Behavioural Game Design and the Manipulation of Fun

Over the last twenty or thirty years gam­ing has changed almost bey­ond recog­ni­tion. With the sim­ul­tan­eous growth in beha­vi­our­al psy­cho­logy the two fields have col­lided, as sum­mar­ised by Microsoft games research­er John Hop­son in his look at beha­vi­our­al game design.

Cracked sum­mar­ises the art­icle well (if not a tad sen­sa­tion­al­ised) as Five ways video games are try­ing to get you addicted (part two). It’s worth not­ing that this is taken from the the­or­ies of B. F. Skin­ner and his oper­ant con­di­tion­ing cham­bers (or, Skin­ner boxes).

“Each con­tin­gency is an arrange­ment of time, activ­ity, and reward, and there are an infin­ite num­ber of ways these ele­ments can be com­bined to pro­duce the pat­tern of activ­ity you want from your play­ers.”

Notice his art­icle does not con­tain the words “fun” or “enjoy­ment.” That’s not his field. Instead it’s “the pat­tern of activ­ity you want.”

His the­or­ies are based around the work of BF Skin­ner, who dis­covered you could con­trol beha­vi­or by train­ing sub­jects with simple stim­u­lus and reward. He inven­ted the “Skin­ner Box,” a cage con­tain­ing a small anim­al that, for instance, presses a lever to get food pel­lets. Now, I’m not say­ing this guy at Microsoft sees gamers as a bunch of rats in a Skin­ner box. I’m just say­ing that he illus­trates his the­ory of game design using pic­tures of rats in a Skin­ner box.

This sort of thing caused games research­er Nick Yee to once call Ever­quest a “Vir­tu­al Skin­ner Box.”

So What’s The Prob­lem?

Gam­ing has changed. It used to be that once they sold us a $50 game, they did­n’t par­tic­u­larly care how long we played. The big thing was mak­ing sure we liked it enough to buy the next one. But the industry is mov­ing toward sub­scrip­tion-based games like MMO’s that need the sub­ject to keep playing–and paying–until the sun goes super­nova.

Now, there’s no way they can cre­ate enough explor­a­tion or story to keep you play­ing for thou­sands of hours, so they had to change the mech­an­ics of the game, so play­ers would instead keep doing the same actions over and over and over, wheth­er they liked it or not. So game developers turned to Skin­ner­’s tech­niques.

This look at how manip­u­lat­ing con­tin­gen­cies in sys­tems and games can obtain desired results/behaviours opens a num­ber of ques­tions. Expect more on this.

Update: I’ve pos­ted a com­pre­hens­ive sum­mary of the art­icle in ques­tion on micro.Lone Gun­man.

3 thoughts on “Behavioural Game Design and the Manipulation of Fun

  1. Cedar Riener

    I showed my intro to psy­cho­logy class the last few minutes of Jesse Schell’s recent ( talk dur­ing our sec­tion on Skin­neri­an con­di­tion­ing. What I hope that game design­ers and people seek­ing to apply gam­ing prin­ciples and beha­vi­or­al psy­cho­logy prin­ciples to the out­side world take into account is that there has been a fair amount of work since Skin­ner, even in the beha­vi­or­ist tra­di­tion, and the simple sched­ules of rein­force­ment are not the only thing we should be using. For example, one com­mon find­ing in many of these stud­ies, even begin­ning with Tol­man’s rat stud­ies of cog­nit­ive maps, is that the more extreme the incent­ive and motiv­a­tion, the more nar­row the learn­ing. I think this is addressed in Dan Pink’s new book. Basic­ally, when you give a huge reward (or a huge pun­ish­ment) the learn­ing that hap­pens is very very spe­cif­ic to the par­tic­u­lar task at hand (or more likely the par­tic­u­lar meas­ure­ment of per­form­ance of the par­tic­u­lar task). This is an often neg­lected cri­ti­cism of high stakes tests in edu­ca­tion­al set­tings. The high­er the stakes you place on a test, the more likely people are to do as well as they pos­sibly can on that test, without learn­ing any­thing but per­form­ance on that test.
    A second con­sid­er­a­tion is addressed by Car­ol Dweck­’s work (sum­mar­ized in Mind­set) in that in some cases we can under­mine intern­al motiv­a­tion by always provid­ing extern­al incent­ives.

    Any­ways, a bit tan­gen­tial to your point about video game, but not entirely unre­lated.


  2. Scott Jenkins

    Best book I’ve ever read on oper­ant con­di­tion­ing is Don’t Shoot the Dog by Kar­en Pry­or. There’s noth­ing remotely bad about it. I recom­mend this book to every­one that is inter­ested in really under­stand­ing beha­vi­or­ism.

  3. Pingback: » Blog Archive » Blog – Why am I still playing this? – Skinner Box Method!

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