When Leaderboards Backfire: the dark side of zero-sum mechanics — and what to do instead

Recently, one of my coaching clients shared some fascinating findings from a series of playtests. Their team mocked up several different approaches to showcasing creative work — including a “best of” gallery of other people’s work, based on how many LIKES the art had collected.

A few testers found the gallery inspiring — but most found it off-putting and unappealing. One person said “Seeing that list would make me feel depressed about my own work.”

As a game designer with a psychology background, I’m not surprised. When we showcase zero-sum mechanics in our UX, we’re communicating what we value and telling customers how to think about our offering.

If you showcase a “Best Of” list based on a visible, attainable metric like LIKES or followers or XP — that’s a leaderboard. And it comes with all the emotional overhead and game-the-system problems that zero-sum mechanics ALWAYS bring.

Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Comparison is the thief of joy” — and decades of happiness research backs this up. Zero-sum mechanics like leaderboards can be motivating for some — but they just as often backfire, and end up de-motivating the people you most want to bring in.

As product leaders, we create emotional experiences — and sometimes, you DO NOT want to spark a “comparison” response. And here’s the thing: avoiding direct comparison and zero-sum mechanics doesn’t have to mean giving up engagement. It just means that you focus on helping people make progress on what they care about — and band together with others to achieve something they can’t do on their own.

So… how exactly do you do that? How can you shift from relying on the zero-sum mechanics to a more nuanced, positive-sum approach?

Good news: we have a course for that! It’s called Cooperative Design Fundamentals, and we teach you 5 concrete, actionable techniques for creating positive-sum experiences that motivate your customers.

Want a “sneak peek?” WATCH NOW

Cooperative design is just one of the many courses in Gschool, our high-impact learning community for innovative product leaders. If you want access to this self-paced course — plus the coaching and support you need to apply these principles to your work — this is for you.

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Game designer, startup coach, author, entrepreneur gamethinking.io

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