How does gamification work?

Thursday, June 27th, 2013 By Jack Nevison

Imagine if this was your morning routine:

You wake up with your alarm. Rather than hitting the snooze button, you get out of bed. You earn five points.

While cooking an omelet for breakfast, you decide to add some vegetables, rather than pile on more cheese. You earn two points.

The weather forecast predicts a sunny day with no rain on the horizon. Rather than drive to work, you decide to ride your bike. You earn 10 points.

Can you beat yesterday's score? Do the points matter? As it turns out, they do—much more than people think.

This method of rewarding desired behaviors is known as "gamification," and many researchers believe it is an effective means of encouraging certain responses.

When people engage in rewarding experiences, such as eating food, dopamine is released in their brain. This neurotransmitter is associated with feelings of pleasure, which is why we find many of these experiences so rewarding in the first place.

This effect isn't limited to the acquisition of physical rewards. In fact, the rise of video games has taught researchers something interesting about dopamine: it gets released whether the rewards are physical or virtual.

Think of it this way: if you're a person who is trying to live a healthier lifestyle, the act of rewarding yourself points for eating well or exercising is the dopamine-inducing equivalent of feeding yourself a cookie—minus the extra calories. Just like a cookie, these points are pleasurable, and since you want to earn more of them, you end up engaging in healthier behaviors.

When most people think of gamification, they picture popular smartphone apps like Foursquare or social games like Farmville. In a way, they aren't wrong. Foursquare, for example, rewards users with points and virtual badges every time they use their phones' location services to check into a new establishment. These rewards encourage users to continue to use Foursquare, thus helping the social network grow in popularity. 

But gamification has many other uses, even in the business world. For example, New Leaf offers a QPM™ game series for project managers looking to achieve and maintain their PMP® certification. 

The QPM™ games can be played at home or on the go, on an iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch, and they allow the individual to play and to learn outside the traditional classroom. Users who play the games can earn PDUs based on their performance, which can be used to attain or maintain their PMP® status. Like points—or cookies—PDUs are fun to earn, and they encourage users to keep playing and learning.

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