Sponsored By

Featured Blog | This community-written post highlights the best of what the game industry has to offer. Read more like it on the Game Developer Blogs.

What are rewards, and what's wrong with gamification? In the second episode of Decoding the Game, we introduce new concepts and terminology that help us better understand rewards, game design, and the pitfalls of gamification.

Nils Pihl, Blogger

October 27, 2013

7 Min Read

In the second episode of Decoding the Game we explore what rewards really are, introducing new concepts and terminology that help us better understand game design and the pitfalls of gamification.

This is the second episode out of five, so make sure you visit and subscribe to youtube.com/decodingthegame

Also, you might enjoy Why Gamification is a Dirty Word.


Hello and welcome to the second episode of Decoding the game, where we discuss behavioral engineering, the interesting intersection of behavioral psychology, game theory and memetics. 

I'm your host, Nils, and I'm a behavioral engineer. This episode I'll try to answer the question: What are rewards? But first, I'd like to start by making a controversial claim, and this one is for you, Gabe Zichermann: Counter to popular belief, points are not rewards. Let me explain:

If play is voluntarily performing an action for a perceived reward, understanding what rewards really are is going to be important. In popular discourse, rewards are often thought of as something that the designer gives to the player. Maybe that is a result of how we use our language - we like to say that we GIVE someone a reward for good behavior. But this definition, and this kind of language, suffers from a serious pitfall - we end up having to explain why rewards are sometimes not rewarding.

If a point itself is a reward, and rewards are motivating and fun, we quickly run into issues. If we make a game consisting of a single button that awards you one million points every time you click it, and that's it, no leaderboards, no challenge - that game should still be fun, by that definition - so, why isn't it?

To explain why this is, I'd like to introduce some new terminology that will help us dissect and understand rewards: The concepts of Currency and Tokens. 

The currency of a reward is why you're engaged - it's that feeling of mastery, or belonging, competition or discovery that makes the game enjoyable to you.  It's probably the reason you decided to play the game in the first place. A token, on the other hand, is a quantifiable representation of that currency. 

So, if we're playing Tetris for the currency of feeling mastery, a point in Tetris would be a token of that currency - and so would a position on a leaderboard. A new friend on Facebook is a token of the currency "social belonging and connectedness" that made you engage in the first place. 

Points, badges and leaderboards are not rewards in and of themselves.

So, what is it we GIVE someone when they perform well? We give them awards, and that way we don't run into the logical paradox of rewards that are not rewarding. An award does not have to be rewarding. 
What this teaches us is that points or badges or achievements will only feel rewarding if they represent a currency that we value. This is why gamification fails more often than it succeeds, and why Gabe Zichermann is wrong when he says "the presence of key game mechanics, such as points, badges, levels, challenges, leaderboards, rewards, and onboarding, are signals that a game is taking place."

The metric for measuring your progress in a game is not what makes the game. Implementing a leaderboard on your website will probably not make people buy your product. A badge is no substitute for quality and substance. 

But we can do more with these new terms, because it turns out that currencies can have different attributes. For one, a currency can either be finite or infinite. To explain what finite and infinite currencies are, I invite you to remember that old classic: the Pinball machine. You'll remember that Pinball machines had a fixed number of digits that it could use to display your score, meaning that there was a theoretical, and sometimes attainable, maximum score. For some people, reaching that maximum score was a highly motivating and enjoyable experience - but for others, it was a frustrating and involuntary end to their game. Some players are more likely to engage with finite currencies, while others prefer infinite currencies, and a player's preference can be highly predictive of their behavior.

If you're still not clear on what the difference is between a finite and an infinite currency, I'd like you to picture the following. Imagine three people that are each engaged in playfully walking. The first person wants to see if she can walk all the way to Mount Everest, and each step along the way is a small token, a quantifiable representation, of her progress. Once she reaches Mount Everest, she's done, and there's no point taking another step - She's won the game and another step would not be rewarding. She's playing a finite currency game.

The second person has a very different mission - she wants to see how far she can walk. Again, each step, mile or hour is a quantifiable measurement of her progress - but it will always make sense for her to take another step. Another step would always be rewarding. She's playing an infinite currency game.

The third person wants to see if he can walk further than either of the other two. Intuitively, this might seem like an infinite currency game, because the second person is playing an infinite game - but it is actually a finite currency game. Once the third person has taken one step further than the second person, he's done, and taking another step would not be rewarding.

If you watched last week's episode you'll remember that rewards can either be intrinsic or instrumental, and this is also a crucial distinction for currencies. Different currencies engage different players, and engender different player behaviors, and monetize in different ways. The kind of currency that the player is pursuing can become one of the most predictive things about their behavior. Tetris players that aim for a high score often take more risks than players that are trying to keep the game going. 

In versions of Tetris that award you with more points for removing more lines at once, players that aim for a high score will often use a strategy dependent on getting the 4x1 piece into place, removing 4 lines at once. This is a risky strategy that is likely to end the game early, and is less likely to be pursued by players that aim to keep the game going. 

As such, the tokens you choose to display in your interface can select for different behaviors. You can predict that putting a timer, with a time leaderboard, in a Tetris game will yield measurably different play styles than a version that displays points.

So to summarize, a point is only rewarding when it is a token of a currency that the player values.

What currencies does your favorite game have? Are they finite or infinite, intrinsic or instrumental? Which ones did you prefer? Share your thoughts with us over at Gamasutra. The link is in the description.

Thank you for watching, and make sure you subscribe if you want to know more about behavioral psychology, game theory and memetics. My name is Nils, and I hope that you'll join us next time as we continue decoding the game.

Read more about:

Featured Blogs

About the Author(s)

Daily news, dev blogs, and stories from Game Developer straight to your inbox

You May Also Like