I've been enjoying this lively Branch discussion around points, levels, and leaderboards in social software - and even more this thoughtful response by Tom Tunguz of Redpoint, who added a much-needed "over time" perspective to the discussion.
When I engage with Web developers building digital services, the most common mistake they make is thinking about their social stats and UI as static. A key lesson I've absorbed from years of game design is to Design Your Player's Journey Over Time. Great games are compelling because the player's experience and expertise changes over time in meaningful ways. Games dole out just the right amount of challenge and learning to keep the player engaged and on the edge of her ability. In short, games are compelling because they're pleasurable learning engines - they offer up skills to master, and reward you with greater challenges & opportunities. (Raph Koster write eloquently about this in A Theory of Fun for Game Design, great background reading)
Progress metrics (points, badges, levels, leaderboards, reputation systems) are icing on this learning/mastery cake: very helpful to gauge where you stand, and how far you've come, but meaningless as a stand-alone system without the learning engine to keep you truly engaged.
Design Over Time thinking also can help you grow a successful community. The features that propel a digital community will CHANGE as the community scales from 500 to 5000 to 50,000. The story of Digg's leaderboard (referenced in this Branch) - which worked great when Digg was up-and-coming, then backfired when Digg got big and well-known - is an object lesson in how effective game design must scale along with community growth.
So when you're creating your next social app, website or game, focus first on what your community needs to kickstart social - but pay close to attention to what's working over time, and be prepared to change and evolve your social and gaming UI as your community grows. Don't be afraid to remove a stuff that's not working! It doesn't mean you've failed - on the contrary, it's a natural part of growing a strong community.
What's your experience? Have you seen these dynamics in action? Want to learn more about this topic? I'd love to hear from you in the comments.