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.

100 thoughts on “The Skinner Box – How Games Condition People to Play More – Extra Credits”

  1. Those games like farmville never interested me because there was no goal to achieve and it felt empty like wasted time but on the other hand I love big huge RPGs

  2. If you give them what they want every time, then you it changes their behavior quicker. However if you stop, they give it up quicker too.

  3. I know you'll probably not reply to this but would a game that uses all the points you stated to make a great and perfectly satiable game game profit at all or even further if it also had skinners methods weaved neatly or alongside it as well or in simple words is skinners methods like a shackle to game development that can only folly a game if the game was built properly

  4. This video came out in 2012?
    Here we are in 2017, and it looks like it hasn't reached anyone in the games industry yet, its actually gotten worse that that

  5. Well fuck me, I guess I enjoy skinner games. I actually enjoy the majority of game mechanics described here as skinner game mechanics. Though that may literally just be the reward system in my brain fucking up, but seriously I do find them fun.

  6. some games have some Skinner box mechanics but some parts are different and i play them anyway.. i like playing these building games but I've got to win in a combat mode which i do enjoy to get currency to unlock new items with improved stats which takes the game off of the skill base and puts it on level systems and stats which i don't like and i think attracts people that are stuck up materialistic and egotistical which i don't like

  7. Alas, this problem has only gotten worse these last 5 years through the increase of 'optional rewards' with the prevalence of micro-transactions, loot-boxes, card systems and all that crock of sh*t which preys on the same psychological impulses that the gambling industry is built around. This whole approach to design threatens to become the dominant strand within Triple-A games.

  8. "Many of you played games well past the point it was fun." Do you have any statistics on this? Because I'm pretty sure crushing majority of people stop playing after they no longer enjoy the game.

  9. This is one of EC's most useful episodes, only becoming more relevant as game publishers invest more and more in design choices and economies designed to isolate and prey on these kinds of psychological weaknesses.

  10. You seem to sort of mention rhythm gaming as a small example for the Flow part. That makes me wonder, have you covered something regarding that particular genre in the past?

  11. With the very lackluster single player on Star Wars Battlefront 2, and their clearly designed pay to win model, especially with Mobile Games, this shit needs to be regulated. Very easy games that have very repetitive gameplay, people have to constantly grind time to get the rewards, not from winning, but from spending money and time to work for a reward that doesn't have a payout that is worth it, but these gambling mobile and AAA games are out there, and they rank in millions.

  12. FYI: Rumors about his daughter, Deborah Skinner, is not true. She even debunks all of those rumors in an article she wrote. Prof Skinner was a cool dad.

    (._. I don't know why. I just felt like saying it.)

  13. now that you mention it, the event dungeons in FFRK kinda stopped being fun a while ago, and that's your big source of mythril… OH GOD MY FAVORITE MOBILE GAME HAS A SKINNER BOX!

  14. 5 years later and this is more relevant. it sucks how slowly the gaming community (not just industry, but the players themselves) pick up on these things. only now these practices are finally getting some sort of negative feedback, better late than never i suppose

  15. It has been awhile since I played it, but how is call of doody not the prime example of a skinner box in fps games? It sacrifices game balance with play time incentives.

  16. Thank you for this veluable information.

    I benefited really of you, I learned that developers games just thieves.

    Thay are Stealing my time and my Live.

  17. They used World of Warcraft Cataclysm as a reference here. Considering what World of Warcraft is today 7 years later it seems Blizzard watched this video and did the exact opposite. They just piled on the Skinner Box methods on top of each other for 3 straight expansions to create the monstrosity of today.

  18. I truly do like your work and insight.

    I feel exceedingly fortunate that I have recently been presented with an opportunity to return to game development, this time by working on the office side of a AAA game… with some potential for input on creative content. I say this not to lift myself up, but to give you the context of what comes next.

    I fully intend to use what voice I have to speak THIS truth to the lead designers.

    While this may not be a universally true statement for all developers, I want for any project that I work on to be the best that it can possibly be, and I do not consider profitability to be a measurement of quality. The points that you have made in this (and other) video(s) resonates strongly with me. I only hope that I can keep them in mind as I my tiny voice is added to the process.

    Thank you.

  19. shadow of mordor is one of the few games that can regularly get me in that zen mode, slaughtering waves of uruk until my zen is half broken by the captain that just showed up

  20. Perhaps dumb question, but… what is the difference between being conditioned to do something and being addicted to it?

  21. Do MOBAs (like LoL or DotA) or team-based FPS (like overwatch or teamfortress) can be considered Skinner Boxes?

  22. I agree with your point here. But the thing is a lot of successful games use a Skinner Box feature in some way. Dota 2 and League of Legends use those voiceovers when you get multiple kills. Heck they even have items that make your screen flashier when you get those kills!

    Borderlands 2 capitalize on getting the perfect gun all from loot drops and they even flaunt it in their trailers!

    My point is that banking on a Skinner Box feature alone is a cheap and crappy way to make a game. But you should not totally avoid it either if you want to keep players hooked when they reach the end-game.

  23. Wonderful vis, thanks for sharing! I have a request: would you please consider making a vid about more *Psychological Tricks in Game Design*, explaining more of this evil strategies besides Skinner Boxes, like Daily Rewards, Resource Decay, Loss Aversion and others, giving examples of games that do this? I'd like a complete video explaning ALL the addiction strategies used by devs. Thanks! ^_^

  24. Actually, Skinner most used rats, not pigeons. Most of the the info we know about Skinner box conditioning comes from usage with rats

  25. Honestly, I don't usually go into that trance state when playing games that I don't need to think about, but rather games I care about thinking about. I totally zen out when making a house in Sims 4 or when fighting a tough boss in Undertale (namely Papyrus is one of the hardest for me tbh as pathetic as that is ^^' But hey I beat Undyne on my very first try so give me a little credit!) I zen out when I'm intensely focused, if that makes any sense?

    This is exactly why I can't hear anything that's happening around me when I play 2048. I get a little too into that game for my own good if I'm being real

  26. I think this is why I got tired of MMOs at my teen years… I hope there's a way I can love them as much as I did, they were so magical when I was a young dummy clueless about the genre

  27. It's like the difference between Asteroids and Fallout 3, for me anyway. Asteroids was a total Skinner Box (POINTS! I actually flipped the score back to zero after 999,999 points when I was idk 13 years old on my Atari 2600). Fallout 3 offers me engagement and immersion, but disengaging is fairly easy after big quests are finished.

  28. For a while, I’ve been researching what makes a game good… I decided that one way of satisfaction is revenge, maybe I can use this technique with the satisfaction of revenge and make a system that’s rewarding but not in a useless way… maybe I can throw some Easter eggs into the mix…

  29. Honestly, when they ban lootboxes, I think there should be a bill for companies that do the practice, in the exact amount of cash that they gained from the scummy business practice, even if they can't afford it, just as a "You really think you can get away that easily?" And I know this was made in 2012, but I'm just writing it in case I forget it.

  30. Pokemon tries not to have people grinding forever and breezing through with the gym badge obedience system. It makes it so that people are discouraged from over leveling because their pokemon may lose because it doesn't want to battle.

  31. Garbage MMos are 100% relying on skinner box, even the all mighty WoW is not worth anything, people play it for the shiny rewards even if gameplay sucks, content is boring, everything is complacent but the carrot on a stick makes wonders just like with f2p games

  32. I know this video is old, but researchers and studies do need an update on studying if gaming is becoming addictive because I've noticed one factor that could unravel something: what games are consistently being played in these studies to come to these conclusions? There's a difference in results if games like: Mario Party, Final Fantasy 4, Pokemon, Metal Gear Solid 2, Kingdom Hearts, and Tetris were played for hours yielding no results to addiction. Yet you'll most likely see a vast result in studies if the subjects only played Skinner Box games or games built around this mechanic only: Borderlands, Diablo, World of Warcraft, Warframe, Call of Duty, Destiny, Monster Hunter World, Battlefront 2; while also segmenting these games studies with a group playing Skinner Games without microtransactions built in vs with them in mind. Because people are using studies from back in 2014 and such where these types of games were not as prominent within the industry at the time, which is like saying cigarettes are not as addicting today because if you look back where they made quality cigarettes focusing on flavor and quality ingredients with a moderate amount of nicotine, it furthers my point versus if you did a study on today's nicotine products is what would yield a way different result than from back then.

  33. I'm not sure every instance of operant conditioning in games is a bad thing. Given that it is rewarding, I don't see the problem unless there is a net negative amount of fun had (as was often the case playing Xenoblade).

  34. Thanks for inspiring me. Now I fully intend to go full throttle on the Skinnerian Operant Conditioning for my studies.

  35. The only game I really had that "in the zone" thing for was the original Unreal Tournament.

    Time would like go fast and slow at the same time and I would juggle a bot around a room with a rocket launcher and then giggle maniacally when it reduced to giblets.

  36. 4:40 E.G. Minecraft, learning how to play the game, learning how to pvp, then use that ability and kill someone. Ingame.

  37. thats how lol works nowadays … its not even fun anymore and they kept the people playing only because of the divisions in a lower degree but mainly because of capsules from leveling up, the missions and the free skins… feels bad

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