As shown in research data, to what extent do explicit game mechanical rewards, such as various types of fate points (hero points, willpower, artha, other consumable resources) or experience points, affect player behaviour?

Anecdotally, OSR folk seem to enjoy experience from gold and refer to it as an incentive for good play, while modern D&D often uses milestone experience or just levels whenever the game master says so.

Likewise, I recall reading some people speaking for the beliefs and artha in Burning wheel as finally rewarding them for playing like they want to, while others think of these as artificial and unnecessary crutches. I remember similar discourses around other games with such explicit mechanical rewards.

Since everyone has an opinion and personal experience, those are not very useful answers. Scientific studies would be optimal, but surveys or other larger scale data would also be interesting. I do not remember articles about this in Analog game studies or International journal of roleplaying, but it has been a while since I browsed them. I am not too familiar with the broader game studies literature.

Some credible possibilities might be: Although a vocal minority says something, the trend is that most people change or do not change their behaviour in the presence of mechanical rewards. Or perhaps some personality factor affects this, or perhaps people can toggle it on and off, depending on what they are playing.


The context of roleplaying games is very relevant here - first of all, they are a leisure activity, so research on, for example, avoiding physical pain or earning financial rewards hardly matters. This makes it challenging to apply research on for example Pavlovian conditioning or financial decision making to roleplaying games without serious thought.

Second, they are somewhat distinct from many other games, in that most roleplaying games are not explicitly competitive in the same way that many other social games are, and the nature of goals in roleplaying games is in any case different from those in board games or many electronic games. Hence, it takes some care to apply research on motivation in games in the broad sense. But there might very well be something relevant there.

  • \$\begingroup\$ You maybe got a problem in your question. You are initially asking to what extent rewards affect behaviour (i.e. 'how much'), but then your example statements about games seem to be about the direction rewards affect behaviour in. That is, it is unclear to me if you are asking, like the title says, how much rewards affect behaviour, or something about the scoping of that influence (i.e. what do fate points incentivize? What does artha incentivize? What does exp points incentivize? etc.) I think the second possible question, if you are in fact asking it, is too broad btw. \$\endgroup\$ – Please stop being evil May 12 '19 at 18:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ Anyone have a spell for summoning Brian Ballsun-Stanton? \$\endgroup\$ – Oblivious Sage May 12 '19 at 19:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think SSD's right, but I'm still voting to close because without some additional clarifying criteria this may as well be does Pavlovian conditioning work. \$\endgroup\$ – Pyrotechnical May 12 '19 at 19:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ @thedarkwanderer I think those are pretty much the same question in the sense that any answer to one of them is likely to answer the other, too. \$\endgroup\$ – Tommi May 13 '19 at 8:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie Thanks for the edit. \$\endgroup\$ – Tommi May 13 '19 at 8:29


There are several papers with a variety of approaches to showing this. Most commonly, papers extend pre-existing work on video games or the effects of video-game-based gamification on scholastic education to RPGs, and show that, as in the broader case, mechanical rewards like XP et. al. are extremely effective in motivating desired behaviors in students.

An important1 paper on this topic is Larping the Past: Research Report on High-School Edu-Larp. It establishes extremely large quantitative impacts on learning and retention when material is presented in the format of an "edu-larp" (defined in the paper) as opposed to traditional methods of instruction, albeit with a very limited sample size. In general, gamification is well-known to motivate behavior within and outside of RPGs and there is no real opposition within the academic community to the idea that people are, on balance, more likely to engage in behaviours they know they will be rewarded for.

1 important here meaning I'm aware of other papers citing and attempting to replicate its results (e.g. this one); I'm not well versed in the body of works on RPGs as education in general, unfortunately.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ The linked paper, though interesting, is not relevant. It compares an edu-larp (without explicit game mechanical rewards, as far as I can see) as an alternative to a typical revision class, also without explicit reward structure. I do not see any explicit connection to the question I posed. Based on the article, I guess it would be difficult to find an edu-larp article that compares two such larps, one with and one without explicit game mechanical rewards. The edu-larp research does not seem to be that far. \$\endgroup\$ – Tommi May 17 '19 at 18:32

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