Psychology impacts nearly everything. In the workplace, there are at least five psychological principles that inform gamification. These concepts may help explain why some companies believe that the strategy for employee engagement works.

Five psychological principles fueling gamification

1. Gamification satisfies fundamental human desires

Bunchball, which has created gamified platforms for more than 300 companies since 2007, notes that gamification taps into basic human desires. Some examples include people’s need for recognition, reward, status, and achievement; their innate love of competition and collaboration; and the human desire for self-expression and altruism.

2. It bolsters a sense of community

Game play can help create a nurturing workplace community where employees support one another and help each other grow. The leaderboard, a traditional hallmark of gamification, permits individuals and teams to compare accomplishments and engage in friendly competition for badges, trophies, and status. In a white paper, Bunchball notes that companies should make it easy for users to earn awards in the beginning. From a psychological point of view, this encourages buy-in and ignites engagement. However, leveling up should become more difficult as users progress through the material.

3. Gamification forges an emotional connection

Everyone loves a good story. In gamification, narratives developed around a learning activity make the activity more engaging and relevant to the learner. According to Growth Engineering, a UK-based vendor, this is because people tend to remember stories, as opposed to unconnected facts. Senior instructional designer Vicki Kunkel agrees, adding that online learning must include emotions. “Emotions are the engagement ignition switch in online courses; without them, there can be no motivation, no interest, and no learning transfer,” she writes in an article on

4. Gamification relieves cognitive overload

Research indicates that the brain can only handle a finite amount of information at one time before becoming overloaded. Gamification has been shown to relieve stress and clear the brain of distractions. Better learning happens when this occurs.

Carol Leaman, CEO of Axonify, expands upon this point. “If you play Angry Birds or some other game on your mobile or laptop, you are not thinking about what you are making tonight for dinner. You are thinking about what is going on in the game,” she says. “When you incorporate learning in that experience, it causes a hyper focus on the key learning point.”

5. Individuals will keep playing

Studies suggest that on a psychological level, losses can be twice as powerful as gains. This corresponds to the loss aversion theory, which maintains that individuals would rather avoid losses than acquire equivalent gains. Following this model, an individual would prefer to not lose $5, as opposed to finding $5.

The loss aversion theory plays an important role in gamification. Users who earn or receive awards as a result of gamification do not want to lose them and, thus, will continue playing in order to retain them.