Short story about the brain chemicals and how they affect players

How does human brain acts during playing games? Do we feel the same? Do we react the same? This short review of brain chemicals and their attributes shows connections between them and emotions we feel.

Four most important brain chemicals are serotonin, endorphins, oxytocin and dopamine. Let’s take a closer look.

Serotonin = happiness hormone. 
It causes the feeling of safety calmness, happiness and self-confidence. Deficiency causes low self-esteem, obsessive thoughts, compulsive behavior, impulsiveness and aggressiveness. It is released e.g. when consuming carbohydrates (especially sweets and chocolate). Serotonin is something that we feel when we feel calm and confident. It is not just happiness, it is calmness. It is relaxed happiness.

Serotonin can be also released when we play video games. It is released by reminding about the achievements, showing the progress in the game and receiving gifts from other players. All these elements make a player feel important, needed and useful. Calm and valuable. So we do not have to eat chocolates — we can also play games that give a boost of serotonin.

Endorphins = happiness++ hormone
Endorphins cause really good mood (also euphoric) and provide energy to “go an extra mile”, decreasing the feeling of being tired. It is a very important chemical, because when we were living in a stone age, endorphins saved our lives, because it kept us going in spite of being tired and hungry. Deficiency of endorphins causes mood swings and extreme, contrasting emotions. It is released e.g. by physical exercises and movement.

Endorphins can be also released when we play video games. It is released when overcoming difficult challenges and achieving new goals — all the situations, that provide satisfaction. It is the moment, when your body can go on without sleeping, eating or drinking, because originally the nature created endorphins for survival, so now, without the threat, it cheats our minds, what can be dangerous.

Oxytocin = love hormone
It helps to create social bonds and maintain them, causes the feeling of belonging and connection (also love). Deficiency lowers our productivity and ability to communicate. It is released during physical and eye contact with other people. Keep eye contact with people and you will get more oxytocin :) If it is kept on a high level, we are very happy persons! We are confident and calm, happy people.

When playing games it is released when interacting with other players, e.g. receiving and giving presents, CO-OP missions, belonging in a guild (all social aspects), but also by an interesting plot, that a player identifies with. When the player identifies with the character, it reflects in his brain, that is releasing oxytocin. The nature created oxytocin because people would not survive alone, without other people. The nature created it so we gather in groups, we create communities. It was also created for our survival, it is evolutionary chemical.

Dopamine = reward hormone
The most important brain chemical for game developers and for people. It is not only for surviving, it is for living. There was an experiment with 2 mice: one with normal brain, the second one without the part (surgery removed) responsible for dopamine. They both felt the same pleasure, measured by other brain chemicals, when they were drinking water with sugar (mice love it). And the mouse without dopamine, even though it was dying from hunger, and the food was laying just in the corner of its cage, didn’t go to eat it. This mouse was hungry and it died from hunger, living next to the food! Because it didn’t want to go there.

Dopamine does not makes us happy. It makes us want to do things (that are associated with pleasure). Deficiency causes slow reaction time and anhedonia (unwillingness to do anything), even depression. It is released when doing an action associated with pleasure (also when only thinking about it). When we feel pleasure, our brain remembers it. It programs a dopamine path and remembers, what triggered pleasure, so this way it wants to repeat this pleasure. And any time we repeat that situation and feel pleasure, the path becomes the highway, and we become addicted. Dopamine paths are transporting dopamine to certain parts of our brains and it is connected with emotional memory. So even if we are just remembering or thinking about something that gave us pleasure, the dopamine is there and makes us wanna do that.

So, when we talk about games, it causes that we want to start playing a specific game, and that we want to keep playing it. It is released before receiving a reward or achieving a goal.

Psychology gives us a list of rules of the most effective rewards for people in general, so why not to implement it in games, for players? Let’s see…

Rule 1: The closer to receiving a reward we are, the more we want it.
Rule 2: People prefer bigger numbers (example in games: 100xp for killing a monster and 1000xp to level up is more attractive than 1xp for killing and 10xp to level up — bigger numbers look more attractive).
Rule 3: People expect to receive a reward and feedback instantly after completing a task.
Rule 4: People work harder on keeping what they already have, rather than gaining new things.
Rule 5: An indicator of how close to a reward we are can replace the reward itself after some time (example in games: experience points — it does not give us anything, but it gets us closer to a reward; really important in gamification).
Rule 6: Feelings of mastery and achievements become rewards if they are difficult enough to obtain. If we feel like we are master in some area, it is a reward for us, we feel unique.

What rewards do we enjoy the most?
1. Of unknown contents: when we know, that we will get something, but we don’t know exactly what it will be, like loot drops.
2. Expected and deserved: when we know exactly what we are getting our reward for, so the reward is well deserved.
3. Meaningful: especially making us unique.

Wikipedia says, that emotion is conscious experience characterized by intense mental activity and a high degree of pleasure or pleasure. Robert Plutchik tried to categorize all the emotions that we are feeling, and he created eight primary bipolar emotions: joy-sadness, anger-fear, trust-disgust, surprise-anticipation. According to him, all other emotions occur as combinations or compounds of these primary emotions. He placed all the emotions on the wheel of emotions:

In the core the emotions are the strongest, outside they are weaker and weaker, and together they create another emotions.

Stanley Schachter created two-factor theory of emotion. In order for the emotion to be felt, there need to be 2 steps:
1. We need to become excited, internally aroused.
2. We have to interpret the excitement.
And only then we feel this emotion.

Interpretation of our excitement allows us to feel the emotion/determines the emotion we feel. When people get excited we can, through the back door, put any interpretation, and they will feel this emotion.

What does it mean for us as game developers? It means we can trigger specific emotions in games.

Let’s now analyze 2 more brain chemicals: adrenalin and noradrenalin.

Causes excitement, sweating, increase of body heat, arousal. Helps focusing on specific thing, one thing. Deficiency causes health problems (mainly in the blood system). It is released e.g. with the “fight-or-flight” reaction (in a game, when the HP bar is low and the big danger is coming, our body will recognize it as a fight-or-flight situation: we need to act really quickly, we are in a stressful situation) or feeling of a chance to gain something valuable (in games, when the boss dies and probably will drop valuable stuff).

Causes increased blood pressure and prolongs the ability to stay focused on everything, staying alert. Deficiency causes health problems (primarily with heart). It is released by stressful situations, usually together with adrenalin.

Hugo Lovheim created Lovheim cube of emotion — he correlated brain chemicals with emotions:

For example: we feel fear/terror when we have low serotonin, high dopamine and low noradrenalin; we feel surprised when we have high serotonin, low dopamine and high noradrenalin, and so on.

We have 3-dimensional diagram: one dimension is serotonin, one — dopamine and one — noradrenalin. Basing on these three chemicals he defined eight emotions and placed them on the vertices of the cube. The more dopamine we have, the more we go from shame/humiliation to fear/terror, but if we get serotonin at the same time, we go to enjoyment/joy or contempt/disgust.

If you look at the diagram below, you’ll see that brain chemicals rule our lives. We feel depression when we do not have enough dopamine and serotonin, and so on:

Chris Bateman made the ranking of emotions, that are the most often felt during playing games
Top ten are:
1. Amusement
2. Contentment
3. Wonderment
4. Excitement
5. Curiosity
6. Fiero
7. Surprise
8. Naches
9. Relief
10. Bliss

We, as game developers, should care about the knowledge about the brain and brain chemicals, because we can design a game to create a specific emotions. People play games because they want to feel different kind of emotions, that the real world doesn’t offer to them. If we understand the correlations between emotions and brain chemicals, we get a powerful tool to build better games.

/This post was influenced by Game Industry Conference’s (2016, Poznan, Poland) lecture ‘What happens in our brains when we play games” by Piotr Sobolewski.

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