The Cognitive-Emotional Case for Gamification

by | Jan 8, 2019 | Blog

Everyone loves a good game.

Well, maybe not everyone. But, as psychologists and marketers know, incorporating elements of games into other activities evokes emotions that can produce desired outcomes – whether it’s selling coffee, teaching math or trying to get employees to adapt to new software.

This practice, known as gamification, has been around for almost a decade, and it is an emerging research area in business and information systems, says Jeffrey Mullins, instructor, executive in residence and doctoral student in the Department of Information Systems at the Sam M. Walton College of Business. Researchers know that design elements such as score-keeping, leaderboards or badges for various accomplishments can elicit emotions and affect cognitions that lead to desired outcomes for organizations.

portrait of Jeff Mullins

Jeff Mullins

But in some areas, gamification has failed, usually because of poor design.

These failures, as well as new discoveries in cognitive neuroscience, motivated Mullins and Rajiv Sabherwal, professor and chair of the Department of Information Systems, to seek a deeper understanding of how individuals respond to gamification design. The researchers conducted an extensive review of recent work in psychology and neuroscience to offer ideas about how gamification design might be improved.

“Recent advances in cognitive neuroscience suggest a much more nuanced interaction between cognition and emotion,” said Mullins. “One study described the difference as ‘only minimally decomposable,’ meaning that feelings and mental processes are probably more difficult to separate than once thought. What we’re learning now is that behavior is determined by complex and blurred interactions along multiple affective and cognitive dimensions. We conclude that gamification design should mirror this integrative perspective to maximize the probability of achieving the desired effect.”

Mullins and Sabherwal developed their “cognitive–emotional view” of gamification by drawing from three existing frameworks that consider the importance of cognition and emotion. The “mechanics-dynamics-emotions” framework positions emotion as a critical consideration in gamification design. “Cognitive structure of emotions” offers a flowchart of the sources of emotions. And finally, the “BrainMap taxonomy of cognitive functions” classifies cognitions via a database of functional brain-imaging experiments.

Mullins emphasizes that these frameworks interact to explain human reactions to gamification. Each holds significant potential for gamification design, but Mullins and Sabherwal suggest that their combination offers a “map” through which designers can consider the desired cognitions, determine how to best support those cognitions through both positive and negative emotions, and select appropriate game mechanics to elicit those emotions and cognitions.

“The cognitive–emotional view integrates literature in psychology and neuroscience to better understand the alignment of desired cognitions, emotions and game mechanics,” Mullins said. “We believe that this view answers the call for greater theorizing around gamification and informs gamification research by explaining how elements of game design can interact with both emotion and cognition to produce desired outcomes.”

The researchers’ analysis, “Gamification: A cognitive-emotional view,” was published in the Journal of Business Research.

About The Author

Matt McGowan writes about research in the College of Engineering, Sam M. Walton College of Business, School of Law and other areas. He is the editor of Short Talks From the Hill, a podcast of the University of Arkansas. Reach him at 479-575-4246 or

University Relations Science and Research Team

University Relations Science and Research Team

Matt McGowan
science and research writer

Robert Whitby
science and research writer

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