On the thoughtful use of points in social systems

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.

3 thoughts on “On the thoughtful use of points in social systems”

  1. Great stuff! I totally agree that leaderboards, when used to artificially incentivize participants, simply introduce social distortion which, though it might produce traffic initially, skews population growth going forward. That’s proof that leaderboards “do work” — but for some users (competitive ones, ones who socialize for pure social rank reasons) — and proof, to Josh’s point, that design structures behavior.

    But systems not designed to elicit behavior and designed instead to accelerate and thicken intrinsic motivations and interests ought probably avoid leadboards and points systems unless those are embedded in broader social constraints. Twitter’s follower count is one such example — for some it’s “points” (popularity), but we all know that people follow each other as a reciprocal recognition of first contact or as a sign of personal, professional interest.

    E.g. follower numbers can look like points but they’re not just that, if we account for reasons users add followers.Certain disincentives or constraints could have been built in. Imagine if follower numbers only refreshed once a day, or less frequently than that. Imagine if follower numbers were shown as a ratio — say to the whole population. Or if they were shown as a trend, or percentage, or against an average… The “number” takes on personal meaning to a user and can become a focal point of activity (increasing the number). If it were instead depersonalized, it might shape behavior a bit differently.

    (There are many examples of people whose concept of 100 stocks at $10 is not the same as 10 stocks at $100. We often don’t relate to what the number really designates, but relate to it as a quantification of something else — particularly with numbers that change).

    On the point of games, I see them as a frame of experience, and if they have rules and structure, resources and roles, they inform allowed behaviors and interaction sequencing. They shape what counts as a move, whose turn it is, what counts from the game perspective as valid or not. Framed interactions, whether using games or some other “fiction” for structuring resources, providing rules for interaction, and codifying action systems, can work and do work.

    Game-like experiences with friends are interesting because social ambiguities — of status of relationship, of interests players have in each other — are brought into high relief by the suspension of daily reality and the new behavioral possibilities offered by the game. Many social apps on Facebook succeed on this basis (IMHO). These light social games play with the real relationship, using rules and game structure to lift regular conventional rules and permit new ones (flirting of many kinds, smacktalk, competition, etc).

    I wrote some of this up at JohnnyHolland.org: http://bit.ly/ZL02e

  2. It doesn’t matter what you are into you are measuring it in some way to decide whether it is worth your effort or not.

    All you have to decide is:

    1. What you are measuring, the qualities
    2. How much you are measuring, the quantities

    Facebook and Flickr members are measuring the worth of being there all the time. They are just using qualities and quantities we aren’t throwing onto a graph for analysis. Who says the number of friends I have isn’t a subliminal leader board, or the number of posts I make, or the number of comments I receive. These are leader boards, too, but they are not separate from the action of using the system, so they are transparent.

    I think that is what I am getting at. Transparent leader boards that are intrinsic to the function of the site are more greatly appreciated than any ranking system that interrupts my flow.

  3. Exposing single-dimension leader boards can also introduce significant bias into the “game” and skew the results as seen with all the recent online “crowdstorming” experiments by the Obama administration and others (i.e. since the leader board gets all the attention, the early leaders are much more likely to stay at the top of the list than entries that were submitted later on).

    To me, that’s another example of exposing the wrong dimension at the wrong time.

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