The Skinner Box – How Games Condition People to Play More – Extra Credits

The Skinner Box – How Games Condition People to Play More – Extra Credits


In the early 1930s a man named Burrhus Frederic Skinner began to study psychology in a radical new way. See, before him we only knew how to condition reactions; we could condition a person to be terrified of pumpkins or hungry at the sight of office supplies. But Skinner theorized that you could go
one further. He theorized that you could condition volition—that you could change the way that people make choices So why are we talking about it? Because a vast number of today’s games are built upon Skinner’s discoveries, and it’s starting to become a bad habit. But, before I get ahead of myself, let’s take a closer look at what Skinner did. Skinner created a machine: a simple box with a button in it that he would put pigeons in. When the pigeons pecked at the button the machine would give them food. He then hooked the box up to a recording device so he could tell how often the pigeons pecked the button. Seems simple enough, so: why was this so groundbreaking? Because pecking the button is active. This wasn’t just an automatic reaction to stimuli, it involved making a decision. So if Skinner could show that he could consistently change how often the pigeons peck the button, he could show that he could condition them to make a specific choice. This is called operant conditioning. Now there were two amazing parts to his findings. One, operant conditioning works on humans. Two, simply rewarding someone every time they do an action isn’t the best way to keep them continually doing that action. Rather, if you provide a reward to a person after they perform the action a random number of times, or only give a reward once every so many minutes, these methods are far more effective at conditioning someone to repeat an action. Skinner often talked about operant conditioning in terms of gambling. Most gambling games are not rigged in the gambler’s favor and, oddly enough, most gamblers are well aware of this, and yet they continue to gamble rather than perform an equally strenuous job that has a regular pay out with a higher net profit. Consider which activity people will tell you is more fun: spending eight hours in a casino playing the slots and ending up with a hundred bucks, or pushing a button in a factory for eight hours and getting a paycheck for a hundred bucks at the end. This is all compounded by another discovery of Skinner’s research: he demonstrated that primary conditioners, or rewards that are fundamental biological needs— you know: food water sex etc.—have a diminishing effect once a person reaches “satiation,” or the biological limit of their needs. But then there are secondary reinforcers: things outside the biological realm, like money or social approbation. These things generally don’t hit a satiation point. You can probably see where we’re going with this. Many of you have played Farmville or World of Warcraft well past the point where it was fun. Why? Because those games are very clearly built around reward schedules. The entire design of both of those games is to condition you to continue to repeat an action that has long since lost its
novelty— that has long since become tedious. Actually, before we continue: quick
disclaimer. Being conditioned to do an action and being addicted to something are very different. We’re not gonna go into the addiction thing today but I just wanted to acknowledge the difference. All we’re going to talk about today is
how games can condition us. Okay, disclaimer over. So why is it a problem if games do this? For now let’s ignore the questionable morality of using Skinner’s theories to create games. The problem is that it’s a lazy and cheap way to get someone to believe they’re enjoying your product. Have you ever finished a game and then
looked back a few weeks later and thought, “What the hell was I doing putting 80 hours of my life into that? That usually happens because the game
used Skinner’s techniques to create the illusion of engagement and extend playtime. RPGs, especially poorly-made ones, are a great example of this. Everything from loot drops to leveling is a very clear reward schedule that reinforces the behavior that gets you the
reward. ever been playing late and getting sleepy but then decide that you’re going to get just one more level before you go to bed Yep. But this isn’t just an RPG problem,
it’s endemic. Almost anything with points uses this system. Ask your grandmother sometime why she plays so much Bejeweled. But it goes beyond points, too. It works with anything that has a clear and manifest reward. Solitaire the most played game in the
world sets up the infrequent win as a clear reward Many action games use the same system to convince players to mash the same buttons for 12 hours straight. Even elements like the voiceovers in shooters that tell the player how awesome they are can be used as conditioning tools. It’s also one of the main reasons every game is getting RPG elements these days. Now don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing
wrong with adding RPG elements if it’s being used to create deep immersive
systems for the game. I’m actually a huge fan of this trend
when it’s used to combine mental challenges and execution challenges like in Call of Duty or Dungeon Fighter. But too many games are using RPG elements as a crutch. Bland uninspired games will include reward systems simply to delay your realization of how terrible they are. My point is there are other better ways of fostering engagement, and those are the methods we should be demanding from our games, not simple Skinner box satisfaction. Here are a few examples. 1. Mystery. Human curiosity is a powerful thing. We like unraveling mysteries. We’ve all played a game that made us ask “what the hell’s going on?” immediately followed by “I want to keep going to find out.” 2. Mastery. The player can be engaged by giving him the opportunity to master a skill, and then utilize that mastery. You see this sort of thing in rhythm games fighting games sometimes even RPGs. This one’s a little tougher to execute
in traditional games but we already kind of talked about this in our easy games episode, so: moving on! 3. Mental Challenge. Oddly enough most of us don’t actually get enough mental stimulation in a day. From the thought problems in Professor Layton or Myst to the logic stomping of a Civ game. Giving players a way to work their brains is a great way to keep people interested. 4. Narrative. You ever get lost in a world? Continued playing a game just because it was a place you wanted to be? This, as well as linear story narrative, is a great way to engage players. 5. Novelty. This one’s hard to maintain but: human
beings like new things. We’re engaged by novelty. This is why brown shooters may wear thin but Planescape doesn’t. 6. Flow. Games like “everyday shooter,” N₂O or even a really good session of the original Alien vs Predator can bring a player to a sort of Zen trance. We’ve all been there at one point or
another. Your eyes enter soft focus, your blinking slows, your breathing becomes incredibly regular, and you’re just doing. There is no controller; you and the screen are one. You’ve stopped thinking in the ordinary sense of cognition and instead are working on some much deeper level. This is very hard to design for. It basically involves creating rhythm within play, and then slowly demanding the player to start performing actions faster, and faster, building momentum until they’re performing the actions faster than they could possibly think through them. It’s hard to pull this off as a designer but achieving this experience is deeply compelling in a game. Now this is just a small set of non-conditioning ways to make games fun, and no good game relies strictly on one; most of your favorites combine many of these elements. So to all designers and future designers out there: we have to get away from this increased reliance on Skinner box methods of compelling gamers to play our games. Engagement and compulsion are different things. Just because you can make an experience compelling doesn’t make it a good game. Well, thanks for watching! See you next
week.