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The Psychology Behind Gamification


Here are 11 common psychological themes to consider when harnessing the elements of gamification in learning design.

The 11 themes are:


  1. Competitiveness & Anxiety

  2. Curiousity

  3. Novelty & Complexity

  4. Frustration

  5. Sense of Achievement

  6. Imaginativeness

  7. Aesthetics

  8. Luck vs Skill

  9. Fun

  10. Humour

  11. Purposefulness


I would love to hear how you have experimented with different psychological themes in your gamification design.


When has it worked well? When didn't it?

1. Competitiveness and Anxiety

The first theme that must be considered is competitiveness and the anxiety it arouses.

Loss aversion is the tendency to prefer avoiding losses to acquiring equivalent gains. The principle is prominent in the domain of economics.

Playing with my family, I've seen this repeatedly, especially with my youngest who still has the odds stacked against her for any skill-based game. What are the moments during a game that generate the most frustration? Apart from losing, I often find wait states to be extremely frustrating for players, for example during Backgammon when your piece is captured and you can only exit with the right dice roll. Also, when one player is clearly going to win and the other has no hope, exasperation sets in and the player may prefer to give up early than continue playing, knowing that it is futile. However, for games like chess, paying attention during the final sequences can pay off as the player learns strategies to check-mate faster during subsequent games.

Cooperative games, which are a personal favourite of mine, should especially be mentioned. For those who are unfamiliar with cooperative game mechanics, in this case the players are pitted against the game itself. For example, in magic maze, the players must move the hero through a maze without talking, but each player can only move certain directions, so they must contribute and work together.


When building learning, how can we reduce the feelings of loss aversion that are associated with game play? Or perhaps, in some instances, we actually want to strengthen people's resilience in coping with loss?

2. Curiousity

The next theme that should be considered is curiosity. Storytelling and roleplay often provoke that level of curiosity that encourages further exploration.


How can you build elements of curiousity into your learning experiences?

3. Novelty & Complexity

The level of novelty & complexity of a game really depends upon personal preferences and even in the post response, varied wildly from people who seek out new, intricate and complex games, to those who prefer games that are simple or familiar. Learning rule engines for complex games is hard work. The most complex game I've played is Spirit Island and just the set up/rule familiarisation when playing for the first time can take at least half an hour. The reward for this effort was to play a game with extremely unique and varied aspects of rule engines, within a setting that was novel and unique- playing the Spirits that rescue the natives from invaders, by using powers that grow in strength as the force of the invaders increases.


On the flip side, I've played plenty of games with young children and the mind-numbingly boring repetitiveness of the game is really only counteracted by having extremely cute kids and the pleasure of watching them learn and have fun.

However, many players love the consistency of playing particular games, solitaire being the classic example that comes to mind. Predictable rule engines mixed with the right level of luck sooth and relax some players.

So, if we are gamifying/building learning games, what is the right level of complexity and novelty?


Testing the game on users is extremely wise. You then can see how well the complexity is received for your audience group.

4. Frustration

I want you to cast your mind back on all the games you have played and think: when did you feel frustrated?

Here are some examples I can think of…

  • In Backgammon when I'm stuck and I can't get my piece out

  • In Uno or another game where I have to skip a turn

  • In chess when my opponent has taken all my pieces and they are slowly but surely moving towards checkmate

  • In any game played with a toddler, because, did they really have to knock my tower over again?

  • When the other player has Mayfair and Parklane.


The real question here is: how do we minimise the frustration of our learning games so that there is enough friction to stimulate learning, but not so much to deter the learner?

5. Sense of Achievement

Many people feel the joy of achieving something at or beyond their limit, overcoming the frustration, challenges and odds presented to them.

The question as a learning designer is how do we find that sweet spot of giving the learner a sense of achievement by creating sufficient levels of complexity and interest, without so much frustration or anxiety that they may be put off?

6. Imaginativeness

Imaginativeness can be viewed from two different perspectives. The first is the imagination of the game creator- how they used visuals, storytelling and rule engines to create a game that captivates the player.

The second perspective is provoking the imagination of the player. Dixit is an excellent example that provokes people to imagine.

Imagination is an extremely critical aspect of gamification and gamified learning where we often as learning designers rely on our own creativity to build the learning, however, the lesson here is to continue to ask ourselves, how can we draw out the imagination of the learners?


That is where they begin to connect dots, create meta-structures and bridge concepts with new ideas. This is the "Aha!" space that we strive for.


7. Aesthetics

Aesthetics is a vital contributor to the "enjoyment" of a game. Games like Azul, Wingspan and Photosynthesis have uniquely stunning artwork that is extremely pleasing to the eye when playing. I love a beautiful chess board, my Father has a very stunning set with heavy metal pieces that are crafted in medieval style. As you set the piece down, the felt bottom makes a satisfying thud that feels very impactful.

Similarly Azul and Backgammon have not only the visual but also tactile elements that enhance the enjoyment of game play.

How can you draw learners in with stunning aesthetics? Often we use visual elements like icons, colours, brand elements, people, metaphors. What makes a learning game visually pleasing? How could we make it tactile?

8. Luck vs Skill

The typical view was that games with too much luck were not enjoyable due to the high level of randomness and lack of control. However, in my own experience, I find that when playing with people who are unequal in skill (like my 7yo), having elements of luck can level the playing field and reduce the sense of personal failure because it is now partly attributed to an external factor.

How can we incorporate some elements of luck and randomness into learning games? How can we ensure the learner feels they are moving along a path of mastery but equally provide some moments of external pressure to fuel added resilience?

9. Fun

Many people express the desire to have "fun" whilst playing games. But this leads us to the question of what is fun? For example, one person might like games that are challenging, and nothing is considered "too" challenging. Whilst others prefer to stay in their comfort zone.

Old-schoolers might like classic games like Scrabble and Snakes and Ladders. Many of us grew up with these simple, competitive-style games. There is something comforting about reliable, familiar games, Solitaire being the classic example that can sooth people.

Many people expressed that fun either fell into a category of instant gratification or more long term, meaningful impact.

Fun is very different for each individual and hence "forced fun" often fails to have the desired effect. Learning can be designed to either provide opportunity for fun and exploration or give an option for a more direct path.

The question for learning designers, is whether you know what your learners find fun? Let's not put all learners in one box- we need to understand their context, motivators and constraints to explore a solution that fits for them.

10. Humour

The topic of humour is very important. There are some great new games that have added humour, like Unstable Unicorns and Exploding Kittens as well as the wildly inappropriate Adult-style games.

Getting humour right in this day and age is becoming increasingly tricky with political, racial and other sensitivities. How can we leverage humour in our learning games in a way that is playful and inoffensive? What does the learner actually find funny as opposed to patronising or childish?

11. Purposefulness

Perhaps this point should be first but I'm leaving it right to the very end.

A good learning analysis is critical prior to the use of gamification.


Is your gamification purposeful in driving better learning outcomes or merely serving as a distraction?


If you need help with designing fun, gamified learning experiences, please get in touch.

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