In his book Gamification by Design Gabe Zichermann writes that gamification is 75% psychology and only 25% technology. We can understand technology to refer to programming and design, but what exactly can psychology bring to gamification? If we look at the most experimental psychology carried out in the 20th century we can see that it actually is highly and widely relevant to gamification.
The first attempts to turn psychology into an objective experimental science aimed which would allow it do get away from its more traditionally more speculative nature led psychologists to focus on observing behavior. And to do this they had to start off with something simple: a reflex – stimulus and response. From this angle the mind becomes a dark realm, a mysterious and impenetrable box, but it is possible to unravel it by looking at the effects of external elements (the stimulus) on it and observing how these are reflected in the person’s behavior (the response). The first experiments were carried out on animals, Paulov’s now famous dogs and his Classical Conditioning. And from here disciplines like Behaviourism and the psychology of learning started growing and getting more and more complex.
It was also observed that behaviours could be associated with reinforcements and if the latter were well designed and implemented you could end up with a powerful system for behavioural change. Thousands upon thousands of experiments in the world’s most prestigious psychology faculties continuously refined and expanded ideas concerning this behavioural psychology.
But the evolution of these ideas went further still, and the black box model was criticised. So psychologists started appearing who thought it necessary to look into this black box without straying to far from Behaviourism. They said thinking was a behaviour in itself and continued with the experimental model that included what’s called cognitive psychology. Thanks to this trend of thought we can learn, for example, how our expectations influence our decision to take part in a game, to accept a challenge or to interact with somebody. We start seeing concepts like self-efficacy, modelling and self-esteem, aspects that are essential to bear in mind to understand why people play and more generally why they behave the way they do; and therefore, in order to design any application that has the intention of influencing people’s behaviour to train them or motivate them.
But psychology was following a number of courses and humanist psychologists also appeared on the scene studying motivation and what moves people to action, why they act. Studies in these areas include those by Maslow and Herzberg, which are already seen almost as classic cultural heritage. And these scholars have also left behind them disciples who are continuing to delve into the minutiae of human motivation.
More recently studies have been published on the psychology of positive emotions, which explore the roots of what makes us feel good: why are people happy? What makes people feel good? Someone can work for one reason, but beyond this there is something that makes one person feel better than the other even if they are both in the same circumstances.
Alongside these studies are those by Seligman which deal with the concept of optimism, and the investigations and conclusions of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi that led to his Flow Theory, a theory about happiness that curiously draws a connection between perfection and the experience of playing a game, whatever the game or culture. The “optimal experience”, he said, corresponds astonishingly with the experiences of people who play video games. And the great thing here is that we can design almost any human activity in such a way that we can achieve it just as we would in a game.
The various conclusions drawn from the field of psychology give us a huge number of concepts, experiments, data and statistics that we can use to understand what makes gamification work and even how to make it work better. But the most exciting thing of this union between psychology and games is the simplicity it suggests. We can get closer to real motivation and genuine personal improvement if we look at the most comprehensive model of game mechanics and dynamics: here we’re talking points, badges, levels and challenges instead of reflexes, motives, reinforcement, feedback, complexity, competences and expectations. This makes it easier to spread awareness of gamified design and make it more understandable. Of course, we could just as well call it “psychologicized” design, but few would disagree that to use the word “game” is inherently more appealing.
On the other hand, the most exciting thing is also that gamification per se is an experimental design. That is to say, a controlled environment in which we can analyse variables concerning its subjects objectively. This allows us to investigate and compare and contrast theories continually, which will most likely itself lead to many new theories. With gamification we are bringing the idea of a laboratory into the wider world. And the repercussions of this will hopefully be broadening of knowledge and benefits for humankind.
Making a connection between psychological theory and games is in itself innovative, and at the same time something simple, a bit like inventing a suitcase on wheels. Both the suitcase and the wheel already exists, but the revolutionary idea was to combine both concepts.
After all, who would ever think now of actually carrying their suitcase?