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Matt Roda / January 20, 2023

Gamification in Neuro Training

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Is Reflexion just a video game? It’s a question worth exploring, and the answer isn’t a straightforward yes or no. 

The short answer is we gamify cognitive training exercises.

“No way you can beat my score.”

In athletics, gamification refers to the use of game design elements, such as points, levels, challenges, and leaderboards, to enhance the training and engagement of athletes. 

While there are specific reasons why neuro training makes particular sense to gamify, we are part of a much larger trend to turn exercise and daily activities into a game. 

For example, Fitbit users get badges for 10,000 steps, or Apple Watch awards you for closing your rings. Read more on this trend here

Gamification is especially important for cognitive tasks that require attention, since the brain is the obvious focus of neuro training.

While these are benefits, having drills that are too game-like can be bad in its own right.

“It’s just a game.”

A challenge gamification creates is the perceived loss of translation to sports. 

Athletes might ignore the value of effective exercises if they think neuro training is just playing a game. Bankers don’t play Monopoly to make more money at work, right?

But skipping out on neuro training because it just feels like a game is comparable to ignoring cardio training because it’s hard. Yes, that’s true, but it’s powerful and so we do it anyway. Read more here for our thoughts on the relationship between cardio and neuro training. 

It’s also important to make sure that the game elements do not detract from the primary purpose of the drill, and there is scientific justification for the connection to a cognitive skill.

To complicate the question further, there’s a cost not to having gamification in neuro training drills too.

Boring Drills = Bad Data

The value of gamification was something we learned the hard way in 2018 while conducting a clinical study at Penn State. When brainstorming effective tests, we took a laboratory approach to drill design: strictly control the timing and location of targets, and change only one variable at a time.  

An early rendition of an inhibitory control test involved staying still and paying attention to slow moving targets for five minutes straight. After early experimentation, comparing scores at the beginning and end of the test was like looking at two different people.

In essence, boredom caused a difference in early and late scores by as much as 30%. We modified the test to be more rapid fire, and expanded the range in which targets could appear. Both anecdotally and in the data, the test results were significantly better.

The Takeaway

Adding gamification makes athletes more attentive, a relevant consideration when the drill involves brain activity. But this needs to be balanced with design elements that don’t go so far as to become a classic arcade game. 

And understanding the reasons neuro training is gamified can make it click as to why these things go together. 


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