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 Feb 22, 2013

GSummit Interview

Last night, the Apps Lab did a shout out to this blog, and showing that I am easily response driven, I started thinking that I really needed to get a new blog piece together.  The last few weeks have been pretty swamped with some not terribly exciting back end gamification issues about getting some products into development as well as a lot of non-gamification work.  But then today the GSummit folks helped me along by posting an interview that I did at the GSummit last year. 

In the coming weeks and months, my team will be working on the creation of some gamification guidelines and patterns, and I hope to share what we are working on then.  In the meantime, here's a link to last year's interview!  I'll be speaking there again this year--let me know if you'll be there.  I'd love to meet you in person.  Plus, it's on my birthday so I'll have a badge for anyone who remembers...

Wednesday Feb 06, 2013

Blood donation, green badge

In my last blog post, I talked about the gamification of blood donation.  Just thought I'd follow up since today I earned the green badge, er, bandage today.  Funny thing, it made me late for a gamification conference call.  Bonfils doesn't offer points or a virtual economy (although a friend of mine recently got a pretty nice messenger bag) but I did get some bottled water, trail mix and cheez-its, so there is that.

Blood donation

I'm still not sure that the addition of a virtual economy would get me to donate more often (not having to reschedule every time a new meeting was added to my calendar might work better than that). But then again, the concept of gamification of blood donation got me to sign up, update my profile on the donor site and actually go.  And they matched my bandage to my bangles.

Friday Jan 04, 2013

Adding Gamification into the Oracle User Experience

I just remembered that over the break, an article I wrote for our UsableApps site came out.  Thought I'd go ahead and cross post it here.

Different uses of gamfication

Yesterday I found an interesting blog piece by Ben Serviss (@benserviss) on how gamification might be used to increase blood donations.  This lead to a twitter conversation between me, @benserviss, @daverage and @gamificationco about a) whether this would work and b) what the issues are in blood donation.

I should disclose I'm a nearly 3 gallon donor at this point.   Bonfils Blood Bank has me on speed dial because I am O-, the universal donor.   But I haven't given recently.   It's not that I care about needles much.  I'm a phlebotomist's dream, pale skin, bright blue veins that are easy to hit.  However, giving is a little inconvenient.  I need to make an appointment, plan on the travel to the blood bank, spend about an hour, etc.  Because I travel a lot, I have to review all the places that might knock me off the list.  More than once, I've had to take a year break from giving because I traveled to India.  I have some altrustic motivation since I know they can always use my blood type, people are in need, there aren't enough donors, etc.  But sometimes I need a little more push to actually go.  And I'm not really the problem because I do go.  What about the people who have never given blood but who could?

Bonfils Blood Center logo

Bonfils Blood Center

 As Serviss points out:

"Meanwhile, the American Red Cross states that less than 38 percent of the US population is eligible to donate blood, which comes out to roughly 119 million people given the current US population of 315 million. Of those eligible, only 9.5 million donate in a given year, which leaves us with about 109 million people who are eligible to donate, but don’t."

So it seems like there are two problems.  The first is really an onboarding problem.  How do you get people past the initial hump of giving in the first place?  Most first time donors, in my experience at the blood bank over the years, will say in a surprised tone "that wasn't bad at all!"  They may have overcome initial resistance because of some event, and then were surprised that it wasn't a horrible experience.  So how could we convince more people to walk through the door?  If your intrinsic motivation isn't that high for blood donation, could we layer on some extrinsic motivation?  Come in and win! This might include t-shirts, blankets, hats, and other logo items, but can go as far as winning a $1000 shopping spree, as the American Red Cross offered in 2008 in their "Give a little, Get a lot" program. 

The second problem is once you give, how could we get you to give again?  According to the World Health Organization, out of 92 million blood donations annually, 30 million give blood once and then never come again.   Blood banks are already trying ways to gamify blood donation.  Many now have rewards programs much like cash back programs on credit cards. Give regularly, get points you can cash in for merchandise or event tickets.  In one twitter conversation, @gamificationco said that his Dad gives for points that he redeems for Mets tickets!  Perhaps this is a way to get that first time donor converted to a repeat donor?

That said, the National Institutes of Health have raised concerns about these incentive programs.   Mirroring other studies on the effects of reward on intrinsic motivation, they cite a Swedish study that concluded that a monetary incentive decreased the supply of blood donors by 50% and another study, that offering monetary rewards can decrease the safety of the blood supply.  However, an Italian study offered a day off of work or what amounts to badges and concluded those rewards increased the frequency of donation.  Just goes to show, it matters what incentives you offer...

I'm going online to book my next donation now.  Maybe that's a social incentive, since I've put it out there that I will give?  It doesn't look like my local blood bank offers a rewards program. 

But there are cookies!

Friday Dec 21, 2012

Moving gamification from concept to design

In the last few months, the UX team has been busy--very busy--working on gamification of a few key enterprise flows.  And the process we've been following is one of the reasons I think we aren't going to fall into the trap that Gartner described in their recent report on gamification.  In that report, Gartner predicts that by 2014, 80 percent of current gamified applications will fail to meet business objectives primarily because of poor design. 


And I'm guessing that's a pretty reasonable prediction.  Part of the reason for that is that many companies are gamifying applications because it's the hot thing to do and they aren't thinking about why they should gamify those applications.  In our user experience group, we are regularly reviewing some key points about gamification.  First and foremost, you need to start with a business objective.  What are you trying to get people to do differently?  Why are you trying to get them to change?  Can you measure whether or not you are, in fact, changing the behavior you want to change with game mechanics?  And are you willing to redesign if it turns out your gamification design isn't effective?

A good portion of gamification, in my estimation, is just effective usability made more transparent to the user.  For example, in usability, we know that people want feedback--they want to know what to do and then they want feedback that they are doing it right, that things are progressing, that they are successful.  Good usability and good gamification just make that more transparent to end users.  And end users like that.

Some gamification is a bit more complex and can drive users to activities or actions that they are less inclined to do.  But you are still using good principles of usability to get there.

So what are companies doing that makes them fail?  They aren't following a good user experience process.  In our organization, we put a lot of emphasis on testing our designs with users.  Most recently, we were testing gamified designs with potential end users at the UK Oracle User Group (UKOUG)  meetings in Birmingham UK.  We presented gamified flows and the same flow without gamification and got feedback on what worked and what did not.  We use that information to revise and modify our designs, prior to coding and delivering as a product. 

Real users, testing our designs, modifying.  Then you develop.

That's the key to not ending up part of the 80%.

Thursday Jul 05, 2012

Knowing your user is key--Part 1: Motivation

I was thinking where the best place to start in this blog would be and finally came back to a theme that I think is pretty critical--successful gamification in the enterprise comes down to knowing your user.  Lots of folks will say that gamification is about understanding that everyone is a gamer.  But at least in my org, that argument won't play for a lot of people.  Pun intentional.  It's not that I don't see the attraction to the idea--really, very few people play no games at all.  If they don't play video games, they might play solitaire on their computer.  They may play card games, or some type of sport.  Mario Herger has some great facts on how much game playing there is going on at his Enterprise-Gamification.com website.

But at the end of the day, I can't sell that into my organization well.  We are Oracle.  We make big, serious software designed run your whole business.  We don't make Angry Birds out of your financial reporting tools.  So I stick with the argument that works better.  Gamification techniques are really just good principals of user experience packaged a little differently.  Feedback?  We already know feedback is important when using software.  Progress indicators?  Got that too.  Game mechanics may package things in a more explicit way but it's not really "new".  To know how to use game mechanics, and what a user experience team is important for, is totally understanding who our users are and what they are motivated by.

For several years, I taught college psychology courses, including Motivation.  Motivation is generally broken down into intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.  There's intrinsic, which comes from within the individual.  And there's extrinsic, which comes from outside the individual.  Intrinsic motivation is that motivation that comes from just a general sense of pleasure in the doing of something.  For example, I like to cook.  I like to cook a lot.  The kind of cooking I think is just fun makes other people--people who don't like to cook--cringe.  Like the cake I made this week--the star-spangled rhapsody from The Cake Bible: two layers of meringue, two layers of genoise flavored with a raspberry eau de vie syrup, whipped cream with berries and a mousseline buttercream, also flavored with raspberry liqueur and topped with fresh raspberries and blueberries.

I love cooking--I ask for cooking tools for my birthday and Christmas, I take classes like sushi making and knife skills for fun.  I like reading about you can make an emulsion of egg yolks, melted butter and lemon, cook slowly and transform them into a sauce hollandaise (my use of all the egg yolks that didn't go into the aforementioned cake).  And while it's nice when people like what I cook, I don't do it for that.  I do it because I think it's fun.  My former boss, Ultan Ó Broin, loves to fish in the sea off the coast of Ireland.  Not because he gets prizes for it, or awards, but because it's fun.  To quote a note he sent me today when I asked if having been recently ill kept him from the beginning of mackerel season, he told me he had already been out and said "I can fish when on a deathbed" (read more of Ultan's work, see his blogs on User Assistance and Translation.). That's not the kind of intensity you get about something you don't like to do.  I'm sure you can think of something you do just because you like it.

So how does that relate to gamification?  Gamification in the enterprise space is about uncovering the game within work.  Gamification is about tapping into things people already find motivating.  But to do that, you need to know what that user is motivated by. Customer Relationship Management (CRM) is one of those areas where over-the-top gamification seems to work (not to plug a competitor in this space, but you can search on what Bunchball* has done with a company just a little north of us on 101 for the CRM crowd).  Sales people are naturally competitive and thrive on that plus recognition of their sales work.  You can use lots of game mechanics like leaderboards and challenges and scorecards with this type of user and they love it.  Show my whole org I'm leading in sales for the quarter?  Bring it on!  However, take the average accountant and show how much general ledger activity they have done in the last week and expose it to their whole org on a leaderboard and I think you'd see a lot of people looking for a new job.  Why?  Because in general, accountants aren't extraverts who thrive on competition in their work.  That doesn't mean there aren't game mechanics that would work for them, but they won't be the same game mechanics that work for sales people.  It's a different type of user and they are motivated by different things.

To break this up, I'll stop here and post now.  I'll pick this thread up in the next post. Thoughts? Questions?

*Disclosure: To my knowledge, Oracle has no relationship with Bunchball at this point in time.

Sunday Jul 01, 2012

Welcome to the Gamification Blog!


If you are here, you have probably been hearing about gamification and game mechanics, and wondering how it all fits into the enterprise space.  Although I've been leading some efforts in the Fusion Apps UX team on gamification for a while, I have left it to a couple of others to blog on it.  For example, check out the links below from Ultan Ó Broin if you haven't seen these already:

#gamifyOracle: Oracle Applications Gamification Worldwide #UX Design Jam

Oracle Applications UX Gamification Worldwide All Hands Day

Gamification, Schamification: Reality Isn't Broken. Your User Experience Is

I've been tweeting to #GamifyOracle for a while but I'll try to use this blog to put a little of my own thoughts on the matter together.  In the meantime, I spoke at the GSummit in June on the things we're working on and I'll be leading a workshop and speaking on Enterprise Gamification at the Enterprise Gamification Summit in September.  Oracle peeps, let me know if you are interested in attending, since we can get a group discount for the workshop/summit.  We're also planning to conduct some more research on gamification in the enterprise space at Oracle OpenWorld this October. 

In the meantime, let me know if there are issues you are interested in and I'll try to put some things together here.  I'd love to know who all is working on gamification in Oracle--I know some of you but I'm sure there are others!


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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