Reward Structures in Video Games

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February 5, 2013 by a great ape

An article in the Game Studies journal by Allison Gazzard of the University of Bedfordshire, UK explores a specific type of reward structure in video games in her work “Unlocking the Gameworld: The Rewards of Space and Time in Videogames.” According to the article, video games are widely acknowledged as spatial mediums because players often have to work through a similar space throughout a particular level of a game. However, more and more, video games have become more and more dynamic in terms of their spatial structures. In nearly every type of game, however, Gazzard hypothesizes there is a similar underlying relationship in the game that correlates space and time with reward.

Gazzard acknowledges the different manners with which to define the function of rewards in particular games. Sometimes, point-based rewards are the basis of progress. In other games, rewards (like mushrooms in Super Mario Bros. or first aid packs in Bioshock) may function to increase the amount of time one plays the game. In this case, rewards directly correlate with time. In arcade games, time played is often directly correlated with score or money. It’s amazing that despite the great amount of time that separates the early arcade games from newer games like Bioshock, the same reward structures can be found again and again with regards to prolonging the amount of time spent playing a particular game.

There are also what Hallford calls “rewards of access” that influence the space that the player can move through (Gazzard). As I read this component of the article, I was instantly reminded of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time where the completion of a given temple would almost always yield access to a new area of the same world map. These types of rewards seem to directly correlate with a greater spatial progression through the game. Gazzard also makes the point that other forms of rewards, like “rewards of glory” or “rewards of facility” which improve a player’s character to do new things (like new weapons in Halo, for instance) often still ultimately yield either an increase in spatial progression or allow one to last longer (Gazzard). However, she believes that separating such spatial rewards into either rewards of exploration or rewards of environment allow games to vary reward structures. The examples I thought of as I read were the presence of strengthened armor variants in shooter games, which typically would influence the amount of time spent in the game, or the reward of new skills (such greater jumping ability or speed) that would allow a character to reach places he or she could not reach before.

Gazzard explores a variety of different games that demonstrate the use of reward to influence player exploration or interactions with the environment, such as Bejeweled 2, Limbo, or Pac-man. She also distinguishes the rewards aforementioned and “false rewards” which are often used in demo sequences or assist in helping a player understand the game better or reflect back on parts of the game a player has completed (Gazzard).

However, I think the most interesting point she makes is her idea of the existence of a “cycle of reward of exploration” (Gazzard). As per her description, in some games (particularly Limbo) is rewarded with exploring new paths of the game, but encounters new obstacles along each new path. From here, the cycle repeats. Though seemingly reductionist in the abstract, it appears to me that this cycle exists in a plethora of games, especially games of the adventure variety. To me, the combination of these short-term cycles are probably responsible for motivating many players to continue playing. The mention of embedded narratives as one of Jenkins’ four narratives seemed entirely consistent with these reward structures in Understanding Video Games by Egenfeldt-Nielsen, et al. Once the game Is established as a mysterious “memory palace whose contents must be deciphered,” the player willingly engages and jumps into these cycles to learn more about the plot or the knowledge associated with greater spatial exploration (Egenfeldt-Nielsen). To go back to The Legend of Zelda example mentioned earlier, one progresses through the game by means of spatial reward cycles both to gain access to new areas and to gain the knowledge that builds on the storyline and incrementally draws Link closer to saving the world. In this respect, it appears that such reward structures can often play very important functions in driving the narratives of many games.

The existence of such cycles makes me wonder whether these cycles were intentionally placed into games during the design stages or whether they were added almost subconsciously. The presence of these cycles also remind me a lot of Salen and Zimmerman’s magic circle idea. Would it be valid that these cycles are in fact what draw one into the magic circles that seem to dominate much of gameplay? Gazzard’s article is a very interesting one because it draws attention to a major component of a game’s mechanics that is often unexplored in game studies. Despite this, after reading the article, Gazzard makes the presence of such similar structures underlying a large variety of games very apparent. She is particularly effective in that she specifically explores games from different genres and eras, so many of her conclusions seem qualitatively sound in terms of the sample size she examines. Regardless, Gazzard addresses the in-game reward structures in a new way: from the perspective of space and time and how they influence both of these major components that shape how a player interacts with a game. It will certainly be interesting to see how future game reward systems evolve from the systems that currently dominate video games. Though Gazzard only seems to focus on space and time within the game, it is also important to recognize that real time and real space can be affected by gameplay too. With the emergence of games based on real world movement like the Kinect, how will such games begin to play a role in real space and real time? These questions may remain to be explored by game studies.

— Neil Sethi

Works Cited

Gazzard, Alison. “Unlocking the Gameworld: The Rewards of Space and Time in Videogames.” Game Studies 11.1 (2011). Game Studies. The International Journal of Computer Game Research, 02 Feb. 2013. Web. 05 Feb. 2013. <;.

Smith, Jonas Heide., Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen, Susana Pajares. Tosca, and Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen. Understanding Video Games: The Essential Introduction. New York: Routledge, 2013. Print.


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