Whenever we see a thing that does something we’d like to do, and does it really well, we get a powerful – and often healthy – urge to imitate it. (Or to crush it. Or to belittle it on Twitter. Or to ask, with an arched eyebrow, “Mmm. But does it scale?”)

For those of us in the participation business, gaming has been a source of a lot of envy, and often that envy has turned to imitation. It turns out there’s a burgeoning industry devoted to helping you gamify your web application — and a lot of gamification (and god help us, yes: it’s a word) focuses on allowing your users to earn virtual badges as they reach certain participation milestones.

In response to my cartoon about the new ubiquity of online badges, Eric Andersen kindly pointed me to this presentation by Sebastian Deterding, and I strongly recommend it:

Often, the ways we try to replicate success are far too superficial – kind of the way we once believed wearing an animal’s skin would impart its speed and power to us, or that by eating an enemy’s heart, we would gain their strength and courage. (Actually, that’s still the thinking behind a lot of mergers and acquisitions.)

Badges and level-ups are only a small part of what gives games their power, but because they’re the most obvious outward manifestation of participation, that’s what we glom onto.