Few decisions in game development are accidents. Generally speaking, there is intent behind the structure of every system that the player interacts with. Many of these structures have to do with making the player feel accomplished or like they’re advancing within the game’s space, which in turn can lead to increased enjoyment and satisfaction with the game on the part of the player. While some of these structures of advancement are delayed, meaning that they occur in the long-term (defeating a final boss after time spent grinding, finally making it to the top of a leaderboard after a lot of practice), many are based around the idea of instant gratification.

Wikipedia defines gratification as “the pleasurable emotional reaction of happiness in response to a fulfillment of a desire or goal”. Building on this definition, instant gratification is the fast or immediate fulfilment of a goal that produces a similar pleasurable emotional reaction. Instant gratification helps explain why people gamble or play slot machines, bet on sports, and give in to food cravings; it’s also present in competitive gaming. Nothing feels better than placing 1st in a battle royale or getting a legendary item that you really want out of a loot box. Developers know that and use instant gratification in designing gameplay structures that make the player feel good and want to play more. Loot boxes, premium currencies, and other in-game structures teach players to go for the quick, immediate reward rather than the long-term reward. This type of design isn’t necessarily a good thing, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing, either. In the interest of bringing awareness of these practices to players, we’re taking a look at some examples of instant gratification in competitive gaming.

The Benefits

The biggest benefit of instant gratification in gaming is also the most obvious: it makes you feel really, really good. While some games require the player to take their time and develop their skill, competitive games that are built around instant gratification make the player feel good immediately. Maybe they receive a cool new weapon or skin for buying the game during a certain promotional period, or maybe their first loot box contains a guaranteed legendary item.

These sorts of structures “hook” the player, making them wonder whether they can get even more cool items. Even if you know that your chances of getting a legendary item in a normal loot box are less than 10%, the rush that comes from opening that first box makes you think that maybe, just maybe, the next box will contain another legendary. Opening loot boxes and getting items from in-game progression are fast, easy tasks that create bursts of happiness in players, with no time-consuming grinding or skill development required.

Speaking of progression, competitive games’ ranked and progression structures are also designed for instant gratification. Ever wonder why it takes less XP to hit the next level when you first start playing a game than after you’ve been playing it for a long time? Feeling like you’re progressing quickly is a hallmark of instant gratification and a tool employed by many games, particularly if each of these levels come with rewards.

Video games have always been popular because they provide instant, quantitative markers of progress, whether that’s through unlockables, XP, or a rank. If a player reaches the next level or the next rank, they know they’re progressing. In the real world, it’s not nearly as easy to know if you’re “progressing” in life or if you’re going in the right direction, making video games a great way to appease the part of the human psyche that demands constant progress. Competitive games use this as a way to incentivize players to keep playing: if a game showers you in XP and rewards just for playing for the first time, you’re more likely to come back and play more (and spend money on future rewards).

Some of competitive games’ instant gratification structures have nothing to do with loot boxes or unlockables. If you’re playing with a team of randoms or a team that a matchmaker put together, there’s always a small chance that your team will have instant chemistry and play incredibly well together. This doesn’t happen often, but when it does, there are few feelings more satisfying to a competitive player. This camaraderie encourages players to keep going back and finding other teams, hoping to find more people who play just as well with them and blaze a path to victory.

The Downsides

You may have noticed that “keep the player playing” was a common thread in many of the benefits listed above. Competitive games, particularly free-to-play ones that contain premium currencies and loot box-like elements, want the player to keep playing as long as possible.

The longer they play, the more likely they are to drop a few dollars here and there on a new skin, a loot box, or another item. Players who play routinely are more likely to develop an attachment to a game’s characters and become fans, which leads to more potential future revenue for a developer and publisher; this is essential to getting more games funded and made. (Games are incredibly expensive to make.)

While it’s not a bad thing to enjoy playing a game and wanting to play it more, it’s important to know yourself and your own habits so you can recognize when a fun hobby has turned into a chase for that next dopamine hit, courtesy of instant gratification.

As mentioned above, when a player first starts playing a competitive game, they gain levels and rewards much more quickly than someone who’s been playing the game for a long time. This is to get the player used to a certain pace of XP and rewards; both are given out freely and frequently, leading the player to build up a cache of rewards and assume that they’ll always get these rewards this quickly.

As the player plays the game more, XP and rewards tend to trickle off as they get higher in level. For example, the game may grant a loot box every time you gain a level for the first 10 levels, then change it to every other level once you reach level 10, and so on. This frustrates players who have gotten used to the instant gratification of a loot box at every level, making them want to play just a little more so they can reach that next box. This type of design makes players feel like they either need to keep playing the game or spend money to keep the same rate of “progression” and gratification that the game got them used to at the beginning.

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Instant gratification can also cause tilt, anger, and a host of other negative feelings when playing with others. If you’re constantly chasing the “high” of finding those perfect random teammates, you’re going to feel all the more let down and frustrated when you get teammates you perceive to be mediocre or bad, which can intensify feelings of tilt. If players lose a round or are otherwise thwarted, they may vocally place blame on their teammates or insult them; again, these feelings are intensified by the lack of instant gratification that comes from winning a round. When you’re used to winning or sweeping the board immediately, not receiving what you believe to be “the usual result” can make things worse for everyone involved.

Becoming heavily involved with instant gratification in competitive games can affect your life outside of games, too. If you’re used to immediate, quantifiable progression as demonstrated by XP or other progression markers in games, it can be hard to see why you should participate in any real-life activity that doesn’t offer a similar marker. It can also become more difficult to engage in activities that require dedication and improvement over time, like learning a new language, developing a craft, or playing an instrument.

It’s easy to think to yourself, “Well, I can sit here and practice this skill and receive no real marker or progress…or I could just go play a video game and get that immediate boost that I need.” Activities that require dedication frequently have larger benefits in the end – being able to communicate and engage with a new group of people, making music, or producing art, to use the examples above – but if you’re used to the instant boost that’s given by games, it can be much more appealing to chase a short-term “high” rather than a long-term benefit.

There’s no denying that today’s popular competitive games are full of these kinds of designed gratification structures. It’s important to note that the psychology and structures of instant gratification, like the psychology of game addiction, affect each person differently: some people may be able to withstand the siren song of loot boxes and dopamine, while others may not.

That doesn’t make them better or worse people; it simply means that it’s important to know yourself and your own tendencies and monitor the way you’re consuming games in order to find out what works best for you. Instant gratification in competitive games can make you feel really good for doing relatively little in a very short period of time, but it can also make you feel frustrated and affect your ability to enjoy other activities, particularly those that require a long-term commitment. The way to fight these negative effects is to be aware of the methods that are used to encourage this type of play and to ensure that you are the only one who is in control of your play habits.