Dopamine, Games, and Motivation

Summary: Dopamine plays a role in motivation, and this role is important to understand in the context of game design. Understanding how dopamine motivates can help game designers produce games that are interesting, effective, and ethical.

Originators and Key Contributors: Henry Chase and Luke Clark presented a study in 2010 that suggested that dopamine was not linked to pleasure as previously understood. By studying groups of gamblers, they found that release of dopamine occurred whether there was a stressful situation presented or a rewarding one[1]. In 2012, a team of Vanderbilt researchers published a study with influential repercussions on our understanding of dopamine and its relationship to motivation. They found a difference in dopamine’s effects based on which areas of the brain expressed higher levels of it[2].

Keywords: dopamine, motivation, addiction, game, reward



Game Reward Systems

Summary: The phrase game reward systems describes the structure of rewards and incentives in a game that inspire intrinsic motivation in the player while also offering extrinsic rewards. Game reward systems can be modeled in non-game environments, including personal and business environments, to provide positive motivation for individuals to change their behavior.

Originators and Key Contributors: Many theories on intrinsic motivation, sense of satisfaction, and other reward concepts have been developed that form the foundation for current thinking about game reward systems. In the 1930s, B. F. Skinner explored reward schedules with pigeons, and his findings have influenced the design of reward mechanisms both inside and outside of the field of game mechanics. In their paper Game Reward Systems: Gaming Experiences and Social Meanings (2011), Hao Wang and Chuen-Tsai Sun analyze the main structural features of reward systems within videogames that have relevance outside videogames as well[1].

Keywords: game, variable ratio, fixed ratio, reward, intrinsic motivation, extrinsic motivation



Positive Psychology / PERMA Theory (Seligman)

Summary: Positive psychology is the study of happiness, flourishing, and what makes life worth living.  Seligman points to five factors as leading to well-being  — positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and purpose, and accomplishment.

Originators and key contributors:

  • Martin Seligman (1942-the present), American psychologist, founder of positive psychology
  • Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1934-the present), Hungarian-American psychologist, co-founder of positive psychology, researched the concept of “Flow”
  • Christopher Peterson (1950- 2012), American psychologist, The “VIA” and other topics in positive psychology

Keywords: flow, character strengths, well-being, happiness, positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and purpose, and accomplishment



Mindset Theory – Fixed vs. Growth Mindset (Dweck)

Mindset Theory

Your intelligence and other characteristics – where do they come from?  Can they change?

People vary in the degree to which they attribute the causes of intelligence and other traits.  Are they innate and fixed factors (“fixed” mindset) or are they variable factors that can be influenced through learning, effort, training, and practice (“growth” mindset)?  A “growth” mindset is generally seen as more advantageous.

Carol S. Dweck, a psychologist on the faculty at Stanford University, proposed mindset theory as a way to understand the effects of the beliefs that individuals hold for the nature of intelligence.  This in turn has implications for learning and education.

Keywords: mindset, intelligence, traits, fixed mindset, growth mindset



Intrinsically motivating instruction (Malone)

Summary: Intrinsically motivating instruction takes place in computer gaming software when it provides players with choice around three key categories: challenge, curiosity, and fantasy.

Originators and Key Contributors: Thomas W. Malone

Keywords: challenge, choice, computer games, curiosity, fantasy, intrinsic motivation

Intrinsically Motivating Instruction

In trying to understand what made computer-based learning environments (CBLEs) fun and engaging, Dr. Thomas W. Malone studied computer games[1]. In doing so, Malone developed a theory of intrinsically motivating instruction. The three categories which comprise his theory are challenge, fantasy, and curiosity[2].

Challenge: Each challenge must have a series of goals, which can be personally meaningful to the player and/or may be generated by the game to keep the player engaged. The game provides the player feedback on progress toward the goal throughout the game play. Because the computer game’s outcome is uncertain, this keeps the player engaged and motivated. When a player is challenged and succeeds through the struggle, a player’s self-esteem can increase, as long as the computer game’s feedback is constructive and supports learning. An optimal challenge should be neither too difficult nor too easy.

Fantasy: Malone defines fantasy as the “mental images” the players create based on interacting with the environment. The most effective fantasies in computer games are those which are more fully integrated with the content to be learned (intrinsic). Incorporating intrinsic fantasies creates more engagement, which increases memory of the material, because they may satisfy players’ emotional needs and help them learn skills within a meaningful context. (An example that Malone describes is an Adventure game where players practice reading maps, writing instructions, and feeling excited, puzzled, and triumphant as they proceed through it.)

[sociallocker]Curiosity: Two types of curiosity are important to successful computer game creation—sensory and cognitive. Sensory curiosity is activated by the aesthetics of the game (its look, sounds, feedback, authentic creation of a world or event). Cognitive curiosity is activated by presenting opportunities for the player to better their knowledge.[/sociallocker]

When a computer game is designed based on this framework, players are more motivated to play and learn[3].


  1. Malone, T. W. (1981). Toward a theory of intrinsically motivating instruction. Cognitive Science, 5(4), 333-369.
  2. Malone, T. W., & Lepper, M. R. (1987). Making learning fun: A taxonomy of intrinsic motivations for learning. Aptitude, learning, and instruction, 3(1987), 223-253.
  3. Lepper, M. R., & Malone, T. W. (1987). Intrinsic motivation and instructional effectiveness in computer-based education. Aptitude, learning, and instruction, 3, 255-286.

Grit (Duckworth, Matthews, Kelly, Peterson)

Summary: Grit is a quality that learners have that enables them to persevere while facing struggles and obstacles. This can help the learners attain success because they don’t give up until they reach their goals.

Originators & proponents: Angela Duckworth (University of Pennsylvania); Michael D. Matthews (USMA, West Point); Dennis R. Kelly (USMA, West Point); Christopher Peterson (University of Michigan)

Keywords: achievement, grit, growth mindset, motivation, non-cognitive factors, performance, perseverence, persistence, personality, resilience, success



Flow (Csíkszentmihályi)

Summary: Flow is an optimal psychological state that people experience when engaged in an activity that is both appropriately challenging to one’s skill level, often resulting in immersion and concentrated focus on a task. This can result in deep learning and high levels of personal and work satisfaction.

Originators & proponents: Mihály Csíkszentmihályi[1][2]

Keywords: anxiety/stress, challenge level, creativity, engagement, expertise, happiness, immersion, flow, focus, learning, motivation, satisfaction, self-regulation, skill level

Flow (Csíkszentmihályi)

Flow is one of eight mental states that can happen during the learning process which Csíkszentmihályi outlines in his flow theory. In addition to flow, these mental states include anxiety, apathy, arousal, boredom, control, relaxation, and worry; they result when a learner experiences a combination of skill and challenge levels of a task in non-optimal combinations.



Emotional Intelligence (Goleman)

Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is defined as the ability to identify, assess, and control one’s own emotions, the emotions of others, and that of groups.


Key Concepts

In the 1900s, even though traditional definitions of intelligence emphasized cognitive aspects such as memory and problem-solving, several influential researchers in the intelligence field of study had begun to recognize the importance of going beyond traditional types of intelligence (IQ). As early as 1920, for instance, E.L. Thorndike described “social intelligence” as the skill of understanding and managing others. Howard Gardner in 1983 described the idea of multiple intelligences, in which interpersonal intelligence (the capacity to understand the intentions, motivations and desires of other people) and intrapersonal intelligence (the capacity to understand oneself, to appreciate one’s feelings, fears and motivations) helped explain performance outcomes.

The first use of the term “emotional intelligence” is often attributed to A Study of Emotion: Developing Emotional Intelligence from 1985, by Wayne Payne. However, prior to this, the term “emotional intelligence” had appeared in Leuner (1966). Stanley Greenspan (1989) also put forward an EI model, followed by Salovey and Mayer (1990), and Daniel Goleman (1995). A distinction between emotional intelligence as a trait and emotional intelligence as an ability was introduced in 2000.

Daniel Goleman’s model (1998) focuses on EI as a wide array of competencies and skills that drive leadership performance, and consists of five areas:


Know one’s emotions, strengths, weaknesses, drives, values and goals and recognize their impact on others while using gut feelings to guide decisions.


Manage or redirect one’s disruptive emotions and impulses and adapt to changing circumstances.

Social skill

Manage other’s emotions to move people in the desired direction.


Recognize, understand, and consider other people’s feelings especially when making decisions


Motivate oneself to achieve for the sake of achievement.

To Golman, emotional competencies are not innate talents, but rather learned capabilities that must be worked on and can be developed to achieve outstanding performance. Goleman believes that individuals are born with a general emotional intelligence that determines their potential for learning emotional competencies[3].

Emotional Intelligence is not always widely accepted in the research community. Goleman’s model of EI, for instance, has been criticized in the research literature as being merely “pop psychology.” However, EI is still considered by many to be a useful framework especially for businesses.

Additional Resources and References


  • Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ: A well-written book by Daniel Goleman, a former writer for the New York Times. The book explains how the rational and emotional work together to shape intelligence, citing neuroscience and psychology of the brain. Goleman explains why IQ is not the sole predictor of success; furthermore, he demonstrates how emotional intelligence can impact important life outcomes. A fascinating read!
  • Emotional Intelligence 2.0: Bradberry, Greaves, and Lencioni’s book that actually gives strategies for how to increase your emotional intelligence (not just explaining what emotional intelligence is). Helps readers increase four emotional intelligence skills: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management. Gives access to an online test that informs which strategies will increase your EQ the most.


  1. Goleman, D. (2006). Emotional intelligence. Bantam.
  2. Goleman, D. (1996). Emotional Intelligence. Why It Can Matter More than IQ.Learning, 24(6), 49-50.
  3. Goleman, D. (1998). Working with emotional intelligence. Bantam.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (often represented as a pyramid with five levels of needs) is a motivational theory in psychology that argues that while people aim to meet basic needs, they seek to meet successively higher needs in the form of a pyramid.


  • Abraham Maslow (1908 – 1970)

Key Concepts

Abraham H. Maslow felt as though conditioning theories did not adequately capture the complexity of human behavior. In a 1943 paper called A Theory of Human Motivation, Maslow presented the idea that human actions are directed toward goal attainment[1]. Any given behavior could satisfy several functions at the same time; for instance, going to a bar could satisfy one’s needs for self-esteem and for social interaction.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs has often been represented in a hierarchical pyramid with five levels. The four levels (lower-order needs) are considered physiological needs, while the top level of the pyramid is considered growth needs. The lower level needs must be satisfied before higher-order needs can influence behavior. The levels are as follows (see pyramid in Figure 1 below).

  • Self-actualization – includes morality, creativity, problem solving, etc.
  • Esteem – includes confidence, self-esteem, achievement, respect, etc.
  • Belongingness – includes love, friendship, intimacy, family, etc.
  • Safety – includes security of environment, employment, resources, health, property, etc.
  • Physiological – includes air, food, water, sex, sleep, other factors towards homeostasis, etc.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
Figure 1.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Pyramid.

Deprivation Needs

The first four levels are considered deficiency or deprivation needs (“D-needs”) in that their lack of satisfaction causes a deficiency that motivates people to meet these needs. Physiological needs, the lowest level on the hierarchy, include necessities such as air, food, and water. These tend to be satisfied for most people, but they become predominant when unmet. During emergencies, safety needs such as health and security rise to the forefront. Once these two levels are met, belongingness needs, such as obtaining love and intimate relationships or close friendships, become important. The next level, esteem needs, include the need for recognition from others, confidence, achievement, and self-esteem.

Growth Needs

The highest level is self-actualization, or the self-fulfillment. Behavior in this case is not driven or motivated by deficiencies but rather one’s desire for personal growth and the need to become all the things that a person is capable of becoming[2][3].


While a useful guide for generally understanding why students behave the way that they do and in determining how learning may be affected by physiological or safety deficiencies, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs has its share of criticisms. Some critics have noted vagueness in what is considered a “deficiency”; what is a deficiency for one is not necessarily a deficiency for another. Secondly, there seem to be various exceptions that frequently occur. For example, some people often risk their own safety to rescue others from danger.

Additional Resources and References



  1. Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological review,50(4), 370.
  2. Maslow, A. H., Frager, R., & Cox, R. (1970). Motivation and personality (Vol. 2, pp. 1887-1904). J. Fadiman, & C. McReynolds (Eds.). New York: Harper & Row.
  3. Maslow, A. H. (2013). Toward a psychology of being. Start Publishing LLC.