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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