Special Issue - Game Reward Systemsby Mikael Jakobsson, Olli Sotamaa
The idea for the theme of this issue came almost two years ago in the outdoor seating area of a pub in the western outskirts of London. It was not just that the both of us had studied achievements and were trying to figure out their place in gameplay and gaming culture. There was something in the air, no matter if you talked to academics at DiGRA, developers at DICE and GDC, or gamers and writers all over the place. The promise/ threat of games becoming simple reward dispensers, and life becoming games was everywhere. Yet, within the field of game studies, not much attention had been paid to reward systems.
What we are hoping to show with this issue is that despite the recent rise in interest, reward systems have always, and always will be, an integral core component of games. They are complex, multi-faceted structures that can be studied using widely different approaches and understood in many different ways.
As already the Activision sew-on patches highlighted thirty years ago, rewards attached to digital games have a social side to them. Game achievement systems translate the player investments into a more quantifiable, comparable and communicable form. They allow the players not only to monitor and plan their actions but also make them more aware of how their skills rank among their peers. As will be discussed more closely by the articles included in the special issue, the platform-specific reward systems like Xbox gamerscores or Steam achievements have a potential to build bridges between very different games and to push the gameplay experience beyond a single game. Finally, as the game achievements increasingly find their way to the immensely popular social networking sites like Facebook, they make game cultures more visible and potentially also increasingly acceptable.
In the opening article of the issue Christopher Moore discusses the different "affects" involved in the design and play of First Person Shooter (FPS) games. Special focus is placed on Team Fortress 2 and the millinery reward system introduced to the game in 2009. The merits of Moore’s investigation are not limited to revealing the various meanings attached to "hats," the paper also highlights the significance of rewards in creating and managing affective bonds between games, developers and players.
Jason Begy and Mia Consalvo investigate the relation between rewards and player motivations. It is not only the topic that is interesting here, but the game studied. Faunasphere is a massively mulitiplayer online casual game which combines a mixture of characteristics from different genres. This provides an opportunity to uncover a better understanding of the relation between specific game mechanics and gaming experiences.
Mikael Jakobsson’s contribution provides a close reading of Microsoft’s Xbox 360 achievement system. Based on diverse research data collected during a two year community study, Jakobsson describes the detailed player practices and constructs key player types related to achievements. Upon this basis he lays out an ambitious argument that draws an analogy between Xbox 360 achievements and massively multiplayer online games (MMO).
The trajectory of the player through any game is significantly influenced by the promised rewards. Allison Gazzard examines the role of space and time in this process. Through various examples she illustrates how different rewards are connected to creating and unlocking spaces in relation to issues of time and the player’s freedom of exploration. The close examination of different games results in entirely new reward categories and an insightful analysis concerning their implementation within different game genres.
The ability to record and store game data has in the past years become a prevalent feature of many digital games. Ben Medler provides an eye-opening account on the ways in which this data is used both by game developers, third party service providers and especially players themselves. The analysis of "player dossiers" illustrates how these data-driven reporting tools both contextualize the individual game rewards, allow players to learn from their previous play behavior and accumulate games-related social capital.
When mentioning the word reward to game design students, it is normally preceded by the word risk. Offering a greater reward for a more difficult and sometimes more spectacular feat, not only creates a cybernetic difficulty dial, but also heightens the performative tension in games and sports alike. Armed with academic artillery from the field of experimental psychology, Williams, Nesbitt, Eidels and Elliot attack the issue of the so call "hot hand" phenomenon by developing and experimenting with a top-down-shooter. It is a fascinating exploration of a phenomenon that on one hand does not really exist, but on the other hand (no puns intended) is a reliable predictor for human behavior.
Douglas Wilson’s irreverent deconstruction of game design principles provides the perfect ending to this issue. It questions the whole issue of rewards and achievements as an essential part of games. Through an analysis of a game he has participated in developing, he shows how "unachievements" can open up for interesting gaming experiences. This piece thrives on the researcher’s intimate relation to the object of study, a source of insight that is utilized all too seldom within the field of game studies.
This collection of papers is not intended to provide a foundation for research on reward systems in games; the subject is too complex and multifaceted for that. We are, however, confident that the thoughts and ideas collected here will provide starting points for further academic investigation of this fascinating topic. To all of you that in some ways have participated in this process, be it by submitting papers, reviewing, or in other ways providing feedback and encouragement throughout; we wish to express our sincere gratitude. We would also like to extend a special acknowledgement of appreciation to Jessica Enevold who has offered essential support.