Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Skinner Box - Behavioral Conditioning in Games

B. F. Skinner was very prominent behaviorist in the 20th century. One of the way he tested his theories in behavioral science was by operant conditioning chambers. These chambers, also known as "Skinner boxes" are usually small boxes containing a subject, such as a rat or a pigeon. They additionally contain some form of mechanism, such as a button or a lever which, once activated under certain criteria, will give some form of reinforcement, such as dispensing food to the subject.
By changing the criteria for food to be dispensed, Skinner was able to measure the behavioral conditioning of the subject. He tried criteria such as:

Give a rat a food pellet every time it presses a lever.
Give a rat a food pellet every X times it presses a a lever.
Give a rat a food pellet the first time it presses a lever after N minutes.
Give a rat a food pellet after a random Xth press of the lever.
Give a rat a food pellet the first time it presses a lever after a random Nth minute.

The results of his study found that there were clear differences between the responses to the various criteria. He found that the rats were most likely to press the lever the most often when the reinforcement is based on how many times the rat presses the lever, but the rat is unsure of how many times it will take. This is called Variable Ratio and has a very clear influence in the real world. Slot machines are an excellent example of this. They are nearly skinner boxes themselves. They have a subject: the person using the machine. They have a mechanism for the subject to interact with: the lever. And they have a form of reinforcement: money. They use variable ratio to keep people using them as often as possible. The subjects have no idea when they will get their reinforcement, but they know that it is entirely dependent on how many times they use the machine.

The same trap is all too often applied to video games as well. For example, in many games monsters will have a chance to drop "loot" when killed. Often there is a very large level of probablity involved in this loot drop system, with monsters having a small chance to drop rare and powerful loot. This is most common in MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Games) This will lead many players to fight these monsters over and over, sometimes for hours, hoping for this rare loot drop.

If you were to ask these gamers, or these slotmachine users, whether they had fun spending hours at these repetitive tasks, they would likely say that no, it wasn't exactly fun. But they felt compelled to keep going anyway. This is because they were being conditioned by the machine, or by the game. They felt drawn to continue. Unfortunately, many game developers don't see this as a problem. They see that their userbase has spent more time playing because of these techniques, and that seems like a bonus for them. But this is a trap which should be avoided. It keeps users from interacting from the game in more positive ways and causes them to finish feeling underwhelmed and like they didn't really accomplish anything.

If you are a gamer and you find yourself playing a game and you can't honestly say you're having fun, but feel draw too it anyway, step back and think for a moment. Is the game using variable ratios for its rewards? If so, you may be stuck in a Skinnerbox.


Acosta, Keyvan, et al. "Skinner Box" 100
     Principles of Game Design. Ed. Wendy Despain. Illus. Raymond Yuen. San
     Francisco: New Riders, 2013. 50-51. Print.

"Skinner Box." Mosby's Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing & Health Professions. Philadelphia:
Elsevier Health Sciences, 2012. Credo Reference. Web. 15 December 2014.