Dispatch from the Digital Frontier: Engagement and the Dopamine Squirt

Written By

Anne Derryberry

October 26, 2010

Engagement is on many people’s minds these days. Again. Why? Because, the theory goes, if the [customer/reader/learner/voter/player] is engaged, then she will [buy more/read on/learn better/vote for me/keep playing]. Engagement is the first-level indicator of success, even though it’s not inherently measurable on its own.

In fact, defining engagement is a pretty squishy undertaking. In marketing language, engagement is a “meaningful interaction,” whatever that is, while education looks to student involvement, participation, and interaction. With apologies to Justice Potter Stewart, engagement seems to be best characterized by the assertion, “I know it when I see it.”

The education and training sectors have spun many cycles in pursuit of the magic formula for engaging learners. How do we design compelling learning experiences that capture the minds and imaginations of students? What kinds of interactions are most likely to yield learner engagement? Is there a magic formula for holding the interest of learners so that they remain invested in their own learning and skill development? Do we need to be more entertaining, more directive, more interactive, more focused, more hands-on, more hands-off? Is it a question of mediation, of personalization, of collaboration?

As the institution of journalism seeks to re-invent itself for the 21st century, the question of how to engage the journalism consumer is also front and center. Newspaper subscriptions are falling, as is viewership of TV news. Surely, if the news business could figure out how to (re-)engage news consumers, especially those under 40, journalism would be able to reassert its criticality to freedom and democracy. Re-engaged news consumers would become re-engaged citizens, astute voters involved in the civic life of their communities. This line of inquiry is also sparking a debate about the engagement of the journalist within the community s/he serves. Should the journalist be an observer or an instigator? A reporter, an interpreter, an analyst, a catalyst?

In the world of games, whether they be for entertainment or more serious purposes, player engagement makes the difference between game completion and game abandonment. Engaged players will promote games they like, often returning to the same game again and again to re-live an enjoyable experience, better a previous score, or outplay an opponent.

One reason games generate player engagement is the physiological response they cause. As players proceed through a game, mastering challenges and outdoing opponents, they exhibit that primitive impulse to respond to immediate opportunities and threats. This stimulation provokes excitement, prompting the brain to release dopamine, a neurotransmitter that signals the parts of the brain responsible for acquiring new behavior. As it turns out, dopamine has an addictive quality that causes game players to chase the next “dopamine squirt.” (Yes, one can become addicted to learning!)

Arguably the most critical activity in the game design process is tuning. Game tuning is the act of testing, analyzing, and revising all aspects of the game to achieve a gaming experience that meets its intended purpose and objectives. An indicator of a well-tuned game is the “right” pacing of dopamine squirts that a player experiences while playing the game: when a game is perceived as overly easy and therefore uninteresting, the dopamine stops flowing and the player stops playing; when the game is too hard and frustrating, the dopamine flow is intermittent and unsatisfying. Balance the player experience of tension and relief, and players will play and re-play the game to feed their desire for the pleasure of the squirt.

There is no prescriptive equation or formula for determining the optimal frequency and pacing of events and interactions that produce dopamine squirts. Yet, game designers successfully produce this balance time and time again.

(e-)Learning designers typically present learning content by first laying out the learning goals and high-level objectives, and then fleshing out content details in logical, manageable chunks.

Journalists structure their stories using an inverted pyramid approach: most essential information (“the five W’s”) at the top/beginning, followed by explanatory information organized in decreasing levels of importance.

Games, by turn, rely on a chronological narrative approach, which may or may not make clear from the outset the game’s purpose and what the player’s role in the narrative is. Nonetheless, in exploring the concept of engagement and how to ensure it, education and journalism might take valuable cues from games’ awareness of the vital role of the dopamine squirt in engagement.

Here are a few of the questions that all of this suggests to me:

  • What kinds of activities and interactions will provide learners with an appealing tension/relief dynamic that produces the ideal dopamine flow?

  • Can this tension/relief dynamic be applied to news writing, even within the inverted pyramid paradigm?

  • Are game elements or game mechanics appropriate to a particular program’s learning goals and objectives?

  • Can journalism’s expository writing style incorporate a “game feel” without sacrificing journalistic integrity or being too cute?

  • What other strategies might yield a similar response in the target audience, whether we seek to educate or inform?

I look forward to engaging with you in thinking through these questions.

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