Yesterday afternoon on Twitter there was a brilliant conversation among Kevin Marks, Tom Coates, Jane McGonigal, Tara Hunt, Josh Porter and a few others on the thoughtful use of points and competition in social systems.
Motivated by the popularity of games, designers of social systems sometimes adopt scoring and ranking systems simplistically, with counterproductive results.
The easiest design mistake is to throw up a “leaderboard” ranking all participants by a single dimension. Tom Coates explains that this simply discourages most participants. “Competitive charts, particularly at scale, basically are disincentives! Why compete to be #134,555th best at something!” Jane McGonigal agrees: “Cumulative allplayer scoreboards/ranks/achievements are fail, should be stopped like blink tags ^_^”
Tom Coates argues that systems that try to use extrinsic motivation is a sign that the activity isn’t compelling enough on its own. Flickr doesn’t need leaderboards to motivate actions, no need for competition. Nor Facebook. Or most blogs.” “There may be some role for play, but what motivates me to show my brother things or hang out with friends is not points!” Social systems should facilitate people’s intrinsic social motivations: “In social contexts we build on reasons people already interact with friends / peers / public. Company, sharing, showing off.”
Others in the conversation are less skeptical of points systems, and recommend ways to use them more wisely.
Instead of a single, discouraging ranking, Kevin Marks recommends using leaderboards for friends, with many publics applied to scores. “In gamelike situations comparing scores with peers + friends beats global ranks.” Jane McGonigal observes that social competition can be “rival” based (pick one person in your social network as your rival) like Sharkrunners.
Josh Porter takes time and the adoption cycle into consideration. “I see leaderboards as an early-stage igniter in social networks…good for a time of fast growth but not healthy long-term.” Another way time needs to be considered, says Porter, is the lifespan of scores. cumulative scoreboards eventually break (like Amazon having to reset Top Reviewers last year).
Jane McGonigal sees points systems as valuable, particularly for charting toward hard-to-achieve goals (eg nike+), the gamelike system for tracking running progress. But explicit metrics are only one element of designing a game that people want to play: “points” and “levels” without obstacles and an authentic non-game desire to progress/improve are awful.
Another consideration, I think, is participant temperament. Some participants will be more motivated by desire to be the best, or by social rivalry, or by individual achievement, and some will have social, noncompetitive motivations. Unless the designers explicitly want to select for a single personality type – say, a shooter game for the aggressively macho – designers need to consider the different temperaments in the participant community, and think about ways to support the motivations of different types of participants. Kevin Marks cites Bartle’s classic 1996 essay, Hearts Clubs Diamonds Spades on kinds of players in multi-user computer games.
This is an important public conversation to be having. The practices and principles of social design are starting to emerge from many experiences and experiments in networked social systems. It is a great time to reflect and learn from social systems in the world, and derive lessons for the thoughtful use of points systems (as well as other principles of social system design).
I’ve tried to capture the tweets from yesterday’s conversation on delicious using socialincentives tag, please feel free to add ones I missed.