Reputation Systems Can Build Community Inside Social Games

Reputations systems are all around us online; whether they be on the forums we frequent, websites we visit or services we use.

Some of the more high profile reputation systems include those implemented by eBay to rate buyers and sellers, Digg to push popular stories to the top of the pile and that giant of e-tailers, Amazon with its Top 100 Reviewers rankings.

From the outside adding a reputation system to a site may seem like a simple task. You select the way in which you want to represent the reputation, assign a base value and then present it to each user who registers.

In reality there are a lot of choices to be made and a number of consequences from those choices. Before we get into that discussion however, lets try and define what a reputation is and why we need them.

The best definition of what reputation is comes from Bryce Glass, interaction designer at Yahoo! In a recent interview he gave to he defined it in the following way,

One’s reputation in a community is both a history of one’s past actions within that community, and a value judgement about the worth of those actions.

Therefore a reputation is your social standing within a community. The level of your reputation is governed by what you have done in the past as a part of that community.

So why do we need them? The main reasons center around the community aspects of a social game or site. You want to encourage people to participate in a positive way and reward them for continuing to take an active role. A reputation system offers this and allows the community to reward (or punish) others. A well-respected, helpful individual who regularly participates should see their reputation steadily increase, where as troublemakers will soon be found out and their poor behaviour highlighted to others.

There are many different types of reputation systems implemented and Yahoo! Developer Network has compiled a list as part of a wider goal of balancing different reputation systems via design patterns. Their list includes the following reputation design solutions:

  • Competitive Spectrum
  • Named Levels
  • Numbered Levels
  • Identifying Labels
  • Points
  • Collectible Acheivements
  • Ranking
  • Leaderboard
  • Top X

It is possible to take a system further and combine the above solutions. So, for example, your forum may have a points system, but individuals can also obtain one of a number of identifying labels if they have excelled in a certain area. This may increase the complexity of the system, but offers community members more goals and allows them to focus on niche areas within the general subject matter your site is covering that are to their liking.

Utilizing a reputation system doesn’t always result in a positive for the site or game they are coupled with. Ben Brown, founder of the now defunct dating site Consumating, posted an entry on his blog called, “I Love My Chicken Wire Mommy“, that goes into detail about how the points system they used lead to all kinds of problems. What it all came down to was the fact he had a good reputation system in place, but it offered no incentives to users and therefore was open to abuse without consequence.

What is clear, is that a well-implemented reputation system can help to keep your community happy and coming back for more. However, no reputation system will achieve this if it isn’t also coupled with some kind of incentives. Who wants their points score to increase if it doesn’t actually mean anything?

Social network games are already using reputation systems to some extent; most commonly through high score tables, but there is nothing to stop developers implementing any one of the reputation systems mentioned above for their games. They should also form a basis for matchmaking as a reputation system is the best indication as to the skill level of different players in specific games.