Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Game play is an intrinsic human characteristic. We all engage naturally in play from early childhood as a means to develop social and cognitive skills as we age, starting with simple children’s games like cops and robbers and hide and seek. But since the advent of computer technology in the early 1980s, much of this game play has been transposed from the physical to the virtual realm.

Back then developers noticed that simple DOS-, text- and spreadsheet-based games were able to capture the attention of users, with unprecedented levels of engagement. It was by trial and error that game developers stumbled on the concept of using innate psychological triggers to drive player engagement and retention, as there were no graphics or sounds to these early pioneering games.

It wasn’t until years later that more focused research went into uncovering the factors that make all forms of game play so “sticky”. What has emerged is a deeper understanding of how game design can be applied, especially in the intricacy of a game’s functionality and its visual elements or graphic capabilities, to appeal and engage elements of the human psyche.

Modern gamification therefore uses the “building blocks” of game design to apply and combine various motivators via a gamified platform in real-world contexts for nongaming purposes, often with the goal of motivating people for specific behaviours.

This has led to the application of gamification in a broad range of contexts, many of which have meaningful and lasting impact, particularly in terms of enhancing motivation, be it to improve a person’s health or fitness, improve financial wellness or aid in education and learning.

In fact, human psychology is now widely considered the fundamental underlying mechanism responsible for the effectiveness and subsequent rise in the popularity of gamification.

At the most basic level, gamification works by eliciting a biochemical response, by stimulating the reward and pleasure centres of the brain among other things. This promotes the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays a major role in the motivational component of reward-motivated human behaviour.

Basically, dopamine is released when we experience pleasure, which in the context of gamification can include the actual act of playing or take place in response to rewards, achievements, competition, recognition, progress and the attainment of goals. These goals and achievements can be both intrinsic and extrinsic.

Modern game development therefore leverages the characteristics of the human psyche, using predominantly intrinsic motivators – factors such as an interest in or enjoyment of the task itself – to create positive associations with game play to drive engagement and user retention, with the added application of external rewards – motivators such as badges, trophies, leader boards, performance graphs, “likes” and kudos – as additional, yet potent, forms of motivation.

Just as humans naturally engage in play when we are children other mammals use play as a means to learn and develop. It’s in our nature to play, which is why, when developers create a game with artificial rules and meaningful play with the ability to explore boundaries within that system, we engage that aspect of our primal brains.

Increasingly, developers are leveraging aspects of human psychology to design game elements that continually stimulate these areas of the brain, to create the “stickiness” that is synonymous with all successful gaming titles.

And with its rise in prevalence, and effectiveness, gamification has become a buzzword in the broader marketing community and among mobile marketers in particular. That’s primarily because the application of the right psychological cues, whether via a mobile app or an online game, can trigger emotions that are linked to positive user experience.

Marketers who wish to leverage gamification as part of a campaign therefore need to understand the innate psychological human responses when conceptualising their ideas and strategies, because that is what keeps people engaged and coming back for more.

And when marketers employ this leverage in the context of human-focused gamification design, they have the ability to create campaigns that resonate with users and achieve their objectives, regardless of the platform, be it a rich-media smartphone campaign or a more basic medium such as unstructured supplementary service data or USSD.

Nico Kruger is the chief technology officer at Digitata Insights.