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The Link between Dopamine and Gamification

  • The Link between dopamine and gamification

    Basically, when we get an unexpected reward, dopamine neurons begin firing. If we’re rewarded enough for a specific action, the dopamine response shifts to occur immediately following the action for which we gain the reward, rather than when we receive the reward itself.

    Sensation of risk and competition

    For the brain, the sensation of risk or challenge in a safe environment like a game is enjoyable. A part of this risk has to do with the possibility that others can get it right or better than us, in others words, with competition. As a result, risk and competition in gamification boosts the segregation of dopamine and, in consequences it boosts pleasure as well, for carrying out the suggested tasks of the game. It is very important to keep in mind that gamification itself is not as effective when the planned goals are far too ambitious or implemented for long-term. It won’t function either if these goals are not in alley with the real interest of the player. Gamification is an excellent alley for specific, affordable, evaluable, desired and for short-term goals.


    It's been well known throughout the gaming community that dopamine is a driver in gaming.  Gamer's will sit and grind for hours or more just to earn achievements, work for months to get that drop they've been wanting and will play just one more game before quitting for the day, just for that one more chance.  If you "swipe right" and win, you are instantly rewarded and there's your dopamine at work.  If you "one-up" a level, you have now conquered another achievement.  Where does this end between the blur of a virtual artificial boost and the reality of how you are spending your time?

    Gamification is also very common on just about any website you participate in.  Some platforms are heavy in the gamification features, while others are light in gamification or lack the lure of any gamification for users.

    I can recall my first electrifying experience in gamification back in 2007 when I discovered a website built on vBulletin.  The owners of the website not only took the vBulletin features in gamification, but also added so many levels to what would appear in your Avatar module next to your posts.  I loved the rank bars for the "rank" you earned at the website and those rank names were very cool, loved the pips that wore a standard in vBulletin at the time to represent your post count, of course actually post count numbers are cool which were also represented, and then the creme de la creme were the star features that multiplied and changed colors as you earned more in reputation at this website. Once at a certain level the stars would spin. Aww the dopamine!

    vBulletin has regressed in their gamification, while xenForo is totally gamified and I'd say at the top of any out of the box forum platforms you can buy.  If you arrive at a xenForo built website, you will know it because you will have every opportunity to be involved with other members and to thank them for their contributions.  It doesn't end there as there's a whole page devoted to members participation, a leader board, if you will, so if you like seeing your user name every where, then you will like xenForo. In short, this is where gamification works to keep members coming back to their website. 

    My websites fall short in gamification, but I'd argue the upside to it, is that you are not spending so much extra time remembering to "like" everyone's post and comments and then also wondering if you missed someone's comments to "like" because it does happen and certainly not intentional.  When there is less gamification, there is more discussion because you are more involved at the core of the discussion rather then remembering to "ring the bell" at every turn. On my websites there are the basic "likes" so people will be thanked for their posts, but it keeps it pretty simple.

    I've also noticed the structure of a websites platform also effects member participation and less gamification doesn't interfere as long as members can navigate easily, add tags to their posts and other posts they like too.  When a website is structured in a way that members can't see new activity as easily, they are less likely to be involved.  Hence my love hate affair with the activity feed.  The activity feed is mostly there to show recent activity but if a member is using the activity feed to view all updates, then the endless scrolling can be a waste of time and prevent a member from conversing with others.  I've always liked pages with an activity feed to present with modules that show the activity in a website for all of the main categories.  The only downfall with it, is an admin can only set so many of these new posts or threads to view because if you allow too many, then the member using your website on their phone, will have endless scrolling and will also be wasting time rather then going to each individual part of the website to view updates. 

    Does a website with less gamification fall short to retain members? That is a good question and I'd say that for some that need that gamification experience, they may not post as often because the dopamine reward is not there as in other platforms.  The only way to alter that dopamine that's triggered by the gamification is to offer good content that members enjoy and with that members that like to share their ideas for content too.  The bigger asset to a website are the members. The member culture is the real draw beyond any gamification features available.

    Dopamine is a very strong neurotransmitter that can either dominate your life or you can tame it with awareness.