One of my favourite talks at SXSW was by Andy Baio from Kickstarter, called Gaming the Crowd. Andy spoke about designing for increased participation through reputation systems. In fact, he killed the wonderful myth I had that leaderboards rock. Apparently they don’t, because if you’re not in the top 10, you’re disincentivised to participate.

Leaderboards aren’t always fun

There was a phase when I played Crazy Taxi (now called Crazy Cabbie) on Facebook and the mere sight of that leaderboard would make me grit my teeth and want to somehow beat whichever friend of mine was on top (I have since stopped playing it, having taken voluntary retirement from the game because I saw I was becoming obsessed, which is another thing Andy spoke about). The benefit there was that there were two kinds of leaderboards for that game – one that was relevant to you because it included your friends who were playing the game, and the other a global one which was really not much use because a) you didn’t know the people who had the high scores there and b) usually their scores were way higher than your top friends’ scores, so much so that there was no way you’d be able to get that far – so you didn’t bother. Or, in other words, it wasdisincentivising me, except I didn’t realise it at the time. In general, in MMOs, it is in the interest of the game to ensure people don’t burn out, according to Andy, and leaderboards often result in that, as they did with me.


Farmville, now the largest MMO in the world with 82 million players, taps some key behavioural psychology traits to keep players addicted to it. One, reciprocity. If you do something for someone, they are motivated to do something for you. Two, loss aversion. When you own something, even if it is virtually, some bit of you wants to see it prosper. Three, set collection. Many of us must have experienced this as children: collecting and bartering cards to complete a set, like Pokemon cards, or dipping deep into the recesses of my memory, WWF card sets (yeah, thanks to my cousins, I actually participated in trading pictures of wrestlers at one point!).

Knowing when to step back

Sometimes the whole competition system gets out of hand. Andy mentioned the example of a lady who plays Xbox 360 who buys and plays games she doesn’t even like, just to beat people at them. Andy himself was part of a similar situation on Foursquare where a friend and he were locked in a competition with a third unknown person over the Mayorship of a cafe. They started resorting to checking in in the bathroom to get to the top, which really is a bit insane, as he acknowledged! (Overall though, he did say Foursquare had got the reward mechanism sorted out quite well).

Right and wrong reward systems

A key issue while designing games is to figure out how to make people happy. Games that use feelings of guilt to reinforce behaviour are wrong, and Andy gave a good example of a site that is really ‘evil’, as he calls them: Swoopo.


Swoopo is an auction site where every bid raises the price of an item by 12 cents, but also increases the time the auction will be open for by upto 20 seconds. So once you spend, say, $20, you’ll feel compelled to go on bidding to win the item because you will believe that it is right within your reach – and for every bid, the site makes money. They even have something called the ‘Bid Butler’ which places bids on your behalf! According to Andy, a site like Swoopo takes advantage of the inherent irrationality in human beings – of the gaps in the way we think.

Making fun part of everything you do

Someone in the audience asked a very interesting question after the talk: how can we make work more fun using reputation systems? Andy’s response was that anything that you measure – or teach – can be made into a game. Even something like editing a Word document. Imagine if you got points for every error you found in a Word document – wouldn’t that make you want to pay even more attention to what you were doing, rather than seeing it as a chore?

My favourite use of reputation systems and leaderboards in a work environment by far is the one that Panic Inc in Portland, OR have to display the status of their projects in-house. I so wish we had one as awesome as that here at Made by Many. Take a look:

panic status board

One of the most valuable takeaways for me was this simple lesson, though:

Design your project in order to foster collaboration.

That should be the guiding principle. Think about how you can bring people together, and how you can do it in a fun way that makes them want to come back to your site/game.

Kickstarter is in itself a great example of that. It is one of our favourite sites here at Made by Many. Lovely, clean design, bold text, a clear indication of what is going on within different projects, and a motivation to go back and see how a project is faring if you’ve invested in it.


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