Punishment in Games

I once had a person tell me, “I don’t like Bioshock because there are no consequences for dying.” While I never shared the sentiment it is hard to deny their reasoning. When you die in Bioshock you respawn in a “Vita Chamber.” Other than a few moments to get back to the place where you died there was no punishment for running out of life. Enemies even keep the damage that you inflict on them, so you could potentially just chip away at a tough boss over and over again until you won. Today we are going to look at punishments in games, why they are important, and the proper utilization of it.


Checkpoints in Bioshock


So what do we mean when we say “punishment?” Do we spank the player whenever they fall off a ledge or run out of lives? Kind of, but the logistics of shipping studded paddles with every copy of a game would be a nightmare. Punishment can refer to a penalty imposed on the player for failing to accomplish a goal or follow a rule. Punishment comes in all shapes and sizes and depends on the game, but the common thread is that the penalty imposed on the player is the inverse of the goal they are trying to achieve.

First, let us talk about punishment when a player fails to meet a goal. In Super Mario Brothers players are tasked with traversing a level within a time limit, without taking a hit from an enemy, or falling down a pit. If a player isn’t able to comply with one of the stipulations, the game will take away a life. When the player has no more lives, than they get a game over, and have to start from the beginning. The punishment in this game is to give stakes to the player’s actions. The goal of the player is to progress, and the punishment is the removal of their progress. Without obstacles to traverse, the game becomes an unengaging jaunt to the right. The lives system was originally used in arcade machines as a way to make money. Lives were treated like balls in pinball, you would pay a quarter to try to reach the highest score. It turned out to be a  simple and effective method to creating stakes for the player, but nowadays you rarely see lives in modern games.

This type of punishment is used to enhance the experience of the player. Without real stakes, players won’t feel challenged when facing obstacles. For some people, this robs them of the feeling of achievement that comes from completing a task. However, it’s important not to go overboard. Too severe of a punishment will keep people from playing the game. The lives method is a bit much when you already own the game and don’t have people waiting behind you for their turn. Modern games that use lives usually just reset your progress in a level but not the whole game. This is a good balance because players can still feel the challenge of completing a level without fear of losing hours of playtime.

Punishment can also come in the form of less, or no reward. For example, in Monster Hunter Generations if a player is knocked out by a monster, then they reduce the amount of prize money that the team gets in the end. If there are three KOs from any of the players, then the quest is failed. However, you get to keep everything that you picked up during the quest. In addition, completing a subquest will get you bonus items regardless of whether the mission was a failure or not. There is no reward, but nothing is taken away either. The only thing they lose is time and some consumables they might have used.

It is worth mentioning, however, that there are niche players who like both extremes in terms of harshness. There are players who do enjoy the thrill that comes with threatening hours of play. Rust is an entire game based off of the idea that hours of resource gathering could be taken away in mear moments. On the other end of the spectrum, there are games meant for small children that bearly have any punishments. It all depends on the audience the game is made for.

862524-3x2-940x627The other type of punishment happens when a player fails to follow rules. This type of punishment isn’t to make the experience of one player better, but rather the experience of many players. In soccer, unless you are a goalie or are throwing in, you are not allowed to touch the ball with your hands or arms. It’s the first thing they teach you. But whats actually stopping you from picking up the ball and running into the opposing team’s goal? It would certainly be a lot easier than juggling it around the ground with your feet. All of the players on both sides have agreed to the rules by participating in the sport. If a player seeks this unfair advantage by breaking the rules, they are first warned, then taken out of the game for some time. This is effective because the player doesn’t get to play and the team is put at a disadvantage because they are down a player. Pretty undesirable stuff, presuming that the player wants to play and cares about their teammates.

Multiplayer games often have a similar code of conduct. There is third party software available to players whose only purpose is to gain an unfair advantage in a competitive game. An infamous type of third party software used in first person shooters is known as “aimbot.” Because the client of a players game knows the location of other players, an aimbot can adjust the player’s reticle to the exact direction needed to get a kill. Counterstrike penalizes players that use this software by banning the player from playing in online matches, the length of which is determined based off of prior offenses.

Big multiplayer games also employ a list of social rules that players must follow as well. These rules are meant to correct social interactions in games, particularly toxic behavior. In League of Legends kills on other players rewards you with gold and experience. This is a significant advantage, especially if you get multiple kills. A “feeder” is a type of player that will purposefully die to an opponent multiple times in order to give them an advantage.

This means that if you have a feeder on your team, you have a weaker member and your opponents get a stronger than the average player. While there is no explicit rule that says “you cannot intentionally die to the opposing team with the intention of giving them a competitive advantage” it is unwanted behavior.


After the game is completed you and other players can report the offender for feeding and other unsportsmanlike conduct. Racial slurs, negative attitude, and hate speech are some of the other types of behavior that are reportable. There is also a mute function that will silence the offending player in your client. Multiple complaints about a person will usually result in a banning, and repeat offenders can even get their accounts suspended.

The harshness of a punishment is determined by the actions of the player and the target audience. It’s important that the penalty is appropriate for the action, as too much or too little could keep people from enjoying a game.