Instant Gratification

Instant Gratification

Games are by definition about reward. You can’t have a game that doesn’t reward you in some way for doing something. Most games have both long-term rewards (say, winning in Monopoly), and short-term rewards (say, receiving money when someone lands on your hotel). I think it’s quite clear that these rewards are what make games so appealing to us as humans. In general, we like being rewarded for performing well.

When I find myself addicted to a digital game, I often find myself dreaming of and longing for a particular mechanic of the game. Below is a list of some game mechanics that I’ve found myself addicted to in the past:

  • Sniping in Mass Effect
  • Hitting players with the grenade launcher addon (“noob tube”) in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2
  • Sneak attacking with the bow in Oblivion: The Elder Scrolls IV
  • Burst damaging enemies with certain heroes in Defense of the Ancients and champions in League of Legends
  • Sneak attacking with my fleet from stealth in Space Pirates and Zombies
  • Headshotting in Fable
  • Critical hitting in Iron Dukes

What do all of these mechanics have in common? You’ll notice that many of them are sniping or sneak attacking. I find this kind of burst mechanic, whereby you destroy an enemy in one fell swoop, extremely appealing, and I’ll bet many other gamers do too. (As an aside, if you have never experienced something like this, I suggest you play Iron Dukes, listed above, right now. It should only take you a few minutes to get into a combat minigame and experience what I am talking about.)

Iron Dukes

So why do I find this kind of mechanic so appealing that I dream about it when I’m not playing the game? I’d wager that what makes “one-shotting” things so viscerally pleasurable is because it is when we decimate an enemy in one well-timed, well-aimed blast that the gap between action and reward is the shortest. We have instant feedback and instant gratification (if we succeed). Either you miss the headshot, and you know you’ve given up your position, or you hit it, and you are immediately rewarded with the sight of your target going down.

Another thing you’ll notice about the examples above is that they’re all violent. That common element, however, is just a coincidence shaped by the content of mainstream games. Can a game implement a well-timed action/instant gratification mechanic that is not in combat? Absolutely, it just doesn’t happen as often as it should.


  • mary
    Posted at 04:19h, 22 October

    Great question, Ramenhotep– if the situation is not in combat, then perhaps it is trickier because there may be no one “enemy.” In Flower, for example, players receive immediate feedback, but there is no way, for example, to “wipe out” the task at hand with a secret technique, no way to shortcut a challenge… I’m sure with some brainstorming non-violent versions of this might emerge.

    Posted at 13:26h, 24 October

    I have to question the first statement you make here. I don’t claim to have an exact definition of what a game is, but its certainly not “a system that produces rewards”.

    For me, the oft-cited hypothetical example of a “game” that consists of nothing more than a single button that, when pressed, displays a “YOU WIN” message is proof enough of this!

  • ramenhotep
    Posted at 15:13h, 24 October

    Great points, PASTRIES.

    Not to sound defensive, but I think you misrepresented what I said. I said that “Games are by definition about reward.” I did not say that the definition of a game is a system that produces rewards. The difference is subtle, but important; all games are systems that produce rewards, but not all systems that produce rewards are games.

    Your example of the push-button-and-win game illustrates this point quite clearly. Just because it rewards a “player” for her action doesn’t make it a game. However, I think you would be hard pressed to come up with something that most people agree is a game, but that doesn’t have some sort of reward system in it, even if the reward is just a feeling of satisfaction or accomplishment.


    Posted at 13:20h, 25 October

    Don’t worry, you don’t sound defensive at all! I still find the idea that “all games are systems that produce rewards” to be frustratingly atomistic, though. What is the reward of finishing a crossword puzzle? It’s simply to have finished the puzzle.

    If the “reward” is the experience itself, isn’t claiming that games are about rewards circular and redundant?

  • anobium
    Posted at 16:02h, 25 October

    Speaking for myself, I find “having finished the crossword puzzle” very rewarding. In a well-constructed puzzle, I also find solving individual clues to be rewarding, not just for the sense of accomplishment but because of the burst of understanding about how the clue and solution relate to each other. (I like cryptic crosswords; the experience of realizing the solution to a good cryptic clue is often very much like the experience of being subjected to a terrible pun.)

  • ramenhotep
    Posted at 17:12h, 25 October

    Great stuff Anobium! Those are great examples of some of the different types of rewards games can produce.

    As for you, Pastries, I’m a little confused. The rewards I’m talking about arise from completing specific actions and goals (either self-imposed or imposed by the game). I don’t understand what you mean by “the “reward” is the experience itself.” Playing a game can be (and usually is) rewarding, but it’s rewarding as the sum of individual rewards you get by completing goals in the game, not as a whole.


    Posted at 14:09h, 26 October

    It may be that I was just thrown by the use of the term “rewards” in this context. In my experience the term is more often used to describe aspects of the experience that are outside the game, such as a medal for winning a race or the bright lights and loud noises for doing well at pinball.

    It sounds to me like you are using it as another way of stating that a game is a system with a player and a goal, except instead of describing the goal you are describing the experience of achieving the goal.

    Thanks for your responses!

  • ramenhotep
    Posted at 16:13h, 26 October

    Yep, that’s exactly what I’m describing! I think it’s important to note, though, that games have goals, and not just A goal. Too often people think that the only goal of a game is to win, and they overlook the intermediate goals that the game sets for the player and that the player sets for herself.

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