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

Another Workforce Recruitment Website? Next Bus.

iGen. Gen Tech. Net Gen. Digital Natives. All are synonymous with Gen Z, who accounts for 61 million people in the U.S. – a population exceeding millennials – and also our next workforce generation. This creates a huge challenge for workforce development agencies and industry, as marketing skills-based career opportunities and pathways in a way this generation will engage in, digitally, represents a brand new recruitment protocol.

But it’s time. With 10,000 Boomers reaching retirement age every day, there’s 3.5 million new manufacturing jobs to fill by 2025 alone.

What Research is Telling Us

According to a study conducted by SkillsUSA, meeting the demand for a new generation of manufacturing workers by drawing on the talent of all sectors of the U.S. workforce is more likely if the following occur: 

Students gain access to experiential learning opportunities earlier in their education pathway, and these opportunities increase throughout their high school education. 

Employers engage earlier in a student’s academic pathway. 

Parents and teachers gain access to local employers to learn about the broad range of opportunities modern manufacturing presents.  

Current Workforce Recruitment Strategies

Workforce development agencies and industry have made great strides in thinking outside the box to fill their talent pipeline, which has been imperative in helping reverse the stigma associated with the factories of yesteryear. But with every new generation, comes new challenges in reaching them. What worked for Millennials won’t work for GenZ, if they ever worked at all. 

1. Videos

Any medium that can bring kids closer to the inner workings of a state’s infrastructure and industry is a good thing. Which is why videos have been trending over the last decade, showing kids what’s really “under the hood” in today’s state-of-the-art facilities, along with testimony from happy, fulfilled employees who were once just like them. Videos help facilitate more deliberate career pathway discussions than a textbook, along with real, aspirational discourse. The challenge is that kids will likely only watch them once, making that engagement fleeting. They’re also difficult and expensive to update. What was state-of-the-art three years ago may be old-school today. This forces workforce development agencies and industry to shelve them – or, worse, if they don’t, that decades-long stigma is perpetuated.

2. Websites

Most states and regions have subscribed to the ‘If we build one, they will come’ philosophy of a website as a connective hub for career pathways and employment. And while many actually do come, we’re asking a lot of one medium to identify, qualify and materialize a meaningful future with “all-in” calls to action for next steps that are confusing to navigate and intimidating to pull the trigger on. So these sites become an entanglement of pie-in-the-sky portals and nebulous pathways, and they leave. 

3. Career Road Shows

Wrapping a bus or designing a booth to hit the road and spread the gospel of skills-based careers is a fun way to get the kids out of the classroom, engage in a conversation about meaningful career opportunities, and hand out a bundle of branded swag. But these can run over a million bucks and require equipment updates, depending on how long and far the show goes on, without one kid setting one foot inside a plant or facility. So that bus or booth needs to work extra hard in representing the advanced technology it’s touting. If it’s aerospace you’re selling, it had better be as cool as the rocket you’re making.

Let’s Get Digital

That same SkillsUSA study reports that CTE teachers believe industry-recognized credentials are valuable to students for beginning their careers, with 65% saying industry certificates are among the most valuable educational credentials after graduating high school. However, 35% of students enrolled in CTE courses say they have no contact with potential future employers, with only 12% experiencing site visits, 20% having pathway-related summer jobs, and 13% having pathway-related after-school jobs. 

So while videos and websites are digital mediums, they fulfill none of the aforementioned study’s criteria. Engagement is the magic word here, earlier.

To get in with Gen Z, workforce development efforts need to get into their phones and devices, where they spend an average of 9 hours a day. Social media like TikTok and Instagram account for much of that time, along with gaming – a favorite pastime reported by American teens. On top of that, there’s the social platform within games, where kids communicate back-and-forth in real-time via chat or voice, making mobile gaming the only medium that checks every box: engagement, mobility, and sharability. 

So if states and industry want to reach their next workforce, perhaps it’s time to get off the bus booth, video, or another website and start playing to win with gamified skills and recruitment that reaches kids wherever they are, on their phones, engaged and ready to play. 

Smartphones Can Change the Game in Catching Up Gen Z

Statistically speaking, one out of two of you is holding a phone right now. And if you’re not, you’re likely about to, as most mobile users check their phones 63 times a day.

Smartphone Usage: Going (and Growing) Strong

From texting to social media to streaming Netflix, the functionality of phones make it nearly impossible to put one down. Over this past year, the prowess of digital technology served as our tether to maintaining an education, connecting with loved ones, and even receiving healthcare. And if they say 21 days make a habit, try 365 of them. It’s safe to say, smartphones will remain snug in the palms of our hands.

According to techjury:
• There are 3.5 billion smartphone users in the world today
• Americans spend and average of 5.4 hours on their phone a day
• American teens spend an average of 9 hours a day in front of screens, and more than 7 of those are spent on mobile phones.

Another study reported that electronic device usage nearly doubled among U.S. kids during the pandemic.

chart on phone usage during COVID

Gaming is a Good Thing

So just what are our kids doing on their phones all day?

According financesonline, 75% of Gen Zers selected smartphones as their device of choice for everyday use, with 58% reporting playing games as their favorite pastime. That’s a lot of game time. The COVID-19 lockdown played a big part in this, of course, as mobile gaming helped serve as the universal antidote to the just-as-contagious side effect of the virus, boredom.

Games just may be the unsung hero over this past year, as they influenced our kids positively in different ways. Gaming makes us more competitive, for example, which means better problem-solvers. They can also enhance critical thinking, and expand our community beyond our four walls with those with similar interests.  

Take Pokémon GO, where users navigate the real world using an in-game map that allows them to visit “PokéStops”. While the app may appear to play to the wanderlust, one recent study’s findings reported respondents feeling more social, and expressed more positive emotions with increased motivation to explore their surroundings.” This reflects the opposite of the stigma associated with video games, in part, because these are mobile.

Mobile games can go where parents and educators can’t: Everywhere our kids go. So with learning loss at an all-time high due to the pandemic, maybe it’s ok that our kids are looking down at their phones, if they’re playing games that can teach them something meaningful … especially the ones that encourage them to play with a hire purpose.

K-12: Much Ado About Congressional Funding

With the House’s approval of the American Rescue Plan Act, K-12 district and state education agencies were just lobbed a $126 billion pot of gold to help eradicate the negative impact of the pandemic on our kids. Most notably, for learning loss and returning to school safely, for which states are mandated to reserve 5% of their funding, and districts 20%, specifically for those Title 1 schools with a high concentration of under-resourced communities.

That’s about $520 per student for learning loss alone, but, unfortunately, researchers estimate it would cost five times that to provide the resources needed to really catch them up. This translates into intensive tutoring, summer school, extended day school and our more traditional methods (and salaries) of in-class, en-masse instruction.

But the pandemic is still here. And even for those districts who have opened, not all parents are sending their kids back full time. Here’s the other issue: For one year, school curriculum has “come to them”, on their ChromeBooks, laptops, iPads and phones, and for the most part, they got used to it. So much so,  American teens spend an average of nine hours a day in front of screens today, and more than seven of those are spent on mobile phones. Are they all spent doing homework? No. But as educators evaluate how to maximize efficiencies of catching our kids up, a case can be made for a ‘‘fish-where-the-fish-are’ strategy by continuing to leverage this teachable medium with meaningful content they care about, and will engage in.

A New, Digital Day

The Pew Research Center reports that “95% of 13- to 17-year-olds have access to a smartphone.” And while under-resourced areas have suffered from limited access to WiFi over this last year, the federal government is also providing $3.2 billion to an emergency broadband connectivity fund as part of the bill, making accessibility soon to be a non-issue. 

While the value of in-person instruction and socialization should persevere, the pandemic forced the immediate implementation of virtual strategies, and our kids adapted. According to Bizly chief strategy officer Kevin Iwamoto, “Gen Z figured out how to develop communities and live in a virtual world.”

San Bernardino County Superintendent of Schools, the largest geographical county in the nation saw this first hand earlier this year. Hosting its annual, multi-district, STEMapalooza event virtually for the first time, engagement was a concern, as was support for their communities’ STEM-related career pathways. Enter ‘Hack Out BL4CKOUT’, a customized cybersecurity video game deployed at the event to be played from their mobile devices and Chromebooks, simulating real cyber events with a focus on critical thinking, communication, and cyber career facts. Over 3,000 hours of play were logged that day with kids’ asking for more.  Exit survey verbatims from 4th-8th graders who attended the event  ranged from, “WOW, I  had no ideaI I could be making $80,000 a year doing something I love when I grow up” to,  “Maybe I’ll go to a Cyber camp.”

Gamifying curriculum isn’t a new concept, but gamifying skills you can use toward grades, in-class rewards, and even a career – and can go wherever you go – is. This is especially important when considering reaching under-resourced, rural communities and inner cities that have been hit hard during the pandemic.

So if other state agencies and school districts can find a sustainable way to engage Gen Z by introducing virtual learning strategies that can entertain and educate by meeting them where they are – on their phones – that learning loss cost per student will be a lot more doable. 

And more fun.

Gaming apps skills development company skillsgapp inks contract with San Bernardino County Superintendent of Schools

Soft skills and middle-skills gaming app development company skillsgapp has been selected by San Bernardino County Superintendent of Schools (SBCSS) to provide its gaming apps focused on helping Generation Z gain the skills necessary to participate in the skills-based job sectors needed in numerous industries. Read More

Youth Apprenticeship Advantage: South Carolina

With America’s ever-growing skills gap, apprenticeships are becoming increasingly more important. Below is a feature on one state that’s using apprenticeships to its advantage. The U.S. Department of Labor awarded Apprenticeship Carolina in South Carolina $4.49 million over the course of four years to expand youth apprenticeships with 800 new youth apprentices and 230 youth pre-apprentices in high-growth industries in SC. These efforts are great strides toward building a qualified workforce pipeline and with the addition of mobile technology, we will be set to reach more youth talent. 

Youth Apprenticeships: A Win-Win

Written by: Kelly Steinhilper,
Vice President, Communications, SC Technical College System

According to SHRM, the combination of a tight labor market and the high cost of a college education is fueling interest in youth apprenticeships. This is great news for all, as apprenticeships are a win-win, offering students the chance to find stable middle-skills jobs that they like and can grow into, while employers create a happy workforce where they can groom from an early age.

Apprenticeship Carolina™ helps companies in South Carolina set up successful youth apprenticeship programs. In general, here’s how it works. High school juniors and seniors combine high school curriculum and career and technology training with critical on-the-job training performed at a local business. The students can pull in a paycheck through part-time work while earning a national credential in one of many high-demand occupations. They gain critical workforce experience while earning their high school diploma and some college credit. At the same time, South Carolina’s business and industry that need highly skilled workers can build a solid workforce pipeline for the future.

McLeod Information Systems, LLC, (MIS) provides a perfect example. MIS developed its cybersecurity youth apprenticeship program with two clear goals in mind: to grow a more robust information technology (IT) work base in Charleston, South Carolina, and to provide a vibrant new career path for local youth.

As a service-disabled, veteran-owned and -operated IT security business, MIS looked for ways to give back to the local community soon after its founding in North Charleston in 2016. MIS saw an opportunity to accomplish this goal with the 2019 announcement that Trident Technical College (TTC) would establish a new associate degree in cybersecurity.

MIS agreed to partner with TTC and Apprenticeship Carolina to develop a registered cybersecurity youth apprenticeship, becoming the first cybersecurity company in North Charleston to have apprentices enrolled at the college. 

Debbie McLeod, president and co-founder of MIS, has nothing but good things to say about apprenticeship and this dynamic partnership’s potential. When asked what inspired MIS to consider creating a youth apprenticeship program, McLeod responded, “We saw the number of unfilled cybersecurity positions, not just locally but worldwide, and we wanted to make a difference. There are 3 million openings worldwide and not nearly enough graduates to fill them. We knew that fresh, innovative approaches had to be taken to meet those workforce needs.” 

She continued, “At the same time, we looked at IT courses offered in local high schools. We saw that schools were not adequately equipping students to step out into the IT market, let alone the cybersecurity career field.” 

After speaking with Charleston County School District and Apprenticeship Carolina, MIS realized that with youth apprenticeship they could do both – grow a stronger IT work base and provide a vibrant new career path for local youth.

McLeod reported that she found the youth apprenticeship program to be rewarding on many levels. “For one, it allows us as a company to prepare and grow our future industry leaders. Everyone in the company sees the value of the program. For the company employees that work directly with the apprentices, it is the brighter part of the workday when they get to instruct these impressionable minds.”

As for the youth apprentices, it allows them to learn and progress in a career field to which they are generally not exposed. For instance, high school student Arthur Gibson, one of McLeod’s youth apprentices, shared that learning code was like learning a new language, and he loves it. When asked about the benefit of apprenticeship for high school students, Gibson said, “It shows you that education is not a tunnel but a road with many paths…the hands-on learning connects all the bookwork to the real world.”