Octalysis Gamification: how to un(b)lock your Reptilian Brain

Octalysis Gamification: how to un(b)lock your Reptilian Brain


People who have been following Octalysis for a while know how intricate the art of Octalysis Gamification design is. When carefully designed and when rewards are used in the correct way it can lead to a real and enduring happy experience!

In earlier posts we also have been spending time to illustrate the importance of neuroscience in our Octalysis Gamification designs. We constantly have to keep in mind how neurotransmitters work in blocking and creating Human Core Drive motivation.


Today, let’s build on the neuroscience work and see how our brain works at one level higher than neurotransmitters: the brain structure itself.

To do this we use an oversimplified model of how the brain has evolved over time: the so-called Triune Brain Theory. We will use this theory for its explanatory and instructional power rather than its detailed scientific correctness (similar to how we use the Left Brain – Right Brain concept in The Octalysis Framework).

Our 3 brains

OK, here is how the Triune Brain explanation goes: our brain is split in three areas that have evolved in sequence. The innermost part of the brain evolved first and is called the Reptilian Brain; followed by the Mid-Brain (or Limbic System); and last to evolve was the Neo-Cortex. Visually it looks like this:



As you can see, the Reptilian Brain is involved mainly in filtering all incoming sensory messages. Since it is our most basic part of the brain, it mainly determines whether something is dangerous or safe. It produces strong emotions that lead to typical fight-or-fight reactions. In the old “jungle days” creatures had to rely on Reptilian Brain action a lot. Pondering too much about the actual effect or probability of a tiger bite may not be your best defense. We need strong action. And we need it fast.


One evolved level up, and the Mid Brain determines the meaning of things and social situations. It performs a higher level of analysis and concerns itself with social relations. An example: your Reptilian Brain sees a man holding a sword. DANGER! Fight or Flight? Luckily for your brother who just returned home from the hunt, your Mid-Brain gives the All Clear Signal and overrides the Reptilian Brain… Thank you, Evolution!


The uppermost part of your brain evolved last and is called the Neocortex. It has tremendous problem-solving ability, is great at forming ideas and translating and presenting them. This is the brain we normally think of when we think of logic and rationale. Is it not telling that we think that passion and emotions like love and hate are based in “the heart”, while we say that logic is based in the brain? We know of course that logic and emotion are BOTH generated in the brain, but are hardwired to deny this fact.


7 secondsOK, Triune Brain. Fine, but why should we care?

Why is the Triune Brain important and how do we use our knowledge of this structure in Octalysis Gamification designs?

Well, all new information that the brain receives first passes through the Reptilian Brain and the Mid Brain. Only when they are done with it and have given the “All Clear”, will our most logical part of the brain (the Neocortex) have access. Does your logical brain find it hard to believe it is that reactive? But, but…yes I know, you are an intelligent person and people often say you are “so smart!”. Surely you are in charge with your logic, right? Wrong.

Maybe this scientific research from 2008 will convince you:

Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences set up a the study in which participants could freely decide if they wanted to press a button with their right or left hand. They were told to remember exactly when they made the decision to either use their right hand or left hand. Using fMRI, researchers would scan the brains of the participants while all of this was going on in order to find out if they could predict which hand the participants would use BEFORE they were consciously aware of the decision. In fact the researchers could predict which hand the participant would choose 7 SECONDS before the participant was aware of the decision.

By the time your Neocortex kicks in, most of the brain work has already been done…a full 7 seconds.

So in order for people to even come to a rational analysis, we need to pacify the Reptilian Brain first! And then the Mid Brain, and only after that can we start to feel the raw power of the logical brain. In his bestselling book “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahnemann estimates that the larger majority of our decisions are made without any interference of the Neocortex.

Not only is the Triune Brain concept important, but in Gamification design you NEED to understand how the brain works and what parts of the brain need to be satisfied, neutralized or co-opted in order to make way for (logical) information to be absorbed.


Octalysis Gamification and The Triune Brain

So we know now that the brain assesses first whether new information is a threat and then decides whether the threat has a recognizable social dimension (that either confirms or neutralizes the threat), before it colors a rational picture of the event that fits how we have colored our earlier experiences. Let’s check how we adjust our designs accordingly in order to get the brain to assess a new experience as being safe and engaging to continue with.


reptilian-brainStep 1: Reptilian Brain Stage
In this stage we want to make sure that the brain does not interpret the gamified experience as boring. When it is boring, the experience is judged as a waste of time and the brain will pass the information gained to the Amygdala for processing and deletion (flight). Neither do we want our designs to be threatening or to create significant anxiousness, which the brain then will start to actively oppose (fight mode).


So in the Discovery Phase of the experience (see for more information on experience phases: https://yukaichou.com/gamification-examples/experience-phases-game/) our Octalysis design focuses on creating a fun and rewarding experience, with a lot of curiosity build in. Something good needs to be waiting for the users if they register or otherwise begin to interact with the app or website. Also we want to ensure that that there are only a few Desired Actions that the user can take. Our brains like choice but too much choice makes us frustrated and the Reptile Brain will sign out. People who have ever used Google+ and its myriad of choices know what I am talking about.


2-girls-hugging-as-best-friendsStep 2: The Mid Brain Joins in
In the Onboarding Phase (where we get to know what functionality the experience has to offer), we continue to give our users quick wins and plenty of rewards to keep the Reptile Brain happily snoozing. Now we will slowly start to design for increased Social Influence and Relatedness, while keeping curiosity at high levels too. The Mid Brain has now taken over and it assesses whether the experience is socially inviting. The more it feels that other people you relate to are buying into the experience as well (i.e. they get Social Proof), the more it is willing to let go and let the Neocortex take over.


professorStep 3: Neocortex time!
We are now moving into the Scaffolding Phase of the experience, where users follow a journey to mastery. They are slowly becoming senior users of our product. Now strategy and analyses of how to get to mastery efficiently or quickly come into play. As an illustration: in MMORPGs players often keep track of their actions on elaborate spreadsheets to calculate how to gain XP or to find gems and other artifacts that can be used to level up and to unlock new cool features (a better sword; more health points etc). These are logical and creative process at work at the highest level!


In this phase we should still design to create some tension by adding scarcity elements in the experience, as some tension is motivational and tickles users into action. But we never want to let tension to become so high that users become anxious (as this will invite the Reptilian Brain back in!).

The Neocortex becomes further involved in the End Game of the experience where senior users get to use their creativity and planning skills even more. Think of people becoming Leaders of Community or Forum Groups, where they make sure their followers commit to Desired Actions like participating in Group Quests. For creativity examples in End Game experiences look at Farmville users that organize their fields to look like art works or Minecraft users building functioning computers out of Minecraft Bricks. The more you can design for these motivators the longer your users will stay active in the experience you crafted (and the more your client will love you!).

So we have now left the Reptilian Brain and Mid Brain mostly behind and the general experience has passed from their clutches. However, any significant new information that we present to users in the course of the user journey will be processed again in the same Reptilian-Mid Brain-Neocortex way. Our work is therefore never finished and we constantly are on the lookout on how to balance our designs to create support from our lower level brains in order for our higher-level brain to become active.


Balance, balance, balance
As we have said again and again: well-balanced Gamification is near impossible to mass produce. It needs to be carefully balanced using the 8 Core Drives of motivation in order for it to succeed.

Ignore this advice at your own peril! Oops, I may have just awakened your Reptilian Brain…


For more on how we can assist in crafting a long lasting engaging experience for you or your company, contact us:

joris@octalysisgroup.com              @jorisbeerda1

yukai@octalysisgroup.com             @yukaichou









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