How is the reward and fun circuit activated in video games?

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We are beings that are both extremely complex, and sometimes very simple. The functioning of our brain is still difficult for scientists-researchers to understand today. However, some brain functions have been demystified and even reappropriated for decades.

One of these brain functions is the reward circuit. A functioning of the brain that has been studied since the 50s, and which is now greatly mastered by researchers, but also health professionals, and other fields, such as marketing and game design.

What is the Reward Circuit?

In its most instinctive form, the reward circuit was created through the survival skills of the human being, thus through natural selection and the intergenerational transmission of learning and basic needs, such as eating and drinking.

The reward circuit represents an association between behaviors and strong feelings of satisfaction. Thus, when we feel hungry, and we take the time to eat, a great feeling of satisfaction invades us.

In summary, three phases are present in this circuit:

  1. The brain activates and prompts us to take action to meet a need, for example: I feel hungry and I want to eat.
  2. The action or behavior will be rewarded with a feeling of pleasure, for example: I eat and I feel well-being, I feel fulfilled.
  3. The feeling of satisfaction responds to the need and puts an end to the action or behavior, for example: I am filled in a state of satiety, so I no longer feel the feeling of hunger (McGill, 2022).

The reward circuit nowadays?

We have just seen that in its basic form, the reward circuit was created for the survival of the human species and to meet our basic needs. However, this circuit has also developed and become more complex by associating various behaviors with strong sensations of pleasure, for the better, for example: studying for an exam and feeling great pride, or for the worse, for example: consuming alcohol and feeling pleasure to disconnect from reality.

We see that the reward circuit can then be used for learning desired behaviors (deemed pleasant or useful), as well as for learning unwanted behaviors (deemed unpleasant and dangerous).

Mastering the reward cycle then goes through two concepts:

  1. When an action is rewarded with positive reinforcement (a pleasant gain) and there is satisfaction of the need, the cycle of pleasure is memorized and can be repeated. This is called the pleasure-seeking approach.
  2. When an action allows us to avoid pain (an unpleasant gain) and there is flight, fight or inhibition of the action, the avoidance cycle is memorized and can be repeated. This is called the pain avoidance approach (Nguyen, 2017).

In both cases, activation of the reward circuit leads to the release of dopamine; a chemical messenger associated with pleasure. It is this release of dopamine that promotes the memorization of the association between behavior and the pleasant feeling of satisfaction. We are then inclined to repeat the behavior that gives us pleasure.

The reward cycle in video games

The more a concept is studied in research, the more it is mastered and can be used in practice in various fields. This is the case of the reward cycle which has been widely used in several areas, including the famous video game design (Game Design).

While the motivation that will push us to act is closely related to the search for the pleasant (pleasure) or the avoidance of the unpleasant (pain), video game designs use several tricks and concepts to promote the activation of the reward circuit, such as:

  • the “storyline reward” that unlocks parts of the story and narratives;
  • The reward system through the acquisition of new weapons and new powers, which make the character more powerful;
  • The reward system by acquiring new weapons and new powers at the player’s choice in the allocation of rewards (custom development of his character);
  • The reward item system; different unique reward items that allow you to evolve in the story by unlocking certain areas of the game.
  • The collection reward system; collect as many treasures as possible to unlock trophies. Usually does not allow progress in history;
  • The trophy success system; in order to achieve player status, example: expert
  • The ego reward system; when we manage to succeed in a game considered very difficult or of extreme level (Mwarf, 2013).
  • The reward per share system; so immediately rewards an action performed by the player, for example; the famous loot boxes (loot boxes) that allow you to randomly receive a reward (object of various value in the game), against an investment, often monetary in the game.

In video games, we therefore observe the integration of different systems of motivation of the player that pushes him to act and make decisions in order to receive a reward. Each player thus has a power to act in order to achieve a certain goal. This investment in achieving the goal promotes the activation of the reward circuit and the production of dopamine that gives us pleasure.

Nevertheless, the reward circuit is not infallible, and at the very basis of pleasure, it is a question of having the motivation to take action. Otherwise, the video game and its rewards are not necessarily attractive, so will not trigger the reward circuit.

Elsa Brais-Dussault, Ludipsy



Hansel, B & Karila, L. (2020). From pleasure to addiction, what happens in our brain?

Hodent, C. (2019). Ethics in the video game industry: a demystifying and scientific approach. Celia Hodent. Plotted at

Mwarf (2013). Analysis: Video game and Rewards.

McGill (2022). Pleasure and pain. The Brain at all levels.

Nguyen, J. (2017). Rewards in video games, why does it work?

Zendle, D., Meyer, R. & Over, H. (2019). Adolescents and loot boxes: links with problem gambling and motivations for purchase. Royal Society Open Science, vol 6 (6). Plotted at

Photo credits: Jack Moreh, Stock Vault

About Elsa Brais-Dussault, psychologue

Psychologue et passionnée de jeux! Les jeux vidéo, les jeux de société, les jeux de rôles et les GN... J'ai fondé la plateforme LudiPsy: santé mentale et ludification pour mettre de l'avant l'intégration de la ludification dans la pratique en santé mentale.

View all posts by Elsa Brais-Dussault, psychologue