Level Up Blog
Should You Stay Away From Leaderboards in Gamification? Three Downsides to Leaderboards and Five Ways to Make them Work Nevertheless
Things were going great for TikTok, the social media app that allows users to share short clips of them trying a new product, their cats and dogs, or their newest hot take on a celebrity scandal. User rates and engagement rose as people spent hours on the app.
TikTok used a leaderboard system to rank creators based on the number of views, likes and shares they received on their videos. The coveted first spots on the board promised more viewers and success.
However, to achieve a good spot on the leaderboard, creators began filming low-quality videos with clickbait titles. Pressured to perform, some even bought likes and fake reviews. Those videos climbed the ladder but led to an overall decrease in content quality.
The leaderboard quickly evolved to a display for clickbait videos and didn’t reward good creators. Essentially, the leaderboard became meaningless and the overall “quality” of TikTok declined.
The app eventually changed its algorithm and leaderboard system, taking content quality into account.
TikTok’s experience highlights the danger of implementing leaderboards. Yet, leaderboards remain one of the most popular features of gamification.
Let’s take a look at what leaderboards are, why they are so widely used, and weigh their advantages over their disadvantages.
What are Leaderboards in Gamification?
Within gamification, a leaderboard is a ranking system that displays the performance of players or teams. It creates a sense of competition and motivates users to increase their performance. It also allows players to compare themselves to others. In its simplest form, it is a high-score list.
If you are wondering why leaderboards are effective, check out our blog post on the psychology behind the most popular gamification tools.
The advantages of using leaderboards are clear:
- Motivating: a sense of competition can increase the performance of some players
- Easy: Leaderboards are usually easily implemented and intuitive to use
- Connecting: Leaderboards can foster a sense of community
- Measureable: Leaderboards can be a measurable way to track progress and performance
The fitness app Strava is a good example of a well-implemented leaderboard. Strava allows users to track their runs, rides, and other sports activities using GPS and display their workouts on a leaderboard.
Strava’s leaderboard is working because it’s designed with intention. The leaderboard is segmented, meaning you compete against people with similar skill levels (nothing worse than measuring your bi-monthly jog in the park against a person who gets up at five every morning to run). It also features extensive guidelines to avoid data manipulation and collects various information such as time, heart rate, and other metrics.
The leaderboard and the community it creates are some of the reasons for the app’s success.
And yet, the case of TikTok clearly shows the disadvantages and dangers of implementing a leaderboard. Let’s look at three reasons why a leaderboard might not be the best solution for gamifying a course.
Three Disadvantages of Implementing a Leaderboard
The leaderboard’s greatest benefits can be its biggest disadvantages:
A little friendly competition can be encouraging. However, leaderboards can create a sense of shame or inadequacy for those who are not performing well, which can demotivate them.
A competitive atmosphere can also negatively impact relationships between participants.
Emphasising Wrong Behavior
Leaderboards can invite players to “game the system”. They can incentivise people to cheat or optimise for the tracked metrics, rather than for the overall goal of the project or organisation.
Limits and Blind Spots
Leaderboards only show a narrow view of performance and can miss essential skills and behaviour like teamwork, creativity, or critical thinking. Bias and blind spots also affect leaderboards. Creators of the boards can subconsciously give more weight to certain types of contributions or certain individuals. Thus, they might exclude or alienate users that don’t fit their preconceived ideas of success and performance.
Don’t Forget About The Bottom Of The Board
Have you ever been picked last in PE class? The sinking feeling when the others lined up in front of you while you were stuck on the bench until everyone else was chosen? Sure, you always knew you were not the most athletic person but you didn’t exactly need visual proof.
When designing a leaderboard, keep in mind that there will always be participants at that dreaded bottom of the board.
Leaderboards can create a sense of shame or inadequacy for those who are not performing well. Particularly people who are not naturally competitive, whose skills are hard to measure, or who are new in an organisation might feel underappreciated and alienated. They may disengage from the project or organisation, which can lead to decreased productivity and morale.
People who are not performing well on a leaderboard may feel like their contributions are not valued, and therefore may stop putting in extra effort to improve their performance.
The last spots on the leaderboard might affect their confidence, making them reluctant to take on new projects or explore outside their comfort zone. They might also withdraw from group activities due to feelings of inadequacy.
Should We Avoid Leaderboards in Gamification?
Do the downsides of leaderboards outweigh their advantages? It depends.
If training providers simply add a leaderboard to their courses or trainings as an end-all solution, likely, the tool will not work as intended.
However, with proper design and implementation, leaderboards can be a valuable and simple way for increasing motivation, engagement, and fun.
Use these five ways to make leaderboards work for you.
Five Effective Ways to Implement Leaderboards
Use Leaderboards in Conjunction with Other Tools
Leaderboards work best when combined with other gamification elements such as rewards and challenges. Other elements take the focus and pressure away from leaderboards as the only system to display progress.
Use multiple metrics to track progress and performance. Participants might be able to overlook a relatively poor performance on the leaderboard if they receive rewards and recognition in other areas.
Segment leaderboards so that users can compete with others at a similar skill level or location, providing them with a more personalised experience. You can also use this tool to build new teams or create connections between people who have previously not worked together.
Level Up XP, one of our gamification products, enables course instructors to restrict the visibility of spots on the leaderboard so that participants can only view their ranking in relation to those immediately above and below them. This eliminates the notion of "leading" or "trailing" the high score list.
Course participants might be motivated and work hard. However, if they find themselves at the bottom of the leaderboard, they might feel like they are being punished. This is not the intention of leaderboards, but it can be the result.
A leaderboard should never be used to shame those at the bottom but as a tool to give additional guidance and feedback. Provide players with context and feedback on their performance, such as how they compare to others and how they can improve. Be sure to be respectful and appreciative.
Be creative in how you reward course participants. Recognise effort and persistence, not just results. Learners can reach higher spots on the leaderboard by repeating levels or even by making mistakes and self-correcting.
If you are intentional about how points and rewards are earned, you can give your learners an equal chance of reaching the top spots on the leaderboard.
Consider users' privacy and security when implementing leaderboards and only share information that is necessary and relevant. You can also make participation in the leaderboard optional.
The advantages of leaderboards outweigh their disadvantages but only if they are implemented strategically.
Level Up Team
27 Mar 2023
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