What Leaders Can Learn From Game Design, Part 4: Surprise!

by Scott Crabtree
Image from fishtankbank.com


Please think of the last time you were pleasantly surprised. What happened in your brain? Science suggests your brain released more dopamine and your brain’s reward centers became more active because you didn’t expect what happened. What does this have to do with ‘gamification‘ and leadership?

Video games frequently–but unpredictably, of course–use surprise to engage players and get them ‘hooked’. Leaders can learn from game designers to better engage colleagues and stakeholders.

Think about any game you’ve played, and you’re likely to find that you were surprised when playing. Your expectations are set to a certain level, then the game exceeds those expectations. You are playing along with one weapon, and suddenly you stumble upon a major upgrade! An enemy monster drops a lot of gold as it dies from your spell! You win a round, and are rewarded with a crate full of rare goodies!

Game designers like me know how to get you ‘addicted’ to things, and exceeding your expectations is a great way to get you hooked. (I’m using the term ‘addicted’ loosely here; I used that term that while giving a class at a major video game development company, and a designer in the back raised his hand and said “We prefer ‘extremely compelling’ to ‘addictive'”!) Your brain gets a rush of dopamine, reward centers in your brain are highly stimulated, and your brain essentially says “Whatever this was, let’s do this again!”

You can use ‘gamification‘ and pleasant surprises to get your colleagues and stakeholders ‘addicted’ to your leadership. Instead of giving an annual holiday bonus of the same amount at the same time each year, surprise your employees with an unexpected spot bonus. Instead of telling a client no, delight them with a ‘yes’ they didn’t see coming. Give a colleague a personal gift when it’s not a holiday or their birthday. Under-promise and over-deliver to your team or customers. If you pleasantly surprise people, science suggests you’ll find they become loyal followers. How can you exceed expectations and pleasantly surprise people at work?

I want to practice what I preach, so here’s my surprise for you. I’m offering you a much larger discount on Choose Happiness @ Work–our card game that teaches the science of happiness–than we’ve publicly shared before. If you are interested in buying the game, please use the coupon code ‘Surprise40’ to get a 40% discount.

Remember ARMS to learn from Game Designers

Pulling together everything we’ve covered, remember ARMS to gamify your leadership. Remember to satisfy core human desires for:


Bring gamification to your work to be a better leader. Play your way to higher pay; master giving ARMS each day!

Note: This is the final blog in a 4-part series on what you can learn from game designers. If you missed them, you might also choose to read part one on Autonomy, part two on Relatedness, and/or part three on Mastery.