On Merit Badges, Achievements, and Accomplishment


I went to pick up some patches for my son’s Cub Scout uniform a few weeks ago at the regional BSA Council store. I walked into a drab, non-descript building and stood there staring at walls of patches and badges and belt loops and beads for about 5 minutes before I was able to get the attention of someone working there. I, thankfully, had a list.

While I was standing there, I was partly overcome by memories of doing something similar with my own father, more than three decades ago. I remember, very clearly, the air of ritual around awarding merit badges; the presentation to the pack, the semi-formal recognition of accomplishment, the handing over of the patch or belt loop, the handshake, the salute, the applause. You start out with a few things, but the more involved you get, the more your uniform reflected that involvement. You walked around with your resume.

I said I was partly overcome by memory, which is true.

The other part of me, though, was struck by the incredible variety in the system of accomplishments that Cub Scouts/Boy Scouts presents, and how clever it all was psychologically. Much like a military officer accumulating fruit salad on his uniform, there’s a physical representation of accomplishment that the BSA presents to young men while trying to motivate them to do things. It starts off simple – beads for attendance – and over ten years grows into massive community service projects to satisfy the requirements of the Order of the Arrow. Along the way there are hundreds of small rewards for participation and accomplishment.

I stood there looking at a wall of Achievement Points.


I try to focus on extrinsic motivations on CBM – those rewards and goals outside of ourselves which drive us to do things. Extrinsic motivations are easy to spot, and can be used as a guide towards mass behavior: i.e. if players want the most Honor Points/Minute to get the latest gear, and Tol Barad rewards it through win-trading, then players will collaborate to win-trade TB. Extrinsic motivations drive a lot of what we choose to do with our leisure time, and WoW provides a surfeit of those motivations. Gear, both in power and appearance. Achievements. Achivement points, which is related but different. Pets. Mounts. Titles. Reputations. Even just having characters of given types and levels. Gold. Status symbols.

And then there are social motivations: being in a good guild, gaining the respect of your server or raid team, being an authority on something, hell, being a successful blogger.

Extrinsic motivations don’t have to be public; they just have to be outside of you. And they’re not bad! Just because a motivation is outside of you doesn’t make it somehow invalid. You want to be rewarded for your work and effort, no matter if it’s a “good job” or a belt loop or a digital dragon your avatar gets to ride around on or a promotion or a diploma or staying out of jail or even a gorram paycheck. This is important to remember; extrinsic isn’t bad.

But it’s only one facet of motivation.

Intrinsic motivations are those drives which are self-generated. You do something because you find it fun, or personally rewarding. You do it because you enjoy it. You’ll stay up late doing something not because you’re told to do it, but because you’re driven to do it. And there’s an element of intrinsic motivation in pretty much everything we do.

It’s relatively easy to sit back and look at Warcraft with the gear grind and cheesy points and go, this is all extrinsic motivation, and surely, MMO players are rats in a maze, pushing pellets until their prizes show up. And that’s not picking on MMO players, really. I look at all those Merit Badges, and wonder how many Boy Scouts started out just like my son did, saying I’m going to get them all, and how many of them actually work towards that goal, and how many actually do it.

(They don’t have an Over 9000 merit badge. I checked).

Patches, belt loops, pins, beads. It’s easy to dismiss chasing after them as a child’s pursuit of shiny baubles. I don’t think anyone who really looks at motivation ever thinks that’s all there is to it – competition, accomplishment, learning, social pressure all factor into why the merit badge system works – but it’s awfuly easy to be dismissive of something solely because it has physical rewards, even though those rewards aren’t really the point.

Achievements, mounts, first kills, titles. It’s even easier to dismiss a system that relies entirely upon virtual assets for rewards than a physical one.


When does an extrinsic motivation go bad?

I mean, I have a spotty track record when talking about achievement points and merit badges alike – part of me enjoys the chase, the triumph of completing something difficult, and of having something to show for it. And in the same breath, I can complain about how this doesn’t really matter, this isn’t a real indication of skill, the difficulty of an achievement is variable relative to your environment, these systems are in place to compel people to spend more time in game, etc. etc..

So there’s something going on there. Rewards have to mean something to be valuable, and therefore, effective. I find the same extrinsic motivations both compelling and repulsive in a short span of time. Like, in seconds, I can change my tune.

Look at Cynderblock – I will trot out that she killed the Whale Shark on a regular enough basis that it’s obviously something I’m proud of. It’s so outrageous, so in-your-face that she’s got an achievement that most 85s don’t, that she particpated in the kill of something with 9.6 million hit points at level 19, that it’s become my canonical example of why you shouldn’t set limits on what you think you can and can’t do in a video game.

But it wasn’t really all that hard. I lucked into a group who was killing him, and I just tried to survive. It’s not like I kited the beast for 30 hours trying to kill it. I showed up and dodged mobs in Vash’jir for about an hour.

If you were to ask me what my proudest moment with ‘block is, it’s getting the Ambassador title. Not because it was terribly hard – just a lot of questing – but because it was hard but fun. I did it with friends, I did it solo, I also did it because it was absurd and broke limits – but even though it’s easier to get now, that title (extrinsic motivation) also let me see all the Horde starting zones before Cataclysm (intrinsic motivation). That I also got to collect cool gear (extrinsic) that marked this character as unique (also extrinsic) didn’t hurt.

It doesn’t bother me in the slightest that Cataclysm made the Ambassador title much, much easier to get for level 19 twinks. So what? I got what I wanted out of it.

Extrinsic motivations can often be enough to get us to do things. They can make us do things that are good for ourselves, which enrich us, drive us to try things we hadn’t considered. They can also keep us out of trouble.

But if you lack the intrinsic motivation, then you won’t value the accomplishments that go with those extrinsic rewards. If you’re just working for a paycheck, eventually the work will burn you out.

If you’re just grinding reps and not enjoying it – well, you’re going to burn out too.



Oh hai, Cynwulf. Grats there on hitting 85. I know it took you over a year to make it to 85, and you’re Cyn’s … second toon … to max level, and you started off at 80, but hey, grats, man.


You don’t seem happy, dude. What’s up with that? Now you get to gear up, get phat lewts, go raiding, see some new bgs…

What? What’s that you say?

You want a nap? 

What the hell kind of DK are you, anyways?

Getting to level 85 isn’t, all things considered, an unusual accomplishment, or even a terribly difficult one. (Especially since he was level 80 when the expansion started!)

But for both of my 85s – yes, I really only have two, I know I’m slow – I really had trouble motivating myself to do it. I took my time on Cynwise because, while I wanted to play the endgame, I wasn’t in any rush. I think if I wasn’t a PvP blogger, and BfG, TP and TB weren’t off-limits to < 85 toons, I would have taken even longer to do it. It was like, there’s so much to see, why rush it? I spent a lot of time in the lowbie zones when Cata launched, to be honest.

Eventually I did rush it, though, and pushed through to start seeing the new stuff. I didn’t regret it, precisely, but in retrospect I didn’t have a lot of intrinsic motivations for doing it. I wanted to play Arena with friends, that was really about it, but when the task of keeping my gear up to date became burdensome, I ditched the endgame pretty damn quickly and went back to twinking.

A year later, and I decided to push Cynwulf – who I’d made into a semi-respectable level 84 twink – into the endgame. Not because I wanted to play him, but rather because I wanted to just be done with him. Like, enough already, either be at endgame where I can gear you up to play in Cata, or just skip it and move on. Stop hanging over my head as an unfinished project. Nagging guilt and a desire to be free of it (intrinsic) pushed him over the top, not the promise of new gear or new abilities (extrinsic). Unfortunately, because there aren’t really a lot of extrinsic motivations that are grabbing me with him right now, I’m just shelving him until later.

The value of an accomplishment is going to vary according to your motivations and desires in it. It’s also going to depend upon your environment, your social setting, and your support structure. For some, reaching 85 is a major accomplishment, the goal they’ve been working towards for months. (First hitting 80 at Wrath for me was like this, holy crap, it was amazing. Then I was totally lost and adrift). For others, it’s all in a few days work, and they’re off to do it again – maybe this time beating their previous record.

You’re very dependent upon other people to succeed – in WoW, in life, it’s all the same. If you’re in the right raid team, you’re going to find that you can accomplish a lot more than if you’re in one where you don’t mesh, where they’re not as good players, where they’re not as driven, where they don’t sabotage themselves. This isn’t rocket science, but it’s amazing how we can collectively forget how much we depend on those around us when weighing our own individual accomplishments. Achievements (in WoW and in life) are as much about being in the right place in the right time with the right people as they are about having the skill to pull them off.

I was thinking about this when I took the picture at the very beginning of this article. That’s my son’s belt, he has the Horseback Riding belt loop. I never got that when I was a scout. I never even came close – I was a child of the city and suburbs, but even then I never had the desire to become a mongolian horse-archer or knight-errant. Even when I became obsessed with Fantasy literature and medieval history, I never really wanted to be a horseman.

My son loves horses. He’s been like this since he was a toddler, so we figured out a way to get him riding lessons years ago. This Horseback Riding belt loop was trivial for him. Like, it was barely even a warmup for his regular lesson. But for me, and most everyone else in his pack, it’s really, really hard. It’s one of those activities that takes a lot of planning, learning, and work. You have to get over your fear of the unknown, and fear of really large animals. You have to get up there on the horse and do it.

And that can be a big obstacle if you don’t really want to do it.

Extrinsic motivation can get you to do something, and you might enjoy it and keep doing it. Intrinsic motivation will make you do something even if there are no extrinsic rewards.

I don’t know about you, but this is starting to shed light on my behavior in Cataclysm.


Do what you love.

That’s what this comes back to, doesn’t it? In some ways that’s the central theme of this entire blog, of this crazy experiment which I started because I needed an unfettered place to write in. When the extrinsic motivations get taken away, what do I really enjoy doing? What do I find personally fulfilling?

I want, so very much, to be able to pick up my warlock again, to find that visceral joy in playing her. But that search for joy gets tangled up in all kinds of extrinsic motivations, motivations which trample on that simple desire. Achievements get in the way. Gear gets in the way. I can’t deny that. Those things which are supposed to motivate me to log in and play her? They aren’t working. If anything, they’re causing me to retreat further and further away from her. Tol Barad? No thank you. Firelands dailies? No fucking way. Rep grinds for a shoulder enchant? Er, only if it’s a grind I’ve never done before, and only for a twink, because, really. Really? Really. Do we need to do that again?

The benefit to this has been a period of wild experimentation. I don’t know what’s going to work, so I try whole bunch of stuff and see what sticks. I enjoy tanking and healing, who knew? I think I’m playing a warrior now, or maybe a druid or a shaman or a mage, but that’s all good. I’m making it work.

But the downside has been distance from the reward system, of looking at it as a system and not as something valuable in and of itself, which lessens its value. To me. Not to others. Value is personal.

I remember when those merit badges meant something to me. It was, mostly, a good time. There were frustrating parts about the system, there was jealousy and competition, but there was also a desire to do good deeds, and to do well while doing those deeds.

That’s not a bad thing. That’s how people grow. That’s how people develop.

That’s how people find what they love.


Filed under Cynwise's Field Notes

11 responses to “On Merit Badges, Achievements, and Accomplishment

  1. Pradzha

    Do you happen to have listened to Chris Hecker’s lecture on this very subject? You can find it here:http://chrishecker.com/Achievements_Considered_Harmful%3FI sort of have an innate indifference towards achievement points and all that sort of stuff, so I think I’m insulated a little bit against the harmful effects of them. But I can’t fool myself into thinking I’m totally immune, either. Knowing some of the research is at least helpful for me in that I can mostly avoid poisoning my own enjoyment of the game.

  2. Cynwise of Stormwind

    I did not, but that looks to be an excellent lecture on exactly this topic. Wow! Thanks!He comes right out and says what I was dancing around – reliance on extrinsic motivation can destroy intrinsic motivation, reduce creativity, cause burnout, etc.  I’m interested to hear what he has to say on the matter. Every time I think to myself, I should go get Loremaster on Cynwise, I have to stop and really think about why I’d want to do such a thing. Thanks again for the link!

  3. Pradzha

    I’m glad you liked it! I think I originally saw it linked by RockPaperShotgun in one of their sunday papers posts (which are almost always awesome).I have a friend that got Loremaster, but that was because she *liked* doing all those quests and seeing the plotlines of all the zones. I can’t *stand* questing, so I’m never going to get it. A part of me envies having lots of heroic kills in my progression meter, but then I think about raiding 3 or 4 or 5 days/week with people I don’t like as much as my current guildies and go “meh!”It’s surprising how difficult it can be to remember to play because it’s fun.

  4. Poneria

    I want to help you pick your warlock back up again, but if it’s the grind that’s keeping you away from her, I feel sad because I’m pretty sure I can’t help until Mists when everything “resets.” 😦

  5. Cynwise of Stormwind

    One of the problems with Posterous is that sometimes it will just eat comments. I don’t know why, but they show up multiple times in my email but never make it onto the site. :(Redbeard wrote:I’ve discovered that in some things –such as work, for example– you need that intrinsic motivation, because you certainly can’t rely upon extrinsic motivation to keep going. (Not with office politics poisoning things, that is.) Working around the house is another intrinsic motivator, because things like, say, fixing the roof have their own reward –no water leaking into your bedroom– and it’s not like someone is going to show up and give you a medal for climbing up on your roof in the hot summer sun to fix that.For other things, extrinsic motivation comes in pretty darned handly, but you really can’t overdo it. If you do, you get so addicted to the rush that it consumes you.Hefty stuff for a Sunday, Cyn. How long have you been sitting on this post?—-@Redbeard: I’ve been thinking about this for a while, but it was actually events at work which crystalized this particular WoW thread for me. It’s been a rough couple of months where the extrinsic motivators, and the failures of those extrinsic motivators, have killed my intrinsic motivations at my job. It’s been a brutally obvious thing, too – it’s not just that I was asked to work two jobs “for a short time” – which turned out to be 4 months – it’s that there was no extrinsic OR intrinsic rewards for doing so, and the lack of any kind of reward just killed my desire to care. For the first time in my professional career I am facing a major project failure and I just … don’t care. So many mistakes were made by other people, so many months ago, that I can’t work up the intrinsic motivation to really kill myself to try to get the job done.So I started doing some thinking. Sorry about Posterous eating your comment. 😦

  6. Redbeard

    Cyn, you don’t happen to work in IT, do you? You’d think that I’d be immune to the failure of extrinsic motivators time after time, but it still gets annoying.I once had a job where the owner of the small business told us during job interviews that he didn’t pay that much, but the quarterly bonuses were great: you’d get a washer and dryer with each bonus, he said. Well, unless the owner was talking about his own personal bonus, our quarterly bonuses were sadly lacking. I remember walking in one Monday morning after are quarterly distribution and getting a comment on my haircut. “Yeah,” I said, “I spent my bonus on it. And I had a whole $2 left over, too!”Oh, about the comment, I figured it was the m-e-t-h line that cause the issues, but even after deleting it the thing still got marked as spam, so I have no idea what the trigger was.

  7. JaminToTheTop

    Brilliant post Cynwise.I read with a intrinsic motivation. This is because I have been doing a lot of thinking on just the same lately, in regards to WoW at least. I’m hoping, with statements from Blizzard, that Mists of Pandaria will really open up again for players like you and I who, I assume, prefer the enjoyment and journey of getting somewhere/thing, rather than just “the final goal” (extrinsic rewards). Mean, great, you may have the best gear in the game, but for me, if the trip to that level is as “grindy” (as it can be), then that’s not right, or enough, in my eyes. This is supposed to be a game. I love a challenge, but not a grind.Anyway, enough ramble.

  8. blamesquelchy

    A very resonating post for someone who just came back after a long hiatus. I hadn’t thought about it in those terms, but I’ve tried desperately, since returning, to stick to intrinsic rewards. Which means Squelchy will probably never finish the Molten Front questlines; a mount is a great reward for me, but it can’t quite get past the misery of all those daily quests. Whereas getting together with 9 close friends and killing Internet dragons? I still can’t get enough of that.

  9. Cynwise of Stormwind

    @redbeard: Oh yes, I do work in IT. It shows that much?Bonuses sound good in theory but I’m starting to see how damaging they’ve been to me personally, as well as in general. 😦

  10. Pradzha

    Yeah my boyfriend works for a Big Bank in a sales capacity, and although he’s been getting bonuses for sales and money is nice, I’m worried about the stress it causes him. :/

  11. mjhomeschool

    I hear you on that. I had a similar job some time back, but I went the other route… And let me share the wisdom of my mistake.I was in a lower-level position, mostly just glorified supplier relations. Along came a project which was massive, but they were understaffed in the project management group, so they asked, would I be interested in helping out for a bit? That bit turned out to be the next 8 months.Mistake after mistake after disaster, and that deadline started looming. Being young and innocent, I kicked it up – 80 hour weeks, late nights, early mornings, weekends – all of it. I dragged that project team across the finish line, kicking and screaming. And the rewards flowed! Employee of the year, nice bonus check, and a big vacation (which I mostly spent sleeping.) First part of the next year, I met with the boss and asked for a promotion and a raise, and I got it… along with a sizable increase in responsibilities. I was now responsible for projects AND supplier relations, given enough work to occupy that 80 work week, and people STILL weren’t getting things done. It was a nightmare.Fortunately, I finished my college degree about 8 months later, and when the company dragged their feet on responding (we had agreed some time back that I’d move to a lower stress position when it was complete, and 4 months after graduation they were still avoiding the subject), I started looking for another job.Extrinsic motivation failed for me (both in that job and in the game) when the cost to achieve exceeded the value of the reward. MMOs have kind of missed the mark on that by sticking with the old RPG formula – easy at the beginning, challenging at the end. Problem is, for it to keep pushing the envelope, it has to keep getting harder and harder, while the players exhaust the easy and fun stuff. Not sure what the solution is there, but a person can only handle the stress of the ultimate end-game for so long before the excitement is gone. If the game doesn’t have a core of fun outside of that excitement, it’s going to struggle, and no amount of reward can compensate for that.