Leaderboards In Games And Classrooms

Leaderboards are found in all games — they are expected to drive competition, inspire participants to strive harder to win, and play more.

As such, most social & mobile games use them as do some other savvy apps (Foursquare, e.g.).

However, Leaderboards can have a negative fallout.

A couple of articles that (cursorily) talk about this: (1) The Psychology of High Scores, and (2) Three Common Gamification Mistakes.

In short, leaderboards detract from having fun or making progress. Leaderboards make users who aren’t winning feel terrible. Sometimes the high scores seem so much larger than the users’ current scores that they tend to give up early.  For example, check out the scores in the two screenshots above, from a game I’ve been recently playing.

Smarter games have come up with ways around these problems: they often have separate leaderboards: friends-only, for the neighborhood, global, etc. to suit both the new/casual gamer as well as the hard core ones. Or they reset the leaderboards periodically so everyone gets back to zero.

Our schools and classrooms have leaderboards too, with similar fallout, that we are not fixing.

The leaderboards are the relative positions of the students. Every term or year, there are aggregate marks or grades given and ranks assigned. Performance in fields other than academics — sports, chess, debating, etc. — is also often graded comparatively. Even if there is no formal ladder, students exchange this information and internalize it.

The leaderboard is implicit.

And the reactions are very similar to those in games: The best (top 3? top 10?) students compete to better each other. Everyone else accepts their place in the ladder, or feels terrible about it (and themselves). This is repeated in the different “leaderboards” – academics, sports, debating, etc. The vast majority of the students are nowhere near the top of any leaderboard and the system just doesn’t work for them.

Unfortunately, the price of quitting this game is too high.

These leaderboards cannot be reset.

Starting a new term or a new year or a new class is not a reset — everyone does not simply return to the same baseline. If a student has not performed well, they already lack the skills  and (more importantly) the confidence or will to perform this time. If anything, the baseline gap between individual students increases.

It is like making the game tougher each time and expecting a player who could not win the previous level to miraculously win this level.

Online games have made leaderboards less front-and-center now. They use mechanics like Quests and Maps to guide the user through a deterministic path of progression.

Classrooms ought to learn from games (yes, the irony is not lost here).

The focus should shift to shared fun and personal progress.