The Virtual Skinner Box

What is a Skinner box? And how can it be related to gaming? In this blog post I will discuss the psychology utilised by MMO game developers to condition a desired gaming behaviour in their costumer clientele.

Skinner boxes are small glass or plexi-glass boxes with levers and drinking tubes. In this box laboratory rats are placed and conditioned to perform different tasks through what is known as “positive” or “negative” reinforcement.

Positive and negative reinforcement according to Sheldon Cooper:

So what is positive and negative reinforcement?
Positive reinforcement means a reward (in the Skinner Box the rat gets a food pellet). Negative reinforcement means the removal of a reward or positive consequence which works out as a sort of punishment (in the Skinner Box the rat gets a small electric shock unless they perform the tasks in time). The method is called “Operant Conditioning”. In the Skinner Box the rat is conditioned this way to perform very basic tasks at first. After a while these tasks become more intricate. Similar techniques are used by game designers to condition players to pursue more and more elaborate gameplay.

MMORPGs systematically use many operant conditioning methodologies. “Fixed” and “variable” ratio schedules for an example is utilised to determine how and when players will be rewarded. The rewards could be gaining experience points and leveling up or loot such as armor, weapons or other rare items. Certain ratio schedules are encouraged for game developers to fully engage their player base with the expectation of rewards.


John Hopson
In his article “Behavioral Game Design” John Hopson describes fixed and varied ratio schedules like this:

“One of the most common contingencies found in games, fixed ratio schedules typically produce a very distinct pattern in the participant. First there is a long pause, then a steady burst of activity as fast as possible until a reward is given. This makes sense when one considers that the very first action never brings a reward, so there is little incentive to make that first kill. Once participants decide to go for the reward, they act as fast as they can to bring the reward quickly.
The distinct pause shown under a fixed ratio schedule can be a real issue for game designers. Having a period of time where there is little incentive to play the game can lead to the player walking away. Additionally, the length of the pause is a function of the size of the ratio (the number of actions required), so the more actions required the longer the pause. This means that if the ratio increases over time, such as the increasing number of experience points required to gain a level in Dungeons & Dragons, so does the pause. Eventually, the pause can become infinite, and the player simply decides it’s not worth it and walks away. On the plus side, during the pause other, less rewarding activities often come to the fore. For example, if players know it will take them a long time to gain their next level, they might take the time to test a new tactic or try out different aspects of the game.
There are also ‘variable ratio’ schedules, in which a specific number of actions are required, but that number changes every time. A player might be required to shoot down approximately 20 enemy fighters to gain an extra ship, but the precise number is randomly generated each time. It’s important to note that the player does not know how many actions are required this time, just the average number from previous experience.
Under variable ratio schedules, participants typically respond with a steady flow of activity at a reasonably high rate. While not quite as high a rate as the burst under a fixed ratio schedule, it is more consistent and lacks the pausing that can cause trouble. Since it’s possible (though unlikely) that the player can gain a life for shooting down only one enemy, there’s always a reason to go hunting.”


Skinner’s rats and gamers
Later on in this article Hopson goes on to describing the behaviour of the rat in B. F. Skinner’s experiment with the Skinner Box. Hopson then continues to explain:

“This is not to say that players are the same as rats, but that there are general rules of learning which apply equally to both.”

Interestingly enough John Hopson included pictures of a rat in a Skinner Box when describing to game designers how to best modify player behaviour. He also went on to discuss the behaviour of pigeons and chimpanzees in relation to gamers and their behaviour. Some may argue that this is insulting in itself but the fact is it works. What has been learnt from science about manipulating human behaviour has indeed been discovered by experiments on animals. Experiments such as the skinner box. Just as these other animals, humans are vulnerable to this type of psychological manipulation of our behaviour. That is why being aware of these techniques integrated into games to get us addicted is important. Companies will use it to make money out of us if they can. (Though I’m looking at operant conditioning in MMORPGs today another excellent example would have been games such as Farmville or Candy Crush.) The difference between us and certain animals is that it is possible for us to become aware of the conditioning we are subjected to. Even better, it is possible that this awareness can help us not fall victims to it as easily. I’m not saying don’t play games (never!), I’m simply saying this is why if you are a gamer and you want to keep being a gamer then you really should become well versed on this subject.

This said, gaming is far from the only place that these methodologies are being utilised. If you consider it for a moment I am sure you will think of many places in society where operant conditioning is used to modify behaviour. We are especially fond of conditioning our children to grow up to be  what we consider “good people” whilst society is keen to condition them through a kind of educational skinner box to create what they consider “good citizens”.


Want some further reading? Have a look at John Hopson’s article where topics such as “How to make players play hard” and “How to make players play forever” are explored. Nick Yee also wrote about “The Virtual Skinner Box” especially in relation to the game EverQuest and since all things Nick Yee are super interesting you should definitely check it out!

Photo attribution: Photo derived from “wow level up” by licensed under CC by 2.0

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