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Thoughts on the ‘win imperative’ and reward systems in video games

I’ve asked this question before, but let me do it again: why do we play games? As I’ve previously addressed, fun can take many forms, but as others have written, it invariably involves some sort of ‘win’ imperative. We play games to win, because winning makes us feel better about ourselves, gives us bragging rights amongst peers, etc. etc. Reward systems in video games are often used as a way of making the win more apparent, but does that make it any more legitimate, or the game any more fun?

Recently, I happened across a great piece by Tadhg Kelly, who maintains the What Games Are blog and wrote a book and stuff. In the article, Kelly investigates this idea of win imperative, and how it is the underlying key ‘spark’ to fun in games. He addresses the recent trend of game developers (particularly those making mobile/social/casual games) heaping on piles and piles of rewards, badges and achievements, in hopes of capitalizing on reward systems. Here’s the thing (and I’m still just kind of paraphrasing Kelly): reward systems mean nothing if they aren’t attached to some sort of accomplishment that the player is invested in.

The takeaway of Kelly’s piece is that game developers should not focus on reward hierarchies, but on the underlying game mechanics that give those rewards meaning. In other words, people are only going to care about your rewards if they are backed by solid game design. Nobody cares about getting a badge for clicking on the same thing 5,000,000 times. Your game is still going to suck and you’re going to have trouble getting people to play it, badge or no badge.

I think the real issue here is that some developers don’t actually understand the term ‘reward system.’ It is not the reward that the player is working to achieve, it is the accomplishment that the reward acknowledges. It is the carrot at the end of the rope, yes, but what game developers don’t realize is that without solid game mechanics, they aren’t putting carrots at the end of the rope, they’re putting… used batteries? Melted action figures? Used parts from a 1984 Saab 90?

Pokémon is a great example of a solid set of reward systems, because it illustrates how rewards can be integrated into the design and content of a game. In Pokémon, the player is working toward a goal: to catch ‘em all. Pokémon are the ‘badges’ and achievements of the game: every Pokémon caught is another little victory toward the end goal of becoming a Pokémon master. Would the player care about catching them all if all the Pokémon had the exact same stats, abilities and sprites and they all had roughly the same probability of being caught? (No.) Each Pokémon represents some sort of accomplishment the player has made: they’ve explored to the point of finding the Pokémon, they’ve battled it (without killing it), and they’ve successfully captured it. There’s time investment, a bit of skill, and a bit of luck involved, so each Pokémon caught has a ‘story’ to go with it.

Additionally, Pokémon are desirable because once they have been caught, they alter the content of the game. They aren’t just gold stars, they are the player’s arsenal. This is why children all of the world are still pouring millions of collective hours into these games: they’re built upon a very dynamic, content-integrated reward system that is fun and, well, rewarding.

While I agree with pretty much everything Kelly says in his article, I would word my conclusion a little bit differently. I think we should be focusing on reward systems, we should just be clear about what those actually are, and we should be integrating them into our games’ content as much as possible. Rather than offering up pats on the back, we should be offering up rewards that are tangible within the game’s context. Because if there’s one thing gamers will never complain about there being too much of, it’s content.