Skinner boxes

Gamasutra recently had a write-up of a talk by Jon Radoff (“Game On: What Motivates Gamers?“).  From the article, it seems that much of Radoff’s talk focused on social games, and was critical of a focus on behavioral psychology by the designers of social games.  Apparently, and I was amused to learn this, video games are often compared to Skinner boxes: the training devices originally created by BF Skinner to study how rats and pigeons learned new behaviors.

To quote the article:

“Over and over again you read articles online that tell you that games are Skinner Boxes, and that if you can just figure out the reward system, and the way to give the food pellets back to the player to press their pleasure center, they will become addicted and they will play forever and ever,” said Radoff.

While Radoff doesn’t dispute the idea that there’s some amount of conditioning that occurs for certain aspects of games, that’s not what provides depth to gameplay or makes things interesting, and Radoff finds it surprising that game developers continue to take the concept of the Skinner Box so seriously when mainstream psychology left the associated theories by the wayside decades ago.

As a psychologist (and one who spends a considerable amount of his time training rats in Skinner boxes) I would say that operant conditioning (the type of learning focused on here) has certainly not been left by the wayside in academic psychology.  And, in reading this article, I was reminded of another (also published on Gamasutra, back in 2001) that described very clearly how operant conditioning could be applied to video games.

But, I would certainly agree that video games bear very little resemblance to Skinner boxes.  By design, a Skinner box is almost the most boring place you can imagine.  A small box, made of metal and plastic walls (See the image below, from the Gamasutra article).  Typically, each box is equipped with a dish for delivering bland food and liquid rewards.  And, they are often equipped with a couple of lights, and levers a rat can press to obtain food.  If the rat presses the lever, rewards will usually be given according to some schedule.  That is pretty much it.

Skinner boxes in action

Image from Behavioral Game Design

But, with this simple device Skinner and other behavioral psychologists have been able to carefully study different schedules of reinforcement (the rules used to reward lever pressing) and how these schedules affect the behavior of rats (and humans).  This research has lead to some pretty straightforward take-home messages.  If you want an individual (human or not) to respond consistently, and at a high rate, then it is best to use a variable ratio schedule of reinforcement: each time the individual responds, there is a random chance that he or she will get a reward.  If you want an individual to respond in frantic bursts, then use a fixed ratio schedule (where you have to respond a certain number of times before you get the next reward).   If you want a person to respond a low, but consistent, rate, use a variable interval schedule (where you have to wait a random amount of time before a reward is available).

I originally found the article on Behavioral Game Design in an article on Cracked.com (5 Creepy Ways Video Games Are Trying to Get You Addicted).  This article captures  much of the sentiment that I came across in a quick Google search: the idea that people are essentially being brainwashed by games which have been inspired by some kind of evil behavioral scientist.  In the end, I don’t think either this view, or that of the Gamasutra feature on Radoff, is entirely accurate.  Behavioral psychology does a wonderful job of describing how our behavior is shaped by the feedback we get from the environment.  These types of effects are happening to us all of the time, mostly without our awareness.  As a game designer, you should take them into consideration.

But, I certainly agree with Radoff that you can’t (or shouldn’t) design a game simply on the basis of the principles of behavioral psychology.  The basic reason is this: all of the best experiments I have ever done with rats would make for terrible, monotonous games.  Any game that used such principles for their only source of inspiration would be a terrible, uninspiring game.