Ubuntu Accomplishments: Fad or Future?

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Jun 21, 2012 GMT
Bruce Byfield

These days, Canonical, Ubuntu's commercial arm, tends to get more press than Ubuntu itself. What deals Canonical has made, what new features will be in the next release to nudge the company towards profitability -- these are the subjects that tend to be covered, not what is happening in the community. The tendency is unfortunately lopsided, because the Ubuntu community can be even more innovative than Canonical. Consider, for example, Ubuntu Accomplishments.

Like a surprising amount of the innovation in the Ubuntu community, Ubuntu Accomplishments are the brainchild of community manager Jono Bacon. In fact, judging from his blog, the idea has occupied much of his time in the last six months.

Ubuntu Accomplishments is described by Bacon as the "gamification of community" (http://opensourcedelivers.com/2012/06/06/the-gamification-of-community/). The reference is to trophy systems in major gaming consoles that award players for doing such things as finishing a certain level or having reached a certain stage in the game. According to Bacon, "players will work their socks off to achieve these different trophies, and they feel good about their efforts when they get them."

Bacon says he got the idea for Ubuntu Accomplishments at a community manager roundtable when a question about how Ubuntu rewarded contributions made him realize that the existing forms of recognition were more or less random. Brainstorming with colleagues, he hit upon the idea of Ubuntu Accomplishments, which has been undergoing rapid development ever since.

The organization of Ubuntu Accomplishments is simple. Participants install the application, and start collecting trophies for accomplishments that are immediately obvious as beneficial, such as filing their first bug, or joining a translation team. Trophies for possibly meaningless accomplishments, such as posting five hundred messages to a mailing list are discouraged. Participants can view their accomplishments from their desktops, and the intention is that their accumulation of Trophies will be a way to let everyone know what they are contributing.

A fresh idea, or corny?
Bacon is not the first to hit upon gamification as a means of interesting people. The Kobo ebook reader's Reading Life program, for example, offers accomplishments and minor prizes for such activities as finishing a book, or reading four times in the same period of the day. (http://www.kobobooks.com/readinglife).

Similarly, many non-profits from all walks of life reward donations during fundraising campaigns with thank-you gifts or by adding donors to special lists. Such rewards can sometimes motivate people to give, or give more because they are desirable in themselves.
However, Ubuntu is the first free software project to gamify, so Bacon's efforts are something of an experiment. So far, his postings about Ubuntu Accomplishments have received generally favorable comments but how much of an indicator these comments are to rections to the idea is uncertain. The responses to Bacon's discussions of the idea often seem to be from people already deeply involved in Ubuntu, and therefore possibly pre-disposed to cheer anything new.  Or are the comments simply a reflection that Accomplishments are a fresh idea whose time has come?

The software is deliberately de-centralized, so the number of users can only be estimated, but I would be interested in discovering how many people are collecting Trophies.

Even more interesting would be to hear about community members using their trophies as a sign of status, either online or at conferences. Are we going to see Ubuntu participants adding Trophy stickers to their convention badges?

I also wonder whom Accomplishments will appeal to. Will Trophies  be something that only the gaming generation under thirty will collect? Or will those in their forties or fifties be motivated by them as well?

There is a chance that gamification will be seen as undermining traditional values in the community, or even as insulting. In traditional models of free software, project members are often seen as following their own interests, and as being rewarded for the pride they take in their work. In other words, project members are seen as being inwardly directed, which to a large extent seems true.

By contrast, Accomplishments are an extrinsic reward.  I can't help wondering whether veteran members of the community might dismiss them as condescending, or view pursuing Accomplishments as a corruption of community traditions. Why, veteran members might ask, should anyone be rewarded for doing something that interests them -- something they would do anyway?

Or possibly, Accomplishments will appeal primarily to projects with large numbers of non-technical volunteers, at least some of whom are differently motivated than the developers that traditionally make up the bulk of contributors in more hard core projects. What is anathema to a coder might be highly appealing to a marketer.

Amid all these uncertainties, I'm not even going to try to predict whether Accomplishments will succeed or fail. Frankly, my own inclination is to view them with mild distaste -- but then, I'm neither young nor a gamer, and, like most freelancers, I'm internally motivated.

That's why, when I bought a Kobo, one of the first things I did was turn off the rewards system as a condescending annoyance. But, undoubtedly, I'm not supposed to get it.

However, my inclinations are mild enough that I'm willing to be convinced. I'm going to watch Ubuntu Accomplishments closely. Whether they become the norm in projects, or expire with all the lack of dignity of a beached whale, how they are received will be an indicator of just what motivates community members today.

Comments

  • Kudos points and Coffee Beans

    Hi happy
    I think the idea is great. Like any tool it could be mishandled accidentally, abused or subverted but then hopefully we would learn from that and adapt the system. "Release early and release often" or the older saying "Live and learn".

    Launchpad used to reward with "Kudos Points". The privately-owned "ubuntuforums" earned "coffee beans" points. LinuxQuestions.org awards little green splodges and steps-up each persons title from "noob" to "guru". 1 kudos point would be awarded for just posting to the list but if the original-poster/asker marked my post as solving the problem then i would get a bonus 10points or more. Translations similarly gave a tiny reward just for translating a little string or word but then you might get a bump if it was accepted. Rosetta had pretty graphics to show how well each team was doing compared with each other. It would be nice if customer-support did gain some credits rather than being all about the devs but then Kudos ignored work done by people working on community documentation.

    Being able to opt-out is good and also the realisation that just because one person has more points doesn't mean that they really have done more than anyone else in the world. At one point quite a few of us had far far more Kudos points than Mark Shuttleworth!

    So, "all this has been done before" for several decades. It's not a new idea but presumably builds-up from the experience of those previous versions.
    regards from
    Tom happy
  • Re: Some responses

    Thanks for the responses, Jono. You provide some interesting background, as well as raising some other issues

    I'm thinking that in another six months or so, when Accomplishments has been going some time, I'll do a more formal story on them. For now, I just wanted to call attention to your efforts, because I think more people should know about them.
  • Some Responses

    Hi Bruce,

    Thanks again for another balanced, interesting take on things in our community. Thanks for your objectivity in your piece.

    Firstly, you were curious about the number of using using the system. Currently we have just under 600 users with nearly 3500 trophies that have been issued. I am pretty proud of this given that this is still a 0.2 and still a young project with only two releases under our belt

    In terms of who might find the system useful, I don't think it will be for everyone. Some folks will just not be interested in getting little trophies for their contributions, but the feedback I have seen so far has been that many people do feel motivated by this. Another core part of the system is the discoverabilitiy of different things people can do and the guidance for how they can do those things. As an example, in Ubuntu Accomplishments you have a variety of potential contributions fully documentated and built into the Unity dash so you can browse things you haven't done yet and have the guidance available to do them. This lowers the bar for contribution, and getting the trophy when you have performed a worthwhile contributing is a nice bonus for these users.

    One concern I have seen expressed by some is that gamification of community will result in abuse of the system. I think a badly coordinated set of of accomplishments does pose this risk. As you said in your article, we are explicitly rejecting accomplishments for traffic generation (e.g. X number of posts to a forum); our accomplishments are instead focused on skills aquisition (submitting your first patch) and new community roles (e.g. becoming a leader of a team, or member of a governing board).

    One final point is that we are still very much learning as we are going. Ubuntu Accomplishments is not perfect, but I am satisfied that already it is proving to be enough of a motivator to continue learning, solving problems, and building the best accomplishments system that we can. 0.3 will be an exciting release it it will allow our users to share their accomplishments with their friends and publicly and proudly showcase their contributions to Ubuntu and elsewhere.

    Thanks, Bruce.
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