What are points?
In an ideal world, points would be a perfect representation of a player’s participation and value to a site or application. We don’t live in a perfect world but points still work towards this goal. It’s often difficult to determine the exact value a player brings but points try to assign value as best they can. A person may earn points for doing something good or helpful, or lose points for behaving or performing poorly. For this reason points are also often seen as a measure of status within the community the points are being awarded. Those with more points are generally regarded as knowing more, having more seniority, etc. They are probably one of the most common tools used in gamification.
Redeemable vs Non-Redeemable
There are two major types of points: redeemable and non-redeemable. Redeemable points can be spent for something, say a free sandwich at your local Subway. In this case a person’s point total tells very little about them overall, as someone may have very little points due to having spent most of them or because they just never earned any. It is useful in any system with a redeemable model to keep track of not only a player’s current balance, but also their lifetime balance. When deciding to implement a point system it is important to decide upfront if your points will be redeemable or not. If you do decide to make your points redeemable, you need to take the time to carefully craft your “sinks” or things people can redeem their points for.
Keep in mind that you will often have a variety of player types and engagement could be all over the board. You need to have sinks available for your lower end people so they don’t get discouraged but also need sinks for your high end performers so they don’t burn through everything in a few days of heightened activity. Striking this balance can be difficult and can cause anger, resentment, or perhaps worse, apathy, if done incorrectly. Also, be careful when assigning value to points, especially real world value. People are generally happy to be very active and get more virtual goods as a reward – but when they realize their months of activity to get 50,000 points translates to $1 off their next purchase they will just feel cheap.
Points are most frequently gained but you may wish to punish people for bad behavior, causing them to lose points. Often, people will put the deciding factor of what constitutes “bad” in the hands of their community in the form of votes, likes, etc. Be careful that this doesn’t become a weapon used against others. A common safeguard against this is to limit the amount of “punishment” a player can dole out in a day or to incur a small cost to the punisher as well as the person on the receiving end. Another tact is to not allow a player to punish another until they themselves have earned a certain amount of points or stature within the community. The best approach is probably some combination, although punishment really should be a very minor feature as it can drive people away if not used sparingly.
In a system where people can lose points, as in the case of redeemable points, it is best to keep track of the player’s gains and losses individually rather then as aggregate number that has lost that meta data. There is useful information there that would be lost otherwise.
Some common pitfalls with points have already been mentioned: Assigning value and allowing players to punish each other. This isn’t to say they can’t be done, just that they must be approached very carefully. The biggest pitfall with points comes in rewarding them. You need to be very cognizant of the goals of your site or application. You are adding game mechanics – people will see it as a game and they will see points as the way to “win” the game. This is why you added points in the first place, right? Well, make sure the way points are awarded are in alignment with the way your site should be used. Keep in mind the maxim “Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.” There are unintended consequences that must be watched for. The biggest that we see is rewarding activity with no regard to the quality of that activity. For example – say you decide to give 10 points to a player for every comment they leave. In this scenario a carefully thought out, well worded comment is rewarded equally with random letters, “first!” and spam. It would be easy to rack up points by just leaving tons of random comments. By contrast, rewarding people with points every time their comment is voted up provides a better (although not fool proof) structure for points.