Some weeks ago, I started to attend some online courses at the “Interaction Design Foundation”, an industry-recognized online school on UX and Interaction Design. The study platform has been designed with interesting game elements implemented into the learning experience. For instance, each course has a certificate, and in order to obtain it, students are required to score at least 70% of the total points, answering questions for each lesson. A progress bar (progress indicator) provides simple but effective and quantifiable feedback regarding students’ performance (score), with different goals (badges) that are possible to achieve.
The progress bar enhances students’ motivation (and engagement) to perform better in a hand, and in the other one makes it more probable that students don’t drop the course when they obtain the certificate (70% of the total score), ensuring that students are more motivated to finish the course getting the badges on the certificate.
Another stimulating game element is the course leaderboard, where students can simply compare their performance with other students worldwide. This course leaderboard derives from a long arcade game tradition (for example from 80’s arcade games such as Galaga or Moon Patrol) where scores comparisons between players were at the basis of the gameplay . Although, today’s gamified leaderboards have been designed for social-incentive, rather than disincentive. For this reason, the user is positioned in the middle of the ranking list, instead of the right position, where the is reported how close the user is to the next one. This is designed to clearly show how close is the user (how many points are necessary) to beat the other one.
Another powerful game-design element used to enhance users' motivation and engagement is distinction badges.
People desire to accumulate badges, and this desire and pleasure to get them are enhanced when they are unexpected (as, again, the case of the Interaction Design Foundation learning platform).
Also, the certificate per-se can be considered as a game element that enhances students’ motivation; the certificate is a clear reward of the people’s commitment to successfully fulfill the course.
This is gamification
The “Interaction Design Foundation” is a great example of gamification. How defined by Deterding, gamification is:
“the use of game design elements (and game-thinking) in non-game context” .
Gamification firstly appeared in 2003 when a game designer, Nick Pelling, started to think about “game-like interfaces for electronic devices” , establishing a new concept of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI).
Gamification helps designers to develop engaging solutions for users, inducing a behavior change primarily acting on people’s motivation, in a great variety of different contexts, starting from education, entertainment, health, to business and productivity.
Since gamification is not an abstract concept, and it is applied in many different contexts transforming how people behave, great attention is reserved to the study of gamification from a cognitive neuroscience perspective. The goal of cognitive neuroscience is to make things visible, and studying gamification from a cognitive neuroscience perspective makes gamification visible. In this regard, cognitive neuroscience is extremely useful if we want to exploit gamification applications.
Gamification and Cognitive Neuroscience
Cognitive neuroscience derives from a tradition of mind-brain interaction studies. The discipline is coined and defined by Michael Gazzaniga as the
“field of scientific endeavor that is trying to understand how the brain enables the mind” .
Gamification acts on people’s motivation, with the final goal to induce a behavioral change. But how is it possible?
From a purely psychological point of view, gamification works thanks to the positive feedback that works as reinforcement, and this allows effective behavior changes . From a cognitive neuroscience perspective, motivation depends on specific brain structures and interconnected brain circuits (hippocampus cortex — the reward system — and the amygdala). Game elements (such as points, leaderboards, achievements/badges, levels, story, goals, progress bar…) activate these circuits and structures thanks to an intrinsic motivation that arises when people play games . This happens because games primarily work on competition (where players have to accomplish goals or achievements), with not only a strong and positive social impact but also a cognitive impact.
This intrinsic motivation raises the level of dopamine (but also serotonin, endorphins, and oxytocin) in the reward system, enhancing a change in important mental processes such as attention, reasoning, memory, and finally emotion.
Exploited gamification in practice
Gamification nowadays is applied in a variety of different contexts, from education to health care and business. In this variety of applications, neuroscience helped to understand where it is possible to effectively apply gamification.
A clear example of a new era of gamification application is given by Mora and colleagues . They used a gamified tool as a prevention strategy for cognitive impairment, using gamification as cognitive training in older adults to prevent dementia.
They showed how to exploit gamification’s capacity to enhance people’s motivation and engagement in health-care and well-being treatment.
Dementia is a chronic syndrome that affects people’s cognitive functions (such as attention, memory, executive functions…), deteriorating them progressively . Dementia has to be treated constantly with a set of cognitive training tools that are characterized by a series of monotonous tasks, usually cutting people’s motivation and engagement. To enhance people’s motivation and engagement in cognitive training, Mora and colleagues tested a gamified tool for dementia prevention called Preventive Neuro Health (PNH). The design of the tool was based on neuropsychological exercises (the GNPT), combined with game-design elements, and designed using a user-centered approach. The exercises were based on daily challenges presented as cards. To reward users for the performances they used points that represent the reinforcement (the investment). Points were used also to unlock new levels and features of the PNH. Moreover, the entire user interface was designed to accommodate game elements, such as a progress bar to information about users’ status and about the entire progress of the community (other users of the same PNH program) with a leaderboard of users, or notification designed to inform the user about his achievements and the progress of the other users of the community as well.
Similarly, Kerfoot and Kissane  studied the role of gamification in simulator education training for residents. In particular, they focused on users’ engagement of “da Vinci Skills Simulator”. Game elements such as scores, elimination rounds, leaderboards, achievement badges, prizes and a final winner of the competition, were added to the simulator. After 14 weeks of study, they showed how gamification enhanced users’ engagement with the simulator, compared to the control group (which used the non-gamified version of the simulator).
In the end
As seen, gamification can truly help to design innovative solutions to help people to be motivated and engaged in a variety of different scenarios. Anyway, it is important to point out that gamification’s behavior change works only if the goals of the activity are well-designed and specified. Basically, the users must recognize the game elements while interacting with the product/service that has been designed. This means that in order to design gamified activities, designers must study, analyze, plan, strategize, and tailor the goals and the game elements to the specific product/service.
Poorly designed gamified activities lead to people’s motivation, affecting the overall effectiveness of the solution designed.
P.S. I recommend these articles and readings if you are interested in how and why gamification works from a neuroscience perspective, and how to correctly apply gamification to your product or service.
 Zichermann, G., & Cunningham, C. (2011). Gamification by Design: Implementing Game Mechanics in Web and Mobile Apps. O’Reilly Media, Inc.
 Gazzaniga, 2010
 Schrape, 2013. Rethinking Gamification. Leuphana Universität Lüneburg. https://www.leuphana.de/en/research-centers/cdc/labs-projects/finished-projects/gamification-lab/rethinking-gamification.html
 Mazzoglio y Nabar, M., Algieri, R., & Tornese, E. (2018). Gamification or Gaming Techniques Applied to Pedagogy: Foundations of the Cognitive Neuroscience Applied to the Education.
 Deterding, S., Dixon, D., Khaled, R., & Nacke, L. (2011). From Game Design Elements to Gamefulness: Defining Gamification. In Proceedings of the 15th International Academic MindTrek Conference: Envisioning Future Media Environments, MindTrek 2011 (Vol. 11, p. 15). https://doi.org/10.1145/2181037.2181040
 Werbach, & Hunter. (2012). For the Win: How game thinking can yield solutions to business problems. https://wsp.wharton.upenn.edu/book/for-the-win/
 Mora, A., González González, C., Arnedo-Moreno, J., & Álvarez, A. (2016). Gamification of cognitive training: A crowdsourcing-inspired approach for older adults. In Interacción ’16 Proceedings of the XVII International Conference on Human Computer Interaction. https://doi.org/10.1145/2998626.2998663
 Kerfoot, B. P., & Kissane, N. (2014). The use of gamification to boost residents’ engagement in simulation training. JAMA Surgery, 149(11), 1208–1209. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamasurg.2014.1779