The Neuroscience of Gaming: Persuasion Techniques Behind Skills Development Games

blog author By Aminata N. Mbodj

Part 2 of 2

By their very structure, video games trigger effective learning paradigms[1] through elements such as experiential and inquiry-based learning, self-efficacy and goal-setting, as well as continuous feedback and cooperation. Effective video games not only leverage brain chemistry but enhance it through gradual challenges and reward mechanisms. Thus, they manage to increase focus and time on tasks so as to yield higher learning outcomes.

A study depicted in Merrilea Mayo’s article on Games for science and engineering education goes as follows:

[…] a middle school class was divided into two groups. The control group (32 students) learned electrostatics through interactive lectures, experiments, observations, and teacher demonstrations. The second group (58 students), with the same teacher, mostly played an electrostatics game called Supercharged during class time while also receiving lectures and handouts. The 32 in the control group improved their understanding by 15% over their pre-test scores; those who played the game improved their understanding by 28%. Much more impressive was how the simulation contributed to girls’ achievement; among girls, the control group improved on their pre-test scores by only 5% and the game group by 23%. 

Evidence from this research not only seems to suggest that video games added to normal lectures and handouts contribute to higher learning outcomes, but it also demonstrates that video games may improve learning outcomes in specific demographics which might have been underrepresented and underperforming, especially in STEM fields. 

Games and Personalization, a Whole New World

The case study above, most importantly perhaps, suggests that video games can, quite literally, widen access to talent which, otherwise, would not have had access to the traditional workforce pipeline. In gameplay, just as in early workforce training, the individual must move forward with a sentiment of purpose and personal responsibility when engaging in skill acquisition; an effective training system must make space for variations among trainees, especially if the desired result is a holistic, performant, and innovative workforce.

Personalization, as a result of identity-centric gameplay, is a pillar for creating particularly engaging and immersive game experiences. Tondello et al[2] propose different personalization factors to consider in making games more appealing and effective; these factors include personality types, age, gender, player types, culture or nationality, or again individual susceptibility to persuasive attempts. 

Tondello et al claim: “personalization is more effective than standardization to create behavior change.” Indeed, the above-cited factors, when properly and ethically leveraged, increase individual involvement in the games’ narratives[3], and thus make players more receptive to behavior change suggestions and more likely to experience the game as an immersive simulation

As one of the most scalable digital media to date, video games have a massive reach with more than 2.6 Billion people said to play them worldwide. Personalization features developed atop factors such as those cited above further expand reach across demographic lines; for manufacturing, and in the context of skill-building games, this means access to the right talent, no matter where it is located, no matter what it looks like. 

Rewarding Behavior: From Novice to Skilled

Skills development games are specifically designed to optimize the processes of learning, technical upskilling, and soft skills acquisition. Using the personalization factors, the player is taken through a reward fueled “persuasion pipeline” geared towards transforming them from novice to skilled. The following excerpts from an article on the Journal of Neurologic Physical Therapy, on Video Games and Rehabilitation[4], give us an insight as to the mechanisms triggered by effective gameplay:

One of the insights … on the neuroscience of reward and motivation, is the discovery that the limbic system, in particular the nucleus accumbens (NA), is critical to learning new behaviors, especially those associated with the pursuit of rewards. At the beginning of a game, players desire a low level of challenge to meet a correspondingly low level of ability and familiarity with the game. With an increase in experience, the greater challenge keeps players on the edge of their ability to accomplish tasks. Physiologically, when the same action is no longer guaranteed to produce the same level of reward, the magnitude of reward prediction error is also increased. This desirable increase could be achieved by … increasing the level of challenge offered by a game or by changing the game. 

Reward Prediction Error might be the new term that we take away from the above excerpt; it measures the degree to which what was expected differed from what was obtained. While Lohse’s research explores how rewarding a given action is; other researchers, such as Dalhousie University’s Rita Orji, are set to optimize the very nature of these in-game actions so as to maximize reward[5].

Cialdini’s Persuasion Strategies

Persuasion strategies are the backbone of behavior change research; Cialdini’s six persuasion strategies, exploring Reciprocity, Scarcity, Authority, Commitment, and Consistency, as well as Consensus and Liking, are among the most widely adopted. Orji et al ran a large-scale case study (1108 individuals) using various Persuasive Technologies, which have been defined as “a class of technologies that are intentionally designed to change people’s attitude or behavior”, to test these strategies across the Gender and Age lines.

The results showed that, across the board, commitment and reciprocity emerged as the most persuasive. Furthermore,  according to Orji et al, there are three pivotal aspects that are critical to long-term engagement and thus behavior change: competition, feedback, and presence. Skill development games aim to maximize these aspects, respectively, through a subtle mix of Badges & Certifications, On-demand Analytics Reporting, and In-game Live Events.

As the immersive technology par excellence, skill development games offer today’s manufacturing industry a unique opportunity to combine specialized training and cutting edge behavior change techniques into highly captivating and impactful learning experiences. Furthermore, with all this evidence showing not only the extent to which video games are taking up ever-larger chunks of our already active screen life but also their special ability to promote skill acquisition and knowledge retention, using them as the primary tool to reach new industry talent simply stands as the logical next step for manufacturing.


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Aminata N. Mbodj A First-Year PhD Candidate in Human-Centered Computing at Clemson University, Aminata is deeply fascinated by the humbling process of learning. Three questions keep her up at night: “Which cognitive processes do we use to build mental models of the world as we experience it?”, “To what extent can we use algorithms to map these structures out?”, “What resulting computing solutions are accessible, so as to optimize our everyday learning?”

1 Merrilea J. Mayo. 2007. Games for science and engineering education. Commun. ACM 50, 7 (July 2007), 30–35. DOI:https://doi.org/10.1145/1272516.1272536 
2 Gustavo F. Tondello, Rita Orji, and Lennart E. Nacke. 2017. Recommender Systems for Personalized Gamification. In Adjunct Publication of the 25th Conference on User Modeling, Adaptation and Personalization (UMAP ’17). Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA, 425–430. DOI:https://doi.org/10.1145/3099023.3099114
3 Moyer-Gusé, E. (2008). Toward a theory of entertainment persuasion: Explaining the persuasive effects of entertainment-education messages. Communication Theory, 18(3), 407-425. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2885.2008.00328.x
4 Lohse, K., Shirzad, N., Verster, A., Hodges, N., & Van Der Loos, H. (2013). Video games and rehabilitation: Using design principles to enhance engagement in physical therapy. Journal of Neurologic Physical Therapy, 37(4). doi:10.1097/NPT.0000000000000017
5 Orji, R., Mandryk, R., & Vassileva, J. (2015). Gender, age, and responsiveness to Cialdini’s persuasion strategies. Lecture Notes in Computer Science (including Subseries Lecture Notes in Artificial Intelligence and Lecture Notes in Bioinformatics), 147-159. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-20306-5_14

From Gamer to Skilled Worker:
New Normal, New Workforce Pipeline

blog author By Aminata N. Mbodj

Part 1 of 2

A dynamic and highly trained workforce is the basic fuel for growth in any given industry. The truth of this statement is made flagrant in today’s manufacturing industry whose pleas for young and skilled talent are, unsurprisingly, only echoed by its record low productivity rates. With 2.1 million manufacturing jobs set for availability by 2030, industry employers, especially in the sectors of Pharma and Life Sciences, IT, Aerospace, and Automotive should pay special attention to new methods of talent acquisition. 

A Talent Pool Ready to be Tapped

The workforce shortage within manufacturing might not so much be the result of a nonexistent and/or uninterested talent pool, but rather that of a lack of visibility in an ever digitized world. In fact, according to à survey by Indeed, Gen Z’s job search habits suggest a strong interest in tech and health-care positions; excellent career choices as manufacturing areas in both fields currently suffer serious talent shortages. The survey further suggests that, as a generation brought up during the Great Recession, job stability is a priority for Gen Z; representing five out of Business Insider’s 10 best industries for job security, manufacturing and Gen Z seem like a perfect match.

Despite all this evidence, however, misconceptions relating to the manufacturing industry run rampant among Gen Z; misconceptions that get in the way of crucial early career exposure. The research is clear: students who have not expressed STEM-related aspirations by age 10 are unlikely to do so by age 14; Amy Flynn, career development counselor at Oakland Schools’ Technical Campuses states: “Kids choose careers from experiences they’ve had.” Flynn  insists: “The bottom line is that exposure, exposure, exposure is amazing for students.”

With the “career imprinting” window being so narrow, Gen Z’s exposure to industry careers must not only prove engaging but also dispel any misconceptions about the field. For this, video games might be the solution. Leveraging research-based techniques designed to reflect real-life processes of skill acquisition, these “persuasive media”, as Ian Bogost, Professor of Interactive Computing at Georgia Institute of Technology calls them, constitute a non-negligible path towards manufacturing tomorrow’s workforce.

Bridging the Skills Gap

Of the many ways to reach and influence Gen Z, video games occupy a Champion’s Place. If a historical institution as prestigious as the U.S. Army, which has commemorated its 246th year this 14th of June 2021, has understood this, why should industry lag behind?

America’s Army: A Case in Point

In July 2002, the U.S. Army launched “America’s Army”, a video game geared towards informing, training, and recruiting prospective soldiers. This tactical move of “meeting them (potential recruits) where they are” is all the more understandable given the fact that, “by age 21, the average American will have spent more than 10,000 hours playing video games”; the equivalent to 5 years of full-time employment.

Among the plethora of reasons why video games should be used in skills training, the #1 simply is that future industry talent is, currently, easiest to engage with and train using this medium. Indeed, video games not only manage to achieve record-high levels of engagement but also are potent tools for guided behavior change.

Video Games and Behavior Change, A New Outlook

The association between video games and changed behaviors is not as foreign to us as we like to believe. For well over three decades, video games have shown conclusive results in a wide range of applications including group therapy (1992), the prevention of Type 2 diabetes and obesity among youths (2008), or again the effective treatment of chemotherapy-related anxieties in children and adolescents (1990), we seem to have come to a consensus that video games can indeed tangibly affect the behavior of players. 

In the game world, claims game designer Jane McGonigal, we become “the best version of ourselves, the most likely to persist, the most likely to help others”. Emotional immersion and total concentration, as natural consequences of compelling gameplay, represent a unique opportunity to introduce new behaviors and habits to the players thus resulting in skills acquisition. There is, in our case, an unprecedented chance at using such a powerful tool towards reaching, engaging, and training the future of manufacturing.


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Aminata N. Mbodj A First-Year PhD Candidate in Human-Centered Computing at Clemson University, Aminata is deeply fascinated by the humbling process of learning. Three questions keep her up at night: “Which cognitive processes do we use to build mental models of the world as we experience it?”, “To what extent can we use algorithms to map these structures out?”, “What resulting computing solutions are accessible, so as to optimize our everyday learning?”

How to Compete in Workforce Readiness…and Win.

When it comes to recruiting and retaining talent for skills-based careers, we don’t have a people problem, we have a skilled people problem. From aerospace and automotive to life sciences and cybersecurity/IT, this isn’t a new issue, even post-pandemic. In fact, US manufacturing activity surged to a 37-year high in March, with more than half a million jobs to fill.

This skills gap makes the ability for states to compete in industry recruitment fierce because on the top of every prospect’s list before they make their selection is: CAN YOU MEET MY WORKFORCE NEEDS

Companies want to know:

1. How did your state support workforce readiness for companies before them?

2. What skill sets are available in your state?

3. How are you addressing workforce development in K-12 to keep their pipeline going?

4. How are your business and education communities working together?


For most states, the answer to most of the above is, ‘not enough’. According to a study just published by Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute, there will still be 2.1 million unfilled manufacturing jobs by 2030, costing our economy up to $1 trillion.  

“During my 30-year-career in economic and workforce development, there’s never been a more critical time to re-evaluate how we approach career awareness, skills development, and recruitment for America’s labor workforce. Doing more of what we did yesterday simply won’t work for the labor force of today…or tomorrow.” 

–Jerry Howard, President, InSite Consulting
Past President and CEO, Greenville Area Development Corporation

Innovate for tomorrow’s workforce, today.

A move for a company is risky if the workforce can’t scale quickly or be sustainable for the long haul. Today’s workforce also commands diversity, which means rural reach also has to be cracked finally. So as those at the helm of economic and workforce development efforts are tasked with more questions on how to attract and retain workforce-ready talent today and for years to come, they need to look for those answers from the 67.17 million talent pool they’re trying to recruit: Gen Z.

According to a study published in Forbes, 33% of kids who play video games say it inspired future careers, including science. Carnegie Mellon goes on to report that interactive activities are 6x more likely to help students learn. This means there’s a real opportunity here to collide career awareness and preparedness with gaming. And while educational gaming isn’t a new concept, games kids want to play with real word incentives for a better future, is.

chart of gen z stats


It’s a numbers game.

Today, 95% of 13-17-year-olds have access to a cell phone, even in rural areas. Ninety percent classify themselves as gamers, and 63% are concerned about jobs and unemployment. On top of all that, a majority feel their education should not be limited to the classroom, and that business should be stepping up to offer new forms of learning

By transforming skills development, career awareness, and job opportunities into mobile gaming technology, states, industry, and education can revolutionize how the next generation engages in – and views – skills-based careers at an earlier age.

A community has to have a skilled workforce to sustain a thriving community where people can live, work, and play. And according to a recent Site Selectors Guild’s conference, those states who lead the way, win.  

Game on.