It seems to me that there are some good reasons to have badges: making new users aware of the site's functionality / giving them a stake in the site; and incentivizing / rewarding pro-social behavior. I'll admit that I like getting badges, especially when I was new and when I feel like I've earned them. However, that doesn't necessarily mean that more badges are always better: there can be diminishing returns, and they could even have a corrupting or disruptive effect in the extreme.
Under this general heading, I can think of at least three subtopics:
Should we have badges that people don't want to get? Do we want to incentivize behavior that doesn't enhance the site? Some concrete examples:
- Why on Earth is there a Cleanup badge? Do people need to be incentivized to rollback edits? Is this basic site functionality with which new users need to be made aware?
- Does anyone want to have a Peer Pressure badge marking for all time that one of their posts was terrible?
- How about the Tenacious, Unsung Hero, or Disciplined, are these badges that anyone wants? Do we want anyone to want these badges or actively pursue them?
- These do seem tailor made to induce badge hunting.
- I do think there is some value to the Tumbleweed badge: I often skim the recent badges on the main page to see if there are any nice questions / answers that I have missed, and I sometimes go to tumbleweeds to see if there is something that can be done. However, I don't know how many people do this, and I wonder if there might be a better system to notify people that a question has been missed than awarding a badge.
Do we need badges for things people are going to do anyway? One concrete example:
- Why were the new Constable and Sheriff badges created? I want to be clear that I very much appreciate our moderators and acknowledge their massive, unenviable workload. But they weren't doing it for these badges; no one expected them. Moreover, we aren't short of people wanting to be moderators (e.g., there were SO elections a while back with a huge list of candidates).
From the perspective that we want to incentivize certain behaviors, the ideal amount of badges is what will lead people to develop good habits and no more. Anything beyond that will tend to focus those activities towards badge hunting rather than benefiting the site. Some concrete examples:
- Why is there still a proofreader badge now that we have a plethora of reviewing badges?
- Why does the Analytical badge still exist? Why not just transform it into the Informed badge, or issue the Analytical badge for reading the about page instead of the FAQ?
- Do we need six Stewards? Why not just one with a complicated rule, like Electorate, where you need a certain minimum in each category and a certain cross-category total?
- Here on meta, there seem to be an unending number of questions asking for new badges for something or other, or another level of badges like platinum or sapphire badges. These suggest to me that people are more motivated by badges than would be optimal.
Some parts of this question have been asked / covered before. I have tried to include some relevant links to other threads. But I wanted to put it all together here in one place (perhaps loosely analogous to how List of all badges with full descriptions brings together information from many other threads).
It has been argued that it doesn't matter if people game badges. But it's also been argued that such behavior is disruptive (e.g., see here). But another perspective is, if these don't matter, why have them at all?
I'm not against all badges or arguing such. I think there are several worthwhile categories:
- New user badges, such as Informed, first vote, edit, etc. These encourage people to become familiar with site functionality, reify their actions, and by awarding some badges provide a sense of becoming a part of the community and having a stake in it. As Martha Stewart would say, 'these are good things'.
- Badges to incentivize things that need to be done to keep the site functioning smoothly, should be rewarded. This includes things like Fanatic, Electorate, Copy Editor, Marshal, and perhaps one Steward. I think we should have just enough to build these habits and no more. (For example, many users, including I, have voted, edited, reviewed, etc., many more times than were required for the respective badge.)
- There very much should continue to be badges that reward excellence. This includes the nice / popular / favorite question / answer badges, the tag badges, etc. It seems to me that once someone has been here for a while, this category is where all of their additional badges come from.
My suggestion is that there should be a minimum of badges. Outside of the excellence badges, there should be a few beginner's badges and just enough badges to motivate the behaviors that are necessary for the site to operate smoothly, but no more. I have no problem with people having hundreds of badges--they should just be for producing excellent content. The problems I see with possibly having too many badges are: gaming, badge hunting, disruptive behavior, and inflation. But mostly it's just inconsistent with the site's mission of building a repository of useful knowledge in the form of excellent questions and answers.
Update (6/19/19): Some badges have been retired (and a couple new ones created in their place) for reasons not far from what I've discussed here.