In poker terminology, “the nuts” or “the nuts hand” refers to having the best possible hand at any given time. So, for instance, in a game of Texas Hold 'Em if there are two aces on the board and no possibility of a straight flush, a pair of aces in one's hand would be the nuts (since four aces would be the best possible hand in this particular round).
The experience of having the nuts is both wonderful and terrible – obviously it is magnificent to know one has won the hand, but in poker the value of the win depends more upon how much you can money you can draw out of the other players than on the overall quality of your own hand. So for instance, in the previous example, the fact that no other player can have an ace in their hand makes it very much less likely that anyone will bet heavily against you in that instance. The terrible facet of the nuts is that knowing you have the best hand it can be hard to conceal this fact from the other players, and one must make a concerted effort to conceal one's true emotions if one is to have any chance of suckering in the other players. A well-developed poker face becomes essential!
Neurobiologically, the nuts sets off a hit of dopamine just as if the player had won because holding the nuts is functionally the same as having won. However, the player can get more of the reward chemical by playing the hand well and getting more money out of the pot. Thus the nuts combines a base level experience of reward (from winning) with the potentiality for winning even more (by luring players into the pot) thus making it a very potent experience as the dopamine for the win is supplemented by yet more dopamine for the anticipation of uncertain additional reward (i.e. taking yet more money).
It's not at all clear to me that any videogame can produce an experience equivalent to the nuts, or rather, it's not at all clear to me that any current videogame does. Pragmatically, I can see no reason that a game could not “pay out” an experience like holding the nuts in poker, but it seems unlikely that videogames would currently be designed for this outcome given the general tendency for videogames to become enmired in the doctrine of challenge-oriented play i.e. that the player must only experience maximum reward if they have endured maximum hardship (or overcome a maximally difficult challenge).
How would one construct a “nuts” experience in a videogame? Let us consider one possible example. Suppose that a particular cRPG has in its random treasure tables an item – let's call it the Nuts Orb, for convenience – that when activated guarantees that one will beat any boss it is used against. However, when activated the player has a short period of time in which to fight the boss (with radically improved attributes) in order to earn additional experience, such that they also have the possibility of beating the boss via combat, rather than just having the Nuts Orb hand them the victory. This seems to meet the requirement: holding the Nuts Orb gives you the hit of knowing one has already won (you will beat the boss) but gives you the opportunity for additional reward (by giving you a chance to beat the boss with superior power and earning additional experience).
The Nuts Orb could be adapted to fit any game which features a boss, and it may be possible to adapt it to a great many other genres with some application. In a first person shooter deathmatch game, a Nuts Gun could render the player invulnerable until their next kill, after which it times out in 10 seconds if they don't get another kill (providing for the possibility of additional reward) – although I'm open to the objection that the other players would find the existence of such a weapon unbalancing (at least when they did not hold it!).
Perhaps there is already something equivalent to the nuts to be found in puzzle games. For instance, Taito's classic Bubble Bobble contained dozens of items that gave a more-or-less instant win, umbrellas that advance multiple stages, lanterns and crosses that eliminate the remaining enemies, and potions that remove all enemies and fill the screen with bonus items. The potions may be a genuine case of the nuts in videogames – collecting the potion gives you the win, and the possibility of additional reward (via collecting all the items that appear). However, in the experience of getting the potion, one tends to lose sight of the fact that one has won the level because one is focussing on completing the new challenge, so the parallel is by no means perfect. (It raises the question of whether the same problem would haunt the Nuts Orb, described above...)
Whether or not a videogame has already delivered an experience of “the nuts”, the potential is there to create this powerful and rewarding (yet slightly conflicted) experience in a videogame, and it would be an interesting design challenge to create a game that expressly focussed on the possibility of doing so.
Think you've spotted something equivalent to “the nuts” in a videogame, or even a boardgame? Please share your views in the comments.