Design to motivate – The psychology behind gamification

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More often than not, when we hear about gamification, we hear about points, badges, levels, leaderboards and missions. In other words, we hear about the “game mechanics” associated with gamification. But what about the psychology behind this practice? The main objective of gamification is to engage users and motivate action. Psychology has to be at play. At Ellicom, this is our primary focus when designing gamified experiences. What is the relationship between game elements and motivation? What are their effects on our behaviour and on our brain?

Rewarding our behaviour

Towards the end of the 1920s, the psychologist B.F. Skinner invented a box to observe how certain reinforcements could condition the behaviour of rats. One of his many experiments was to put a starving rat in this box with a lever that would give out food pellets whenever it was pressed. Very quickly, the rat learned to press on the lever to feed itself. This experiment demonstrated that positive reinforcement, in this case food, was very effective for conditioning the behaviour of rats. And it works for humans as well.

This discovery was behind the reward system that Skinner named token economy. This system consists of using tokens or any other form of currency that can be exchanged for rewards of our choice. The gamification systems that use points and badges are hardly a new development. They are forms of positive reinforcement that incite users to participate and learn in order to get the next reward. But positive reinforcement is not limited to tangible rewards. Many other forms of feedback such as peer recognition can contribute to reinforcing a behaviour.


Satisfying our needs

In addition to reinforcing a behaviour, gamification can help satisfy fundamental needs. The psychologists Richard M. Ryan and Edward Deci have discovered that as human beings, we have 3 primary universal needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Those needs are at the core of our intrinsic motivation, this motivation that drives us to seek novelty and challenges, to develop our skills, to explore and to learn.

Why are games so fun? Mainly because they give us freedom of action, positive feedback on our accomplishments and the possibility to create social bonds. With gamification, we have access to several game components that can lead to this enthusiasm. Here are some examples:

  • Autonomy: choices and alternate paths, opportunities for exploration, avatar creation, customization options, buying rewards, etc.
  • Competence: progress trackers, points, badges, levels, certificates, leaderboards, unlockable content, talent trees, etc.
  • Relatedness: chats, status updates, comments, likes, shares, the option to join and create teams, clans or tribes, team missions, team statistics, collaboration, etc.

All of these elements can be integrated into an experience that makes learning more engaging and motivating.



Stimulating our brains

As was mentioned in the previous article on gamification, storytelling is a powerful means of engaging users. Through words and images, storytelling stimulates many areas of the brain at once, and can fully immerse people in an experience. If you are sitting in a room listening to a long, bullet-point PowerPoint presentation, the language areas of your brain, namely Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area, are stimulated. But that’s about it.


However, when one of your colleagues tells you that she’s been to a market in Turkey where she was blinded by the dazzling array of colours, and where the fragrance of spices engulfed her senses, suddenly the occipital lobe of your brain, responsible for vision, and your olfactory cortex, responsible for your sense of smell, are stimulated. If you ever had the desire to eat after your friend told you about his dinner at a restaurant the night before, or if you ever had the urge to work out after watching a movie about extreme sports, this is because the areas of your brain that control your sense of taste and your motor skills have been stimulated. Our brains are wired to make these associations. Storytelling is an art that works its magic in literature, cinema and in the speeches of the greatest orators. Screenwriters in Hollywood are experts in the matter. And it is also a powerful tool for gamification. Ellicom would be happy to provide you with a demonstration.

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