University of Arkansas

Walton College

The Sam M. Walton College of Business

Game Changer: Considering Emotions in Gamified Systems

Game changer

December 11, 2020 | By Ryan Decker

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Researchers: Jeff Mullins, Rajiv Sabherwal

If you have ever played a popular video game such as Fortnite, Madden or Mario Kart, you know they are hard to put down.

“Just one more level” turns into three, or four, and you lose track of time. Despite sometimes feeling frustrated or angry, you keep playing because you just know you can win.

By watching people play video games, we know that they are motivated to overcome challenges and succeed. Even so, only 38% of the American workforce are engaged in their jobs, and these statistics haven’t changed in many years. Why is it, then, that we are engaged in the work we pay to do and not work we are paid to do? Maybe it’s time for companies to “gamify” the work experience and make it more enjoyable and engaging.

Jeffrey Mullins and Rajiv Sabherwal’s “Gamification: A cognitive-emotional view” develops “an integrative perspective for gamification design, incorporating emotions and cognitions related to desired outcomes.” They challenge the idea that negative emotions are always “bad” and examine how positive and negative emotions work together and improve outcomes at the individual, team, organizational and societal levels.

If you’ve ever played video games, you understand this sentiment perfectly: the frustration you feel at losing to the final boss (again) forces you to deal with your negative emotions. You can either give up, or you can channel your frustration to improve focus and engagement – eventually resulting in better outcomes.

Is It Just a Game?

The authors define gamification as “the process of enhancing services through gameful experiences to support value creation.” Participants feel like they are playing a game, regardless of whether their activity is normally associated with a game. Activities may be gamified to increase attention and engagement, enhance service encounters or improve decisions.

Many Fortune 500 companies already use gamification to improve business processes. Walmart uses VR headsets to train associates at all stores in the U.S., Google gamified the process of travel expense reporting, and UPS and FedEx use games to train drivers and airplane pilots.

While large companies have seen firsthand the benefits of gamification, academic research remains inconclusive. In failed gamification attempts, poor game design is usually to blame. Mullins and Sabherwal argue that game design would be improved if creators would “evoke emotional engagement in the player.”

The authors draw upon the mechanics–dynamics–emotions (MDE) framework of game design, which designates emotion as a key factor. The MDE framework suggests game designers should focus on mechanics – the rules and setup, then on dynamics – player behavior, and then finally on the players’ emotions. Emotions are the most important aspect of the framework, and designers must ensure that the elements generate the desired emotional response. To achieve these desired emotional responses, game designers must first understand how emotions and cognitions work together to influence behavior.

Understanding the Interaction of Emotion and Cognition

Studies of cognition and emotion rarely focus on the potential impact of emotion on cognition. The authors correct this blind spot by drawing from recent cognitive neuroscience research, which suggests that “integrating cognitions and emotions offers greater opportunities for research and practice.” Cognitions and emotions work together and influence functions like memory, attention and decision making. Well-designed games should engage participants and create stimuli that evoke emotional responses. These powerful stimuli are more likely to capture attention and be remembered. Players learn from these experiences and modify their behavior to succeed and progress through the game. Players pay more attention to detail and are more likely to achieve levels of “flow” that vary in intensity from engagement, engrossment, to total immersion.

Total immersion, though, can increase the likelihood of negative emotions, such as anxiety, but these negative emotions also cause increased levels of engagement. Again, think of how you might get nervous as the end of a game approaches and you begin to wonder if you can win: you focus more, but is that a good thing? Deeper engagement, while normally thought of as a good thing, can lead to less reliable learning. Game designers, then, should strive for an emotional balance to encourage engagement without compromising learning.

Games should try to allow players to work through a variety of emotions and cognitions because judgment improves when players experience emotional stimulation. Players experiencing negative emotions in an imaginary context, like in a game, learn how to deal productively with negative emotions and make better decisions when under pressure.

Players making a tough decision under time constraints may feel nervous in the moment, but they can always work through the problem and correct their mistakes in a new game. Gamified systems offer a “safe” place for learning and improving decision-making. That’s why many companies now use gamification to train employees.

Designing Games with Emotions in Mind

The authors also introduce three propositions to improve game design by integrating MDE with a theory of the cognitive structure of emotions, underscoring the importance of emotions in achieving desired results. Mullins and Sabherwal suggest, contrary to MDE, that designers should “first consider the desired emotional outcomes, and that those considerations should play a role in the mechanics (i.e. setup, rule, and progression) and target dynamics of the gamified experience.” In short, designers will achieve desired emotional outcomes by modifying mechanics.

“To evoke pleasure or displeasure in a player, there must be some mechanics to generate an event with a relevant consequence,” Mullins and Sabherwal write. An awareness of potential future consequences, for example, works as an effective setup mechanic to create a sense of either hope or fear. Designers may determine the number of virtual “lives” a character has: losing or gaining a life could trigger a strong emotional response. Rewards tied to in-game actions evoke emotion through consequences of events. For example, if a player ends the game with three or more “lives,” they earn a reward. This reward, in turn, evokes a strong sense of pleasure that could prompt players to increase or at least continue playing.

While accurately predicting player behavior in a game is impossible, game designers can focus on how players respond. Game designers can focus on either how players might respond in the game or control how non-playable characters, agents, interact with players through scripted behaviors. Game designers can determine how many agents are involved, the characteristics of those agents, and the roles they play. Agents play an important role in encouraging and discouraging players’ actions and evoking emotions – especially in multi-player games. It’s hard enough to influence one player’s responses, let alone multiple.

As such, designers can facilitate interactions among players but cannot completely control the interaction. While “the ability of designers to control the behavior of the [simulated agent] affords more opportunity to evoke specific emotions,” if players know they are interacting with a machine, it may reduce emotional intensity of the interaction. The opportunity to identify and observe other agents in a gamified system is important, as players recognize the consequences of those actions in addition to their own.

Beyond general like or dislike, familiarity of an aspect in the game determines a player’s emotional response. Familiar aspects result in love or hate, and unfamiliar aspects result in interest or disgust. For example, let’s say you are playing a baseball video game as your favorite MLB team. An updated roster of familiar players would please you and draw you into the game. On the other hand, if the game only allowed two strikes instead of three, you may feel disgusted and quit playing.

As a player moves through a game, rule and progression mechanics continue to influence players’ emotions by unlocking a new level or challenge based on an in-game achievement. These in-game challenges may be tailored to the player – creating familiar aspects and promoting a positive response. The authors give the example of a mobile fitness app: “A challenge to complete a five-kilometer run may be appealing to one player, while a challenge to complete 50 push-ups in a day may be unappealing to the same player.” Game designers should configure a relevant and interesting experience for the player to promote the desired emotional responses.

The Emotional Rollercoaster of Life

2020 has been filled with challenge after challenge, with a global pandemic, issues of racism and police brutality, and a contentious political climate. These events are highly emotional for many Americans, and it is more important than ever for companies to understand the emotions and challenges customers and employees face. High employee engagement is particularly important during challenging times, as high engagement typically improves profitability, productivity, and customer perceptions.

Gamification provides a promising way for companies to improve outcomes at individual, team, organizational and societal levels and align cultural (emotional) and decision-making (cognitive) processes. The authors believe “future gamified experiences could become carefully engineered encounters that evoke specific emotions at desired levels of intensity, in the appropriate sequence, and match the targeted cognitions to achieve the desired outcome.”

We have already seen benefits of gamification in multiple industries and numerous business processes, and the future is bright for gamification. Players are able to experience both positive and negative emotions in a safe environment to improve decision making and solve complex problems. Gamification may be the game changer companies have been seeking to both improve employee engagement and solve the complex problems facing the world today.

Post Researcher:

Jeff MullinsJeff Mullins is an assistant professor in the Department of Information Systems. Prior to completing his Ph.D., Jeff taught as an executive in residence/instructor and served as the associate director for Information Systems Graduate Programs. His research interests include the convergence of work and play through IS (e.g., gamification, serious games), decision making and analytics, and deviant behavior. His work has appeared in outlets including the Journal of Business Ethics and the Journal of Business Research.

Post Researcher:

Matt WallerRajiv Sabherwal is Distinguished Professor and Edwin & Karlee Bradberry Chair of Information Systems in the Walton College of Business at University of Arkansas. He has published on the management, use, and impact of information technologies in Information Systems Research, MIS Quarterly, Management Science, Organization Science, Journal of Management Information Systems (MIS), and other journals. He has performed numerous editorial and conference leadership roles, including Editor-in-Chief for IEEE Transactions on Engineering Management, Conference Co-Chair for International Conference on Information Systems, Program Co-Chair for Americas Conference on Information Systems, Senior Editor for MIS Quarterly, and Special Issue Editor for Information Systems Research, MIS Quarterly Executive, and Journal of Information Technology. He currently serves as Senior Editor for Journal of Association of Information Systems (AIS) and Journal of Strategic Information Systems, Department Editor for Decision Sciences, and a member of the editorial board for Journal of MIS. He is a recipient of the AIS LEO lifetime achievement award, a Fellow of IEEE, a Fellow of the AIS, and a PhD from University of Pittsburgh.

Post Author:

Ryan DeckerRyan Decker is a recent graduate of the Sam M. Walton College of Business who majored in accounting and finance and minored in business analytics and communication. As well as writing for Walton Insights, Ryan served as a tutor in the Business Communication Lab and hosted Walton Biz Talk, a student-run podcast that explores the intersections between business, communication and broader social topics. He recently began his career at Walmart as an internal auditor.