The Science Behind Gamification: Why It Works

October 17, 2017

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Jenny Coppola


It’s no secret that playing games is fun, but that’s not the only reason we keep coming back for more. After all, games are designed with the human brain in mind. Every time you roll the right combination of dice, build a new settlement, or knock out an opponent, your brain’s reward center lights up.

And that’s why gamification is so powerful. By translating elements like points, levels, and progress bars into non-game contexts, you can recreate the gaming experience.

Whether your phone is filled with apps to help you stay fit, learn a new language, or even guide you through a meditation, chances are there’s an element of gamification at play right at your fingertips.

From Super Mario Bros. to Monopoly, the games we play can have a real impact on our brains and the way we learn. But why is that? For a closer look, let’s dive into the science behind gamification and why it’s such a powerful learning tool.

Your brain on games

Get ready, because we’re about to go full Bill Nye. Games work because of dopamine, a neurotransmitter in your brain that’s activated whenever you achieve something positive. In essence, it’s the drug that makes you feel good. There’s also a specific part of your brain that helps you decide if what you just did was good or bad, and if it’s good, you get a little boost of dopamine.

This reward pathway in your brain plays an integral role in how we actually learn through reinforcement. As the Nestler Lab at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine puts it, “activation of the pathway tells the individual to repeat what it just did to get that reward.”

When it comes down to it, this is a big part of what learning is all about: Do something well > your brain gets a reward > you want to do it again!

“Do something well > your brain gets a reward > you want to do it again!”

Yes, people tend to feel good when they learn. But it can also be challenging to stay motivated all the time. Thankfully, gamification helps give you those little boosts of motivation along the way.

Games (of thrones) on the brain

Missandei is arguably the most impressive character on Game of Thrones. Sure, Daenerys can give birth to dragons, but Missandei can speak 19 languages fluently. We know who we’d rather have on our team for trivia night at the local pub.

Learning a second language is on most people’s wish lists, but doing so is difficult. For one, it requires a high degree of motivation, especially when you’re starting off. This is where gamification can help you stay on top of building and maintaining your learning game.

Duolingo, a language-learning tool built around gamification, has helped more than 200 million people learn a new language by taking gaming concepts and applying them to language courses.

To see what this actually looks like for end users, let’s examine a language that’s equal parts tricky and fictitious — High Valyrian from Game of Thrones.

Why levels keep us coming back

The Duolingo learning system is divided into 3 sections:

  • Lessons. At the start of each lesson, users are introduced to some small component of the language. In the example below, High Valyrian learners are first taught the words for different people.
  • Skills. These act as themes for all of your lessons. First, users start with the basics. Then later, you’ll move on to constructing phrases with those foundational language building blocks. As you continue, the themes become more and more sophisticated.

  • Levels. Finally, once you’ve mastered each skill, you can advance to different levels within the language. In this case, High Valyrian has only 1 level, but languages like Spanish or Chinese have multiple.

The lessons-skills-levels format performs 2 vital jobs for the gamification of language learning. First, it codifies the process. When you play a game, you rarely beat it in on the first try. Going through the lessons and skills is the language equivalent of Mario running through a level, reaching the castle, and hoisting the flag.

Second, it induces goal-oriented behavior right from the start. You want to complete each lesson and level because it gives you a greater sense of achievement (and hence a bigger rush of dopamine).

How progress bars and points keep us going

Like most language learning apps, Duolingo lets you learn a little bit at a time, starting with basic sentence constructions.

As you can see, 2 new game concepts are introduced here to keep your motivation going. The first is the progress bar. After each correct answer, the bar fills up so that users have a visual representation of where they currently stand and how much further they have to go.

The second gaming concept is the points system. In the app, you can attain what are called XP, or eXperience Points, for every lesson you complete (10XP, in the example below).

But now what? Just like that insatiable Veruca Salt, you can’t help but want more points, now. Your gaming brain is telling you to get to the next level, unlock those XP points, and fill up the rest of that progress bar ASAP.

Why challenges keep us interested

Even in the best games, monotony has a tendency to kick in. To combat this, game creators often incorporate special challenges that trick players into striving for yet another goal. Check out how Duolingo incorporates a betting-like structure into this challenge to get users to continue learning. You can wager 5 lingots (Duolingo’s form of virtual currency) and end up doubling your bet if you continue to use the app.

Duolingo sets challenges for its users because they know the main factor in learning a language effectively is continued practice. If they can keep you learning, chances are you’re going to keep coming back to the app on a daily basis.

Going beyond languages

Still, there’s more to gamification than learning a new language or getting to the next level of your favorite video game. Here are 2 examples of businesses taking advantage of gamification tactics to incentivize folks in entirely different ways.

Khan Academy

Khan Academy is an online learning community that lets users learn advanced math, science, humanities, and economics, all for free. When Shantanu Sinha, the president of Khan Academy, first built the community, gaming mechanisms were some of the first learning tactics he introduced:

“Most games give you a sense of immediate success and progress. Instead of waiting for the end of the year to get your grade, imagine if you accumulated a sense of progress with every action you did every single day. Progress shouldn’t be measured by cramming the night before and passing the final; it should be measured by your actions and good work habits every single day, and how well you retain and apply your knowledge.”

For Sinha, it was obvious that games should be incorporated into learning. AP Calculus? Sounds pretty boring. But that’s where gamification comes to the rescue to help take the edge off. At Khan Academy, putting gamification into practice means students can win prizes, badges, and even level up.

Notice how similar this layout is to the levels and challenges Duolingo employs in their app. Both give you a clear idea of your progress, as well as goals to push toward. And because games are user-specific, every path users take is a unique one — you’re on your own personal learning journey.

“Because games are user-specific, every path users take is a unique one — you’re on your own personal learning journey.”

Zoho Gamescope

So far, we’ve only talked about the competitive nature of games in terms of personal competition (competing against yourself to do better). But games foster competition among groups of people, as well.

This element of gaming is especially apparent in the business world. Zoho Gamescope brings gaming to life for sales teams. It’s no secret that sales environments can sometimes get a little competitive, with reps striving to hit their monthly goals (Glengarry Glen Ross, anyone?), so incorporating a little bit of healthy competition makes perfect sense.

With Gamescope, sales reps can see who was able to close the most deals or convert the most leads, helping to give clarity to a number of key stakeholders at a company.

  • The reps. Since compensation is often based on achieving goals, sales reps have a more tangible method of understanding and visualizing their progress toward their quotas.
  • The managers. As reps become more motivated through the game, managers will likely have to push them less to achieve their goals.
  • The company. Motivated reps = more deals!

Of course, we’d be remiss not to mention the potential downfalls of gamification. For instance, reps could close bad deals just to become the month’s Deal Champ. Or worse, the competitive atmosphere could turn a little ugly (just ask Jack Lemmon). As with most things in life, moderation is key.

The end game

Whether you’re designing a new user onboarding system for your website, or just looking to tie in some of the fun of gaming mechanisms into your work process, the science behind gamification has applications for a host of contexts in the marketing and design worlds. And who knows? Before long, you might be having full-blown conversations in High Valyrian with the Mother of Dragons herself.

October 17, 2017

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Jenny Coppola


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