PART 2 of 11 | This series highlights practical approaches to leveraging game mechanics in business and digital learning design.

How often do you play games? Do you play alone? Perhaps you play with your kids or friends. Do you prefer video games or boards games? To take it a step further, have you ever played flirtatious games with a potential mate?

We  play all sorts of games all the time. Our brains are wired for them. And for good reason. But it’s not for the reason you may think.

Personally, I love games. I also happen to be a learning technology professional. These passions collided about four years ago and set me on an eye opening journey. Through a series of serendipitous events, I came to understand that not only were games and learning more deeply connected than scientists had previously thought, but there was something much bigger going on. Mankind had only begun to discover the complexities of the human brain. It’s unimaginable power has yet to be fully unlocked.

Research shows a correlation between higher levels of dopamine and improved learning retention, memory, focus and motivation. Higher levels of DA (dopamine) during the learning process also boost confidence when applying newly acquired knowledge, skills, and attitudes. In other words, dopamine is a key ingredient in behaviour change.

So what does that mean for us? What does that mean for educators, business leaders, and marketers? What about for parents?

There’s good news. There are seven basic mechanics which are shown to boost dopamine. We borrow these mechanics from the gaming world, as they are proven to engage audiences, increase focus, and improve memory.  

Wait, I know what you’re thinking. And I am not suggesting we gamify everything. We don’t need to. But we can subtly blend these mechanics into education, business processes, marketing material and just about anyplace we want to engage people. Any time we wish to boost engagement, retention and ultimately elicit a change in behaviour.

Memory & Learning

Consider the content you delivered to your audiences over the last 12 months. Presentations, campaigns, education, communications. Everything. How much do you think your audiences still remember right now? If we evaluated your audience, how much would they be able to recall? Would they remember more than 90% of the information you delivered? Maybe 75%? 50%? What if you discovered it was less than 15%?

For those of you familiar with the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve, you know that, on average, humans forget over 84% of what they learn. What’s most shocking, we forget this much within about 6-14 days. What if we could flip this? What if we could empower people to recall 84% of what they learn? What about 100%? Is that possible? I want you to walk away from this series understanding 7 simple strategies which boost engagement and retention. These strategies will even increase your learners’ confidence when applying the newly learned knowledge, skills, and attitudes.

How the Brain Works

Let’s travel back to 2012. The city of Detroit had just filed for bankruptcy, Bitcoin was on the rise and I was struggling with my clients to help them deliver impact. I work with a hundreds of subject matter experts in healthcare, most of whom have extremely tight timelines. If they have any budget at all, it rarely covers the cost of lunch. So I was struggling within those constraints to find effective ways of not only engaging audiences, but having a meaningful and lasting impact on performance.

I found inspiration in a Ted Talk given by Tom Chatfield. Tom is an author and game theorist based in Cambridge, UK.  I shared his awe of the power of games to motivate, compel, and transfix human beings unlike anything else.

What compels people to spend billions of dollars each year on virtual goods? Goods that exist only in fictional worlds inside of games.

The world’s most expensive virtual object sold for $335,000 in the video game Entropia. It was a virtual space station. Completely fictional. Yet a player spent $335,000 REAL world dollars. In most parts of the world he could have purchased an actual piece of property! It’s only now, that I understand what motivated him.

In the game Farmville, every week 60 million players spend millions hours cultivating virtual crops. Crops which have no real world value. The strawberries can’t be eaten, the grapes cannot be turned into wine and the pumpkins will never be carved for halloween. So what compels these people? I shouldn’t talk about gamers in the third person. I too am guilty of spending hundreds of hours developing fictional skills in fictional worlds.

What can we learn about how people are motivated and engaged by games?  How and why do they progress and improve? Players get better and master new “skills” over time. Skills which are only virtual. Like the crops in FarmVille, these virtual skills have no real world value.  Speaking from first hand experience, I can tell you that mastering the Super Mario Smash Attack to defeat Bowser has not yielded much fruit over the last 30+ years.

When I began to dig into the research, I was struck by three key points;

  1. When we look at images of a brain performing virtual tasks for virtual rewards, they look virtually identical to a brain performing real tasks for tangible rewards.
  2. Game mechanics activate a region of the brain (VTA) which produces dopamine. Dopamine is associated with learning, memory, motivation, focus, and even confidence when applying newly acquired knowledge, skills or attitudes.
  3. We can apply seven basic game mechanics to learning and business processes, in such a subtle way, no one would ever consider that they were playing a game.

These game mechanics can work with equal effectiveness on a continuum. A continuum which has advanced gamification at one end, and good old fashioned text based learning, instructor led training. Even a boring business process or eLearning module can easily (and inexpensively) be transformed.

Types of Human Memory

Let’s assume our goal is to have a meaningful and lasting impact our audience. Our aim is to deliver knowledge, influence behaviour, and perhaps form new habits. We need to work our way backwards and look at how information gets processed and stored.

As it turns out, memory actually takes many different forms. Most of us are familiar with short term (working memory) and long term memory. But what about explicit memory, implicit memory, and autobiographical memory? What about habits? Can they be influenced?

Imagine yourself singing in your car, cruising along an open road on a warm summer day. The windows are down. Your favourite 80’s rock ballad is blaring and you are immersed in the lyrics, entranced by an intense feeling of summer joy. You are so spellbound by the experience that you barely focus on the road. As the song winds down, you snap out of your trance, and wonder how you managed to avoid crashing. You feel like you weren’t focused on the road. How did you navigate the last three minutes without paying 100% attention?

This scenario reveals a lot about the human brain. And the different types of memory we have. For example, the lyrics to a song are stored in one region of the brain, while their meaning, and emotional associations you have with them are stored in a completely different region. What’s more, habits such as driving a car are stored and controlled by a primitive part of the brain called the basal ganglia.

How does this information get transferred to these different regions? What makes certain events memorable? What make some information, such as song lyrics, stick? Why do some memories fade, or never form in the first place? The key, lies with certain neurotransmitters such as dopamine, epinephrine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. In this series I focus specifically on the dopamine system because of its association with rewards, attention, memory tasks, planning, and motivation.

By focusing our efforts on dopamine, we can learn how to leverage seven basic game mechanics which will appropriately activate this neurotransmitter. Of course we could use chocolate, sex, or cocaine to boost dopamine levels. Or we could even fly our audience to Las Vegas. Wouldn’t that be fun? Personally, I am interested in a more practical approach.

In my next post, I will share the first of two steps to delivering messages with impact. Hint: A primitive region of the brain holds the key to unlocking lasting memory.

JUMP TO NEXT: 03 | Our Crocodile Brain

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