Monday, October 20, 2008

Game Design Lessons From Evolutionary Psychology: Social Status, Pt. 2 - Leaderboards

Competing for social status is the core activity of all humans, even if we often do it in incredibly indirect ways.

Social games, by their virtue of being embedded in a social environment, offer players the opportunity to compete for social status.

How a designer chooses to display status is a massively important choice. Mainly, status is represented simply in the form of a leaderboard. A leaderboard being a list of the top-ranked players of a game, usually the top ten players.

Leaderboards have been around forever in sports, and videogames borrowed them, first in arcade games like Space Invaders where a player could enter their initials and it would display them on the game's screen for those who passed by. And for the most part, leaderboards haven't evolved much since then.

Social networks offered an innovation, a leaderboard based on your friends' performance. You could now compare your performance not only to all players, but to just your friends, as well. How well you're doing in relation to your friends is much more important than with strangers. Humans tend to compete with people in their immediate social status bracket. Humans also tend to befriend people in their social bracket or the social bracket just above, interestingly enough.

As a social game design tool, leaderboards fail in one critical way, they appeal much more to men than women. Men are driven to compete for social status. Women on the other hand, tend to pursue social status through strategic cooperation. By these standards, we'd expect leaderboards to be dominated by men.

And they are. To confirm my theory, I looked at the Top Ten All-Time Players for four Playfish titles. Here's the percentage of the players that were men.

Geo Challenge: 100%
Bowling Buddies: 80%
Who's Got the Biggest Brain: 90%
Word Challenge: 70%

I'd love to look at the top 1000 players for each game to make a more conclusive statement, but regardless it's pretty compelling evidence that men compete harder to be on top of the leaderboard.

You might be saying, so what if men like leaderboards more, why is that bad? It's not bad, but it's not optimal. We want women to be as motivated to play our games as men. In fact, we want them more. Social games live and die on virality. And women are more likely to spread games to others, then men.

Tomorrow, I'll discuss some alternatives to leaderboards that display status and appeal to women. Until then, I just wanted to tell you, dear reader, that you're currently #2 on my list of top ten readers. All you need to do is come back every day for the next month, and you could be #1.