In this reply, I will attempt to address, solely at first, the "Boy Scout merit badge" subset of your newly edited question: "Did D&D inherit this concept from anywhere? Can plausible arguments be made to, for example, Boy Scout Merit Badges (where, from my hazy understanding, certain sets of merit badges are needed for advancement)". (EDIT: A LONG edit at the end will proceed to trace the Boy Scout merit badge notions further back in time and tie them to the educational notions of "merit tickets" of the 1800s and other educational academic point systems and grading that are now commonplace but began in that era.)
First let me first try to remove the haziness. In a nutshell, the Boy Scout system/"game" works like this: There are ranks, merit badges, and leadership positions.
- Ranks: Gaining of scouting ranks requires fulfilling certain requirements, plus, in the more advanced ranks, acquisition of X number of merit badges (of which Y must be come from a specified list required for earning the top rank of Eagle Scout). For concrete examples, see the low-rank Tenderfoot requirements or higher-rank Star Scout requirements.
- Merit badges (which have been around since the beginning of scouting in 1910ish) can be earned by demonstrating (a modest) mastery of certain skills to a merit badge counselor. For example of what that mastery might look like, see the Cooking merit badge requirements.
- Leadership: And in terms of leadership positions (assistant patrol leader, patrol leader, assistant senior patrol leader, senior patrol leader, etc), they do not determine rank nor vice-versa, but there is some connection and correlation. Some ranks require certain degrees of leadership experience. And some troops have rank/age prerequisites for leadership.
So yes, one can plausibly argue that merit badges are like XP (experience points) in that you have to earn a certain number/"quantity" of them to advance ("success and acheivement") through the higher ranks.
Specifically, in earlier D&D, you needed X XP + Y gold+training actions to earn Z level.
So too, in Boy Scouts, you need to have X badges (+Y other activities) to earn Z rank.
That said, having earned both XP and merit badges, from a gamer's perspective, scouting's merit badges are a bit more like "completed quests" than XP.
There are specific sets of accomplishments required for a particular merit badge, not a very general unspecified set. Or put a different way, every XP point is like every other XP point, identical like a unit of currency. That is not true of merit badges; they are distinct entities such that each unit of achievement has a distinctly different character, and they cannot be earned twice (unlike XP where repetition keeps increasing XP). (That said, some requirements for ranks or merit badges are loosely specified and, like XP, any accomplishment of a certain type/degree can fulfill the requirement, e.g. service project requirements, leadership requirements, etc.)
Thus I personally would probably place merit badges more in your category of "marks" which are a "flat recognitions of achievement" rather than your "currency of achievement" category. Depending on your precise definitions of those, perhaps merit badges might fall somewhere in the middle as a transitional notion.
Other thoughts about the specifics of your question:
- Having had a moderate involvement with earning 20+ merit badges and XP, I never heard of or conceived of any hint of a concrete historical connection between the two.
- I have not yet been able to determine if Gygax or Arneson were ever Boy Scouts per se. But at a minimum, there are indications Gary Gygax was familiar with scouting and its particulars. Take the book "Examining Role-Playing Mastery" by Gary Gygax, chapter 6: "Consider two other works. One is the Boy Scout Handbook. The other is the Army Survival Manual. If you were actually to perform or experience everything contained within the pages of these two books, you would be well on your way to becoming a true explorer." It also seems that some of the earliest documentation of D&D had some explicit discussion of how to conduct outdoor adventures, perhaps (speculatively) suggesting some Boy Scout background of Gygax. Monte Cooke (co-designer of D&D 3rd edition) mentions Gygax's at least passing interest in wilderness adventures this way:
"First off, D&D itself was designed not as a game, but as an adjunct to another game, the miniatures rules system called Chainmail. Further, players were told they needed the game board from an Avalon Hill game called Outdoor Survival if they wanted to play wilderness adventures".
- The Boy Scouts was founded by a British Lieutenant General, Robert Baden-Powell whose leadership at the siege of Mafeking showed a clear command of tactics and strategy, was presumably familiar with military ranking systems and he clearly was inspired by that tradition.
- I am not sufficiently familiar with specifics of how military ranks are or were earned in the British military to make an authoritative comment on how they differ or are similar from Scouting ranks (or XP). That said, my impression is that military ranks are typically earned via an authority figure who provides them as a reward for a undeclared-in-advance set of deeds, while scout ranks do require some authoritative sign-off but are more merit-based based on concretely described achievements. In a way, military ranks are almost more XP-like than merit badges in that they are a reflection of a general set of achievements (although clearly they aren't quantized as per your definition.)
- Whether the Boy Scout founder Baden-Powell played military simulation games and thus has a common conceptual background to later roleplaying game development is unknown to me. This might be an interesting avenue of further research, or perhaps more likely a dead-end digression. My knowledge of Baden-Powell doesn't go far beyond childhood stories and Wikipedia entries; there are several book-length biographies of him that I haven't read.
- There are modest indications that early-on, scouting was conceived of as a game ("Baden-Powell was amazed to find that his little handbook had caught the interest of English boys. They were using it to play the game of scouting.") and that in terms of scout activities, he recognized the "worth of games" as part of scout activities (although in his conception, it probably was more outdoor, active games).
- However, my impression based on researching this for a few hours is that Baden-Powell's development of merit badges stemmed more from his notions of educational theory than gaming mechanisms or achievement/success-oriented processes. The book that started the scouting movement, "Scouting for Boys", was a boy-oriented extension of earlier military training manuals. Training manuals would suggest an educational mindset. As a military man and as seen in the Scout Oath and Promise, Baden-Powell appears interested in creating honorable men who would take initiative in solving problems (a characteristic prized in his military scout heritage). So I would place merit badges in the historical realm as successors to various colleges/schools/grading/training feedback systems that others here have mentioned, rather than as a forerunner to, say, Chainmail/AD&D/etc XP point feedback systems.
LONG LONG LONG ADDED EDIT:
Ah! I see elsewhere in the discussion of your question that you're writing on "quest-based education" so yes, a bit more on the origin and thinking behind merit badges might be relevant to you.
Particularly relevant to that topic is the earlier "worth of games" link I gave ("Smith, M. K. (1997; 2002) 'Robert Baden-Powell as an educational innovator', the encyclopedia of informal education, www.infed.org/thinkers/et-bp.htm.")
It discusses the origin of merit badges and Baden-Powell's educational method explorations, notably how Baden-Powell took the idea from Ernest Thompson Seton (who for a while joined forces with Baden-Powell in founding Boy Scouts of America) and Seton's book "The Birch Bark Roll of the Woodcraft Indians" (1902). As Smith notes:
Two further elements also impressed Robert Baden-Powell to 'borrow' them for his scheme. Seton had developed a system of non-competitive badges linked to the various activities in his programme. A similar range of badges with a non-competitive orientation was adopted by Robert Baden-Powell. ... The scale of this importation (some of which was not initially acknowledged properly) became the focus of considerable tension between Seton and Robert Baden-Powell.
(Shades of Arneson-Gygax tension and resentment here!)
As for Seton and his thinking/motivation/educational philosophy behind merit badges and why they "work", M.K. Smith doesn't make the connection, but I think Seton hints very strongly at it in principle 7 of his "9 principles of woodcraft" in that "The Birch Bark Roll of the Woodcraft Indians" book:
7) Personal Decoration for Personal Achievements. The love of glory is the strongest motive in a savage. Civilized man is supposed to find in high principle his master impulse. But hose [sic] who believe that the men of our race, not to mention boys, are civilized in this highest sense, would be greatly surprised if confronted with figures. Nevertheless, a human weakness may be good material to work with, I face the facts as they are. All have a chance for glory through the standards, and we blazon it forth in personal decorations that all can see, have, and desire."
To me, that sort of thinking suggests that merit badges in that form really did originate with Seton and he didn't "steal" the idea from someone else.
But as I set out to think about other then-contemporary influences and educational thinking that might have (unconciously?) inspired Seton, I was reminded of stories about American church "ticket" educational schemes as described (parodied?) by Mark Twain in his book 26 years earlier, "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" (1876).
This in turn leads back to your original question about quantized numeric success and its predecessors. (I recognize your question does explicitly mention games but it also stretches back looking for antecedents.)
Anyway, the ticket system in Tom Sawyer was described thus, in chapter 4:
... Then Tom traded a couple of white alleys for three red tickets, and some small trifle or other for a couple of blue ones. He waylaid other boys as they came, and went on buying tickets of various colors ten or fifteen minutes longer. He entered the church, now, with a swarm of clean and noisy boys and girls, proceeded to his seat and started a quarrel with the first boy that came handy. The teacher, a grave, elderly man, interfered; then turned his back a moment and Tom pulled a boy's hair in the next bench, and was absorbed in his book when the boy turned around; stuck a pin in another boy, presently, in order to hear him say "Ouch!" and got a new reprimand from his teacher. Tom's whole class were of a pattern—restless, noisy, and troublesome. When they came to recite their lessons, not one of them knew his verses perfectly, but had to be prompted all along. However, they worried through, and each got his reward—in small blue tickets, each with a passage of Scripture on it; each blue ticket was pay for two verses of the recitation. Ten blue tickets equalled a red one, and could be exchanged for it; ten red tickets equalled a yellow one; for ten yellow tickets the superintendent gave a very plainly bound Bible (worth forty cents in those easy times) to the pupil. How many of my readers would have the industry and application to memorize two thousand verses, even for a Dore Bible? And yet Mary had acquired two Bibles in this way—it was the patient work of two years—and a boy of German parentage had won four or five. He once recited three thousand verses without stopping; but the strain upon his mental faculties was too great, and he was little better than an idiot from that day forth—a grievous misfortune for the school, for on great occasions, before company, the superintendent (as Tom expressed it) had always made this boy come out and "spread himself." Only the older pupils managed to keep their tickets and stick to their tedious work long enough to get a Bible, and so the delivery of one of these prizes was a rare and noteworthy circumstance; the successful pupil was so great and conspicuous for that day that on the spot every scholar's heart was fired with a fresh ambition that often lasted a couple of weeks. It is possible that Tom's mental stomach had never really hungered for one of those prizes, but unquestionably his entire being had for many a day longed for the glory and the eclat that came with it.
[The following Sunday, Tom goes to church and there is a long description of the church service where Mr. Walters, the sunday school superintendent, welcomes a special guest and struts about.]
There was only one thing wanting to make Mr. Walters' ecstasy complete, and that was a chance to deliver a Bible-prize and exhibit a prodigy. Several pupils had a few yellow tickets, but none had enough—he had been around among the star pupils inquiring. He would have given worlds, now, to have that German lad back again with a sound mind.
And now at this moment, when hope was dead, Tom Sawyer came forward with nine yellow tickets, nine red tickets, and ten blue ones, and demanded a Bible. This was a thunderbolt out of a clear sky. Walters was not expecting an application from this source for the next ten years. But there was no getting around it—here were the certified checks, and they were good for their face. Tom was therefore elevated to a place with the Judge and the other elect, and the great news was announced from headquarters. It was the most stunning surprise of the decade, and so profound was the sensation that it lifted the new hero up to the judicial one's altitude, and the school had two marvels to gaze upon in place of one. The boys were all eaten up with envy—but those that suffered the bitterest pangs were those who perceived too late that they themselves had contributed to this hated splendor by trading tickets to Tom for the wealth he had amassed in selling whitewashing privileges. These despised themselves, as being the dupes of a wily fraud, a guileful snake in the grass.
The prize was delivered to Tom with as much effusion as the superintendent could pump up under the circumstances; but it lacked somewhat of the true gush, for the poor fellow's instinct taught him that there was a mystery here that could not well bear the light, perhaps; it was simply preposterous that this boy had warehoused two thousand sheaves of Scriptural wisdom on his premises—a dozen would strain his capacity, without a doubt.
I can't help but laugh at this 1876 description of scandalous "out of game" trading for "XP/currency". Truly, nothing is new under the sun!
(Now in terms of our discussion and your question, such tickets would actually not like merit badges that much but very much like predecessors to, XP; they can be earned for doing a skill repeatedly, and they can be accumulated and traded in for something. There is definitely "quantizing of success" and, more tenuously, "advancement through a numerical method". True, one could argue that such tickets are more about "acquisition" (of a bible) than "advancement" and this is consistent with the similarity of tickets to a form of currency (which they were on multiple levels). And tickets are more like currency than XP in the sense that they can be traded with others. But the clear intent of the system of varying-colored tickets in the "game" setup by the Sunday School Superintendent does suggest a notion of "levels" of prestige and glory that are attained by holders (or redeemers) of the higher/better tickets.
It should be acknowledged that the story is fictional in its particulars, so perhaps not overly to be relied upon historically. But I do not think it lacked some basis in contemporary reality in terms of the colored ticket system for memorizing bible verses as-described. (There's another little historical research sideline project-- to find out what actual practice/church Twain was referencing.) Why else would Twain highlight them so?
Sure enough, digging around even on the web, tickets as a matter of educational reinforcement were in-vogue in the late 1800s. For example, as described in The History of C.C. Baldwin and Cottage Farm:
"Manifesting a keen interest in the education of children of the Public Schools in Natural Bridge district in the mid 1870’s, C. C. Baldwin, at the request of Dr. W. H. Ruffner, Superintendent of Public School Instruction of Virginia, undertook the task of Inspector. He was not compensated whatever for his services. He promised a detailed and official report for publication of “these terribly neglected and mismanaged schools, by our School Officials.” (Apparently, Public Schools were a hot issue for the general public at the time and were regularly discussed, at length, in the newspapers.) Initially, he suggested that the school district adopt the “Roll of Honor and Merit-Ticket system of School Discipline”, which had been in successful operation in the best schools throughout the United States for years. Testimonials from teachers with regard to the practical results of the system after many months of use were published in the Lexington Gazette on May 19, 1876. Letter after letter extolled its virtues and successful results. "
Other references like the Wikipedia entry for the "Monitorial System", in the "Lancaterian System" subsection, mentions ticket-writing in the 1880s:
According to Gladman [School Work Control and Teaching Organisation and Principles of Education by JF Gladman Published Jarrold and Sons 1886], to stimulate effort and reward merit, "Lancaster used Place Taking abundantly. He also had medals and badges of merit .. Tickets could be earned too; these had a trifling pecuniary value." Prizes were given "to excess" ceremonially.
Poking around, Google has scanned in the original reference book on the subject,
"The Lancasterian System of Education, with Improvements, by Joseph Lancaster, Institute Lancasterian Institute", published 1821.
Page 23 indicates that the XP-like ticket system Twain parodies was seriously purused in the 1800s as an educational methodology:
Reward tickets are usually inscribed with the word "merit." They are printed on a small size, that the pupil who obtains them, may be able to treasure up a large number in a small compass. In addition to the word "merit," they should be lettered, Two,—Three,-Five,—Ten,—Twenty,—Thirty -Forty,—Fifty,-One hundred. In this case one lettered Two is equivalent to the two single ones with only 'merit" enscribed, and fifty or an hundred imply their equivalence to so many single tickets.
The tickets given, are of small value, and may be given, even for care in forming a single letter, writing a word, reading, or working a sum. Rewards so small, enable the teacher to notice every single act of exertion to improve, and to shed the sunshine of his influence continually, to cherish every endeavour which appears worthy of notice. Small as are some of these rewards, they possess relative value by the power of accumulation. The distribution of large numbers occasionally, gives a strong impulse to usual exertions. The interest excited by this species of paper currency, is beyond all description; it affords a cheap, expeditious, and almost incredibly powerful stimulant. The Thousand tickets have been in possession of meritorious boys at one time, all of which have been worked for, with earnest solicitude,—preserved with the greatest care,—and often exhibited to parents, friends, and relatives with pleasure and exultation.
The rewards given may consist of books, or other suitable articles,—hundreds, and sometimes many hundreds, and occasionally thousands of tickets, being needful to purchase one prize. The rewards thus given for merit, should have their price in tickets, fixed at the discretion of the tutor. The prizes to be given, and the value of them, are not less interesting for being a secret till merit unveils the mystery. Experience has proved that it is needless for the teacher to bind himself to give prizes of a certain worth, or to make tickets bear a fixed value. The quantity of merit,—the motive to action, is the cause to be considered in distributing tickets.
Individual competition will frequently arise, and as far as school business and leisure admit, ought to be encouraged. [...] But the most powerful remedy for individual discouragement is, the transferring the feeling of competition from individuals to entire classes. Suppose the whole of one class write, read, or cypher in competition with another. [...]
The numbers on tickets may be considerably extended with good success; and numbers of pupils learn numeration, small addition sums, multiplication &c. by means of these well earned tickets, which they value as great treasure, and often count over as the miser counts over his gold. When pupils in the Lancasterian Institute of Baltimore, obtained tickets, on some meritorious occasions, more equivalent numbers were in circulation, than all the dollars of all the banks, ever established in,the United States, amounted to, from the first invention of banking institutions to this day.
The parallels with game designers awarding XP as a stimulant to action are hard to miss.
It is also very ironic and a bit stunning to me to realize that educators, at such a loss today as to how to battle the addictive pull of "video games" or how to harness that power to their own educational ends, in fact discovered and pioneered the same set of principles and effects of points/XP/etc (at least) 150 years earlier!
Why are educators so unable to harness the same impetus now? Kuhn's paradigms at work I guess, or perhaps the long reach of Twain's sharp pen.
Or perhaps it wasn't Twain's ridicule but his actual point-- once the symbol of achievement becomes a tradable currency amongst players (and not just by one player in return for some benefit), the system and its purposes can and will be subverted and corrupted. A scenario we see today with MMOs, gold farming and such.
(And what keeps our current monetary system from being so corrupted? Perhaps Jesus was right in saying "you cannot serve both God and money"!)
So what did educators do instead? Well, they seem to have turned to letter grades and 100-point grading systems. So when did that happen? Well, there's an excellent paper which seems to cover that in an academically credible way, entitled "An A is Not an A Is Not An A: A History of Grading, Mark Durm, The Educational Forum, vol 57, 1993, also at http://www.indiana.edu/~educy520/sec6342/week_07/durm93.pdf .
According to that paper, colleges in the 1700s had no grades or graded on social class, and in 1785 Yale probably awarded the first grades which were more like badges, neither numeric nor ABCD. Numeric rankings (4-point scale at Yale, 100-point scale at Harvard) appeared in 1813 and 1830, respectively (NOTE: interestingly, around the same timeframe as the 1821 Lancastarian ticket system), with the 0-100 ranking turning into 6 "divisions" loosely corresponding to our current standards in 1877, and the letter system introduced by Mt Holyoke in 1897.
Who knew that school grades were such a modern invention? I guess I had blindly assumed they'd been around for eternity! (And why would I be told otherwise?) There's a secret I never learned in all my schooling!
In any case, I certainly submit that "grades", while not a game per se, are "numeric quantifiers of success" that people IRL trade for "advancement" (to better schools, colleges, jobs) and are legit and, in the broad scheme of history, relatively recent precursors of the XP point systems.
Our minds crave a sense of competence and the benefits of goal-directed behavior, and nature selects for it (or if you are theologically inclined, per Pascal, God designed it and "Our hearts are restless till they find our rest in thee".)
Footnote: The Lancastrian educational reinforcement system of XP-like/currency-like "Merit tickets" used for secular education was at least somewhat religious or religious-friendly in nature (the section following the "ticket section" quoted above from Lancaster's book proceeds to talk about scripture memorization, although as far as I can tell it doesn't explicitly link it with tickets like Twain or perhaps later practitioners did).
Thus I should add that I, although not a Methodist, personally suspect that Lancastrian "merit tickets" may in turn be a inspired by an earlier American religious "ticket" notion, the distinctive Methodist church tradition of tickets. These tickets were given-to/carried-by people who were discerned to be true members at quarterly Methodist meetings by the travelling preacher who talked with them to challenge them and help them inspect their souls via the fruits of their deeds. Referred to in the African American spiritual song, "Lord if I got my ticket, can I ride?", this "badge"-type precursor notion of merit/membership apparently originated back in March 1742 at or near the start of the Methodist movement (source: Chronological History of the People Called Methodists", John Myles, 1803, p17). Methodism was a booming religious/social movement in the 70 years prior to Lancaster's work. Clearly Methodist tickets were badges-of-merit/belonging while Lancastrian tickets were more of a currency-for-small-achievement but there appears to be a definite theological-education/owned-for-merit-achievement tie between the two, an unlikely coincidence given the chronological timing of things and similar "ticket" terminology.
Perhaps the Lancastrian system was a synthesis of that Methodist ticket system and growing usage of paper banknote currencies. But why didn't Lancaster then call them banknotes or currencies? Why call them "merit tickets?"
Perhaps the etymology of the word "ticket" (rather than "currency") might show some other interesting forbearers. Tickets clearly came after Gutenberg in 1450, and dictionary.com says its originates in the 1500s from a French term, but when/how did tickets take on a potential "currency" sort of notion? Were Lancastrian's "merit tickets" the first to do that? What other sorts of tickets were there?
Now "Train tickets" may have come after Lancastrian "merit tickets"; Lancaster's book was 1821 and while I can't find an origin of the first train ticket, trains didn't really commercially develop in the US until the 1830s. (Wikipedia, History of rail transport).
But "lottery tickets", how about those? Well, "lottery tickets" do date back even further and that may make for a better conceptual forerunner to the "merit ticket". I'm not sure of the when the first lottery ticket was (as opposed to the first lottery which was ancient). Perhaps the OED would say? But that Wikipedia lottery link shows a lottery ticket image dating back through at least 1758, suggesting lottery tickets may predate Methodist tickets and share more in common with the later "merit tickets" which have such XP-like behavior.
Lottery tickets actually share some interesting properties with "merit tickets" (and thus experience points) in that you you accumulate them, you redeem them at a later date (albeit with a risk factor thrown in), and as Wikipedia mentions about lotteries, periodically the whole system is abandoned, collapses or is banned due to corruption effects that creep in. True, a "merit ticket" is the precise opposite of a "luck ticket", but doesn't that really make them two sides of the same coin, so to speak?