How Reddit.com uses Karma (Game Technique #1 – Status Points)

This article on Status Points was originally published in February 2018, but was edited and updated in November 2019.

For the last three years I’ve worked with Yu-kai Chou, a leader in the gamification consulting space and developer of the Octalysis gamification framework. As I continue to learn from him, I’m testing my knowledge through a series of posts aiming to highlight everything from the basics to more advanced topics. 

If you’ve been curious about how games impact design in non-game experiences, and how companies like Uber and Apple and Amazon use them, this series of articles is for you.

(Keep this working definition in mind: Gamification is the integration of game elements into non-game experiences.)

Why Game Techniques?

Yu-kai wrote Actionable Gamification: Beyond Points, Badges, & Leaderboards several years ago at a high point in gamification’s hype curve. His argument was simple: there is something in gamification–what he calls Human-Focused Design–that is important and useful in designing experiences for humans. Gamification is not a fad, and it isn’t going away.

Yu-kai wanted to differentiate the knowledge he had acquired from lifelong games research and consulting work with hundreds of companies from other organizations who were jumping on the gamification trend without the same expertise.

No harm in that, except for Yu-kai there was more to the idea of gamification–adding game elements to non-game experiences–than slapping on points, badges, and leaderboards.

Thus, the subtitle of the book: ‘Beyond Points, Badges, & Leaderboards‘.

A few Game Techniques listed in their Dominant Core Drive
A few Game Techniques listed in their Dominant Core Drive

Throughout the text, Yu-kai sprinkles Game Techniques he has collected through his own gameplay and through the development of engaging experiences with clients.

How does Yu-kai create them? That would require me to read his mind. However, what I’ve observed is that he starts with the client problem and then applies the Octalysis Gamification framework–including the 8 Core Drives–to build engagement and interaction design. These designs, when tied together, create a game loop for the user. Ideally, a game loop that brings the user back again and again.

Now, there are over 100 of these so-called Game Techniques which Yu-kai is freely sharing and making videos about in Octalysis Prime (his community teaching the Octalysis design framework).

This post will serve to introduce you to one of the most basic techniques.

Status is important and practical

The desire to improve one’s status is a huge motivator. Recognition of status stems from our neurobiological settings.

And status is practical. When I have a problem learning to code, I go to Stack Overflow, a website with high status in the question/answer space for pro and amateur programmers. When I want high-quality food, I go to a high-status restaurant. When I want to suggest to strangers I have status, I might wear certain kinds of clothing.

One of the highest margin status items today might be Apple airpods.

Contrary to this post’s declaration on November 18, 2019–which suggests Apple has solved a deep customer problem–I see airpods as an example of a product linked to Apple’s larger ecosystem, which oozes status. Because Apple customers have an affinity to the brand and gain a sense of status by owning and wearing them, they are happy to pay for a high-margin product that has cheaper alternatives. (Admittedly I am cherrypicking this example: I don’t own airpods, but I am using a Macbook Pro from 2013, which may have been overpriced too.)

How status allows Apple to improve its margins

From the perspective of the Octalysis framework, Status is linked with two Core Drives, which I will get to shortly. But first, let’s define our terms.

Game Technique #1: Status Points (they still matter)

Now that we’ve commented on a few ways status works in our society, let’s drill down into Status Points.

Status Points are a numeric tracker that shows the growth of a player in the user journey, often symbolizing higher status in the ecosystem.

For now, we won’t go into visual design nor interaction design related to Status Points. Of course, how something looks and feels will also impact the user experience, often to a large extent.

Which Core Drives are Ignited?

Status Points make us feel accomplished and they also provide a signal to others. Therefore, Status Points are influenced by Core Drive 2: Development & Accomplishment and Core Drive 5: Social Influence & Relatedness.

What status points do:

They keep score. They show progression, as in a status bar.

Pinecast displays 'listens' on my Diplomacy podcast
The Pinecast Dashboard displays ‘listens’ on my Diplomacy podcast

The above example is very simple. It does not compare my listens to other podcast creators on the Pinecast platform. The status points–visualized as a progress bar–merely suggest my path toward a goal arbitrarily assigned by the Pinecast team.

Further Uses for Status Points

Status points don’t only keep score. Nor do they only show progression toward a goal.

Status Points can also be used as consumable points to purchase something in-game or in-experience from a store or from other players or through a marketplace. This versatility makes status points incredibly useful and gives their implementation an added bonus: Core Drive 3: Empowerment of Creativity & Feedback.

Chou Coins as Status

While EXP (experience points) are the main form of Status on the Octalysis Prime Island, Chou Coins also suggest a student’s mastery and progress in the journey. These Chou Coins can be used to play the game in interesting ways. For example, members may opt to buy potions to increase the EXP gain from watching education videos, or, to play a different way, they might buy Geomon traps to attempt to capture a new pet.

Octalysis Prime's Store
Octalysis Prime’s Store

Direct Progress Toward a Tangible Goal

If you’ve ever traveled by plane, you have likely gained status points with the airline you chose to fly with. Frequent flyers will be well aware of the encouragement airlines give to passengers to reach the next tier in the airline’s reward status.

Note that most airlines use two forms of Status Points: 1) the frequent flyer miles, and 2) the qualifying flights (legs). What is the impact of this design decision? You get more ways to play their game! (That’s Core Drive 3, again, arguably the most important Core Drive.)

Delta's Rewards Program Shows Status Points Needed to Upgrade
Delta’s Rewards Program

How Reddit Uses Karma Points:

I’ve long admired Reddit for providing a platform to create and host user communities around almost any topic you can think of. How it has managed to keep users engaged and its communities’ feeds relatively free of ads and spam is remarkable for a Top 20 site (by traffic) on the internet.

Because the topic today is Status Points, I want to look at Reddit karma.

Adding value to the site gains you a small amount of karma (usually one 1 point), while additional karma may be earned through others’ upvotes of your text or link posts or even upvotes of your comments.

A comment from a player with more status–in this case, more karma–has a different impact than from a lower level player. You gain points by posting and gaining karma (given by other players). The impact is that I might be able to trust this user’s comment a little more than other lower-karma users. You also have the ability to click into a user’s profile to read comments in that subreddit. If you were seeking advice, this might allow you to make a judgment on whether to take the advice offered.

Labor & Performance

What effect does this have? First, you can’t get status in a vacuum. Your status increases in relation to the effort and value you add AND how others perceive that effort and value. In Reddit’s setup, your labor and performance matter.

Reddit Karma
Slowly gaining Reddit Karma since my Cake day

Reddit.com uses Reddit Gold, which is also quite useful and representative of a two-tiered status point system (karma and gold). Reddit Gold is used for its premium member program as well as a giftable status point for incredibly useful contributions to a subreddit.

If we dig into karma a bit more, we see that it is a point system related to both performance and labor. Low-effort posts are even banned or recommended against in some subreddits. (This keeps marketers and spammers at bay.)

Upvotes as Status Points

For those interested in which of their posts mattered, using the profile page and sorting for “Top” shows where you’ve gained the most upvotes. In the image below you’ll see–according to members of the Diplomacy and Fantasy subreddits that I’ve added value:

Gaining Status Points on Reddit
Top posts by Upvotes

Karma isn’t 1:1 with Post Scores

To combat low-effort posts, Reddit correlates but does not match karma gain to the overall upvote score of post. From a design standpoint from Reddit’s perspective, this very much aligns with their stated mission, especially related to authentic human connection:

The Conversation Starts Here: Reddit is home to thousands of communities, endless conversation, and authentic human connection. Whether you’re into breaking news, sports, TV fan theories, or a never-ending stream of the internet’s cutest animals, there’s a community on Reddit for you.

– from redditinc.com

If Reddit rewarded low-effort posts, then the engaged, passionate users who delivered depth and extraordinary value to their communities might be turned off.

In fact, many subreddit’s have posted rules against low-effort posts and advertising. This approach has kept Reddit’s communities relevant and useful.

How to use Status Points:

Status Points are foundational to many systems as they are an intuitive way to track a user journey. If status is inherent or useful to your system (as user authority is in Reddit), then Status Points can be used to great effect.

Use Status Points wisely and they will greatly improve your experience.
Status points have a White Hat and extrinsic feel to them, stemming largely from Core Drive 2: Development & Accomplishment and Core Drive 5: Social Influence & Relatedness.

In Octalysis Prime, the vibrant community of gamification learners and professionals brings new techniques back from the wild. Join us!

Get mentored by Yu-kai Chou

Octalysis Prime Gamification

Every week I hop on a conference call to teach, answer questions, and give feedback to members of Octalysis Prime. If you want to take your Gamification practice to the next level, then come join us.

Would you like Yu-kai Chou to work with your Organization?

If you are interested in working with Yu-kai Chou for a business project, workshop, speech or presentation, or licensing deal, please fill out the form below.

2 thoughts on “How Reddit.com uses Karma (Game Technique #1 – Status Points)”

You must engage in the conversation!!