Leaderboards for Optimal Behavior

The first wealth is health.
«The Conduct of Life by Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1860

Gamification is «the use of game elements and game-design techniques in non-game contexts.» (Werbach & Hunter, 2012). It is a form of motivation design that aims to help people do tasks, usually tasks that are not motivating in themselves (extrinsically motivated).

When it comes to using gamification, one (really bad) default technique is to just throw points-badges-leaderboards (PBLs) over a task. Just add them and call it gamification. It only looks at surface characteristics and ignores what makes games actually interesting and motivating to play.

This does not mean that PBLs are bad in themselves. Applied correctly, points can be very helpful to measure the user’s success, badges can show which behaviors are cherished, and, heck, even leaderboards can be helpful, even though they are very hard to use correctly. Usually they are only useful in conditions in which direct competition-conflict among participants is wanted, including underhanded methods. After all, you advance on the leaderboards if you perform better than others, but you also advance if others perform worse — no matter the reason (sabotage anyone?).

I was reminded of the use of leaderboards during a presentation at a conference, in which leaderboards were used in a fitness app. Unfortunately, the leaderboard was used in the obvious, default way. You make more exercises, take more steps, you get more points, which in turn determine your position on the leaderboard.

Personally, especially with health and fitness apps, I think this is extremely risky. If people really invest in leaderboards, they can only improve their position by doing more. But doing more in fitness can rapidly lead to overexertion and to serious damage. The body needs to move, but it also needs rest. And there are limits of what you can do. (And if the users are not in the same place, you can’t even sabotage others to advance.)

I think leaderboards should be used here to promote the optimal behavior for the person. Instead of getting more points for, e.g., more steps, you get more points the closer you adhere to your personalized training program. For example, that you do the exercises regularly. That you take the necessary amount of steps (within a certain range). Essentially, the points are given on an inverse-U-curve. More points the closer you are to the optimal exercise level for yourself. Less points if you under- but also if you over-exert yourself. Same with healthy eating, etc.

Besides avoiding over-exertion, this kind of reward structure would also make it possible for anyone who shows optimal behavior to advance on the leaderboard. A newbie will have no chance to compete against a super-fit user in terms of mere repetitions or steps, but he can compete in showing the optimal behavior for his fitness status.

So, yeah, even though I detest leaderboards in most contexts, they can be used intelligently. If done right, that is. Whether they actually have this effect, well, that is something a good evaluation could examine.

Happy competing … with yourself.


Source: Werbach, K., & Hunter, D. (2012). For the Win. How Game Thinking Can Revolutionize Your Business. Philadelphia: Wharton Digital Press.