Psychology of High Scores, Leaderboards, & Competition

Gamification is something often used to motivate employees to higher levels of performance, but applying it successfully requires understanding something about the psychology behind how people compare themselves with their co-workers. Good news: video game designers have figured this stuff out. Better news: I have an entire chapter on how to apply those insights to the world of work in my book, The Engagement Game: Why Your Workplace Culture Should Look More Like a Video Game.

In October of 2014 I was invited to speak at the Mobile Games Forum in Seattle. The conference draws business people and game developers working in the mobile games space, so there’s talk about mobile game design, monetization strategies, player engagement, metrics, acquisition, and all that kind of stuff. The organizers asked me to be kind of a weirdo and talk about some semi-relevant topic about psychology and video games.

Given the social nature of most mobile games, I decided to talk about social comparisons, competition, and related topics. Specifically I cover three psychological phenomena related to social comparisons and framing of performance information that may motivate players to keep playing and get better. I don’t have a recording of the actual presentation, but I made a quick and dirty narration of my presentation and embedded it as a YouTube video below for your viewing pleasure. Enjoy.

And yeah, that’s what I sound like. I was going to hire Nolan North, but he didn’t return my e-mails.

The MGF convention was great, by the way. I had three game developers walk up to me and say something like “You’re Jamie Madigan? I love your website!” Which is equal parts awesome and weird to me and I enjoyed talking to them.

8 thoughts on “Psychology of High Scores, Leaderboards, & Competition

  1. Doesn’t the conclusion that a larger group makes it less likely that a player will feel good about his performance only count for people who are at the top of a small group? They would be less pleased once they enter a bigger group and find that their highscore in the small group is only average in the big group. Someone who ranks last in a small group could also be average in a larger group, making them feel better about their score, instead of feeling worse.

    The way I see it there is someting wrong with the example about the student who is the best of his class and then goes to university where he becomes average. This larger group is also a “higher” group. But the change from a small group to a bigger group (quantity) doesn’t always include a change in quality right?

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