Alison Gazzard

Alison Gazzard is Lecturer in Media Arts at the London Knowledge Lab (UCL Institute of Education, University College London). She has published widely on aspects of play, space, and time in video games as well as British computer game histories.
Contact information:
alison.gazzard at

Unlocking the Gameworld: The Rewards of Space and Time in Videogames

by Alison Gazzard

Videogames are a time-based medium. It is through the condition of time that many game reward systems are designed around the collection of points, achieving high-scores and beating the clock. In relation to time, videogames are also a spatial medium, with ever-growing worlds expanding for player-characters to move through and explore. Building upon Björk and Holopainen’s (2005) and Hallford and Hallford’s (2001) categories of rewards, this article examines temporal and spatial reward structures within a range of videogames. Reward systems are defined and discussed in relation to different genres from puzzle-games to arcade games, from third-person games to simulation-based games. By understanding the basic structures of personal and social rewards found within many videogames, other types of reward related to time and space are built upon in order to show the way in which rewards overlap and their meanings evolve within different game play and game design contexts.

Keywords: rewards, time, space, exploration, environment, goal, social, personal.


“Typically, videogames create ‘worlds’, ‘lands’ or ‘environments’ for players to explore, traverse, conquer, and even dynamically manipulate and transform…” (Newman, 2004, p.108).

As Newman notes above, videogames are a spatial medium (a thought also echoed by Aarseth (1997), Nitsche (2008) and Wolf (2001) amongst others). Players traverse the screen-space of various videogames in different ways. Titles such as Pong (Atari Inc., 1972), Pac-Man (Namco, 1980) and Bejeweled 2 (PopCap Games, 2010) take place within one “contained” area on screen (Wolf, 2001, p. 54). In these scenarios, players often have to contend with attempting to beat the clock whilst conquering the relatively small space of the game and their previous high-scores. Although the player may be able to progress to a new level, often these levels are quite similar, shifting the emphasis to time and point based rewards, instead of the unlocking of new spaces. In the case of arcade games, in particular, time is money as the player strives to stay playing for as long as possible before dying and having to insert more coins to start again. Therefore, time becomes a reward through the successes of high-scores and skill against avatar death.

As the spatial structure of games change, and expand beyond “contained” spaces into “scrolling” and “moving” planes such two-dimensional side scrolling platformers or games that allow player-characters to move through the z-axis into three-dimensional worlds (Wolf, 2001,p.54-65), the unlocking of space, combined with other factors such as time limits and scoring now become the focus of the reward. However the space of the game is displayed, the resultant correlation as to how time is depicted or used remains as the rewards of both space and time are present throughout multiple genres of games. As Mark J.P. Wolf writes in his discussion of time,

[j]ust as players must often have some idea of a game’s spatial structure in order to navigate through them, a sense of the temporal loops and their timings, linkages, and other structures is often also important and may even be navigable (Wolf, 2001, p. 81).

By focusing on temporal and spatial elements in videogames, this article seeks to define reward structures in a variety of games from Bejeweled 2 to The Sims 3 (Visceral Games, 2009). Each game will be discussed as to how rewards are structured through various spatial and temporal signifiers, and how these link to player experiences both inside and outside of the gameworld.

Goals and rewards

Hallford and Hallford (2001) list four general types of rewards in computer role-playing games, which Salen and Zimmerman believe crossover into other genres of games (Salen & Zimmerman, 2004, p. 346). These categories are, “rewards of glory, rewards of sustenance, rewards of access and rewards of facility”. “Rewards of glory” are defined as “all the things you’re going to give to the player that have absolutely no impact on the game play itself but will be things they end up taking away from the experience” (Hallford & Hallford, 2001 p. 158). Incentives such as collecting coins in Super Mario Bros. (Nintendo, 1987) or rings in Sonic the Hedgehog (Sega, 1991), do not forward level progression within the game, but they allow players to discuss an experience, such as who has collected the most coins on a level. Players can assess their progression through point-based rewards as a way of setting targets to beat on future plays. “Rewards of glory” can be linked to Björk and Holopainen’s idea of “social rewards” which give the player an opportunity to discuss rewards amongst friends (Björk & Holopainen, 2005, p. 185). However, these rewards go beyond just the player discussing an experience, as the coins in Super Mario Bros. have other uses for the player, for example as way of gaining extra lives. These rewards link to “rewards of sustenance”, defined as “given so the player can maintain their avatar’s status quo and keep all the things they’ve gained in the game so far” (Hallford and Hallford, 2001, p.158). Objects such as health packs, or clothing that may protect the player, or even the reward of an increased inventory, do not directly lead to spatial progression, but do allow players to keep their characters within the gameworld longer. This increase in game play time may eventually lead to further progress within the gamespace, as well as allowing for players to once again discuss an experience, as in the case of “rewards of glory”.

In contrast to this is are Hallford and Hallford’s other categories of “rewards of access” that allow for a direct impact on the spatial opportunities available within the game, and “rewards of facility” that can directly open up new spaces especially when they are “transitory” or “permanent” in duration (Hallford and Hallford, 2001, p. 159-160). “Rewards of access” are defined has having “three critical features: they allow a player access to new locations or resources, that were preciously inaccessible, they are generally used only once, and they have no other value to the player once they’ve been used” (Hallford & Hallford, 2001, p. 158). Hallford and Hallford go on to give “keys, picklocks, and passwords’ as typical examples of this kind of reward” (Hallford & Hallford, 2001, p. 158). These rewards are spatial, as they allow for game progression through unlocking new areas for players to explore. However, it can be seen that “rewards of access” are not as straightforward as this definition states. Many key based rewards have multiple uses, and may be acquired through collecting “rewards of glory”, or be linked to “rewards of facility”. If “rewards of facility” “enable a player’s avatar to do things they couldn’t do before or enhance abilities they already possess”, then if they are “permanent” in duration then these rewards may allow for a new way of moving between spaces (Hallford and Hallford, 2001, p. 160). “Transitory” versions of this reward may also allow for increased spatial progression as the effects are granted to the avatar or enemies within the game for a set duration. The “transitory” reward also results in a temporal reward structure as for the duration of the reward the player is able to complete tasks in a different way before the reward was granted. Simplifying rewards into these categories shows how definitions can overlap in various situations and how reward structures are not necessarily fixed but are, in fact, comprised of different features in a variety of games.

It is through a discussion of Hallford and Hallford’s categories that this article seeks to examine videogame rewards through issues of creating and unlocking spaces in relation to issues of time and the player’s freedom of exploration. It will discuss the outcomes of reward structures to understand how various game experiences lead to similar reward systems albeit implemented in different ways. In the opening of their chapter on ‘rewards and penalties’, Björk and Holopainen state that, “Games do not work without incentives for the players to perform actions and to strive towards their goals” (Björk & Holopainen, 2005, p. 184). In this instance the discussion of rewards is linked to goals, yet some games are now described as “sandbox” or “open”, as not having designed goals (Juul, 2007). Here the emphasis is on player-defined goals, thereby questioning how rewards link to goals. These ideas will be discussed in relation to Salen and Zimmerman’s concept of “short-term goals” (Salen & Zimmerman, 2005, p.343) and Jesper Juul’s (2007) writings about “open and expressive games” (Juul, 2007). Are goals and rewards intertwined, and if so, how do they relate to each other in both games with clearly designed goals, and games that are seen to be more free-form in their design? In order to start answering these questions, first “rewards of glory” will be discussed in relation to high-scores and their connection to point-based rewards as a way of understanding the social relationship of gaining rewards as an underlying feature of reward structures in videogames.

Glory and illusion

“Rewards of glory” can be seen in terms of terms of what Björk and Holopainen define as “illusionary rewards” (Björk & Holopainen, 2005). They state that “some rewards gained in games do not actually provide players with any substantial gameplay advantages, but when they still are perceived by the players as a reward, these types of rewards can be called illusionary rewards” (Björk & Holopainen, 2005, p. 191). Björk and Holopainen discuss collecting the stars in Super Mario Sunshine (Nintendo, 2002), as an example of an “illusionary reward”. Collecting the stars is not needed as a win condition of the game, but it is used as a way of giving player satisfaction and adding a social element for players to talk about their own star collections outside of the gameworld. As James Newman notes, “[p]laying videogames is not an activity undertaken in a vacuum but rather is one that is informed by and situated within the contexts of other players and their analyses and playing” (Newman, 2008, p. 12). Social rewards emphases the wider context of games, and how players discuss game experiences before, during and after the game event.

Therefore, “rewards of glory” and “illusionary rewards” can both be seen as “social rewards”, a terms that Björk and Holopainen use in their discussion of rewards yet never really define. Social rewards are those rewards gained during the game that players discuss amongst other players. The reward comes in the form of peer recognition in the discussion of such achievements. They may be rewards built into the game, or ones that players define themselves. Aside from being a talking point of games played amongst friends, social rewards also help with player learning and discovery within the gameworld. Although the rewards such as the stars in Super Mario Sunshine may not open up new paths to explore, they help show the player that they are on the ‘right-path’ in the game. The reward structure creates a feedback loop or a set of “cycled actions” (Wolf, 2001, p.81) that lead to patterns of knowledge related to completing certain tasks. Opening a door within a gameworld may not lead to anywhere new, but another type of non-spatial reward may be found behind the door as a way of indicating to the player that they have performed the right task. This, in turn, can lead to spatial or temporal progression, but in the meantime helps to act as a benchmark of the player’s learning and mastery of the gameworld.

“Rewards of glory” or “illusionary rewards” may not help the player achieve the main designed goals of the game but instead, allow for the creation of player-defined goals. These can be seen in light of what Salen and Zimmerman term “short-term goals, each one providing a kind of pleasure that is less immediate than the instant gratification of the core mechanic, but more rapidly obtained than the long-delayed outcome of the game” (Salen & Zimmerman, 2004, p. 343). Although each game can have a centrally defined core goal that the player strives towards, each player will overcome “short-term” goals either implicit in the game design or through their own devising. Each “short-term” goal may then allow for what I define as a personal reward. Personal rewards are created through the completion of player defined short-term goals. A player learning how to jump to a higher platform using a double-jump combination in a game such as Super Mario Galaxy (Nintendo, 2007) can be a player defined short-term goal leading to a personal reward. These goals and subsequent rewards belong to the player in their own learning of the game. As Juul states, “players play for personal goals, are aware of the goals of other players, and the shared understanding of intentionality makes game actions socially meaningful” (Juul, 2010, p.126). By setting short-term goals and seeing the reward(s) of their actions, players can break the game down into manageable sections in order to complete the longer-term designed goals within the game.

There are, however, a set of games that exist in the category defined by Juul as “open and expressive games, games that let the player use them in many ways, games that allow for many different playing styles, for players pursuing personal agendas” (Juul, 2007, p. 191). It is possible in many platform and first-person games for players to create their own agendas. It may not mean that the player ever completes the game, but it may be the case that players do not feel the need to reach the ultimate end goal. Through focusing on their own player-defined rules and/or goals, players can reach their own levels of mastery through both goal-driven and more “open and expressive games”. Even though games such as The Sims 3 do not have implicit goals, there is a need for players to define their own goals through interacting with the gameworld. Without “short-term” goals, the game will continue to run and the player will not experience a reward, thus ignoring the playable properties of the game. Through seeking rewards such as finding ways for their Sims to earn enough money to buy new furniture, the player decides how they want the game to function. Here the rewards, as with any game reward, are part of the interaction feedback loop and the associated “agency” (Murray, 1997) of the player seeing and/or experiencing the results of their actions.

However, rewards go beyond just player-defined rewards in relation to both short-term and long-term goals. As noted in the beginning of this article, games are rarely played in total isolation. Gaming culture spreads beyond just playing the game, and players often discuss their mastery of the game, including any goals they have completed. This is part of the social reward of games, and it is through player-defined rewards that discussions about the social level of these rewards can then be had. Therefore “open and expressive” games such as The Sims 3 and Grand Theft Auto IV (Rockstar North, 2008) may lend themselves towards the creation of player-defined short-term goals in order to seek a personal reward. However, the creation of these player-defined goals often then leads to a greater discussion about elements of a game, for example the discovery of a new alleyway in Grand Theft Auto IV, or even the discovery of glitches within games. These can be understood as leading to the social rewards gained through recognition of mastery amongst the player’s peers. It is through a recognition of personal and social rewards that game rewards will now be discussed in terms of the rewards of time and space, two concepts centrally linked to a variety of game genres.

Time as reward

As stated previously, time equals money in arcade games. Players are forced to interact and react to what is happening on the screen of the arcade machine. Juul reiterates this fact by discussing the arcade game Scramble (Konami, 1981), with one of the main goals being “to get a high a score as possible” (Juul, 2007, p. 194). Juul examines how far it is possible to ignore the goals of the game, for example not firing at any oncoming enemies. However, Juul soon finds that by doing this the player’s spaceship runs out of fuel, as it is only replenished by shooting enemies. The conclusion of the experiment was that time and point-based arcade games such as this require the player to work towards the goals of the game. Therefore, these goals provide the rewards of more time in the game-world as well as personal and social rewards of high-scores. By shooting the enemies, the player gains more fuel, allowing them to stay in the game for longer. The reward of time in this instance is the player putting less money in the arcade machine. However, arcades games are only one instance of time-based rewards in videogames, and other game genres still use time as a reward, especially through creating extra lives for the player.

Whereas for some players the coins in New Super Mario Bros. Wii (Nintendo, 2009) may appear to be an “illusionary reward”, they also have other benefits. Collecting 100 coins gains the player an extra character life, thus extending the time of the game. Collecting the coins can also led to personal rewards or social rewards, through players comparing high-score counts at the end of game levels. However, the main purpose of the coins within the game is to gain what I term to be the reward of regeneration. In playing New Super Mario Bros. Wii, the player only has a set number of lives for their avatar. These can be increased through finding 1-ups in the gameworld, through completing puzzles in the mushroom houses, or through the accumulation of coins that then turn into an extra life. The coins provide multiple rewards, both personal and social, as well as acting as an accumulative reward that leads to the reward of further regeneration. The final reward of regeneration extends the game, leading to the reward of time.

However, the reward of time only works on a certain level within the gameplay. Whilst playing New Super Mario Bros. Wii a timer is displayed in the top right hand corner of the screen. The time continues to countdown without any player control. There are no rewards within the game to extend the life of the timer therefore each 1-up does not effect the time that the level can be completed in. However, the extra lives do effect the overall time it is possible to play for the game for, before the final avatar dies and the player is made to restart the game again. In this case, what Juul refers to as “fictional time”, defined as “the time of the events in the game world” (Juul, 2005, p. 142), is not affected by the extra life. Instead, the overall time the player’s character can stay alive for in the whole game (rather than on a level by level basis) is extended by the addition of another life. This can be defined as the reward of regeneration. This reward is common in multiple genres of character based videogames, from arcade games, to platform games. Rewards such as health-packs found in Left 4 Dead (Certain Affinity, 2008) work toward the reward of regeneration. During Left 4 Dead, the player’s character may be attacked by zombies within the game, and although the player-character may be saved by their team-mates, the avatar still suffers loss of health. If the player has a health pack in their inventory they can choose to use it to heal themselves so the character does not die, or another player can reward the player’s character with their health pack. The health pack is another reward of time, allowing the player to spend more time within the level before their avatar dies and the mission has to start again. Rewards such as health packs and extra lives fall into Hallford and Hallford’s category of “rewards of sustenance”. It is through discussing these rewards in different scenarios that we can see how the sub-category of rewards of regeneration can be defined and that the resultant aspect of gaining extra time is another reward in itself.

In other instances it can be seen that time does not always relate to the reward of regeneration or bonus points, and has other uses in videogames, for example in The Sims 3. Although The Sims is often discussed as a goal-less or “open and expressive game” (Juul, 2007), the game still revolves around the issue of time. The time of the gameworld is constantly shown at the bottom of the screen and players can choose to fast-forward time if they so chose. Many player derived goals and subsequent rewards are based around the reward of time. Choosing certain jobs allows the Sim characters to work more or less, therefore allowing the player the reward of the Sim earning more money to buy new items, or let it spend more social time with their accumulating friends and family. This time-based reward can be linked to the reward of regeneration, in that the player can stay in the game longer, however the Sims characters do not die in the same way that they do in Left 4 Dead. Instead, in this scenario the reward of time is one that links to the social rewards of the game. Players can discuss how long they’ve been playing for, as well as what activities they’ve managed to achieve and participate in during the game. However, within the “fictional time” (Juul, 2005) of the gameworld, the player has to submit to the rules of the game system, that will eventually force the Sim to try and sleep or else the player will be punished with disasters happening in the Sim household.

Although The Sims 3 is seen as an open-ended game, it is constructed of a series of designed animation cycles that have to be played through, often without player interference. In this case, time has to be scheduled by the player in understanding how long these cycles run for whilst they are playing the game. Each Sim character works towards an artificial intelligence ‘goal’ in carrying out these actions, but the character-based goals then reward the player with a narrative sequence. Narrative rewards continue for the player as new sequences are carried out by the Sim character, based on time-based rewards that the player has had to learn through interacting with and progressing through various actions within the game. Time-based rewards related to games such as the Sims can be seen as story-based rewards, extending the amount of time the overall game can be played for. This type of temporal reward can be seen in contrast to the reward of regeneration, which is necessary for the progression of gameplay but not necessarily narrative. That is not to say that these rewards are mutually exclusive, as the reward of regeneration can link to the reward of narrative in various game scenarios. However, keeping the Sim alive for as long as possible and extending the family through relationships and children prolongs the story-world of the game further, allowing the player to explore and build upon the scenarios occurring within the gameworld. Of course, the game also rewards the player through spatial constructs, and as will be seen throughout the rest of this article, the rewards of space and time can often not be separated.

Spatial rewards, environment and exploration

Increasing the amount of “fictional time” available to the player is clear when analysing the game, Limbo (Playdead, 2010). In Limbo the player has infinite lives, therefore avatar death is always rewarded with regeneration. The purpose of the game is not to find extra lives, but to open up further paths in the game by overcoming a series of obstacles. The game is set in the shadows, in greyscale, sometimes making it difficult to decipher what the obstacle may be. In stumbling across a trap, the player’s character dies, and is immediately regenerated at the point along the path that they last successfully opened up. If we understand game paths as the routes between game architecture, then each path can be seen as the main component that the player’s character moves across within the gameworld. During Limbo, the player has to overcome challenges in the way of the path in order to unlock future paths. These paths can be seen in terms of rewards of exploration and rewards of environment. Rewards of exploration are defined here as rewards that allow players to move along paths that have now been unlocked in the gameworld. In contrast to this, rewards of environment allow for new obstacles to be positioned along the path, as further puzzles to be solved. In Limbo the reward of overcoming an obstacle along the path results in both rewards of environment and exploration being granted. The player is now able to continue exploring along the new paths of the game, and further obstacles are put in the way of the player-character to be overcome. This cycle of reward of exploration leading to reward of environment, and back to reward of exploration again, advances the game and makes the goal of completing the game explicit to the player. As Wolf (2001) notes in his discussions of space and time, "cycled action builds player expectation and anticipation, and knowledge of a pattern is often crucial to the timing of the player-characters actions" (p. 81). In recognising their own progress through the game, the player starts to overcome certain obstacles in recognition of these feedback loops. Each cycle exists as a short-term goal for the player to overcome and adds to both personal and social rewards in terms of benchmarks of the player’s progress.

However, in Pac-Man, spatial rewards are slightly different. Pac-Man originally fits into the category of an arcade game, therefore going by the discussion above, it would be seen that Pac-Man is based around rewards of time and high-scores. Yet the paths of the maze, and the placement of power-pills at sections along the path, mean that the game of Pac-Man is also centred on spatial rewards. The aim of Pac-Man is to guide the character along the paths, collect all the pills and progress to the next level without being killed by the ghosts blocking the path. The game is based around high-scores, which act as personal and social rewards, yet in order to gain these high-scores spatial goals must first be overcome. The paths of Pac-Man are where the pills lie. Therefore, each play of the game results in different path combinations as paths may be closed down, revisited and overcome through battling with the ghosts that seek to disrupt and ultimately end the game. The inclusion of four power-pills temporarily changes this dynamic. Once a power-pill is acquired the ghosts start to retreat away from Pac-Man, and can now be eaten by Pac-Man if they are in its way. It is also possible for the player to decide to temporarily change the goal to one of eating all of the ghosts before they reach the centre of the screen where they are safe. However, this is a risk and can ultimately slow down the playing of the game. The main purpose of eating a power-pill is to gain the reward of exploration. The player is now free to move the Pac-Man character wherever they chose on the screen, in amongst the maze paths of the game-board. All the paths can now be freely accessed for the short amount of time that the powerpill effect last for. As the game is based around high-scores and collecting all of the pills to reach the next level and start again, Pac-Man does not include the reward of environment in its gameplay. No extra objects are added to the screen to be overcome. Although bonus rewards such as fruit are sometimes added to gain extra points, these items do not add any extra spatial rewards within the game. This contrasts to the puzzle game of Bejeweled 2 that also rewards players through both spatial and temporal means.

Bejeweled 2 is a puzzle game also built around high-scores yet its spatial rewards differ from that of Pac-Man. The game has three modes, Classic, Action and Endless, of which the first two will be discussed in more detail. The main goal of the game is the same in each mode, yet each has its own separate features changing the nature of the reward slightly each time. The aim of Bejeweled 2 is to match up coloured jewels in order to make the colour combination disappear, and then new, randomly generated jewels take their place. The jewels are replaced instantly, unlike in Tetris (Patjinov, 1989) where the player has to wait for the blank space to be filled. Although the action is instant, the player is rewarded with the reward of environment. Each disappearing combination allows for new jewels, new combinations to be achieved, and points to be gained. In Tetris the reward of environment is more obvious as the creation of lines creates ‘empty’ space that can be filled by new blocks, showing on screen a space for a new, changing environment. In Bejeweled 2 the change of space is less obvious as the space is continuously filled with jewels. However, the player has to continue forming new combinations, in order to fill the environment and change it’s properties. In Classic mode the player has to make as many coloured jewel combinations as possible allowing them to progress to the next level and beat their high-score. Here, the changing nature of the environment is vital as the game ends when it is no longer possible to match up colour combinations. In this instance, the Classic mode is based around the reward of environment. The Action mode builds on the structure of the Classic mode, yet the resulting rewards function slightly differently. This time the game works in the same way but the reward of environment is constant. Instead, the goal of the game is to beat the clock. The environment has to constantly change at a fast pace in order for the timer to remain topped up so that play can continue. The reward is not only found through the changing environment and high-scores, but the satisfaction of staying in the game for as long as possible. As with Pac-Man, all iterations of this game work on both a personal and social reward level, with the high-scores being collected and kept in a high-score board to be viewed individually or amongst other people.

Unlike Pac-Man, puzzle games such as Tetris and Bejeweled 2 are not associated with the reward of exploration. This has links to their spatial structures, as they are games existing in Wolf’s (2001) category of “one screen, contained” (p. 55). In these games, there is no indication of further spatial exploration, therefore the player has no need to deviate from the space presented to them on screen. However, in Pac-Man the presence of the movable character allows players to control movement along the paths of the game, even if the paths are confined to just one screen. As Wolf points out, Pac-Man also exists as a slightly anomaly as it is also situated in his category of “one-screen, with wraparound” (p. 56). The tunnel on the left and right hand sides of the screen allow the player to move the Pac-Man character from one space to another through the use of a warp device. This allows for further spatial exploration, as although the ghosts may block the entry to one path, others can become accessible through this short cut to safety.

It is through the paths of third person games, such as Grand Theft Auto San Andreas (Rockstar North, 2002), that we can further explore the importance of the reward of exploration. In writing about San Andreas, Juul states, “San Andreas is another type of game, one where the player is free to deviate from the official goal of the game and make up personal goals…San Andreas is a game with goals, but the goals are optional” (Juul, 2007, p. 196). GTA San Andreas is a game about exploring the streets of a fictional city. The reward of exploration is at the heart of the player’s gameplay, along with personal and social reward structures. However, the reward of exploration is available with and without the reward of environment. It is possible for player’s to explore a wide area of the game without completing set missions within the game. But, it is these missions that reward the player with further environments, filling in extra narrative and unlocking areas on the map. Due to the size of the game, the game-map is a vital navigation tool, both in-game as a GPS style device and out of the game as a top-down two-dimensional representation of the streets of the gameworld depicting key locations, such as shops and save points. It is through viewing the map that the player is reminded of the reward of environment. This is further emphasised through the reward of regeneration in the game. Unlike in Limbo, the reward of regeneration does not lead to an instant reward of exploration for the player in GTA San Andreas. Instead, the player-character is taken to hospital, where they then have to navigate back to the previous mission for further rewards to be opened up. The reward of regeneration links to the reward of time within the game, whereas rewards of exploration and environment are slightly hampered by starting the game again in a different place to where the player-character died. The map becomes vital for the player to re-orientate themselves, however, the map is also a teaser for areas that the player can eventually access through completing set goals within the game. Although the whole map is viewable from the start of the game, not all areas are accessible until certain goals are completed. Therefore, the reward of environment is once again linked to the completion of set missions defined within the game system and the opening up of further paths. Once again there is a cycle of reward of exploration leading to reward of environment and back again, although this time, in comparison to Limbo, the player can temporarily break the cycle. The added dimension of players determining their own goals, allows for rewards of exploration, without new missions and areas being opened up. It is only when the player chooses to stick to the pre-defined missions within the game that the cyclic reward system of exploration and environment continues.

This differs to Lego Indiana Jones (Traveller’s Tales, 2008) where the player can only access the whole map on completion of the entire level. Although the map is never shown, the game functions with two modes that of story mode and free play mode allowing the player different views of the same game level. Once the story mode of the level is complete, the player is then able to play in free play mode. This allows them access to paths they’ve just unlocked and new ones that can only be discovered through the unlocking of new characters. Unlocking certain characters leads to bonus rewards in free play mode. When playing Lego Indiana Jones, players complete a level and progress onto the next one. The completion of levels does not equate with completion of the game as a whole. All levels can be unlocked and the game progress can remain at approximately 20%. To gain further percentages of completion, players have to replay levels in free play mode and use other characters to unlock new areas. Therefore the player doesn’t have to complete 100% of the game to achieve the rewards of exploration. Exploration is granted through the unlocking of new levels. However, there are further rewards of environment, exploration and character available through bonus rewards and new free play goals. New characters can be unlocked through completing levels and can be bought using coins collected whilst completing any of the levels. The new characters allow for further rewards of exploration in free play mode as each character has their own skills. Whereas some characters can jump higher than others, others are smaller, allowing them access to hidden tunnels to gain more points or extra items found within the level. The free play mode highlights how reward structures can differ within the same level of a game. Whereas, the story mode seems to promote rewards of exploration through rewards of environment, the free play mode enhances the reward of exploration further through allowing players more time and facilities to access extra parts of the level. However, the free play mode also draws the player’s attention to false rewards found through replaying the same level.

False rewards

Juul distinguishes between “different types of punishment for player failure:

  • Energy punishment
  • Life punishment
  • Game termination punishment
  • Setback punishment” (Juul, 2009, p.238).

These can be seen as the opposite to some of the above reward structures already outlined that exist in various genres of videogames. However, it is possible to see a type of reward that does not setback or terminate the game, yet at the same time it also does not progress the intended gameplay any further. These can be categorised as false rewards. False rewards help players to learn the rules of the game and gain high-score opportunities, but they do not open up any further opportunities for the player, in terms of new areas to be discovered. Instead, they help the player to recognise areas they have previously completed. This highlights how these now familiar areas may no longer offer the same reward that was once contained in that section of the game. In the free play mode of Lego Indiana Jones, if goals have been unlocked in playing the story mode, once in free play mode the player is no longer able to unlock the same goal. For example, in the story mode of the game, the player may perform a certain combination of actions in order for a key to appear. During free play mode, players can use the same combination of actions to try and gain the key, but no further reward will be available to them. Instead, the auditory and visual effects produced when the original key was found will still take place, although the key will not physically materialise. The player is partially rewarded for completing the action through these special effects but no further spatial progression will be unlocked. This continual searching for rewards and subsequent unlocking of goals and further paths within the game, can cause confusion on behalf of the player as they struggle to work out which rewards will open up new experiences, and which will help them learn the mechanics of the game. Therefore, although the player may be given the reward of a high-score, they may still receive a false sense of reward in terms of the reward of exploration and/or environment.

These types of false rewards differ to penalties as described by Juul above, as although the player is not rewarded, they are also not punished. In the New Super Mario Bros. Wii if all the characters lose their lives within a level, the player(s) is then forced to start the whole world again. The play is reverted back to the save point of the beginning of the world, rather than on a level-by-level completion basis. Reverting back to this start point acts as a penalty, and although the player may learn from making previous mistakes, level progression within the game is affected. This differs to false rewards, which do not affect spatial progression but act as a tool for learning in the game. The player learns how to use certain objects and how their character functions through picking up objects, throwing them, and so on. Here the reward is personal to the player in terms of the own mastery of the game. It can be seen that false rewards are only false in terms of their use spatial progression of the game, but they still reward the player as a feedback loop of interaction and learning. False rewards are needed within games in order for the player to understand how the core elements of the game function.

A key example of this can be found in the opening sequence of Half-Life 2 (Valve Corporation, 2007). Whilst on the train at the beginning of the game, the player learns that the X button on the Xbox controller causes the character to interact with other non-player characters in the game. On leaving the train there is a pile of boxes along the player-characters path. The player can press X and learn how the character picks up the boxes and throw or place them elsewhere in the game. This action does not provide any spatial progression and can be seen to act as a false reward. The reward instead comes through learning the game’s system of interaction, rather than progressing the gameplay itself. Later on in the game, the player has to control their character to move similar looking boxes in order to get over a ledge and through a window thus progressing the spatial and gameplay aspects of the game. By learning the technique earlier on in the game, the original false reward then leads to a reward of exploration. It can be seen that false rewards can be compared to the Björk and Holopainen’s definition of “illusionary rewards”, however each reward offered has a slightly different purpose. Whereas “illusionary rewards” are focused on social rewards, false rewards are centred around personal rewards. False rewards enable player-centred learning, whereas “illusionary rewards” such as the stars in Super Mario Sunshine provides the player with a game element to make comparisons with and discuss amongst their peers. Understanding the differences between personal rewards for the player and the social rewards of peer recognition for gaming successes shows how goals are created and completed on different levels in a variety of scenarios.


Through analysing different temporal and spatial constructs within a wide variety of videogames, this article has added to Björk and Holopainen’s and Hallford and Hallford’s original categories of reward structures within games. As Salen and Zimmerman noted with Hallford and Hallford’s original categories, these new categories can also be seen to apply across a range of genres from puzzle games to simulation-based games. Spatial rewards do not have to be focused on exploratory gameworlds, but can also exist in games with only one screen. Separating spatial rewards into rewards of exploration and rewards of environment allows different elements of game reward structures to exist in puzzle games and third-person platform games. Cycles of rewards may be used as a way of progressing game play, and in turn may also be interwoven with rewards of narrative, bonus rewards and rewards of regeneration. Each reward system can be seen as complementary to one another rather than existing as isolated categories associated with one type of play system. Discussing reward structures in this way also helps to highlight the personal and social reward systems found amongst game playing communities. The personal experience of the player can lead to individually defined goals, whether they are explicitly designed into the overall structure of the game or not. Attempting to push the boundaries of the game in finding glitches, or unlocking a new achievement may also lead to social rewards amongst the player’s peers. Some game goals cannot be ignored, such as those found in arcade games based around time, yet even seemingly goal-less games allow for the creation of player-designed rewards in order for more of the open gameworld to be discovered and for the player to maintain their interest in playing. As gameworlds continue to evolve, and game playing styles are analysed further, game reward systems may also begin to change allowing these categories to be built on once again in the future.


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