Rewards and Medals in Video Games Are More Important Than You Think

Most games have what is known as a ‘reward cycle’. Even if you don’t know the term, you will definitely recognize the process. And if you’ve played video games, you’ve experienced it.

For example, Call of Duty gives you a rank and cooler aesthetic elements the more missions you complete. In some games, certain levels and characters are only available once you jump through several mission-based hoops. Consoles like the PS4 will show your medals on your profile, letting players show off to their friends.

The entire system is entirely virtual, a simulation. Yet we love it. There’s something in our neurobiology that just eats this stuff up, it keeps us coming back, and it’s oh so satisfying. Without rewards, games would be far less fun.

In this deep dive, we’ll show you exactly how this process works, how other similar industries do the exact same thing, and why rewards and medals are even more important than they seem at first glance.

How It Works 

The reward cycle is also known as The Compulsion Loop. Let’s keep the explanation simple, as most of you will recognize it instantly (for a more robust and longer explanation, this article about compulsion loops is fantastic): it’s a chain of activities, designed to be repeated, habitual, with the core aim of a neurochemical reward, whether pleasure or relief from pain.

It’s built on three pillars. First, the habit – video game studios want you to come back for more. Second, it’s a chain, with each activity connected and dependent on the other. Finally, the neurochemical reward and dopamine – the behaviors lead to a feeling that we will want to have again.

It’s all based on simple human elements, compulsions, psychobiology, and neurochemistry. We associate rewards and medals to the game, leading us to consistently want more all the time.

It’s Not Just Standard Video Gaming

We can see how this ‘reward cycle’ takes place in other (similar) gaming industries as well. For instance, when offering their games and services, online casinos employ the exact same strategy through their bonuses and tiered rewards. They will give players gifts like in-game free spins every once in a while; then, no deposit bonuses – which is cash for playing a game without making any deposits in advance; or spinback bonus which gives money to a player whenever he/she misses five games in a row, and many more. And, yes, they have the method down to an art.

What is more, if you play a specific slot game, you can move to another level depending on how much you wager cumulatively. This gives you access to new graphics, additional bonuses, etc. You’re part of a more exclusive club in the ecosystem.

The same can be said for the now burgeoning  NFT market. It’s not just about buying a piece of art. NFT collections sold on marketplaces like Magic Eden show that most of them operate on a reward system platform.

Here’s how it works: if you own an NFT of a certain collection, you’ll get a special ‘role’ within the community. Buy multiple? Then you’re extra special. Owners who mint or buy NFTs with certain qualities or traits can get additional rewards, giving further incentive to keep buying.

These are all different industries, yet they all take advantage of our complex, yet simple, human psychology. It turns out that we all pretty much work in a very similar way.

How the Cycle is Adapting

Even though most of us can be broken down to a bare-bones psychological framework, we’re still individuals to some degree. This means that there isn’t always a one-size-fits-all way of doing things.

Games used to operate on a one-size-fits-most. But developers want to keep us all coming back, not just a good chunk of players. Games now tend to respond to our actions, rather than us just having to sit and take it.

This means that players are given the option to go through grueling and time-consuming steps to achieve a reward. If they’re impatient and want constant hits of dopamine, they can buy their way to shortcuts. Or they can simply focus on smaller missions along the way to ensure they still get frequent medals and rewards.

Just look at how many games now make it possible to buy your way to the top. For pure gamers, this is annoying and takes away from the achievement of gaining medals ‘cleanly’. But developers are simply responding to consumer behavior; we are now used to instant gratification, and simply clicking the buy button gives players the option of skipping through a lot of the hard work. Whether that’s a good thing for gaming, well, that’s to be debated.

What the Future Looks Like? 

To conclude, the core elements of the reward cycle are all built on our simple human psychobiology. Yet there’s also complexity to it, and video game developers are fine-tuning the process all the time, catering to every single player on an individual basis.

What does this mean for us as gamers? Well, our brains will most certainly enjoy playing even more than we already do. But we’ll also have to be watchful, making a concerted effort to ensure we don’t disappear into our games, creating a game/life balance that is healthy and sustainable.