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A Serious Look at Games and the Benefits of Gamification

Updated: Jun 19, 2021

by Dr. Maximilian A. Friehs

It is estimated that over 2.5 billion people of all ages and genders worldwide play digital games and over 500 million people watch or follow competitive gaming. Although it should be noted that, for example different age groups tend to prefer different types of games, the motivational pull of games can be channeled to the advantage of researchers and professionals across a wide variety of different fields (Birk et al., 2017). Consequently, in a process called gamification game-like elements have been implemented into otherwise non-game environments and gamification has been successfully applied in educational, therapeutical and business settings.

Serious games aim to foster long-term behavioural change in players. A play pattern that has been shown to be most effective at establishing new behaviours is the snacking-pattern. Snacking describes the player who engages in repeated, short “snacks” of playing over a long period of time. Recently, Alexandrovsky and colleagues (2019, 2021) have established a comprehensive framework of five game dynamics that support snacking behaviour. The framework is based on the in-depth analysis of games that elicit this specific gameplay pattern as well as robust models of motivational psychology. Specifically, the five game mechanics that encourage sustained engagement are:

  1. Rewards: immediate gratification for the player’s actions,

  2. Novelty: providing players with new game elements,

  3. Completion: explicitly assigned tasks or goals,

  4. Blocking: temporarily prohibiting play,

  5. Waiting: game-mechanics or resources on a cooldown timer.

This framework was experimentally validated in a casual mobile game as well as a maths learning game.

Another area of research in which games or gamification can be useful is fundamental research in, for example, cognitive psychology.

Most controlled laboratory tasks in cognitive psychology assume that individuals put in their best effort and that the task performance reflects an individual’s abilities. However, a lot of typical tasks in that area are repetitive, not engaging and somewhat boring. Thus, task performance of an individual may not reflect their true capabilities and the task itself may be far removed from real-life.

Recently, Friehs and colleagues (2020, 2021) developed a game that validly measures the response inhibition process, while being rated more enjoyable by participants. This Stop-Signal Game requires participants to withhold an already initiated reaction after the presentation of a stop-signal. In the game participants may be told that they have to navigate an enchanted forest, while the ordinary stop-signal task may only contain left or right pointing arrows. Initial evidence further suggests that the game relies on similar neural generators as the ordinary task version further validating the procedure.

Taken together, as video games are accessible, motivating, and can be custom built to capture behaviour, they are an ideal tool to measure more nuanced, realistic behaviour. Apart from the above discussed example, social interactions or social judgements that may ordinarily only be observable in the real world can be translated and represented in a virtual environment. Further, games are especially useful in engaging otherwise difficult to study populations (e.g. children, senior citizens or patients) and may help to positively change behaviour.


  • Birk, M. V., Friehs, M. A. & Mandryk, R. L. (2017). Age-Based Preferences and Player Experience: A Crowdsourced Cross-sectional Study. Proceedings of the Annual Symposium on Computer-Human Interaction in Play (CHI PLAY 2017), 157-170. doi 10.1145/3116595.3116608

  • Alexandrovsky, D., Friehs, M. A., Birk, M. V., Yates, R., & Mandryk, R. L. (2019). Game Dynamics that Support Snacking, not Feasting. Proceedings of the Annual Symposium on Computer-Human Interaction in Play (CHI PLAY 2019)

  • Alexandrovsky, D., Friehs, M. A., Gittner, J., Putze, S., Birk, M. V., Malaka, R., & Mandryk, R. L. (2021). Serious Snacking: A Survival Analysis of how Snacking Mechanics Affect Attrition in a Mobile Serious Game. Proceedings of the Annual Symposium on Computer-Human Interaction (CHI 2021)

  • Friehs, M.A., Dechant, M., Vedress, S., Frings, C., & Mandryk, R. L., (2020). An Effective Gamification of the Stop-Signal Task: Two Controlled Laboratory Experiments. Journal of Medical Internet Research: Serious Games.

  • Friehs, M.A., Dechant, M., Vedress, S., Frings, C., & Mandryk, R. L., (2021). Shocking advantage! Improving digital game performance using non-invasive brain stimulation. International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction.

For more research by Dr. Friehs refer to his Google Scholar or ResearchGate

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