The Points, Badges, and Leaderboards Fallacy


This is an excerpt from the second part of the introduction of Actionable Gamification: Beyond Points, Badges, and Leaderboards. Buy a copy here or listen on Audible.


A Story about Social Media

The landscape of gamification development must be viewed within a historical context to see why gamification mechanics themselves don’t ultimately lead to effective design. Let’s start by taking a look at social media

Due to the proliferation of blogs, Facebook, and Twitter, the versatile term “social media” overtook “social networking” in 2007 and became a new buzzword. When enough interest and excitement in an industry hits critical mass, there will always be people and agencies proclaiming themselves as experts, to capitalize on the trending buzz. It really doesn’t matter what the new buzzword is — SEO, SaaS, Cloud, Big Data, you name it — the terms are so new that while no one can truly be an expert, everyone is in the running to be considered as one.

And so these “experts” saw the growth in “social media” platforms and services as heralding the dawn of a new era in technology, business, and culture. They made sure to demonstrate the importance of its influence through viral growth models and by collecting case studies that show companies obtaining huge successes due to their social media savviness. “Everyone is now a publisher” became the motto, and how companies leveraged the phenomenon became the focus. The pitch was very inspiring and logical.

Unfortunately, being an “expert” only went so far. When companies actually hired these social media services to run their marketing campaigns, they found that all these “experts” could do was create Twitter profiles and Facebook Fan Pages (I’ve even seen services that charge thousands of dollars just to create these accounts).

However, the real question wasn’t how to publish but what to publish. Content strategy was still a mystery in the early days of the social media revolution. For content, the “experts” would simply ask their companies to send them worthy updates for posting. Every once in a while they might even provide some customer support using the companies’ Twitter accounts or share pictures on their Facebook Fan Pages. But overall, the industry felt a little disillusioned by this new “fad,” as the miracle they were expecting in ROI (Return on Investments) just wasn’t being realized.

What most people didn’t recognize then was that social media is much deeper than simply possessing and posting on profile ac- counts. That’s just the outer shell of its influence and impact. Today, we know that great social media campaigns focus on how to create value for the audience by sharing information that is insightful and engaging, has a personal voice, engages and sincerely interacts with each potential customer, and much, much more. In essence, the beauty of social media was in how you designed and implemented a campaign, not in the bells and whistles you used. It was the informal and formal dialogue you had with your community that ultimately taps into the platform’s unique possibilities.

Having knowledge of good social media principles does not necessarily mean someone can execute them correctly. Take popularity for example. Most people know the principles of being a“popular” person — be outgoing, funny, confident, in some cases compassionate, etc. But when you look around your community or network, you find that there are still only a few people who are truly “popular,” while some may even appear to be sleazy as they try. Helping a brand become popular is exactly what true social media experts would be doing if both principles and execution were aligned.

Fortunately, social media does have the power to make a company radically successful and the trend stuck around. (There are still dozens of successful social media case studies appearing on a monthly basis.) Today, most companies now subscribe to the belief of, “If your company doesn’t have a social strategy, it will become irrelevant.”

What connection does this have with gamification? We will soon see that the early days of social media almost completely mirror the gamification industry today.

An Obsession with Grunt Work

As I mentioned in the last chapter, games have the amazing ability to keep people engaged for a long time, build relationships and communities among players, and cultivate their creative potential. Still people often ask, “Do games really have the power to motivate people?” Consider this: many feel that children today do not have strong work ethics. They complain that kids nowadays don’t have discipline, are easily distracted, and don’t show persistence when encountering challenges.

But when it comes to playing games, these same kids have what most people would consider amazing work ethics. Many of them wake up secretly behind their parents’ back at 3AM in the morning, just to play a game and level up their fictional characters.

What’s the motivation behind this? If you have ever played RPGs (Role-Playing Games) before, you would know that the act of “leveling up” often requires defeating the same monsters over and over again in the same stage for hours on end. Even mobile games like Candy Crush or Angry Birds require the same repetitive action (bird-throwing and gem-matching) for weeks or months in order to level up and progress. In the gaming world, this is appropriately called “grinding,” and it is fun and addictive for children and adults alike.

In the real world, this is often defined as “grunt work.” Generally, no one likes to do grunt work, and it requires strong work ethic and will power to complete it. But kids, who again are assumed to have no discipline or work ethic, are somehow sacrificing sleep and risking punishment to complete seemingly pointless grunt work for fun.

Why? Because they are excited about leveling their character up. They want to get that extra +5 strength and gain a new game skill to beat a challenging boss that they couldn’t defeat until they reached a high enough level. They do it because they see the big picture, the “why” they are doing it. They like that sense of accomplishment, as well as the use of their creativity in developing and optimizing certain strategies. They desire these feelings so much that anything that stands in the way, be it grunt work or otherwise, is worth doing and doing urgently.

Now, imagine a world where there is no longer a divide between what you need to do and what you want to do. Where everything is fun and engaging, and you actually want to wake up each morning to tackle the challenges ahead. Grunt work takes on a new meaning when understood as an affect of powerful motivational factors. This is the promise and vision that good gamification design can create.

Secondhand Sushi Making

Despite the many case studies on gamification that demonstrate the potential and promise of its great impact in the world, there are still many more examples of poor practices, failed attempts, and misconceptions. When I started my gamification career in 2003, it was a topic that no one really understood or believed in. People thought I was just creating more excuses to play video games

Fast-forward twelve years and gamification is now a leading de- sign methodology for industries across the globe. Though it gives me great pleasure to see that my once lonely passion became mainstream, it troubled me that experts who were working in gamification didn’t seem to understand games very much. Yes, they might have played Candy Crush a little, or even Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja. But if you ask them what games have they been completely immersed in and obsessed with for long periods of time, you get very short answers.

As with social media, once gamification became a buzzword, it attracted many who saw it as an opportunity to corner an emerging industry. I’m a firm believer that you should immerse yourself in an experience in order to best understand it. Yes, you can derive insight by closely observing those who are going through the experience. But that is like watching someone eat sushi and asking them to take a survey about it, rather than eating the sushi yourself. You’re not going to get the same findings, and if you try to replicate that experience simply based on the survey, you’re going to impart a “superficial sushi taste” to the product you’re designing.

As a result, many gamification professionals focus only on developing the superficial layer of games. I call this the shell of a game experience. This is most often manifested in the form of what we call the PBLs: Points, Badges, and Leaderboards. Many gamification professionals seem to believe that if you put points on something boring, add some badges, and provide a competitive leaderboard, that once boring product will automatically become exciting.

Of course that’s also what a lot of gamification platforms specialize in: adding PBLs into various products in a scalable manner. And as a result, many people who are less informed but curious about gamification start to believe that the sum total of gamification methodology and philosophy is merely the process of adding points, badges, and leaderboards to products. Justifiably, this leads them to believe that gamification is a shallow fad and not very impactful.

This has also generated a backlash from the game development community, as they claim that gamification is a bastardization of the true essence intrinsic to good gaming. And who can blame them? Foursquare seems to be nothing more than points, badges, and leaderboards based on going to places, while Nike+ seems to be the same thing based on running. Is this as deep as gamification goes?

Of course, points, badges, and leaderboards do have a place in game design. That’s why you see them in so many different games. They have the ability to motivate behavior and push people towards certain actions. But gamification is so much more than PBLs. Many gamification professionals are only familiar with how to implement PBL mechanics and even though these do create value, most of them completely miss the point of engaging the user. It is not unusual for users to feel insulted by shallow shell mechanics.

If you ask any gamer what makes a game fun, they will not tell you that it is because of the PBLs. They play it because there are elements of strategy and great ways to spend time with friends, or they want to challenge themselves to overcome difficult obstacles. The points and badges are often an added bonus that’s nice to have depending on the context. This is the difference between extrinsic motivation, where you are engaged because of a goal or reward, and intrinsic motivation, where the activity itself is fun and exciting, with or without a reward. We’ll dive deeper into these distinctions in Chapter 13 on Left Brain vs Right Brain Motivations.


This is an excerpt from the second part of the introduction of Actionable Gamification: Beyond Points, Badges, and Leaderboards. Buy a copy here or listen on Audible.

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