There is a lot of positive psychology elements and concepts in gamification. The game design mechanics delve into the emotions that people experience while doing gameful activities, and how these have an impact on our overall sense of wellbeing. Gamified platforms that are well designed and that apply the universal game traits successfully, will always encourage the users to dedicate some of their time and effort to use them, but in an engaging and satisfying manner.
One of the experiences brought by gameful contexts is the one of eustress. Eustress (a combination of the Greek eu, for “well-being”, and stress) is known as positive stress that comes as a result of hard fun. From a physiological and neurological standpoint, eustress is virtually identical to stress: it produces adrenaline, our reward circuitry is activated, and blood flow increases to the attention control centers of the brain6.
What’s fundamentally different between stress and eustress is our frame of mind. This is because with eustress, we are not experiencing fear or pessimism. With gamified experiences, we have generated the stressful situation on purpose, so we are confident and optimistic. When we choose our hard work, which is what happens with gamification, we enjoy the stimulation and activation. It makes us want to dive in and get things done. By working hard at activities that provide their own reward, we not only experience eustress-we also have the power to make our own happiness7.
When we aim to make our own happiness, we stop focusing on extrinsic rewards (e.g. money, material goods, status, or praise) and start to focus on activities that generate intrinsic rewards (e.g. positive emotions, personal strengths, and social connections that we build by engaging intensely with the world around us). These kinds of self-motivated and self-rewarding activities are known as autotelic activities (from the Greek words for “self”, auto, and “goal”, telos)8.
We also crave satisfying work, which means that we aim to be immersed in clearly defined, demanding activities that allow us to see the direct impact of our efforts. Additionally, we crave the experience of being successful, to aspire to something, and feel that we are getting better over time9.Gamification provides a context in which activities are defined, objectives are delineated, and feedback and rewards are given, which makes the experience more satisfying.
We are also prone to experience flow, a concept defined by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi as “the satisfying, exhilarating feeling of creative accomplishment and heightened functioning"8. Flow provides us with an intense, optimistic engagement with the world around us. Csíkszentmihályi’s research showed that flow was most reliably and efficiently produced by the specific combination of a self-chosen goal, personally optimized obstacles, and continuous feedback that make up the essential structure of game design10. His research findings led to the rise of positive psychology and of computer and video games. Gamification is definitely aiming to provide their users with opportunities to experience flow, and therefore engage with the world around us in a more optimistic manner.
Additionally, game desing mechanics try to introduce fiero: the most primal emotion we can experience. Fiero is the Italian word for pride, and it has been adopted by the game design community in order to describe the emotional high we feel after triumphing over adversity. According to researchers at the Center for Interdisciplinary Brain Sciences Research at Standford, fiero is the emotion that first created a desire to leave the cave and conquer the world10. It is one of the most powerful neurochemical highs we can experience, since it involves three different structures of the reward circuitry of the brain, including the mesocorticolimbic center, which is the one most typically associated with reward and addiction11. It is a craving for challenges that we can overcome, battles we can win, and dangers we can vanquish.
We can also experience awe, which is when we recognize that we are in the presence of something bigger than ourselves. It is closely linked to feelings of spirituality, love, gratitude, and desire to serve10. According to Dacher Keltner in Born to Be Good, “the experience of awe is about finding your place in the larger scheme of things, about quieting the press of self-interest, folding into social collectives, and feeling reverential toward participating in some expansive process that unites us all and that ennobles our life’s endeavors”12.