Are Leaderboards Bad? Part 3

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This is Part 3 of a series on leaderboards. Missed Part 1 or Part 2?

In this segment, we’ll look a little at extrinsic versus intrinsic rewards and the overjustification effect.

Third perspective: psychologists

Let’s kick off with a couple of scenarios in which gamification has been applied in a non-game setting.

Scenario One: Do X, Get Y

Let’s say there’s an activity that you’ve just started up that you’re finding challenging and rewarding. With the Virgin London Marathon just behind us, let’s go with running. You wake up an hour earlier than you used to so you can get a quick run in before heading to the office. It’s hard work, but you feel yourself getting stronger and faster, and you’re enjoying it.

Then someone says, “I’ll give you £5 for every mile you run.” Alright! you think. Some idiot wants to give me money for something I was going to do anyway!

So you wake up the next morning and run five miles before work. And you get £25 for it. Fantastic! You run six miles the next day and get £30. The third day, you push yourself really hard and make it to seven miles for £35. It’s your longest distance yet, and you’re proud of yourself. And you just keep going.

You find yourself going out for runs even on days you’d previously rested. You’re getting faster and stronger at an even better rate, but you’re starting to enjoy it less. And then one day you realise that you’ve been spending hours of your leisure time doing something you’ve grown to hate for what you now realise is very little money. So you quit.

You quit, like you would quit a bad job.

Because that’s what extrinsic motivators are. They’re compensation. They’re salary. They are not fun.

Extrinsic motivation comes from outside of the individual. Common extrinsic motivations are rewards like money and grades, and threat of punishment. Competition is in general extrinsic because it encourages the performer to win and beat others, not simply to enjoy the intrinsic rewards of the activity.


Intrinsic motivation refers to motivation that is driven by an interest or enjoyment in the task itself, and exists within the individual rather than relying on any external pressure. Intrinsic motivation is based on taking pleasure in an activity rather than working towards an external reward.[1]

In my example, the beginning runner found enjoyment in the challenge and excitement of learning a new skill. She was delighted when she reached over to tie her shoelaces in the morning and realised her calves were firmer than two weeks earlier. Her joy in running came from multitudinous sources. And then someone offered her money, and it became all about the money. And that wasn’t strong enough motivation to keep her engaged.[2]

Scenario Two: Compete for the Prize!

Now let’s talk about a running league. A well-meaning local sports shop decides to set up a league for runners in the area. They want to be as inclusive as possible, so they set up three divisions: beginner, intermediate and expert. The league starts at the beginning of the month and finishes at the end. Whoever has logged the most miles in each group gets a free pair of running shoes.

All three of the groups start out successfully. About 20% of the shoe store’s email database (who were all inundated with mails weeks before the start) sign up for the league. Lots of people are running loads of miles. One week in, and there are clear frontrunners in each of the groups. The top contenders are checking the store’s website several times a day to see their scores and their competitors’ scores. And they’re pushing themselves to get to the top of the leaderboard. For them, it’s not about the shoes. They could run through a few pairs just to win the league. It’s about the competition.

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And that’s great!

But only for them.

There are at least two other groups who not only won’t participate, but who may resent the leaderboard.

The first are the latecomers. They would have loved to have participated, but they joined up a few days too late, and the leaders are already so far ahead that they believe they’ll never catch up. So they don’t even try.

The second are the people who are just around for the fun of it. The recreational runners. They don’t like being made to feel as if they were inferior runners because they don’t want to join the league. Running isn’t about competition for them; it’s about lots of other things.

Back in our world

Put into the context of online gambling, think about what really happens when you run a promotional campaign like “wager the most in this game to beat the competition and win the prize” or “play 1,000 hands of poker to win some cash”[3]. Sure, your top-line revenues may increase while your heavy hitters start putting in the extra hours, but focus on the players in the lower and middle ranges. If they’re playing less, you need to reconsider what you’re doing. You could be losing the attention of the masses just to eke short-term revenues from the top few.

You could ask, “But the fun in gambling is winning money. So how can adding more money into the equation be less fun?”

Is it really all about winning money? People have different motivations for all sorts of things. A poker player could play for 2 or 5 or 20 years without consistently winning, but they just keep at it.

Consider a football match. Watching football on TV is fun for some people. Putting a bet on the outcome introduces an exciting element of risk[4] to the experience. The player will frequently not know whether he’s won until the match is over, but the whole footy-watching experience was enhanced just by putting a bet on it, even if the end result is that the punter loses the bet.

Also, there is a big difference between an expected reward and an unexpected reward.

In a 2009 research study, a group of scientists, led by neurosurgeon Kareem Zaghloul, set out to measure the impact of expected and unexpected rewards on the brain. In summary:

Zaghloul and his colleagues found that for unexpected gains, as compared with unexpected losses, one or more clusters of dopamine neurons near the implanted electrode increased its firing rate significantly during a crucial response interval after the gain or loss feedback was presented. For expected gains and losses, there was no significant difference in firing rates.

Basically, getting an unexpected reward is exciting. And getting an expected reward just isn’t.

In other words, getting an expected reward is about as exciting as getting a paycheck. It’s nice, of course, but it’s money that you feel entitled to, and it’s not terribly fun. Unexpected rewards are vastly different and far more powerful, even in small amounts.

Illuminas research

In 2013, Microgaming engaged research group Illuminas Global and asked that they find out why players gamble. In their final presentation on the subject, they broke down gamblers into two main categories, those who seek entertainment and those who seek the thrill of gambling. They provided us with this image, which has actual player quotes from the research.

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From the descriptions and the quotes, which of these players do you think would enjoy the competition of a leaderboard? Which would be turned off by it? How do you manage that?

This is the end of Part 3. In Part 4, we will look at how two other people within Microgaming feel about leaderboards and their appropriate use in the gambling world.


[1] Thanks for the definitions, Vijay Dewani!

[2] There’s a term for this: the overjustification effect. There’s a rather good Wikipedia entry on it that’s worth a read for anyone interested in learning more (note there’s no prize for further research aside from the inherent enjoyment of learning).

[3] Poker industry veterans know first-hand just how damaging rakeback and rake races can be for a business. But operators still keep offering them. They’re easy to set up, the short-term benefits are clear, short-term and long-term disbenefits are less clear, and they’re easy to slot into a budget (rake races are, at least). But they’re bad for business and they should be killed with fire.

[4] Risk, but also interactivity. Betting on football turns a punter from a spectator into a participant. That’s an interesting thought I wouldn’t mind exploring in another blog post sometime.

About the author

Lydia Barbara is the head of Pegasus Gaming Solutions, Microgaming's consulting division. Lydia has been in the gaming industry for 13 years and is considered one of the online gaming industry's top thinkers on poker and other forms of gaming. Connect with Lydia on LinkedIn.