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The word is out on gaming—it’s not just something that children do for fun anymore. Games are tools that can be used to teach new skills, reduce stress, and even change behaviors by triggering chemical reactions in the brain.
These benefits and more have provided scientists and developers with a promising path forward. “Games reduce the stress of making decisions,” says neuroscientist and professor Paul Zak. “App designers have now used game structures to help people learn new information, make new decisions; and one of the most exciting applications is in financial decision making.”
But simply turning something into a game isn’t enough to see meaningful changes in habits. Developers of gamified apps like Long Game have found ways to combine the engaging and fun experience we expect from video games, with something that has traditionally not been very fun: saving money.
PAUL ZAK: Games can be a very effective way towards financial independence. They keep us attentive to the task.
NARRATOR: Gaming has become the largest form of entertainment in the world. It dwarfs all other forms of media, from streaming to social media and the box office. But what is it about gaming that has us so transfixed?
ZAK: Games by design are meant to reinforce behavior and keep you coming back.The brain loves novelty. So when I have something new in my environment, I get a little reward response in my brain that says focus on this thing.
NARRATOR: Games are using techniques that activate dopamine and oxytocin in our brains, and that puts our minds in hyper-focused immersive states.
ZAK: Games reduce the stress of making decisions, and so app designers have now used game structures to help people learn new information, make new decisions. And one of the most interesting applications is in financial decision-making.
NARRATOR: So if games have such a strong influence over our brains, how can we leverage games to make better financial decisions? And if we do, what’s the worst that could happen? This is Your Brain on Money.
Meet Paul Zak. He’s a neuroscientist and a professor at Claremont Graduate University in Southern California. And he’s looked deep into our brains on games.
ZAK: I’m a Martian. I don’t really understand the humans. And so I spent 25 years running experiments to try to understand why people do what they do. We all want instant gratification, but to get good stuff later, we have to save money, and that’s a painful stimulus for the brain. So it’s actually processed like pain when I have to give something up, like give up money. And so overcoming that requires metabolic energy, but the brain’s a very lazy organ. It takes so much energy to run your brain that it wants to idle most of the time.
NARRATOR: The brain compensates for its laziness by forming pathways that allow us to achieve tasks on autopilot. And these are called habits.
ZAK: The deep question I show do we change habits? Two core things have to happen in the brain to influence your decision-making. The first is you have to attend to that information. That’s driven by the brain’s production of dopamine. The second thing you’ve gotta get my lazy brain to care about the outcomes, and that caring is driven by emotional resonance, and that’s associated with the brain’s production of oxytocin.
NARRATOR: Paul calls the combination of these two events neurologic immersion, and it’s essential in helping develop new and better habits. One area people often experience this brain state is while playing games.
ZAK: Some of the gamification apps focus so much on fun, as opposed to a learning experience that they just are like any other game You might as well play Candy Crush. Financial decisions are hard. So by breaking down tasks in a platform that makes it fun to make difficult decisions, people are able to better understand what they’re doing, but also able to change what their default behavior is. And we get in the habit of, for example, savings.
NARRATOR: We met with the developers of a gamified savings app to see what techniques they use to change behavior.
This is Lindsay Holden, and she’s the co-founder and CEO of Long Game.
LINDSAY HOLDEN: A lot of people have trouble engaging with their finances. So how do we get you to start changing your behavior?
NARRATOR: Lindsay and her team are using incentives called prize-linked savings accounts to increase their users’ savings habits. Inside the app, users…
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