The Elephant in the Room: How the Boy Scouts of America Shaped the Gamification Movement

Recently, I signed up for the Gamification course presented by Coursera and the University of Pennsylvania. Taught by Professor Werbach, it quickly garnered widespread acclaim for having over 80,000 people sign up for a free online course. After taking the course, I learned quite a bit about various techniques of gamification and how various companies have applied them (for better or worse) over the past few years.

The problem was, I already knew most of these techniques from my time in the Boy Scouts of America (which Professor Werbach failed to mention at all).

You see, the Boy Scouts of America arguably pioneered various concepts of what we now call gamification. I would surmise that this was Lord Baden-Powell taking some concepts from the military at the time and “softening” them up for children. By doing this, he laid the foundation for the modern gamification movement.

Let’s back up a moment so I can explain my background with the Boy Scouts of America. I started as a Tiger Cub in grade school and climbed through the ranks until I “graduated” from the Cub Scouts as a second year Webelos.  I then started my tenure in the Boy Scouts with the rank of Tenderfoot and rose through the years to ultimately the rank of Eagle.

During my time in my troop, I held various leadership positions and collected quite a few merit badges. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was learning firsthand some of the great concepts of gamification and game design.

The very way that ranks in the Boy Scouts are created are specifically designed to foster engagement, growth, and repeated engagement with the system. The more you work at it, and the more time you spend in “the system”, the larger the reward the system gives you.

These rewards can range from different statuses among peers(such as patrol leader or even senior patrol leader) , to status outside the organization (Eagle Scouts are recognized favorably by employers worldwide), to recognition nationally (medal for saving life). Higher ranks require significantly more effort, such as a certain amount of merit badges or volunteer hours logged.

These are all elements of a very thought out and successful gamification implementation. Our gamification pushed the significance of “PBL’s” which stand for Points, Badges, and Leaderboards. While there are other elements that can be used, those three elements are the most used/often recognized part of gamification and the Boy Scouts happen to have these elements in spades.

Let’s start out with points first. Within each rank, you need to fulfill items to achieve the next rank. While some of these requirements are time based, all scouts are held to a final cutoff date- once they turn 18 the game is over. The higher the rank, the more flexible the requirements become. The scouts begin to get choices for certain parts and they can choose how they want to fill up the required points for the next rank. Once they have acquired enough points, they go up for a Board of Review (an interview with scoutmasters) to discuss what they did to achieve this rank and how they plan to tackle the next one. Some of the points needed are actually badge related.

The Boy Scouts integrate badges in two ways: Status and Achievements. For status badges, those are largely rank among peers. There are two parts- rank among the chain from Tenderfoot to Eagle and various leadership positions within the troop from assistant patrol leader to senior patrol leader. For achievement badges, those relate to what the Boy Scouts call Merit Badges. Similar to how Foursquare implemented badges in their system (down to the look), merit badges show achievement by mastering a particular skill. There are over 100 different badges scouts can get and they range from Archery to Law. A certain set is required to become an Eagle, and those badges must be earned throughout the progression of ranks to Eagle. There is no limit to the amount of merit badges a Scout can earn.

For the leaderboard aspect, this can be traced back to the so-called status badges. When new ranks or positions in the the troop are officially awarded, they are awarded in a ceremony that the whole troop attends. Besides being a leadership example to the younger scouts, it also serves as an unofficial leaderboard among themselves. The higher the rank and higher the position a scout has, the more responsibility and respect that scout gets. This triggers a desire for a scout to rise higher in the troop as he desires respect among his peers.

When you combine these elements of gamification, you get a system that draws people in to use it.