This week I want to talk about something important. If you somehow found your way here then chances are you already know all about it. I will be talking a whole lot about it over the coming weeks and (hopefully) years, so I just want to make sure people like my mom (who reads every single one of these essays, I hope) and my wife are all caught up.
So, what is it? This week I want to talk about the Skinner Box. We all know it, we all love it, we all hate it. Most of us got our first video game fix off of some game that abused it. We all know somebody who’s addicted to it. In fact, as I write this I am playing a game called Idle Mine on Kongregate which is an absolutely perfect example of what this beastie is.
Now, anyone who has kept current will know how I usually do this. I start with some formal definitions, explanations to get everyone up to pace. Then I dive into the nitty grit. To start, back in the 19th and 20th century Pavlov was all the rage in the academic circles of psychology. Scientists everywhere were going crazy over the fact that you could program instincts. We could train a dog to salivate at the sound of a bell or condition a human being to become sexually aroused at the sight of office supplies. In the late 1920s however, a fellow named Burrhus Fredric Skinner came along and figured he could do better. Skinner figured that not only could he condition passive responses, he could alter volition as well. He figured that he could condition what choices an individual makes right down to the subconscious level. You ever read a book and find yourself up until 3 in the morning just finishing ‘one more page’? How about those nights you spend tending to your pigs on Farmville when you should be prepping for finals? SATs are tomorrow but you just can’t pull away from WoW long enough to get a decent night’s sleep? Skinner bet his reputation on the idea that he could cause that kind of response in virtually 100% of cases, and boy did his gamble pay off.
So how did he do it? The legend says that first he took a rat and put it in a box. This box had only a viewing window, a button, and a chute that dispenses food. The mouse would wander around the box until it discovered the button that released food. At first everything worked great, the mouse would regularly press the button, receive it’s food, then wander off. Skinner wasn’t quite satisfied, however, because as the mouse reached satiation it began to lose interest, so Skinner kicked it up a notch. He hooked up electrodes to the pleasure centers in the rat’s brain, and programmed the button to release a small jolt to stimulate the mouse every time the creature pressed the button. This worked great, the mouse would press the button and receive a flash of pleasure, but eventually it grew tired and lost interest. Then Skinner had an ingenious (or fateful, depending on your perspective) idea. He hooked it up so that the button only worked every second press, then every third press, then fourth. Eventually he got it to the point where the mouse was pressing the button as fast as it’s little muscles could handle. The mouse was hoping desperately for just one more of these jolts and was going to keep pressing until it got it’s fix, often forgetting to clean and feed itself.
Does this sound familiar? It should. Skinner had figured out how to program vertebrates to participate in an action, and while the box was a very rudimentary version, industries around the world have picked up his theories and ran for the goal with them. Eventually studies figured out that ‘push button, receive pellet’ was not by a long shot the only behavior that could be programmed using this gratification seeking psychological loophole, you could program anything from a skydiving addiction to a subconscious need to compulsively kill boars for 20 or 30 hours a week.
Eventually, WoW came along. Video games had been using Skinner’s techniques since the arcade days to squeeze quarters out of teenagers, TCGs like Magic and Yu-gi-oh had been using the method to get people to spend 8 bucks a pop for a chance to (maybe) crack a rare that they didn’t have before, Pokemon had been using rare spawns and effort levels to get kids killing Pidgeys for 4 hours a day and MMORPGs like Everquest were using these techniques for 2 or 3 years to keep players hooked in and paying, but Blizzard really grand slammed the concept, placing concentric skinner loops into gameplay. Killing enemies gave you experience which filled up a bar which leveled you up and allowed you to kill bigger enemies, some players were progressing faster than blizzard could crank out content so they implemented Rested Experience which was designed to straight up cut your exp gain in half if you were tearing through levels too fast. Fun fact, in the beta builds for WoW they didn’t call it rested XP, the double you got from logging out in a city was normal experience and the half-speed experience was called “exhausted experience”, it didn’t test well so they changed the names around to make the exp penalty feel like a bonus. They didn’t even change the mechanic at all, they just switched names, exhausted experience became normal experience and normal experience was renamed rested bonus. They noticed people were hauling it through their endgame content so they implemented a weekly reset (which is why everyone and their mother is online on weekly reset Teusday and on Monday night you can’t find anybody). They noticed engagement was dropping off later in the week so they implemented daily quests, and associated reputations so that you would grind only certain places at certain times for about an hour or so a hub spread over 5 or 6 hubs. This made it so that people were getting their pleasure centers jolted 5 or 6 dozen times a day by small gold and loot roll opportunities even when they weren’t raiding or running dungeons. Meanwhile, raids and dungeons had loot systems that were tailored specifically to only give relevant pieces of gear every 3rd to 5th run to any given player, and were arranged hierarchically to allow players to have a metric that describes exactly how far up the totem pole they are. 10 years later, bam, here you are, running your dailies from 4-6 every day, popping on at 12:00 PM pacific every Tuesday to run LFR for 2-3 hours before logging on again at 7:00 pacific on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. They even have you running low end raids for the chance to win tokens that you can turn in for a legendary piece of gear (Jesse has been farming that blasted cloak for a year now). She even makes Carson run Black Temple every week, which hasn’t been relevant since 2008, in the hopes of getting Illidan’s war glaives, last I checked not even 1 of them have dropped.
So, what’s wrong with this? This is usually about the time that I tell you why it’s a problem and how we can jump on it like Wanda on a Colossus. The problem is that there isn’t really a problem. Skinner’s techniques, applied responsibly, are a straight miracle cure. The first world is facing a crisis today, a crisis of engagement. Surviving in the first world is by no means easy, but it’s a hell of a lot easier than it was for our ancestors a thousand or even 50 years ago. We have developed the 4 hour work week, jobs that were challenging and dangerous are handled almost exclusively by machines and VIs (Artificial Intelligence versus Virtual Intelligence, there goes a seed). The biggest dangers we face nowadays center around avoiding political pitfalls and remaining on the good side of our superiors. In 10 years 3D printers will be ubiquitous so we wont really have to worry about securing supplies or food. The first world is, to put it in game terms, locked semi-permanently in Casual mode.
The world a hundred years ago was small enough that people were motivated purely by responsibility, 200 years ago if you didn’t feel like getting up in the morning then your cows didn’t get fed and you (along with all but the richest members of your town) starved. If you didn’t want to deal with the stresses of producing high-quality weapons for the local militia then the bandits would swoop in, kill everyone you care about and make off with the females. Nowadays, if you really aren’t up for work today then (financial issues aside) there’s no big issue, there’s a hundred people to step up and take your place. Many people are bored and depressed because the human brain simply isn’t designed to handle a world with no immanent problems. Yes, there is still war and hunger, but real, grinding, die tomorrow poverty is thousands of miles away, war crimes are an ocean apart and any real end of the universe scenarios are, for all intents and purposes, worlds away. We simply weren’t designed to comprehend societies any bigger than a hundred or so individuals and the average person walks by twice that every day.
So there’s your problem. We in the first world are bored, sleeping. We get up in the morning, autopilot to work, put in our 8 hours, drive home, eat, go to sleep, and don’t actually engage at any point in this process. We aren’t miserable, but we aren’t happy either. I can pick out any one of you, Dear Readers, and the one I picked wouldn’t be able to dredge up anything truly important that had happened in the last week. We have our occasional get togethers, breakups, our weddings, our funerals, but for the most part nobody gets any truly game-changing information more than once or twice per fiscal quarter.
So how do we fix this? Gamification. Now, the subject of gamification is a topic for it’s own essay, (maybe next week) but for now let’s start with this. Imagine if the same techniques that had you slaving away at your Sudoku book or farming Timeless Isle into the wee hours of the morning were layered over more mundane projects. What if every day you went without a customer complaint gave you a point toward an achievement. Say, go 20 consecutive days without any discrepancies at your cash register and receive a 1 use pawn-off-bathroom-cleanup pass. Or if you are a teacher you could give a class assignment on the first day of the semester and offer a class-wide 1% cumulative bonus to the final grade for every unique turn in of the project (it sure as hell worked for An’Qiraj back in Vanilla WoW).
My wife usually hates when I go on about the Skinner box because I find it’s uses in gaming to be somewhat exploitative. Take Mass Effect for example. Okay, Barrens Chat is going to have stuff to say about this, so here we go. The storyline to Mass Effect was straight-up bad. The characters and setting were done masterfully, I loved almost every single character who found their way onto the Normandy and even teared up over the death of a certain patter-singing scientist salarian, but the story itself made no bloody sense. The Reapers, a synthetic race, wipe out organics every 50 thousand years to prevent organics from getting wiped out by synthetics and the only way to end the cycle was to control, destroy, or merge with The Reapers, but even that wont work because it’s the destiny of artificial life to wage war against organics and if The Reapers don’t do it then someone else will. What? Not to mention the fact that the stories themselves are filled with plot holes that would stagger Deadpool. So, everyone that interacts with a reaper gets indoctrinated, except for Shepard who is somehow inoculated by Prothean technology that only works on her? Why didn’t the Protheans use it on themselves? The Protheans are still alive (even if they are little more than indoctrinated, mindless hive-slaves of The Reapers). It isn’t like The Reapers wiped them out, so the Protheans have a device that shields the mind from indoctrination but they chose to bury it on some back water middle-of-nowhere world in the hopes that maybe someone will find it instead of using it on themselves, ending the cycle, and saving every other species that got wiped out during their Reaper purge? In the words of an old friend: Wiggity What?
So what kept me engaged in Mass Effect? The characters. After every major mission you got a round of chats with the supporting cast, everything from grabbing a beer with the marine to getting the pilot and the rogue, unshackled AI to admit they love each other (by the way, great work on subverting the evil seductress/rogue AI tropes, Bioware, watching EDI get her own body and proceed to, instead of going straight down the GlaDOS or Data roads, become a fully realized individual with no aspiration to copycat organics, seeing her completely flip the bird at trying to become human really helped me believe her love for Joker). So how does that fit into Skinner’s technique? Buy the game, grind through the levels, get drip fed the characters and leveling system (progressive enemies vs static spawns in RPGs, there goes a seed) then get hit with another $60 bill plus DLC if you want to see what happened to the characters you fell in love with. Bingo, hat trick, achievement unlocked. You have been conditioned to want to buy the next Bioware game because you know that those shallow (if beautifully animated) combat sequences will be punctuated by an amazing cast of supporting characters and funny/cute vocal stabs by aforementioned rogue AI.
Also, while I’m on Bioware’s case. Those guys need to cut it out with the progressive auto-leveling mobs. What happened to the good old days? 10 years ago if you spent extra time searching out every single item in every single corner of every single map and fighting all the mobs that came with that then you would be significantly ahead of the curve. A significant part of how the Skinner Box works in games revolves around being able to compare your progression with previous scenarios. If you play a lot of Final Fantasy 10 then decided to pop back to Besaid for the spheres that only drop off of early mobs you were immediately hit with how awesome you had become. Enemies that once gave you significant amounts of trouble were suddenly one-shotable even with unoptimized builds (who else remembers going back and one-shotting flying-types with Auron’s Cloud-syndrome sword). Nowadays, with the way Bioware builds their encounters, no matter how hard you grind, no matter how hard you slave at collecting every single piece of gear, no matter how many sidequests you completed, you are absolutely never more powerful than the enemies you are facing right now. That needs to stop, guys. If you are going to apply the skinner box to your game then at least let us feel it in a meaningful way. I like feeling like a badass for going out of my way. I’m not saying I want Dragon Age 3 to be easy, that’s what difficulty modes and bonus dungeons are for, I just want to feel like my extra work does something other than maybe get me a point or 2 in your arbitrary galaxy-at-war metagame that only changes tiny details in the ending cutscene.
Okay, I apologize for that offshoot, I just finished Mass Effects 2 and 3 and I’m currently trying to crawl out of the negative-possibility pit that was left by those endings, I really should have seen it coming after the bandaid-rip of an ending that was Mass Effect 1, finding out the guy you hunted the entire time was just the puppet of some (at the time) abstract force from outside the galaxy. Back on track.
How do I see the Skinner box used in the future? Well that’s a fun subject. It can really go a number of ways. I would like to see RPGs rewind to the late 2000s. I remember when games came with bonus dungeons that were only completable if you went about clearing every single bonus quest. Say what you will about Tidus, knowing that Yojimbo and Anima were waiting for me when I killed the final boss and collected a few of the Exceed Damage Limit weapons was amazing. Instead of using the skinner box to sell 1 hour vignettes of your game like Warden’s Keep (5 bucks to get an extra level or so). You could go back to putting the side-dungeons back into the core game and using the generated good will to sell merchandise (I still buy every single piece of Sonic paraphernalia I find). You could even go ahead and do what Bioware did, using the “load last game’s save” mechanic to get people to buy old installations in the hopes of finding unique stuff that is only obtainable by completing an obscure task in the previous game.
However, there are things we need to stop doing. Right now there’s a movement amongst AAA publishers to add a leveling system as a cheap way to skinner box out their games. Look at DmC: Devil May Cry. Once you completed the main quest (which was itself 12 hours before all the unlocks, secret levels and hardmodes), You could buy Vergil’s Downfall (Okay, mom, Vergil’s Downfall is Downloadable Content, DLC, for DmC: Devil may Cry, DLC is a bit of game that didn’t come with the original purchase and is intended to further enrich the game for people who have more money and want more of what they just played), which cost 20% as much as the original game, and all you got was a 2 hour campaign and the leveling system that, in the core game, allowed you to expand your moves into awesome, visually stunning and brutally visceral combos, but now only lets you get a moveset that was copied verbatim from Vergil’s half-assed moveset in Devil May Cry 3. They didn’t even animate the custscenes, they looked like they were drawn by a 2 year old. Here, the skinner box came in the form of a level up system. Once you hit max level and had all of the special moves, achievements and unlocks, you were prompted to buy the expansion. On paper there is nothing wrong with this, so long as you drive to extend the core aesthetic of your gameplay, the problem is that in the case of DmC: Devil may Cry it was used to promise more of the over-the-top action, followed by a tacked on afterthought that was largely old re-skinned levels, assets, and tools that were already present in the full price feature-length game. Imagine, if you will, going to the movie theatre and having the attendant expect you to pay an extra 10 bucks for the blooper reel at the end. Yeah, it was like that.
How about a real-world expression of how the Skinner box can be used exploitatively. You ever watch the commercials on TV where they tell you that if you sign up for a credit card now they will give you double reward points for airfare? That is a direct attempt to get you to pay them for a credit card and use it primarily to buy a particular good that has a high level of associated overhead costs. That system isn’t there to make it easier to visit your mom, its there because airplane tickets are sodding expensive and if you are flying about a lot on your double-airline credit card then you will be racking up debt with hotel stays and fast food and, ultimately, getting hit hard with late fees and monthly payments that will be in significant excess of the cost of your $400 airline ticket in the middle of December.
For the books, lets state another way this could become troublesome. Anyone here ever go to Vegas? That place is a perfect example of the Skinner Box taken to it’s evilest extreme. They remove all clocks, build the place out of wireless-jamming materials, and leave you with a machine that is straight up designed to take your money. For every 30 or 40 quarters you put in you may hit a jackpot and get 20 back with the occasional Jackpot flaring up every 2 hours on the other side of the room, remember that bit about the mouse in the box? Well the box next to you just got the jolt. This is a perfect example of the skinner box in action. It feels like you’re choosing to play and could walk away at any second but, you know, it only costs 10 cents to play and you have some change in your pocket. What the hell, one more game, lets see if you can make back that 10 bucks you’ve lost already. Suddenly the machine lights up, there are bright lights and cheerful tunes being played all over your vision. You’ve won! You know what? You got that 10 dollars back, lets see if we can double it. And just like that you are giving your earned money right back to the house. The guys over at Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods have specialists, people who are paid specifically to study how to optimize their buildings to make sure you don’t step out with a cent of your winnings. You come in with 100 dollars, you see they are selling the Xbox One at a discount! $280 bucks instead of 300, well, all you have to do is beat the house at poker a few times and you walk out with a (basically) free Xbox One! Even if you do manage to haul it at poker and walk out with that brand new xBone now you have the memory of winning an xbox and you are twice as likely to walk back in on payday and see if you can win that PS4. Just remember, you can’t win forever, and even if you do they now use tickets stamped with your current earnings so if you manage to really haul it they can kick you out and you’re stuck with a voucher for $1000 that’s only redeemable within the next 24 hours in the casino you are now banned from.
That got dark really quick. I have strong feelings about this thing. As I said: I love the Skinner Box as much as I hate it. It’s a fundamental part of gaming and, if used right, will save us all. Just make sure that when you make your game you don’t just put in a leveling mechanic just to extend play. You aren’t fooling anyone, yes, it makes your game more engaging but it doesn’t ramp up the fun level a bit if you don’t do it right. Leveling systems are there to provide a metric for character growth. Level ups symbolize you becoming the very best of the best. If you’re just going to use level ups and achievements as expansion fodder then you aren’t being fair to your fans or yourself. Games exist to tell stories and distract from the minutiae of daily life, not to remind people of how screwed they are financially.
So, that’s my bit. I hope my wife doesn’t throw this out cause I mostly wrote it for her. She’s currently sitting across from me right now with the dog, waiting for me to wrap up so that we can take another swing at the raids (its Tuesday night). If you enjoyed this essay please comment and like, if you have any other subjects for me to talk about feel free to email my superiors (the address is in Need Additional Pylons). I look forward to your glowing accolades and death threats. I think I am going to talk about Gamification next week, but Ill change my mind if you guys have anything better.