Mind games

By gathering data from psychologically informed game design, brands and marketers can better connect with the intrinsic desires of players

Mind games

As apex predators go, human beings are slow, weak and have pretty poor vision. However, our brains have a high degree of plasticity enabling them to adapt to change through experience. This ability allows us to learn, and the way we learn best is through play.

Neuromarketing helps us understand how pleasure circuits in our brains respond to stimulation. Gamification uses these insights to deliver deeper enjoyment and establish habitual behaviour.

To understand how this works and its potential power, we start with an exploration of human needs.

Humans strive to meet the fundamental needs of hunger, shelter, sex, love and (more recently) money. Once these are satisfied, we innately want to feel a sense of belonging to a community and, after that, self-esteem in terms of our position and reputation within that community.

Beyond our basic needs, we are driven to fulfil meta-needs such as ownership, progression and meaning. We want to be spontaneous and free to be ourselves, while exploring our potential and creating a fulfilled life.

Traditionally, we motivate people by fulfilling their basic needs. Gamification can fulfil people’s meta-needs intrinsically. The resulting feelings of purpose, creativity and mastery can be more motivating and rewarding than money. As we navigate the world, we use past experience to generate predictions about what might happen when we do something. When expectations about the outcome of an action are exceeded, dopamine is released, representing a psychological


Point of view

Gamification: powerful tool or bandwagon? It depends on what you want to do. If you want to create real strategic value, then the experience must apply game principles correctly. By this, I mean it uses intrinsic motivators to get people moving through the game environment, delivering satisfaction as they do – then it’s a powerful way of engaging people and influencing behaviour repeatedly and efficiently over the long term. If you want to use it more tactically – this is where bandwagonism can come in – then the "game" will be very simple and not deliver repeat plays. The game will be based around extrinsic motivators: cash prizes, simple gambling or risk-based games etc.

Who these days has time to play? We all play every day: can we beat our last commute time; can we challenge ourselves to cook the best bolognese sauce ever; can we organise things so our lives have a semblance of order?

Gamification works best when… players can lose themselves in the  game but are empowered to find their own way out.

The best game in the world is... life.


signal that makes the experience memorable. This updates our predictions to facilitate better future decision-making and encourages us to repeat the behaviour that led to that reward.

These processes are dependent on the limbic system, one of the oldest parts of the brain. The output of the relatively newer frontal cortex, the seat of conscious and rational thought, is driven by emotional and reward- related inputs from the limbic areas. So even when we think we might be acting rationally, we are often acting on subconscious urges.

We also know that the neural circuitry managing desire for game-play  mirrors that which controls urges in substance dependence and gambling. So by using psychologically informed game design, we can replicate the positive feelings of alcohol, drugs or gambling in your marketing campaigns.

The Fogg Behaviour Model can be used for assessing how these principles can be employed to drive predictable human behaviour. Within the model, three factors underlie behaviour when interacting with game principles: motivation, ability and a trigger. A minimum level of motivation and ability is needed to perform the target behaviour – this is the activation threshold.

Motivation (positive feedback), ability (time, attention, mental skill) and a trigger that prompts the user to act must converge at the same moment. Only this leads to the inception of predictable behaviour through the release of dopamine. Poorly timed triggers that fire at the wrong time (spam e-mail and pop-up ads) can frustrate players and reduce effectiveness.

One of the real benefits of using game principles in marketing is that they can be designed to adapt to the changing needs of each player. Player modelling makes it possible to tailor game-play to each person’s preferences and ability. This data-driven  approach tracks variations in learning and playing styles in real time, and adapts the game accordingly. This delivers a suitable level of challenge to each individual and improves the experience for players by keeping them motivated and able.

Motivation can be improved by considering theories of learning and anticipating the right time to deliver a reward. Just as in real life, intermittent and unpredictable rewards make us most happy – it is crucial to include challenges, surprise and variety.

When a player’s ability is low (initially or following a long break), the system can make tasks easier. Ways  to achieve this include "divide and conquer" (breaking tasks into smaller  objectives), "cognitive rehearsal" (showing players how easy it is) and "cascading information" (releasing instructions only when necessary).

As player ability improves, it may be necessary to prevent users becoming bored. One way is through varying the demands placed on attention and memory. Players respond better to triggers that fit their playing style. While player modelling aims to elucidate their external behaviour, player profiling attempts to use the same data to model their internal traits.  Indeed, it is possible to create an accurate personality profile of a player based on the way they interact with a game. This can then be used to match triggers to different kinds of players.

Gamification generates new and more exciting data than normal web traffic. This data is more valuable: metrics include motivational triggers, engagement levels, response times and collaboration insights. It is produced with higher frequency: small actions can be accomplished in shorter time-frames, allowing users to experience progress more often. These "micro tasks" can all be measured. And greater volume is generated: gamified experiences are accessed on various devices and the increased interactions leave much larger data footprints than page impressions or dwell times.

There is still considerable debate around the uses of gamification principles and insights gained from neuromarketing. That said, these disciplines have the ability to satisfy people’s desires to master something, to compete and to feel part of a community.

The real question, though, is how, as marketers, we use this new wave of data to deepen our understanding of users – how we monitor the way consumers engage and interact, so we  can design experiences that deliver  increased satisfaction. Early gamification executions were focused on extrinsic motivation. The challenge now is to intrinsically motivate players and reward them with natural highs that are better than sex, drugs or money.