Gamification: the brain’s addiction

Foto: yooh / Photocase

What are our digital gadgets—our smartphones, gaming devices, computers—doing to us? The collective Ippolita has written a book, “Anime Elettriche” (Electric Souls), dealing with this key question. In this excerpt, they explore the connection between the keyboard and our brain’s pleasure centre—the connection between computer games and dopamine.

Once upon a time…

There was a city on the shores of a mountain lake. The city was very dirty because people threw waste on the streets. The water ended up in the lake. The lake became polluted. Stricter laws were enacted, but nothing made a difference: reprimands and fines were useless, even jail proved ineffective. The people became accustomed to the situation, even addicted to the stench of open sewers and toxic fumes from burning garbage heaps. Every approach to resolve the problem failed miserably. Those who could not take it anymore packed their stuff and ran. Others had admitted defeat. After all, they thought, I am acting responsibly, but if the others continue to misbehave, why should I?

One day, a manager arrived in town. He proposed to help solve the situation, as long as the city government gave him full discretionary powers. After all, if something went wrong, if citizens complained, they could still fire him. He came with a whole delegation. The impresario’s technicians put up numerous rubbish bins and announced a fantastic game. Anyone could participate: all you had to do was follow the rules for waste separation and you could win amazing prizes! Everyone had a great time doing it.

It worked so well that after a few months the city was clean. But transport in the city was in crisis. People parked where they wanted. The roads were insecure. There was no public investment. Our entrepreneur was called to handle the other public sectors in difficulty. On his social media platform, citizens could register with their full name and address. They could report what they were doing, as well as what their friends and acquaintances did.. The more details they told, the more points and credits they accumulated.

These and many other actions allowed the gaining of special ranks; players who distinguished themselves could level-up, and gain access to new and exciting rewards. Through a sophisticated system, you could accumulate credits in the form of digital currency on accounts managed by the impresario companies.

The list of unwanted actions was continuously updated. Denouncing the forbidden action of a neighbour, for example, gave the informer the right to three minutes of shopping at one of the impresario supermarkets; five minutes if it was information about a citizen who’d never been caught before. Online chat groups discussing ways to level-up faster and how to maximize personal exposure became very popular. Digital currency credits replaced the old currency in the city. Every interaction was quantified based on credit. This was then either bought and sold, with the impresario’s bank taking a small percentage of each exchange.

The city government dissolved. The technical governance of the impresario, a private organization, was then installed. This saved time, money and energy. The city became a model for the whole world. Experts came from far and wide to study the miracle. Everyone agreed that the most notable feature of the system—the true realization of heaven on earth—was that there was no need to think or to choose right from wrong, as a magnificent system of notifications was continuously informing all the players about the next advantageous moves to make. A few dissident voices claimed that players were acting as automatically programmed machines. However, one initially sceptical citizen confessed that he finally felt free for the first time in his life. No one wanted to go back to the uncertainties and difficulties of choosing.

And everyone lived. And they were focussed. And they were happy.


This story contains the main elements of gamification, and how it can be used to implement digital governance systems. The basic mechanism is very simple: everything that can be described as a problem is turned into a game, or rather, into a game pattern. The repetition of a “correct” action is stimulated by rewards and credits, access to higher hierarchical levels is granted, and rankings published. From a regulatory point of view, instead of punishing infringements, you reward compliance to the rules. The outcome is a system of norms which is self-conforming and positive, with no ethical dimension, since the valuation of any behaviour, its axiology, is determined by the system, and not by a personal and/or collective reflection on the action itself. The gamification embodies a society of performance.

Customer loyalty programmes, or incentives for customers, voters and subjects of a state have been known for centuries. However, the pervasiveness of interactive digital connection systems opens up new scenarios for mass training techniques. It is a cognitive delegation that becomes a delegation of social organization. Automated interaction procedures are refined through the using personal digital tools. Participation in the construction of shared worlds becomes behavioural training.

Obviously this is not a defense of punishment, nor a praise of repressive systems. Prohibition typically causes a deepening of the desire to transgress, and is therefore a negative reinforcement system. Prohibition never works. But even with positive reinforcement mechanisms, not all that glitters is gold. Anyone who has ever had to deal with small children knows that rewarding is easier than educating. It’s only later one realizes that the child is addicted to the reward and wants an ever-bigger prize. At this point there is no way to get them to do anything without the promise of an even greater gratification. Frequently, then, the reinforcement system turns into a punitive one, revealing itself as the opposite of a similar system of rewards. The reward, as the punishment, denies the intrinsic pleasure of the process, because it points to an external system.

But real education has nothing to do with compliance to given rules, nor with obedience. Socrates, wanting to educate young people in the ways of good citizenship, not only breaks the rules, but invites others to disobey—to follow their own Daimon (daemon, similar to an inner voice). Automatic education is nothing more than training, leading to submission. Although it can ostensibly produce good results through measurable performance, in no way does it create independence, autonomy or responsibility. Instead of promoting autonomy (the ability to set rules for oneself), it induces an infantilization of society, annihilating the ethic of responsibility.


There is a thin line between learning and training. This is largely due to an organic molecule that plays a central role in learning and in response to positive reinforcement stimuli: dopamine, the neurotransmitter running through our brain’s neural paths. To simplify an extremely complex mechanism, one can say that the sense of gratification and reward experienced when we learn something is connected to the release of dopamine. In general, the performance of enjoyable activities on the psycho-physiological level (drinking, eating, sex, recognition by others, empathy and so on) corresponds to increased concentrations of this neurotransmitter. The same applies to the use of drugs.

Learning in all of its forms—no matter if it’s a physical or an intellectual skill—requires effort, care and attention. Reading, as with any assimilation of information, is tiring. Completing satisfactory psycho-physiological activities is exhausing. But as you may have guessed, the easiest and least expensive way to raise the levels of dopamine and thus to experience pleasure is to complete a certain specific task over and over again. Repetition, the iteration of given behaviours, is a shortcut.

The processes responsible for emotional responses take place in the limbic system. They indicate the prospect of possible rewards or punishments, and promote activation of motor functions aimed at giving pleasure or avoiding pain. Addictive narcotics act exactly in this brain region, producing the sensation of pleasure. The neuronal connections are increasingly strengthened, losing plasticity. This sort of connective stiffening decreases our ability to relax to the state of pleasant neuronal excitation caused by dopamine: in more technical terms, it leads to a long-term impairment of the synaptic pathways that connect neurons. These trails become like paved roads in our brains. After a while, you need truckloads of dopamine in order to feel pleasure. At each step, the necessary dosage increases.

That is why training is so effective, and so addictive. The pleasure related to an automatism—compulsive behaviour—makes us enter into a repetitive loop from which it is increasingly difficult to exit. As a result, the neural pathways that are triggered will get more and more powerful with the passage of time. In turn, this strengthens the behaviour. Tempo, rhythm, repetition.

Give us back the game!

Thanks to digital media, we can now lower our cognitive ergonomic (from the ancient Greek ergon-nomos, “rules of labour”) load. We can delegate the task of remembering. This is an indispensable help. We don’t have to attend a course in order to use our telephone, or to manage our social media contacts. Perhaps we have to ask someone more tech-savvy. We don’t really know exactly how it works, but the important thing is: we reach our goal. To do this, we have to perform a series of repetitive actions, or retrace a procedure. In the interface, we follow the obvious traces of the algorithmic procedure designed by others for us.

The organization of our cognitive system is mainly based on intuitive faculties and reasoning. Entrusting ourselves to intuition, we only interpret a context through mental schemes that are already part of our non-conscious mnemonic luggage. The cognitive and computational effort is minimal, since we do not think about what we’re doing. We act automatically. On the other hand, conscious reasoning requires substantial cognitive effort. We must ruminate. Make hypotheses. Follow a sequence slowly and methodically. Intuition allows us to act fast and to use a tool without being able to explain how it works, while reasoning gives us the ability to explain how something works without necessarily being able to use it. A violin virtuosa doesn’t have to know exactly how her muscles work to play the violin perfectly. Conversely, we may be able to describe theoretically the steps to drive a tractor by reading a manual without in practice being able to drive it.

Declarative memory (knowing ‘what’, knowing something) is distinct from procedural memory (know ‘how’). All activities we automatically implement involve procedural memory. When we act intuitively, we refer to previously learnt procedures, simulating the strategy most appropriate for successful completion of a set task. We don’t need to think about it. It is a question of the economy of resources: you don’t want to waste valuable computational energy to think about how to ride a bike if you already know it. If there is no match with our previous experience, we must refer to reasoning and to an analysis of the environmental conditions before acting: a tyre is flat, we try to take it apart and try to fix it … if that doesn’t work, we have to ask for help, or tinker with it, and in the best case create an new procedure.

Consistently using a digital medium such as a web interface means gradually learning to use it automatically. These interfaces are designed to be very intuitive and user-friendly. Through the creation of mental patterns, we can say that we use them “without thinking”. If we change our phone but continue to use the same app, it is enough to simply identify the app icon in order to use it automatically, sometimes without even looking at the keypad.

Intuition, therefore, is the ability to simulate a known procedure and act it out automatically. The automation coincides with a procedure’s execution. Here follows one of the most frequent misunderstandings of digital devices for learning, and the alleged cognitive differences between digital natives and digital immigrants. For example, smartphones and tablets are used in the rehabilitation of neuro-degenerative diseases such as semantic dementia, utilizing procedural memory as the only kind of memory to remain intact in these cases. Patients are able to learn how the device functions, and can use it on a daily basis despite being unable to remember simple ideas.

Digital natives do not just ‘exist’. Even people born before widespread computer access can become skilled tech-heads, engage in interpersonal relationships mediated by digital devices, or find more interesting and engaging ‘virtual’ multimedia realities compared to the disconnectedness of everyday life. All human beings can become “digital natives”. The brain is incredibly plastic. It can adapt very quickly through learning procedures, especially if they are gamified. This does not mean, however, that these people are able to understand, analyze, edit and teach all the procedural mechanisms that they repeat!

Virtual realities penetrate our organic bodies through optic nerve generation of environmental abstraction and selective inattention against non-visual stimuli. They are also addictive. Tearing ourselves away from the screen, after being there for hours (that seem like minutes) can be painful. Let us back into the game, just for a short minute! This beautiful alienation from our bodies, it’s so pleasant.

The passage of time is a fundamental parameter to identify different types of interaction. When we are not aware of time passing, we are probably in a phase of flow, of procedural immersion. We are living in a present cycle of interaction—an extremely addictive one—which we would like never to end. When time is instead perceived of as linear, with our awareness at merely an experiential stage that we are able to stratify, store, and recall, we are then within the sequential learning and practicing of declarative memory.

Video games have become a fundamental part of life for millions. The video game industry has outpaced all the rest of entertainment related activities. For example, an MMPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Game), with players simultaneously creating and playing in their own virtual world, can be more expensive—and more profitable—than a Hollywood blockbuster. There are different types of video games. Filler games, played to pass the time while on the move, are different from strategy games, from ego shooters, from puzzles and riddles, and so on. But the vast majority of video games are designed to induce the flow. In addition to reinforcement of the dopamine circuit, they influence the release of oxytocin, as well as many other neurotransmitters and hormones. The research here has just begun.

Many video games follow doctrines of behaviourism, in particular the formula of the Skinner box, as devised in the 1930s by American psychologist Burrhus Frederic Skinner. Skinner discovered the concept of operant conditioning through experiments with rats and pigeons. Behaviour is stimulated in a stronger way through rewards administered non-automatically—not only in animals but also in humans. The rat presses a button and receives the food, but not always. Training is more effective that way. Even if positive reinforcement does not come every time, it is possible, probable. The trivial human example are gamblers on slot machines: they know that they’ll not always (if ever) win, yet they continue to play, because the operant conditioning (I can win) is more powerful than the immediate frustration (I did not win this time). Behavioural training is perhaps the greatest fallacy of gamification.

Digital media interaction is not necessarily only self-training, not only an exercise in procedural memory and intuition. Hacking, the art of “putting your hands on” to take over the operation of complex machines and modify them at will, certainly also appeals to reason. However, sitting dazed in front of a screen for a devastating “forty-hour” session (culminating in utter exhaustion) is an example of the abuse caused by excessive exploitation of the reinforcing dopamine circuit. We are able to forget our own body.

We want to speak loudly and clearly for a consciously balanced alternation of intelligence and memory. Self-care begins with the observation of personal interactions, listening to personal inclinations with the aim of finding a pace to suit us. So we can rule ourselves. So we can create our own interactive liturgy.



Ippolita is an indisciplinary research group active since 2005. They conduct wide-ranging research on technologies of domination and their social effects. Ippolita practice convivial cross-circulation of writing from hacker communities to university classrooms. Their essays include: Anime Elettriche (2016), La Rete è libera e democratica. FALSO! (2014), In the Facebook Aquarium (2012), The Dark Side of Google (2007), and Open non è Free (2005). The collective also runs workshops on digital self-defense and convivial informatics for girls, children, academics, affinity groups, tech-heads, and indeed all who are curious.

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