4 essential Neurotransmitters in gamification

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Well, here we are in 2015 and I thought I would start with a heavy post, so strap in!

In gamification there is often a lot of mention of things like “Neuroscience”, “Neurochemistry”, “Neurotransmitters” or “Brain Chemistry”. In particular you will hear people speak about neurotransmitters such as Dopamine.

Neurotransmitters are chemicals that transmit signals around the brain. They all have different functions and have different effects on us. In this blog I am going to discuss 4; Dopamine, Oxytocin, Serotonin and Endorphins (DOSE).

I am not even going to pretend to be an expert in this, but I wanted to present a few things here that you should know about and more importantly, know what they actually do. What I have outlined here are by no means the full functions of these neurotransmitters, merely the functions we are interested in with regards to gamification.

Dopamine

What-is-dopamine
When I first started investigating gamification, everyone was talking about dopamine. It was considered to be the “pleasure” drug in the brain. Getting a reward (such as a digital badge) was thought to release dopamine which gave you pleasure. It turns out this is not actually quite right.

Dopamine has many functions, but I only want to talk about a couple that have relevance to us in gamification.

  • Motivation: It is released before an event that requires some sort of response, pleasurable or otherwise, and drives us to act. So when it comes to a reward, dopamine is released in anticipation of receiving the reward, rather than after (1) (known as incentive salience).
  • Learning: It is thought that dopamine plays a major role in associative learning, i.e. forming associations between an action or activity and its consequences (2). Andrea Kuszewski puts it rather nicely;
    • Excellent learning condition = Novel Activity—>triggers dopamine—>creates a higher motivational state—>which fuels engagement and primes neurons—>neurogenesis can take place + increase in synaptic plasticity (increase in new neural connections, or learning). (3)

Increasing Dopamine with gamification

New experiences trigger dopamine (novelty as mentioned above). So create systems that allow discovery and exploration. Your free spirit user types will enjoy this! Anticipation of potential rewards is another way, so creating manageable goals (think SMART) can help. Andrea wrote a great series on the role of dopamine (and oxytocin) in sex and pleasure. The third part of the series concentrates on how ambiguity, suggestion and so on can increase pleasure (4). It is worth keeping this in mind with your systems.

Oxytocin

1280px-Oxytocin_with_labels
Oxytocin is key to how we bond to others (mothers to babies, lovers, friends etc). It can give us a strong feeling of contentment. Studies have show that this can even occur remotely, with Paul J. Zak suggesting that using social networks like Twitter can create a similar reaction to falling in love! (5). Oxytocin has also been shown to increase trust in groups, altruism in individuals, arousal, bonding and much more.

However, there is a flip side to to this. Previously thought to just promote the nicer side of social bonding, strengthening your feelings and reactions in social situations may not always be positive. In reality it could lead to strengthening feelings of anger and dislike depending on the situation. (6)(7)

Boosting Oxytocin with gamification

Interestingly, oxytocin is released when we are engaged with a strong narrative. This would seem to be part of why stories are more memorable than just pure facts (or dull PowerPoints!). It accounts for that feeling of being there as you feel empathy towards the situations in the story (8). Actually, and this is a slight tangent, stories affect our brains as if we were experiencing the events ourselves – worth remembering that!

Add social aspects to your system. As mentioned above, using things like twitter can create bonds and feelings as strong as falling in love. Socialiser types will love it.

Create a system that allows for altruism, giving to others selflessly can help create bonds and will release oxytocin – this is what the philanthropist type lives for!

Also – go and hug someone – seriously!

Serotonin

304px-Serotonin-2D-skeletal.svg
Serotonin is a mood regulator. If you have enough you will be happy, if you don’t – you will be miserable (put very simply!!) (9). It is triggered when you feel wanted, important and proud. This could be when we are thanked or have achieved something that required true effort. When people feel that they are unappreciated or worthless, they will have low serotonin levels.

Increasing serotonin levels with gamification

First, make sure your system records achievement in some way (even if it is badges!). Serotonin release can be triggered by remembering past experiences where you felt wanted or important. Having badges or trophies that remind users of past success and the pride they felt at the time can do this. Also, give users the ability to say thank you to each other in some way. This could be a simple thanks or like button or a system of kudos like stars and voting. It could be you set up a system where you can send virtual gifts as thanks (also potentially triggering oxytocin release for the giver – another big hit with the philanthropist types!). Anything that makes your users feel wanted and important to you and other users.

Endorphins

Beta-endorphin_1-9
Endorphins are opioids that we produce naturally as a reaction to certain stimuli. When they are released, we feel good. Actually it can be a lot stronger than that, we can feel high or euphoric – it is very morphine in fact. They also reduce pain and fatigue in response to stress (or indeed pain), giving us our “second wind” that helps us push through. It is what gives runners the ability to keep going when they think they are done for physically (10). It is also released during less physical activities – such as video games. Overcoming the challenges in games can stimulate the release of endorphins, making gamers feel better about themselves and giving a sense of achievement (11).

Boosting Endorphins with gamification

The easiest way to boost endorphin release with gamification is create situations where your users will feel they have achieved something. Rather than giving rewards for clicking buttons, you need to create challenges that actually require skill and effort to complete. If they feel they have worked hard they will get that feeling of fiero and with luck a hit of endorphins. The achiever type and player types will love this!

Conclusion

These are a small selection of neurotransmitters that people speak about in gamification, but there is a lot more to it. Check the references below to find out lots more.

Really the point of knowing any of this is to understand that gamification can be used to influence mood and behaviour at a chemical level in the brain – making it very powerful if done properly (and potentially harmful if you get it wrong).

A huge thanks to Andrea Kuszewski for her help with sense checking this post! If this topic interests you, check her out!

Bonus User Types round…

  • Achiever (Mastery): Endorphin, Dopamine
  • Socialiser (Relatedness): Oxytocin, Serotonin
  • Philanthropist (Meaning / Purpose): Dopamine, Oxytocin, Serotonin
  • Free Spirit (Autonomy): Dopamine
  • Player (Rewards): Dopamine, Endorphin, Serotonin

References

  1. John D. Salamone, Mercè Correa. The Mysterious Motivational Functions of Mesolimbic Dopamine. Neuron, 2012; 76 (3): 470 DOI:10.1016/j.neuron.2012.10.021
  2. Puig MV1, Miller EK. The role of prefrontal dopamine D1 receptors in the neural mechanisms of associative learning. Neuron, 2012 74(5):874-86 DOI 10.1016/j.neuron.2012.04.018
  3. Kuszewski, Andrea. “You Can Increase Your Intelligence: 5 Ways to Maximize Your Cognitive Potential.” Scientific American Global RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Jan. 2015. <http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/2011/03/07/you-can-increase-your-intelligence-5-ways-to-maximize-your-cognitive-potential/>
  4. Kuszewski, Andrea. “The Science Of Pleasure: Part III- The Neurological Orgasm.Science 2.0. N.p., 26 Aug. 2010. Web. 30 Dec. 2014. <http://www.science20.com/rogue_neuron/science_pleasure_part_iii_neurological_orgasm>
  5. Zak, Paul J. “The Top 10 Ways to Boost Good Feelings.Psychology Today. N.p., 7 Sept. 2013. Web. 01 Jan. 2015. <http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-moral-molecule/201311/the-top-10-ways-boost-good-feelings>
  6. Concordia University. “‘Love hormone’ oxytocin carries unexpected side effect.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 22 January 2014. <http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/01/140122112626.htm>.
  7. The Dark Side of Oxytocin.” Association for Psychological Science RSS. N.p., 29 July 2011. Web. 04 Jan. 2015. <http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/news/releases/the-dark-side-of-oxytocin.html>.
  8. Weldone, Michele. “Your Brain on Story: Why Narratives Win Our Hearts and Minds.Pacific Standard. N.p., 22 Apr. 2014. Web. 26 Dec. 2014. <http://www.psmag.com/navigation/books-and-culture/pulitzer-prizes-journalism-reporting-your-brain-on-story-why-narratives-win-our-hearts-and-minds-79824/>
  9. What is serotonin? What does serotonin do? Medical News Today. Medi Lexicon International, 1 Sept. 2014. Web. 27 Dec. 2014.
  10. Hacking Your Happy Chemicals: Dopamine, Serotonin, Endorphins, & Oxytocin.” The Utopian Life. N.p., 14 Oct. 2014. Web. 02 Jan. 2015. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/thai-nguyen/hacking-into-your-happy-c_b_6007660.html>
  11. Lee, Kevan. “Games and Your Brain: How to Use Gamification to Stop Procrastinating.” Buffer Social. N.p., 27 June 2013. Web. 01 Jan. 2015. <https://blog.bufferapp.com/brain-playing-games-why-our-brains-are-so-attracted-to-playing-games-the-science-of-gamification>

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1 Response

  1. Amazing article! thought me a lot. Thanks!

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Andrzej Marczewski
About Andrzej Marczewski twitter facebook    
Gamification Solution Consultant at G2G3. Gamification thought leader and evangelist, I love to write about it, talk about it and bore people to death with it! If you really want to get to know me, check out the About page.

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