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©2018 by Merle van den Akker

Do you want to play a Game?


If you’ve read the previous article on the functions of dopamine, you should now have a basic understanding of why our brain likes it so much. Dopamine (re-)uptake is experienced as such an intense reward, that we chase its very existence. Now this can motivate us to do better. We can turn large tasks into smaller tasks and get a dopamine rush each time we reach our goals. Success! It can also turn for the worse. We can create and maintain unhealthy habits and even form addictions. We will focus on this a bit more in depth now.


The Game of Dopamine Nothing is as fun as a game. The rush, the excitement, the thrill of winning, or even the prospect of being able to win. Games are an excellent way of seeing dopamine development. Because dopamine is already released at the very start of a game, because games = FUN. But the game itself is a massive dopamine stimulant as well. You can reach levels, beat others off the board, beat the boss, put a hotel on the most expensive street etc. Every intermittent goal to be reached, releases a rush of dopamine when reached. Game on!

This is how every basic online game works. And I am talking almost every game. Basic things such as Flappy Bird, Angry Bird, Candy Crush etc., but also, much more complicated and storyline-based games such as Assassin’s creed and FIFA (if you believe the latter has an actual storyline). They all stimulate dopamine. To win is to enjoy the dopamine rush. And one rush is enough to make sure you want to keep playing, even if after that you don’t win at all anymore. You might become increasingly frustrated as the game becomes harder, but winning then is even better. As such we keep at it. We all know how addiction works.


Dopamine for the Better Now as I mentioned before, not all is lost. Dopamine helps with the formation habits. These habits can also be good. There are a lot of tasks in life that definitely do not equal fun. As such, to get them even remotely done, it is in our best interest to make them fun. Gamification might help.

Within business, this has caught on massively as well. Take the fitness industry for example. Gamification there is very easy to implement and has been done by quite a few companies. We are going to look at Nike specifically.

Nike launched NikeFuel, an app in which users compete against each other in the daily amount of physical activity. The app would note all activities performed by users and transcribe them into points. Most points wins. Very basic game design, very effective. Why? Because we are competitive!

But wait, there is more. If you reach a certain level, NikeFuel unlocks special trophies and rewards. This motivates even more. This stuff can be turned into discounts. But even more importantly, this can be shared online (social media). With NikeFuel, Nike made sure that its customers are engaged and motivated enough to continue exercising with growing excitement. Sure, there is increased brand visibility and sales too, but hey, why not?

Don’t worry, there is non-profit examples too, that focus on patient-well-being, clean water, energy consumption and cleaning up the planet. Read an extensive list here.

Dopamine for the Worse You might not think that gamification as employed by businesses, as what is effectively a marketing strategy, is great. Sure, there is a slight conflict of interest here, but at their core the apps stimulate healthy and socially desirable behaviours (exercise). The company gets visibility and increased sales through this as well, obviously. But this need not deter the average consumer from exercising and making use of a gamified strategy to be healthier. It gets a bit more questionable when the behaviour stimulated is not so desirable, however…

I have mentioned the gaming industry before. There is no gamification of games, that seems a bit pointless. What there is, however, is much worse. If you have been an avid gamer for the past decade, you will have noticed that most games have become more and more sh*t. The levelling up, or any type of progression has become slower and slower, and more and more has progress become based on increasing skill level through buying additional items. Games were big business before. Now they are just business.


One of the examples that springs to mind was told to me by a friend, who happens to be a Harry Potter fan. Harry Potter (as a company, not the wizard himself) has released a game for kids. This game follows the typical structure of a game. You have to go through certain scenarios (like a tutorial in Hogwarts), complete some actions etc. These actions are part of your avatar’s toolkit. These actions deplete. And they deplete quickly… You can wait for them to recharge for free. The recharge takes ages, obviously, so the alternative looks much more attractive: buying more recharges, so you can continue your game and level up. Your dopamine levels are screaming for it, as they deplete just as quickly as your actions have. So far, this is the basic set up of a lot of games. A lot of people, prone to their dopamine depletion, succumb and buy more actions. They actively invest time and money into these soul-sucking games. That’s fine if you’re an adult (to some extent), but what about kids? This game is aimed at children! Have I mentioned the best part yet? When your actions are depleted and your avatar cannot complete the level, when you are waiting for the recharge, your avatar is being strangled. What the actual f-ck. If that is not enough for you, I’ve got more. An interesting report by the BBC has linked this usage of business model in games to the fourfold increase in child gamblers in the UK. Child gamblers. Let that sink in.


I’ve described how dopamine works when forming habits. If gaming becomes a habit, and I am exclusively referring to the type of gaming where you need to pay to actually play the damn game, spending money to release dopamine becomes a habit too. It becomes normalised. With continued legalisation of this type of behaviour, we accept the option of being able to momentarily buy dopamine release. Compared to this type of gaming, gambling works the same. The chances of getting a good outcome are slim (the house doesn’t always win because there is a 50-50 chance of you winning sweetheart), so are the chances of levelling up and beating the game if you have to do it without buying anything extra. It’s the same model. Initially you get some type of win, not an easy one, because there is no real fun in that, but a pretty decent one. Maybe you get another win, to make sure you are properly hooked. Dopamine works on expectations. If you think you have an actual shot of winning, you’ll keep at it. This works for gambling, this works for gaming. Both have been recognised as behavioural addictions.

You can choose to do whatever you want, as I am expecting you are an adult reading this. I’m just suggesting you give it a careful think. I’m not too worried about you. I am worried about people (read: kids) who grow up with this. They learn to live from dopamine release to dopamine release. It explains (part of) the increased rates of depression and other mental health problems. It is not healthy, it is not normal. It is also not how life generally works. Life is about playing the long-game, where the reward is mainly (hopefully) at the end, and very likely cannot be bought. We are disadvantaging ourselves by exposing ourselves to these games.


Overall, you can gamify your life if you want to. It might make some aspects easier, such as chores and long-term goals such as running a marathon, writing a book, finishing an education etc. But when it comes to games themselves, know how dopamine works. And please know what type of games you are playing. Before you succumb to your own dopamine rushes and find yourself in some type of vicious cycle. Because then, it’s game over.