Series Info...Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #175:

Skinner Boxes & Socializer Gameplay

by Shannon Appelcline

A Skinner Box is named for the psychologist B.F. Skinner. They're meant to study conditioning, and are most often related to the operant conditioning for which B.F. Skinner was famous. Wikipedia briefly discusses the use of a Skinner Box as follows:

Skinner boxes have at least one operandum (or "manipulandum") that can automatically detect the occurrence of a behavioral response or action. Typical operanda for primates and rats are response levers; if the subject presses the lever, the opposite end moves and closes a switch that is monitored by a computer or other programmed device. Typical operanda for pigeons and other birds are response keys with a switch that closes if the bird pecks at the key with sufficient force. The other minimal requirement of a conditioning chamber is that it have a means of delivering a primary reinforcer or unconditioned stimulus like food (usually pellets) or water.

This is the heart of operant conditioning, which I first read about in Lads Before the Wind, a terrific book about dolphin training. The basic formula is very simple: reward = repeated behavior. I've written more about operant conditioning in general in an article at RPGnet called The Psychology of Rewards.

I've been thinking about Skinner Boxes lately because I've heard Worlds of Warcraft described as a "perfect Skinner Box" and I've talked with a friend who was briefly addicted to the game about the same.

To a certain extent, every Achiever-based game1. is a Skinner Box because you're offering up reward (XPs, skill gains, gold) for an action (click the monster, train the sword, loot the chest). Thus players are implicitly conditioned to take those actions. More than any game since EverQuest, Worlds of Warcraft really seems to have captured this genie.

There's a lot of questions related to the Skinnerness of achievement-based games like Worlds of Warcraft (and our own The Eternal City). Is the operant conditioning in any specific game purposeful? Is it moral or immoral? Is it good or bad? Should it be built up? Should it be avoided?

I've written elsewhere that I think that this sort of action/reward system directly leads to our sense of fun, because that happens to be how our brains are wired, and so it can't be seen as an entirely bad thing. However, if it leads to true, clinical addiction, then in that case it would be clear that the ideas had been abused2.

Beyond that I'm not going to get into the ethical & moral questions. I think they're ripe for discussion, but I think that the core point for game designers needs to be: achievement-based games are based to various extents upon Skinner Boxes, and this is an element of game design which should be understood.

I've used throughout this article the phrase "achievement-based games", and that's purposeful. Generally, this is how Skinnerian online games are understood: achievement-based games = operant conditioning. However some discussions about Skotos games this week made it a bit more obvious to me that that's not the whole answer. Instead I'd offer up the hypothesis that any long-term game is based to some extent upon a Skinner Box.

Our own Castle Marrach is a social game. The main purpose is player interaction, and ultimately jockeying for social position in a much more freeform manner than you'd find in an achiever game. However I suspect that, in its own way, it's no less of a Skinner Box than an achiever game.

In a socializer game, players just have different inputs, and thus different expectations about what they want to see. They appreciate meeting people and interacting with plots and characters. Though this type of play is generally less structured, there's no reason to believe that it doesn't have the same psychological underpinnings.

In other words, just as with achiever games, where players come to expect monsters to kill and treasures to loot, socializers come to expect players to meet and plots to engage in. And, given that both styles of gameplay are ultimately based upon repeated applications of similar stimuli, this means that socializer gameplay is as likely to be extinguished (e.g., the players leave) as achiever gameplay if the players aren't presented with the primary reinforcers that they've come to expect: people, socialization, and stories.

Maybe this isn't that much of a epiphany. I mean, what I'm basically saying is, give people what they want and expect. However, I think that a lot of socialization-heavy games don't give the same considerations to this type of issue as achiever games do. Designers should be thinking about how they can get their players their first socialization experience within the first minute or two of playing, and how they can insure that the correct social operandums are contantly reinforced--because that's what the players who come to a socializer game want.

This should be considered, investigated, and tested just as much as a monster-refresh rate or a gold economy is in your more classic achiever game.

Psychology is just one of many sciences underlying online game design. We should pay more attention to all of them.

1. "Achiever-based game" I've covered Richard Bartle's four categories of gameplayers a few times, most recently in Social Gaming Interactions, Part One: A History of Form. In short, he outlines four types of players, one of which are achievers, and one of which are socializers. I tend more toward classifying games as meeting these specific gameplay desires.

2. "... the ideas had been abused." Magic: The Gathering, the first collectible card game, is another clear example of operant conditioning at work. You take an action (buy a pack of cards) and you get a reward (rare cards), but as with the best operant conditioning, the reward isn't consistent. Sometimes you get the rare you want and sometimes you don't, a variability which ultimately makes it harder for the behavior to be extinguished.

Some of my favorite stories about the inception of Magic describe how Richard Garfield, the designer and a psychologist, purposefully built the game purchase system in such a way as to support & encourage addictive behavior, and that his right to practice psychology was thereby revoked by the New York Board of Psychologists because he'd "used his powers for evil".

The only flaw in that otherwise wonderful story is that Garfield is a professor of mathematics, not psychology. That this sort of story could so easily rise up points out the perceived threat of potentially addictive games to our psyche.

Of course in the 1980s crackpots were writing about how all fantasy roleplayers were mentally unstable occultists who really wanted to live out the fantasies that they gamed. In the last thirty years games have easily replaced "jungle music" and other aspects of teen rebellion as the boogey man for the ill-informed older generation.

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