The Neuroscience Behind Octalysis Gamification

The Neuroscience Behind Octalysis Gamification


neuroscience gamification

Often people ask us what the science is behind the Octalysis Framework. And then we tell them that Octalysis is multi-disciplinary and combines scientific research from Game Design, Motivational Psychology and Behavioral Economics in a well rounded explanatory framework.

Motivational psychology and behavioral economics tell us why we are motivated to do what we do and why we are unmotivated. However, it is also important to know what exactly makes us “feel” that we want to do things. Enter neuro-psychology, or neuroscience, where we research chemicals in your body that spur you on or inhibit you. These chemicals are called neurotransmitters.



Let’s have a look at neurotransmitters and what they do. Neurotransmitters are basically chemicals that transmit messages from neurons (nerve cells) to other neurons. These messages either makes us want to do something (they are excitatory) or make us refrain from doing so (then they are ‘inhibatory’). If the sum of all messages sent to neurons involved in a task (say, fight or flight) is net-positive excitatory, we will come into action. If it is negative, we will actively refrain from acting. Interesting stuff huh?

There are around 100 neurotransmitters in your body, but 10 do around 99% of the work. Talking about a disengaged work force! Of those 10, around half are involved in body critical tasks like regulating your metabolism (Glutamate is the most important there). Here we will focus only on those neurotransmitters involved in (dis-)engagement, (de)motivation and gamification! The Big Five here are: Dopamine, Oxytocin, Seratonin, Adrenaline and Endorphins.

Let’s see how they act and how they fit in the Octalysis Framework!

Dopamine: addicted to rewards in uncertain, social settings

dopamine neroscience gamification

Dopamine plays a major role in the way we react to rewards. People with low dopamine levels do not react to rewards anymore, even for basic life needs: no interest in food, drinking and sex. Without dopamine we appear to stop wanting because we stop anticipating the pleasure of a reward.

In his powerful book “The Power of Habit”, Charles Duhigg describes how in repeated actions with a reward attached to them, the anticipation of pleasure triggers the dopamine release before the reward arrives. So the “dopamine-kick” kicks in during the activity itself, not after receipt of the reward. People often become addicted to the activity leading to the reward, rather than the reward itself. This is one of the main reasons why smokers (and other addicts like gamblers) find it so hard to quit.

In Gamification, and in the Octalysis Framework, dopamine plays an important role in wanting to progress (Core Drive 2: Development and Accomplishment). It also spurs our interest in discovering uncertainty: receiving an anticipated (or unanticipated!) reward triggers dopamine release (Core Drive 7: Unpredictability and Curiosity). The dopamine spike from getting intrinsic rewards (seeing ‘your ideas’ work: Core Drive 3: Empowerment of Creativity and Feedback) is also related to dopamine spikes. Lastly, verbal rewards from your social group lead to heightened dopamine excitability and are quite rewarding (especially when combined with Core Drive 7: unexpected verbal rewards).

In our designs we use the dopamine effects for both extrinsic rewards (mainly to ‘lure’ people into the experience and to create a reward-autonomous habit) as well as intrinsic rewards (feeling creative, unique, appreciated by the group).

Oxytocin, the Love Chemical: CD 5

oxytocin neuroscience gamification

Oxytocin plays an important role in cooperation, group formation, loyalty, generosity, and other pro-social behaviors. It has a two-way function: when it is present, it engenders warm fuzzy feelings. Reversely, warm cuddly environments and actions stir the production of Oxyctocin itself, thereby reinforcing the effect.

Oxytocin is very effective in forming group sensitivities. It not only facilitates bonding within groups (families, friends, couples), but it also lessons feelings of discrimination and racism. Groups of people that took a nasal spray with Oxytocin could not remember what race other people were, but could remember whether they were nice or not. People who did not get the nasal spray focused more on external differences when describing other people they just met.

In games and Gamification, Oxytocin is closely associated with social features (Core Drive 5: Social Influence and Relatedness). Designers of effective Gamification make sure they design for habit forming social actions that increase Oxytocin. When Oxytocin spikes, our urge to socialize increases so that we want to socialize even more. When designed well (like Facebook has), it leads to a continued urge to interact socially.

Is designing for Social Influence and Relatedness bad? Not so. In fact, daily checking of Facebook and Twitter and seeing positive incoming messages from friends
and family actually seems to make people more loving (due to Oxytocin). So much for the widespread belief that social media is killing real human interaction!

Oh, the half life of Oxytocin is between 1 and 3 hours. So don’t worry if you miss out on checking your Facebook for a few hours. Data show that the average person now checks their Facebook page 14 times a day, so perhaps we check Facebook because of our addiction to Oxytocin?

Serotonin: CD8 versus CD 2, should I stay or should I go?

serotonin neuroscience gamification

This neurotransmitter affects reward assessment in decision-making and helps regulate our mood, sleep, body temperature, sexual desire and function, and social perception. In games and Gamified apps, Serotonin helps us assess the value of an outcome in a game, by estimating the risks and rewards associated when making a decision.


If you have read the Octalysis Framework (www. (home page), you may know already that when people are faced with a new choice, they often do not want to take action out of fear of losing what they have. We call this Status Quo Sloth behavior. When we design Status Quo Sloth Game Techniques in our work, it will help prevent people from leaving the experience that we design. Remember that using Core Drive 8 motivational design is “Black Hat” Gamification: users feel motivated by it, but it leaves a bad after taste. Excessive CD8 design leads to increased user dropout risk.

We often use Core Drive 2 (Development and Accomplishment) design to help people deal with their unvoluntary resistence to change. Offering rewards (both monetary as well as status rewards) can be very effective, especially if these rewards convey a feeling of acquired competence (see also:

Adrenaline: Scarcity, Fear of Loss in a Higher Purpose


adrenaline neuroscience gamification

Emotional responses in Gamification
include suspense and fear, which trigger 
the release of epinephrine, an adrenaline 
related response. Many people try to avoid stress and 
fear but including design that purposely
 heightens adrenaline in players can be a good thing too. Most importantly, it leads to increased focus, alertness, and an increased heart rate. Mmm, sounds like a useful tool in stimulating Engagement huh?

An extra bonus is that when we conquer the cirscumstance that creates stress and fear, our body releases endorphins (see also below). This state of euphoria has a name in game design: Fiero. To quote Jane McGonigal in her book Reality is Broken:

“Fiero is what we feel after we triumph over adversity. You know it when you feel it – and when you see it. That’s because we almost all express fiero in exactly the same way: we throw our arms over our head and yell.”

So how do we design for the right Adrenaline rush in Octalysis Gamification projects? Every project is different of course and what follows is a general direction, but this is how it looks like:

First, we want to create a strong narrative that our players can relate to and believe in (“Saving the World”; “Becoming a Hero” etc.). Only when we make this narrative believeable, will you get the right tension build up for stress and fear to arrive. Narritive design is part of Core Drive 1: Epic Meaning and Calling.

After that we need to create a feeling of urgency or scarcity (Core Drice 6: Scarcity and Impatience) that leads to a Fear of Loss (Core Drive 8: Loss and Avoidance). A threat only becomes real, if the consequences of this threat will be felt imminently. Not many people will be actively and intensely concerned if they would know the environment is going to die in 100 years (one of the reasons most people do not care about Global Warming). But if a Tsunami is under way, most people will likely get into action.

A simple way to create urgency is to add countdowns for a task. This increases the release of epinephrine, particularly as the time is running out. Obviously if we want to gamify a meditation app, these kinds of timed/countdown mechanics should be avoided!

Endorphins: euphoric sensations of your progress

endorphins neuroscience gamification

Endorphins are released during euphoric moments or intense activity. Most people have experienced endorphin rushes from a good workout as I am sure you have. You feel great after that 10K run!

Endorphins help the body reduce the perception of pain and manage stress more effectively, much the same way that drugs like morphine and codeine affect the body. In essence, endorphins make it easier to enjoy yourself and tickle your ego.

In Octalysis Gamification design, we target the release of endorphins by designing for Core Drive 2 (mainly by rewarding players with experience points (XP) and other rewards). Endorphins also come into play when players see the positive results of seeing the choices they make bear fruit (Core Drive 3: Empowerment of Creativity and Feedback).

The moment when you see the fruit of your ‘own’ actions in the experience, like building an amazing building in Minecraft, you are ‘filled’ with an Endorphine spike.

Back to real life

OK, so we have covered the Big Five Neurotransmitters that play a major role in Gamification. As you have seen, understanding why we feel that we want to do things (we become motivated) is essential to build up understanding of the motivational rational of the people you design the experience for.

Obviously, there is no one-size-fits-all formula in Octalysis Gamification, so we need to make sure to design for our main user target groups, in each phase of the Gamification phase and for every Desired Action that we want players to commit to. Check out if you want to know more.

Have fun, in creating fun!

For more information or for a project related inquiry please contact me or Yu-kai Chou on: or

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