The human brain is a fascinating and complex structure that makes us able to flexibly interact with the world. Interactions create experiences and opportunities to learn –a concept well-embedded in gamification. In this article, we look at the effects of gamification on the brain and provide an example of its application in learning chess openings.

What is gamification?

In 2019, Juho Hamari, a Professor of Gamification at the University of Tampere, Finland, defined gamification as “technological, economic, cultural, and societal developments in which reality is becoming more gameful, and thus to a greater extent can afford the accruing of skills, motivational benefits, creativity, playfulness, engagement, and overall positive growth and happiness.”  Simply put, gamification is the incorporation of game elements into non-game domains. The word first appeared around 2008-2010, with social and reward elements of games incorporated into software. Gradually, its use was expanded to a wide range of sectors, from business/marketing to education.

Neuroscience & Gamification

Research has shown that games and game-like activities have specific effects on the brain that can boost the mood and learning experience.

At the neurochemical level, games (and gamification) involve the release of various chemicals and the reward and pleasure centres of the brain, where dopamine is the main neurotransmitter. Dopamine is not only released in anticipation of rewards, making up the motivation component, but also plays a major role in associating an activity and its consequences (known as associative learning).

In addition, experiencing rewards, such as winning and receiving badges and/or prizes, triggers release of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that improves mood and decreases stress and anxiety. Moreover, remembering past successes, such as looking at one’s badge collection or past scores, also triggers release of serotonin, potentiating its effects. Finally, endorphins, the brain’s resident opioids and painkillers, in combination with other neurotransmitters, are important for focused learning and their release is stimulated when challenges in games are overcome, giving a sense of achievement.

At a more cognitive level, research has shown that games enhance the learning experience and memory and lead to a stronger engagement and emotional connection. This is because games are often structured as stories and we learn better when we process narratives rather than just lists of facts. This approach also helps us deal with cognitive overload, because the information is provided into smaller chunks that are easier to digest and retain. Stories have the power to affect our brains as if we were experiencing the events first-hand, triggering the release of oxytocin, the “bonding” neurotransmitter, among others.

Gamifying chess learning

Given the widespread application of gamification approaches to various domains and its positive effects in enhancing learning, it comes as no surprise that it can be used to improve learning chess, as well.  For example, learning all the different chess openings, would include memorizing a rather long list of strategies to begin the game. Using a gamification approach would reduce the cognitive load and more powerfully engage the brain at different levels, creating a stronger, dynamic, and more direct experience. This will, in turn, provide a sense of achievement that will strengthen motivation and fuel the reward circuits.

Curious to see how your brain responds to a gamified chess lesson? Take out your boards and try it out. Have fun!

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