Dopamine: The Science Behind Gamification

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Brain active thinking cognitionA 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!

That’s Dope!

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).

Let’s Get Technical

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 targetWhen it comes to learning, how can we release dopamine and get these reward paths working? Well, gamification is the obvious answer as it is all about making learning more fun and enjoyable! In a nutshell, gamification involves using gaming mechanics like points, badges and leaderboards to:

  • Change company culture
  • Encourage collaboration and healthy competition
  • Change behaviours
  • Build team cohesion
  • Produce an incredible ROI
  • Keep a geographically disperse workforce on track
  • Encourage people to take a starring role on their LMS
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