Gamification, Psychology and Suitcases on Wheels


By Juan J. F. Valera Mariscal

Making a connection between psychological theory and games is innovative in itself. It is at the same time something simple, a bit like inventing a suitcase on wheels: both the suitcase and the wheel had already existed for centuries, but the revolutionary -and surprisingly recent- idea was to combine both concepts.

In the fusion of psycholgical theory and games we find the foundation of the concept of Gamification: the use of game thinking and game mechanics in non-game contexts to engage users in solving problems.

In his book Gamification by Design, Gabe Zichermann writes that gamification is 75% psychology and only 25% technology. We can easily understand that technology may 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, which would allow it do get away from its more traditional and speculative nature, led psychologists to focus on observing behavior. In order to study behaviour, they had to start from something simple: a reflex – stimulus and response. From this angle, the mind becomes a dark realm, a mysterious and impenetrable Black Box. It is possible to unravel this mysteriuos box by looking at the effects of external elements on it (the stimulus) 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. Therefore, disciplines such as Behaviourism and the Psychology of Learning developed and became increasingly more complex.

It was also observed that behaviours could be associated with reinforcements. When the latter were well designed and implemented, it was possible to build a powerful system for behavioural change. Thousands upon thousands of experiments in the world’s most prestigious psychology faculties continuously refined and expanded these ideas related to behavioural psychology.

But the evolution of these ideas went further still, and the Black Box Model was criticised. New psychologists thought it necessary to look into this black box without straying to far from Behaviourism. They theorized that thinking was a behaviour in itself and continued with an experimental model that includes what’s called Cognitive Psychology.

Thanks to this line of research 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. They are aspects that are essential to bear in mind in order to understand why people play and more generally why they behave the way they do. Therefore, they are essentials in order to design any application that has the intention of influencing people’s behaviour to train them or motivate them.

The field of psychological reaserach and theory developed following a greate number of courses. 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 nowadays considered almost as a classic cultural heritage. These scholars have also left behind them disciples who are continuing to delve into the minutiae of human motivation.

More recently, new studies have been published on the psychology of Positive Emotions. It is the field of psychology which explores 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 that reason, there are factors that make one person feel better than another even if they are both in the same circumstances.

Alongside these studies, we can mention the research carried out by Seligman – which deals with the concept of optimism – and the body of research of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi that led to his Flow Theory. The theory of Flow is an attempt to explain 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. The remarkable fact is that we can design almost any human activity in such a way that we can carry it our 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. However, one of the most exciting aspect 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, another exciting aspect is that Gamification per se is an experimental design. That is to say, it is a process set within a controlled environment in which we can analyse variables concerning its subjects objectively. That allows us to research, compare and contrast theories continually – which will most likely lead to the generation of several new theories. With Gamification, we are bringing the idea of a laboratory into the wider world. The repercussions of this will hopefully be the broadening of knowledge and benefits for humankind.

Gamification joins Psichology and Game Theory. Just like the suitcase and the wheel, they are ideas and concepts tha have existed for a long time. The revolutionary idea was to combine both concepts. After all, who would ever think now of actually carrying their suitcase?


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