Originally posted on my blog - http://www.gamified.uk/2015/01/05/neurotransmitters-you-should-know-about-in-gamification/
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.
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.
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 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)
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 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.
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 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).
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!
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!