The psychological mechanisms behind serious gaming and fun


“Fun in work makes perfection in work”  


When people think of gaming, they often think of fun. After all, playing games is fun and this is also the primary goal: entertainment. In serious gaming, entertainment also plays an important role, but this is not the primary goal. In fact, the primary goal is to promote behavior change, and this is done through entertainment. So in serious gaming, there is a balance between the serious and the game part. But why is entertainment so important? What function does entertainment have in learning? And what role do emotions have in it?


Serious gaming and motivation  

Let’s start with the concept of motivation. For learning requires having the right motivation as well. Motivation is defined as “the process in the person that determines the intensity, direction and persistence of efforts to achieve a goal” (Mitchell, 1997). Motivated people keep working on a task until they achieve the desired result and are more resistant to setbacks.

Motivation can be influenced by a variety of factors, both external and internal. Extrinsic motivation involves a desire to perform an activity due to an external consequence, such as a reward. Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is instead a desire to do an activity because of the activity itself, and not because of an external consequence. Performing an intrinsically motivated activity is a reward in itself.

Serious games make use of both sources of motivation. The fun and challenge provided in a game stimulates intrinsic motivation. Then, when good work has been done, a reward is also given, such as by earning points, taking into account the level of performance. Rewards are often used to motivate the player to continue, but these rewards actually play only a small role in this. In fact, it is more important to encourage intrinsic motivation, but how does this actually happen?

A team plays LinkXs and celebrates a victory

The self-determination theory (SDT)

Let’s take a deeper dive into how that intrinsic motivation is stimulated in a serious game.

Self-determination theory states that people are naturally curious and eager to learn, but to remain so it is important that they are in a stimulated environment. This stimulating environment consists of the three basic needs: autonomy, competence and connectedness. If these three needs are met, the person will perform well and grow.

A serious game possesses all three of these basic needs. This is since a serious game offers achievable challenges and creates clear expectations and goals. It also provides constructive feedback after an action. The more specific the goals and the greater the challenge, the clearer the feedback will be and the better the performance will be. But it must be an agreed-upon goal by everyone. One is then motivated to achieve a good result and this increases the sense of competence. In a game you are free to act on your own hunches and you are not pressured by external factors. This supports autonomy. Finally, while playing serious games you often work together with others to achieve a good end result, which enhances the feeling of belonging.

How do emotions motivate us?

Now we know how intrinsic motivation is stimulated in a serious game, but there is still nothing said about the importance of fun during learning. What is the link between serious games and fun? Emotions play a big role in motivation because the dopamine reward system in the brain is involved. When you get a reward, dopamine is released in your brain causing you to experience positive emotions such as joy and fun. This makes the game attractive and you become motivated to continue playing.

Research has also shown a link between intrinsic motivation and enjoyment. People who try to achieve their work goals for intrinsic reasons often perform better and are also more satisfied. Regardless of the work culture, people who pursue goals out of intrinsic interest will be more likely to achieve those goals. Even if they ultimately fail, these people are still happier than people who are not intrinsically motivated. Why? Because the process of working toward an intrinsically worthwhile goal is enjoyable in itself, whether you achieve the goal or not. So the more you enjoy it, the higher your intrinsic motivation is.

Social activities

Social activities also affect people’s mood and emotions. In fact, for most people, social activities boost the positive mood, while having little effect on the negative mood. Research shows that physical, informal activities contribute more strongly to mood improvement than formal activities (meetings) or sedentary activities (watching television).

Thus, the environment has a great influence on your mood. This is due to mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are another source of emotional feelings and allow us to learn not only from our own, but also others’ emotions. When you see someone having fun, it can also evoke pleasure in you and you adopt this, which in turn has a positive impact on your intrinsic motivation. We are social beings and we therefore usually adapt ourselves, to the demands of the social situation.

Why is having fun so important?

So, in fact, serious games are mostly about intrinsic motivation, which motivates people to be more committed and achieve better results. This is stimulated in a game by challenges and setting achievable goals, feedback, making choices and social interaction with others. But fun also plays a big role in this. The more fun you have, the more motivated you are and the more you learn. That’s why having fun is so important. All these factors together make serious gaming a good and, above all, fun way of learning, through which you ultimately achieve improvement in your work.

You can see this for example in some of our serious games such as LinkXs. The challenge involved is mainly communication and cooperation. In practice, this sometimes does not always happen efficiently and the LinkXs game provides a playful insight into how a team works together. So there is entertainment in the game, but also a serious undertone that improves communication and cooperation.

Curious to experience this for yourself? Request a demo of our games such as Fizzinity, TeamUP or LinkXs.

For this blog on the psychological mechanisms behind serious gaming, we used the following sources:

  • Deci, E. & Ryan, R. (2002). Handbook of selfdetermination research 

  • Locke, E. &. (2006). New directions in goal setting theory 

  • Otto, M., Van Buren, E., Mols, H. & Robben, M. (2016). Katalysator voor organisatieverandering: Serious gaming 

  • Robbins, S. &. Judge, T. (2020). Gedrag in organisaties 


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