on something they already know and love. Murder at the Met was successful because it built on a game that people knew: Clue. Candy Crush is just a variation on Bejeweled. Tate Trumps looks like a card game. Use simple games that people like to play: monopoly, go fish, 20 questions and make simple, paper variations on these games that use your space. Remember your goal is to have people learning and having fun, removing barriers to entry and letting people be more comfortable with art, science, history and culture so if you have to cheat a little and give people something they recognize to get there, that’s a-okay.


And last but not least, TALK! Follow hashtags like #musegames,  #musetech and #G4C (games for change.) Connect with people like James Collins who’s heading up the search for better learning games at the Smithsonian or Susan Edwards, building great stuff at the Getty. Laura Huntimer from the Joslyn has great advice on how to run game jams with school groups and Sharna Jackson, formerly of the Tate and now of Hopster, always has excellent ideas. Keep an eye to the Museum Games Wiki: If you’re reading this blog then you already know me and I’m always game for a 20 minute call to hear about what you’re trying to do.

So you may not have a million dollar grant or a staff of 500 but you DO have some ideas- and you can start testing out those ideas right now!!

Happy gaming!