What is Dopamine? The Science Behind Gamification

Brain active thinking cognitionWhat is dopamine and why is it important?

Well, a lot of the time, it’s easier to talk about why gamification engages learners by using examples, case studies and theoretical scenarios. But sometimes it’s important to flex our intellectual muscles and get down and dirty into the technicalities of engagement and how gamification puts the ‘F’ in fun!

What is Dopamine?

Dopamine was first discovered in 1950! Since then, neuroscience has come such a long way.

Girl in love at deskOn a neuropsychological level, fun, learning and knowledge retention all relate to dopamine signalling in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is released whenever we experience something pleasurable and has often been linked to things like sex, drugs, gambling and partying – which doesn’t necessarily give it a good reputation. But it’s also associated with doing something as simple as eating a cake, riding a rollercoaster or falling in love (aww).

The Neuroscience of Dopamine

Let’s get a wee bit technical for a moment: for our purposes, we need to think about the mesolimbic or ‘reward’ pathway in the brain, which begins in the midbrain (one of the oldest parts of the brain!) and links to the prefrontal cortex. When dopamine is released in this pathway, it affects things like motivation, addiction and lust.

Businessmen celebratingWhilst it’s easy to see how this could be a bad thing when it comes to drugs, gambling, or even cupcakes, it’s this reaction that gives ‘fun’ its pleasurable and addictive qualities and makes us want to repeat the experience which triggered it.

If we take advantage of this reward pathway and make learning fun, learning becomes almost like a drug: we’re suddenly motivated to learn, addicted to furthering our knowledge and even a little bit in love with the learning process!

The great thing about learning is that it already releases dopamine in small amounts. You’re probably familiar with the flush of euphoria when we finally figure out the solution to a tricky equation or suddenly work out how to put a piece of flat-pack furniture together.

Adding fun to this process is like sprinkling lighter fluid on a smouldering barbeque: WHOOSH! The effect is intensified 100-fold.

How to Release Dopamine

Reward for reaching target

Numerous studies (e.g. Fiorillo, Tobler, & Schultz, 2003; Schultz, Apicella, & Ljungberg, 1993; Waelti, Dickinson, & Schultz, 2001) show that dopamine is critical in learning to predict rewarding outcomes and working to obtain them.

Basically, when we get an unexpected reward, dopamine neurons begin firing. If we’re rewarded enough for a specific action, the dopamine response shifts to occur immediately following the action for which we gain the reward, rather than when we receive the reward itself.

You can see how this impacts on learning – if we’re regularly rewarded for undertaking an eLearning module, for instance, we’ll soon learn to associate eLearning with a pleasant feeling (dopamine is known as the feel-good hormone, after all). We’ll then be more receptive to taking eLearning units in the future, because doing so makes us feel good.

That’s why we make sure to reward learners on the Academy LMS by utilising lots of cool gamification functionality. Gamification – the application of gaming mechanics and metaphors, like points, badges and leaderboards, to non-game scenarios – makes difficult or boring tasks like learning tricky subjects much more enjoyable and motivates us to pursue training whole-heartedly.

Final Word

Do you want to gift your learners a glorious dopamine hit and make sure they keep coming back? Well, you’re in luck! Our gamification tip sheet will give you everything you need to engage your staff and make sure they keep coming back! Grab your copy here!

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