Thursday Jun 13, 2013

Gamification @ Work at CHI

At the end of April, I participated in a panel discussion of Gamification@Work at the CHI conference in Paris.  The panel had a bunch of great folks--Mac Smith from Google, Janaki Kumar from SAP, Scott Schnars from Badgeville and Sebastien Deterding.  There's a LinkedIn conversation with some of the questions and presentations here

I noticed a lot of interest in anything related to game design or gamification at CHI this year.  Our session was standing room only--the photo below was before we even started--it got more crowded into the actual session time.  The questions were great and we even had a little debate about whether you could gamify something you cannot measure (I say no, but I also think there are plenty of things you can find a way to measure if you are determined to).  It's encouraging to see so much interested in the area from Usability and Interaction Design professionals.

Tuesday Jun 11, 2013

Dopamine and gamification

It's been a bit crazy in the gamification world with GSummit and CHI coming one after the other, but I'm back and have been meaning to post on a topic that came up again and again at the GSummit.  So often, in fact, that I started to think of the old drinking game Hi Bob because people were saying dopamine in practically every talk.  It's funny to me, because my degree is in Cognitive Neuropsychology and as part of my qualifying exams, I had to map out the entire dopaminergic system.  In fact, I might still have the notecards I drew out to study from in my garage someplace. Dopamine (and really all neurotransmitters involved in behavior)  is a topic I studied a lot.

For those of you who aren't following why dopamine kept coming up at the GSummit, here's a little background.  Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, or the chemical juice that lets one neuron (nerve) talk to another.  The neurotransmitters break down into a set of categories, usually based on their chemical structure.  The most common groupings are the amino acids (like glutamate, which is not the same as monosodium glutamate, but that's someone else's blog), peptides (like Substance P, a very science fiction-y name) and monoamines (like dopamine, histamine, and serotonin).  Here's a lovely set of dopamine molecule earrings from our friend at

The brain, and the body in general for that matter, is fairly parsimonious with neurotransmitters and the same neurotransmitter might be involved in multiple very different systems.  Dopamine is a prime example--it's the main neurotransmitter of the motor system (loss of neurons in the nigrostriatal pathway is the primary problem in Parkinson's disease) but it's also one of the main neurotransmitters of the mesolimbic system (the other is serotonin).  The mesolimbic system is sometimes described as a "reward" pathway, which is why it kept coming up at the GSummit.

Why is dopamine maybe involved in reward?  Well, that's an interesting question. Back in the 1950's, a couple of researchers (Olds and Milner) decided to see what would happen if the electrically stimulated a region of the brain in the mesolimbic system called the nucleus accumbens when a rat went into a certain region of their cages.  Turns out, rats liked it.  They liked it a lot.  So much that when the experiment was adjusted so that they could press a lever to get the little zip of electricity, they'd do it as much as 1700 times an hour.  And the nucleus accumbens is one of the structures in the mesolimbic system that uses dopamine to communicate.  Initially, this area was described as a reward center and dopamine was hypothesized to be the neurotransmitter of pleasure. More evidence came from the discoveries that dopamine levels increase in the brain when addicts take drugs like opiates, cocaine and amphetamines.  When dopamine is blocked in the brain by 99%, rats stop eating, which led researchers to hypothesize that they no longer derived any pleasure from eating.

But of course, nothing's ever quite that simple in neuroscience.  Further research on the rats who had all their dopamine suppressed concluded that it wasn't that the rats didn't take pleasure in eating, it was just that they had no desire to eat on their own.  If they pushed food on the rats, they concluded that they seemed to show pleasure while eating (though how they conclude that sort of escapes me) but that left to their own devices, they simply wouldn't eat.  They had lost the motivation to initiate eating. 

"Dopamine-depleted rats still ‘like’ rewards, and still know the rewards they ‘like’. They simply fail to ‘want’ rewards they ‘like’."

Berridge and Robinson, 1998

Further experiments with people confirmed the idea that dopamine might not be about pleasure and reward as much as it created a wanting or motivation to keep seeking out stimulation. There is some evidence that dopamine levels increase when a reward is greater than expected, which then is hypothesized to increase drive or motivation to achieve a reward.  Lack of dopamine meant there was no motivation or drive to do something.

So the role of dopamine might not be in pleasure/reward after all but in motivation and drive.  Still pretty important issues for gamification, just maybe not in the way some folks might have thought.


All things gamification, mostly focused on the Enterprise space but occasionally on other issues related to gamification. Thoughts are my own.


« June 2013 »