Points, levels and leaderboards are often perceived as the bread and butter of gamification. Gabe Zichermann and Christopher Cunningham (2011) even call them “the heart of any gaming system” and “an absolute requirement for all gamified systems”. Game designer Margaret Robertson (2011) on the other hand decries this practice as pointsification and deems it “the thing that is least essential to games”. Similarly, Chris Hecker (2010) warned game designers not to blindly resort to achievements (or points, levels and leaderboards for that matter), because they could stifle players’ intrinsic motivation, that is, their desire to engage with a game (or gamified service). Intrinsic motivation denotes the pursuit of an activity, because it is inherently interesting or enjoyable, whereas extrinsic motivation is defined as doing something due to external events, such as money, deadlines or “good player badges”. However, psychological studies have shown that such extrinsic motivators are often ineffective and will eventually decrease people’s intrinsic motivation for even the most fun activities. While Hecker provided a comprehensive summary on current research on human motivation, he also stressed the need to specifically study the effects of game design elements, such as points, levels, and leaderboards, on intrinsic motivation.
Presentation at Gamification 2013
We conducted a controlled online experiment, where we compared people’s performance and intrinsic motivation in four different versions of a simple image annotation task:
1) Points only vs. 2) Levels vs. 3) Leaderboard vs. 4) Control condition, which featured no game elements whatsoever.
Study participants received 100 points for every tag they entered and could always see how many points they needed to score to reach the next level / next rank on the leaderboard. Following previous research on the effects of rewards on intrinsic motivation, we assumed that these game elements would decrease users’ self-reported intrinsic motivation, compared to the control group.
Surprisingly, our results revealed that not only did points, levels and leaderboards drive users to generate significantly more tags than users in the control group, but no differences concerning intrinsic motivation were found between the experimental conditions. Put differently, the implementation of these common gamification elements did not harm people’s enjoyment of the image annotation task. It seems that for certain types of activities – short, simple and voluntary tasks, – the oftentimes much maligned points, levels and leaderboards are indeed a viable means to increase productivity, without compromising users’ intrinsic motivation.
However, our study only just scratched the surface of the whole debate. For instance, why did points, levels and leaderboards enhance people’s productivity without boosting their intrinsic motivation? The jury is still out on that one and there are several possible explanations, but as Robertson (2010) puts it: “They’re great tools for communicating progress and acknowledging effort, but neither points nor badges in any way constitute a game.” In fact, research in psychology suggests that games are so intrinsically motivating, because they provide some form of voluntary challenge for players to take on (Przybylski et al., 2010). The image annotation task in our study could hardly be considered “Nintendo Hard” and offered little opportunity for skill mastery. In an ongoing research project, we aim to gain a better understanding of whether and how gamification may actually increase students’ intrinsic motivation and facilitate the mastery of more demanding curricular activities.
The full paper was published in the Gamification ’13 Proceedings and is available here.
Abstract: It is heavily debated within the gamification community whether specific game elements may actually undermine users’ intrinsic motivation. This online experiment examined the effects of three commonly employed game design elements — points, leaderboard, levels — on users’ performance, intrinsic motivation, perceived autonomy and competence in an image annotation task. Implementation of these game elements significantly increased performance, but did not affect perceived autonomy, competence or intrinsic motivation. Our findings suggest that points, levels and leaderboards by themselves neither make nor break users’ intrinsic motivation in non-game contexts. Instead, it is assumed that they act as progress indicators, guiding and enhancing user performance. While more research on the contextual factors that may potentially mediate the effects of game elements on intrinsic motivation is required, it seems that the implementation of points, levels, and leaderboards is a viable means to promote specific user behavior in non-game contexts.
Hecker, C. (2010). Achievements considered harmful. http://chrishecker.com/achievements_considered_harmful.
Mekler, E. D., Brühlmann, F., Opwis, K. & Tuch, A. N. (2013). Do Points, Levels and Leaderboards Harm Intrinsic Motivation? An Empirical Analysis of Common Gamification Elements. In Gamification ’13 Proceedings of the First International Conference on Gameful Design, Research, and Applications, 66 – 73. http://dx.doi.org/10.1145/2583008.2583017
Przybylski, A. K., Rigby, S. C., & Ryan, R. M. (2010). A motivational
model of video game engagement. Review of General Psychology 14, 2, 154–166. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0019440
Robertson, M. (2010). Can’t play, won’t play. http://hideandseek.net/2010/10/06/cant-play-wont-play/.
Zichermann, G. & Cunningham, C. (2011). Gamification by design: Implementing game mechanics in web and mobile apps. O’Reilly Media, Sebastopol, CA.
(Note: For a followup, read “Gamification Absolved?“)