The purpose of a leaderboard is to show players where they rank in a gamified system. Those at the top enjoy the notoriety it brings; as for everyone else, the leaderboard shows them where they stand relative to their peers.

Often, the very presence of a leaderboard can elicit the desire to play. The simple goal of rising up the rankings serves as a powerful motivator to continue. People like to keep score. Understanding this and providing easy ways to do it is a great way to foster engagement in gameplay. For some, the mere sight of their rank on the leaderboard is all the reward they seek.

When it comes to cost-effective gamifying tools, nothing beats a leaderboard. The trick to leaderboards is designing them in such a way that they encourage players to stay in the game.

For example, suppose you have a new player whose current score is 50. She notices on the leaderboard that the top player’s score is 1,970,485. She reasonably deduces that if she wants to register the top score, she’ll have to neglect her job and family and devote all her waking hours to engaging in the game system. Odds are she will disengage from the gamified system altogether.

Leaderboards should always be encouraging, never discouraging.

One way to head off this scenario is to simply show the player as being smack in the middle of the standings, regardless of where she actually ranks — unless the player actually is among the top 10 or 20 players, in which case this should be evident.

Another approach is to slice the leaderboard. You can slice leaderboards in several different ways:

  • Locally: Players see their rank relative to that of others in their geographic area.

  • Socially: Players see how they stack up against Facebook friends or Twitter followers. By experience level: Limits the leaderboard such that it displays only those players who have spent a similar amount of time on the site.

  • Contextually: Sets up the leaderboard to show leaders by category. A content site might display a leaderboard in the business section containing people who contribute in that area, in the fashion section for the top fashionista contributors, and so on.

  • Time: Sets up the leaderboard to show, for example, weekly or monthly leaders.

Gamification context can also define the value of a leaderboard. That is, leaderboards with a defined end show who’s “winning,” whereas leaderboards with no end show “status.”