How Psychology Explains The Use of Rewards in Gaming

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We all like to get rewards and bonuses when we’re playing a game. From the acquisition of in-game items such as treasure and weapons to a Golden Nugget online casino bonus code, extra points or a cash prize, rewards are definitely a big part of the fun. But what is actually happening when we receive a reward in terms of the way that our brains and our bodies respond? And perhaps more importantly, how does the promise of a reward affect the way that we perceive gaming and our reasons for continuing to play?


Rewards in psychology 

The idea of rewards and punishment is basic to most theories of psychology. It is generally understood that humans, and indeed other living creatures, are motivated to seek out things that are pleasurable and to avoid things that are painful. It then follows that by giving rewards (which are enjoyable) in return for certain actions, and punishing other actions with unpleasant consequences, we can control and manipulate behavior. Many social structures are constructed along these lines, not just games.


The Skinner box 

Behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner is most famous for his experiments involving the operant conditioning chamber, better known since as a Skinner box. Rats or pigeons were placed in a box with a lever they could pull to give them food pellets as a reward (among other possible consequences). The experiments generated a number of results, but for our purposes, the most interesting conclusion is that the lever was pulled most often when there was a roughly 50/50 chance of receiving food.

In other words, if the objective is to get someone to pull a lever as much as possible, then leading them to think that there is a chance they might get a reward is more effective than always giving them a reward every time they pull the lever. On the surface, this result may seem surprising. However, it explains why people are so drawn to gambling: not because they see it as an effective way to make money, but because the possibility of a reward keeps us coming back more often than the certainty of one.


Rewards in gaming 

Setting up a system where sometimes you get a reward for performing an action and sometimes you don’t is known as a variable reward schedule. This can be seen in its purest form with slot machines, which are effectively the Skinner box in action. Giving a guaranteed reward in return for a certain action is known as a fixed reward schedule, and while this is used in gaming, it is not as effective, or as much fun, as using a variable reward schedule.

In some ways, variable rewards define gaming. After all, a fixed reward in return for a fixed action sounds a lot like work. A variable reward in return for an action means that essentially, you’re performing the action for its own sake. That sounds a lot like play!


The ethics of rewards 

Some see the use of variable reward schedules in gaming as manipulative. They only exist in order to keep you playing, critics say, and in many cases, this means that you’re going to part with your money. To some degree, this is true, but any factor that makes a game more enjoyable could also be seen as a manipulative way to make you want to keep playing. It is true, however, that a fixed reward schedule lets a player stay more in control. They play until they achieve a goal and then they stop. A variable reward schedule can be seen as ‘tricking’ a player into playing for longer, in anticipation of a payoff that may never arrive.

The counter-argument is that a fixed reward schedule shifts our motivation away from playing for fun to playing in order to get the reward or achieve a goal. It becomes more like work than play, and unless the game keeps us moving forward in search of different and better-fixed rewards, our interest wanes because the game becomes repetitive and also less challenging.


Do we need rewards?

Rewards reinforce player behavior, increase their sense of mastery, and give dopamine hits that generate a sense of wellbeing. They are an intrinsic part of game-playing. However, with a variable reward schedule, it feels more like you’re enjoying the game for its own sake. This feeling is authentic, even though if you were to play for too long without getting a reward, you would likely become frustrated and bored.

The psychology of rewards in gaming is fascinating, but at the end of the day, we play because we want to. To some degree, you’re being manipulated by the game – but understanding that and choosing to go along with it anyway is all part of the fun.

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