E-Learning, ELearning, Game Design, Gamification, Gaming, Instructional Design, Training Design
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Dispelling the dopamine myth and powering up your E-Learning

A slightly different post this week as I look to dispel some of the myths surrounding dopamine in gamification and E-Learning approaches. I’ll also take a look at how you can take note of these facts to increase the effectiveness of your Instructional Design.

If you study gamification you’re guaranteed to see the word ‘dopamine’ thrown around several times, it’s often what a lot of gamification talk is pinned on. If you also study video games you’ll also see this phrase thrown about to the same level, however there is a substantial difference between how it’s implemented in games compared to how lazily it’s being used in learning – sorry but it’s true.


What is Dopamine

In the brain, dopamine functions as a neurotransmitter—a chemical released by nerve cells to send signals to other nerve cells. The brain includes several distinct dopamine systems, one of which plays a major role in reward-motivated behavior. Most types of reward increase the level of dopamine in the brain, and a variety of addictive drugs increase dopamine neuronal activity. Other brain dopamine systems are involved in motor control and in controlling the release of several other important hormones.

Dopamine is really the reason behind why gamification has really blown up in the world of learning. In the present day so many people (especially generation Y) are used to reward motivated behaviour. Just consider video games, smart phones, tablets, websites, all of these contain small motivational reward systems – it’s everywhere we look. I’m a part of this generation and I respond in exactly the same way, small reward cycles through video games keep me completely hooked.

Where the myth begins

The main myth surrounding dopamine is that it is produced as a result of being rewarded for your actions. So for example, a badge is given at the end of a course to congratulate the learner on their achievement or the feeling a gamer experiences when they complete a game. This isn’t true, dopamine is not released from receiving a reward, the badges don’t do anything to release this chemical and surprisingly neither does completing a game…


This is the dopamine cycle, notice how rewards are not listed on here. Video game developers know this all too well, the reward is not a dopamine inducing ‘item’ or feeling, the reward is the challenge we faced along the way.

Gamers play games for the challenge they offer, the achievement section of the diagram is attained by completing a particularly tough section of a game which releases dopamine (pleasure) and therefore perpetuates the cycle. Consider difficulty settings in a game, traditionally they appear as Easy, Medium and Hard. Why do players choose to play on a Hard difficulty setting? It’s because the pleasure (dopamine release) comes from the challenge of completing the game on a greater difficulty setting. It’s about knowing the effort you have put into something will feel all the better when you get to the end and look back at your achievement. It isn’t because the reward of completing the game is the driving force otherwise players would race through on Easy difficulty just to see the final credits.

Dopamine in Learning

Now consider what I’ve just said about difficulty settings and the driving force for completing a game. Do you notice any differences between that and learning? We do not pay attention to the challenge in learning, too many people are of the (wrong) opinion that rewards are what motivates learners. I have a personal dislike of a badge based system in E-Learning courses because I think that it continues this cycle of implementing incorrect processes into learning. If we are simply presenting users with a badge at the end of the course, are they really going to care about their ‘reward’ if the course was simply a case of pressing the Next button continuously until they arrive at the final screen?

We have to use dopamine releases that are relevant to us in the world of learning, for me these take two forms:


  • Dopamine is released as we respond to an event, it causes us to act. The dopamine release happens before we know the reward of our action, it occurs during a phase of anticipation. If you  have seen my blog post on Choices and Decisions Using the Walking Dead (Video Game Series) you’ll get some great tips on how to start this process.

New Experiences

  • Another dopamine rush happens as we are experiencing something new. In games; new worlds, levels, paths and options open up to us on a continual basis providing us with dopamine releases spurring our positive experience.

So how do we go about implementing these approaches in our design?

Don’t use cheap methods

I hate to mention this again but it is really starting to bug me that people persist in speaking about badges as though they are the messiah of gamification. Yes, they can contribute but no, you don’t just stick them into your content and *huzzah* you have a gamified course.

Far greater attention needs to be paid to the process in which dopamine is released and building content around that rather than presuming it’s because of some reward system and merely ‘slapping’ it in.

We’re at risk in learning of falling into a trap where our content is just going to appear boring and uninspiring because we haven’t paid enough attention to understanding what true gamification is.

Optimising Dopamine release

First of all, motivation, how can we motivate within courses? Well if you’ve read my blog previously you’ll know what a fan I am of splitting up content. One way to deal with motivation in E-Learning courses is to divide your content up into challenging but manageable sections. If you end each section with a small scenario for the learner to complete you are contributing towards a release of dopamine. The learner will want to discover what happened as a result of their actions, did they answer correctly, what are the ramifications of their choice, essentially replicating the anticipation of reward. Creating small but meaningful sections also lends itself to being more ‘game’ like in structure, there aren’t many games where you play 45 minute long levels and even if you did they have far more interactivity than we can ever hope to get across in E-Learning. Think about apps – Angry Birds for example is split into small 2 minute levels with a simple grading system at the end, we have very quick releases of dopamine because the creators followed the dopamine cycle.

I’m challenged by the Angry Birds level which begins dopamine release > I know completing the level unlocks the next level and I can progress further (anticipation of reward) > Once I’ve completed it I get a score based on how well I’ve done (Achievement) > And the pleasure of what I’ve just experienced causes me to jump into the next stage.

Apps recreate this process so well we don’t even know it’s happening, even though levels only last for a couple of minutes I’ve seen friends sink hours into Angry Birds than I have on some AAA titles for consoles.

The next time your SME kicks up a fuss about not getting learners engaged, explain the dopamine cycle to them using Angry Birds as a reference, they’ll soon click to how powerful meaningful bitesize content is.

This also then feeds in to new experiences, think about how your content can change direction and you can open up a new section for a learner. One approach to doing this is an ‘unlockables’ section – when you complete one of the bitesize topics you gain access to a new section of the course, show this on an open menu system that builds anticipation of what lies behind the next section.

Andrea Kuszewski sums this up nicely in learning;

  • Optimum Learning Condition = Novel Activity—>triggers dopamine—>creates a higher motivational state—>which fuels engagement and primes neurons—>neurogenesis can take place + increase in synaptic plasticity (increase in new neural connections, or learning).

Summing up

This post is starting to get really heavy so I’m going to stop there, I’ll post another update on some time in the future but I think that’s enough for now.

You’ve probably got to the end of this and are thinking ‘God, he really doesn’t like badges does he?’ and you’d be right. However just because I don’t like the use of badges in learning does not mean they don’t have their place or purpose. I do not like badges because they often encourage lazy application of gamification, I think this is a problem that could potentially sweep the world of learning. If we concentrate as much on the narrative, way our content is laid out to the learner and the learner experience more than simply handing out badges for people to display on Facebook, the power and rightful positives of gamification will continue to grow.

Until next time all!


1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Top 5 Ways to Use Gamification in E-Learning Immediately! | GAMING IN TRAINING

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