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 madewithmolecules.com:

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.

Friday Sep 07, 2012


Picking up where we left off, let's summarize.  People have both intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation, and whether reward works depends a bit on what you are rewarding.  Rewards don't decreased intrinsic motivation provided you know what you are getting and why, and when you reward high performance.  But as anyone who has watched the great animation of Dan Pink's TED talk knows, even that doesn't tell the whole story.  Although people may not be less intrinsically motivated by rewards, the impact of rewards on actual performance is a really odd questions.  Larger rewards don't necessarily lead to better performance and in fact, some times lead to worse performance.  Pink argues that people are driven and engaged when they have autonomy, mastery and purpose.  If they can self-direct and can be good at what they do and have a sense of purpose for what they are doing, they show the highest engagement.   (Personally, I would add progress to the list.  My experience is that if you have autonomy, mastery and a sense of purpose but don't get a feeling that you are making any progress day to day, your level of engagement will drop rapidly.)

So Pink is arguing if we could set up work so that people have a sense of purpose in what they do, have some autonomy and the ability to build mastery, you'll have better companies.  And that's probably true in a lot of ways, but there's a problem.  Sometimes, you have things you need to do but maybe you don't really want to do.  Or that you don't really see the point of.  Or that doesn't have a lot of value to you at the end of the day.  Then what does a company do?

 Let me give you an example.  I've worked on some customer relationship management (CRM) tools over the years and done user research with sales people to try and understand their world.  And there's a funny thing about sales tools in CRM.  Sometimes what the company wants a sales person to do is at odds with what a sales person thinks is useful to them.  For example, companies would like to know who a sales person talked to at the company and the person level.  They'd like to know what they talked about, when, and whether the deals closed.  Those metrics would help you build a better sales force and understand what works and what does not.  But sales people see that as busy work that doesn't add any value to their ability to sell.  So you have a sales person who has a lot of autonomy, they like to do things that improve their ability to sell and they usually feel a sense of purpose--the group is trying to make a quota!  That quota will help the company succeed!  But then you have tasks that they don't think fit into that equation.  The company would like to know more about what makes them successful and get metrics on what they do and frankly, have a record of what they do in case they leave, but the sales person thinks it's a waste of time to put all that information into a sales application.

They have drive, just not for all the things the company would like.  

You could punish them for not entering the information, or you could try to reward them for doing it, but you still have an imperfect model of engagement.  Ideally, you'd like them to want to do it.  If they want to do it, if they are motivated to do it, then the company wins.  If *something* about it is rewarding to them, then they are more engaged and more likely to do it.  So the question becomes, how do you create that interest to do something?


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


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