Introduction to Gamification Part 7: Rewards and Reward Schedules

Andrzej Marczewski
Apr 10 · 6 min read

Random Rewards

These tough to explain, and really hard to implement well! A random reward is one that the user is not expecting and should probably have no reason to expect. For instance, a badge for their forty-second achievement in a system. There is no obvious reason for it but done with a little Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy humour, it may make someone smile at least!

Fixed Rewards

Fixed rewards are given to users based on predefined actions that they complete. Click “Like” 10 times. Complete 10 modules. First activity, level up, beat the boss level etc. As we will see later, these are the cornerstone of reinforcing progression and achievement in a gamified system but need to be well planned to create a balanced experience. Other examples include rewards for daily logins to a system, bonuses for finding secrets (a bit like Easter eggs), certificates for course completion.

Time-Dependent Rewards

Similar to Fixed Regards, but rather than being triggered they are either triggered by a time-based event or limited by time. For instance, a discount code that is only available on a user’s birthday or Halloween would be considered time-dependent.

Reward Density and Perceived Value

However you apply rewards and feedback, especially fixed rewards, you need to have a plan for what you are giving, why you are giving it, how much it is “virtually” worth and when it is going to be given.


So, there is a theory that we talk about in-game and gamification design called Flow Theory1 created by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. At a very (very very very) basic level, Flow is a state of optimum engagement and immersion, where the perceived challenge perfectly matches the perceived level of effort. It is a strange experience that feels as though time has no meaning and there is nothing but you and the challenge at hand. Games often achieve this. For our purposes, we are interested in the concept of balancing challenge and skill. If something is too challenging for your current skill level, it becomes frustrating. If it is too easy, you get bored.

Reward Density

Early on in their journey, users need more reassurance that they are doing the right thing, they are learning. As their journey progresses, they need less encouragement until eventually, they should not require any at all (they either find an intrinsic motivation to continue or are accepting of the importance of continuing.) Think about teaching a child how to ride a bike. You start off very hands-on, helping every step of the way. Frequent congratulations for relatively small achievements, hugs and cuddles when they bash their knee etc. As the child becomes more adept at riding the bike, they may just require verbal reassurance and praise. Every now and then they will start to struggle or get frustrated, so more praise and cuddles are needed. However, eventually, they forget you are even there as they cycle joyously off into the sunset, whooping and laughing, enjoying their new found skills and freedom!

Perceived Value

A final, but very important note on rewards and feedback, perceived value. The more effort or personal investment a user has to make, the larger the reward should be. If you are just asking them to tick a box, you don’t need to give them a billion points! However, if you want them to write a 10,000-word essay, maybe a billion points would be nice. Set expectations early on by rewarding low skill and effort activities with small value rewards and increase the value of them as more effort is required. If you get the balance of reward value vs perceived effort wrong, you can confuse the user, frustrate them and just plain insult them!

Key Learning Points

  1. There are 3 basic reward schedules; Random, Fixed and Time Dependant
  2. Rewards and reinforcement should be relied on less and less over the course of the user’s journey
  3. Reward density should be balanced to skill and challenge to smooth out the flow of the user’s journey
  4. Balance your rewards based on the perceived effort to the user, not just the perceived value to you.


  1. Csikszentmihalyi, M. Flow: The psychology of optimal performance. Optimal experience: Psychological studies of flow in consciousness (1990).


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Andrzej Marczewski

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Gamification consultant and designer, social media lover, games reviewer at @yarstweet, author of, husband & father of 2


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