Thinking Outside The Skinner Box

The rate at which I achieve maximum rank/level in video games is inconsistent at best. I have never activated prestige mode in Call of Duty, let alone reached maximum rank. I am happy to finish an RPG without being the highest level if it is possible, though I do tend to over level to make things easier. I sometimes avoid extra challenges in games simply because I am not interested in the reward or unlock. When it comes down to it, more often than not I stop playing games before I have received all of my rewards,  which results in me feeling like a player who can be sucked into The Skinner Box mentality of games just like anyone else, while still running out of steam before I am truly done. Call of Duty is a primary example, though many of these concepts apply to other games as well.

If you don’t know what The Skinner Box is, Extra Credits did a fantastic video explaining what it is and how it applies to video games. I would recommend you watch it, though I will try to explain it here. The gist of what The Skinner Box is that a subject becomes conditioned to performing certain tasks over and over again while receiving a reward that is given when certain conditions are met. This could mean that you need to earn a certain amount of XP in Call of Duty in order to rank up and receive new unlocks, or it could mean that you need to spend a certain amount of time in an area before you can continue on in the game. The setup of the reward intervals are either based on passage of a set amount of time or a random amount of time, or a set number of actions required to be performed or a random number of actions required to be performed. The Skinner Box system can change in ways that require you to do perform different actions for a reward or perform a combination of different actions for a reward. Because of this system, it can be easy for someone to be conditioned to performing certain actions in games over and over again simply based on the way the rewards are given to you almost regardless of the rewards themselves.

Well shit, I wasn't going to fall for this but now I you have my attention.

Gentlemen, you had my curiosity… but now you have my attention.

It’s worth mentioning, however, that the rewards themselves and the way you receive them aren’t only the reason one can be so easily conditioned in games. The packaging around the rewards can simply be enough for some people. Do you know the sound that you hear when you level up in Call of Duty? That badass little noise is specifically there to make sure that it isn’t the last time you’ll hear it. The little jingles you hear in RPGs and other games when you level up and accomplish something are all there to pleasure the happy parts of your brain (I do believe that is the scientific term) every time you level up just in case the rewards involved with leveling up and accomplishing something aren’t good enough. When the little jingles and flashing lights are combined with achieving a new level and rank and the rewards that come with them, you can see why it can be so easy to be conditioned to The Skinner Box mentality of so many video games. Also, you know that gamerscore/trophy level you care so much about? Yeah, that’s conditioning too. I’ll be damned if the little sounds made when an achievement/trophy pop up aren’t the most beautiful sounds in the world though.

So what’s the deal then? Why write about this in the first place when I could be out there leveling up, earning rewards, and constantly being conditioned to play certain games through positive reinforcement? In all honesty, I don’t think this method really works for me anymore. If I am going to play a game I am more likely to play and complete one where I actually enjoy playing it because it is a game and not because of The Skinner Box metagame surrounding it. If the mechanics are sound, the world is interesting, I like the characters, and the story is engaging then that can get me to play a game more than being given a reward for every hundredth kill I perform.

Way to go me, I guess...

Way to go me, I guess…

I’m not saying level progression systems, achievements, bonus challenges, and special unlocks can’t be included to add a sense of extra value and enjoyment to the game, but they don’t and shouldn’t be there to try to make a game seem better than it actually is. In fact, I think this works well in multiplayer settings, but I do think it can start to feel too similar and ultimately stale. I would be more interested in playing a multiplayer shooter if every weapon and perk was unlocked from the start and all I could unlock was cosmetics which had no real effect in the gameplay department. By doing that I would be more open to experimenting with my loadout and play style while still having unlocks to work towards. It would however, mean there was less of an emphasis on being sucked into playing due to being conditioned to earn unlock after unlock, but if the gameplay was good enough to keep me hooked I don’t think it would be a problem. I understand that some fighting games and games like DOTA 2 and League of Legends do this similar thing and that is what part of the appeal is, but I do think other games could learn from them as well.

When The Skinner Box is used appropriately and not used to cover up uninspired game elements, the end result can be a rewarding and engaging experience, and there isn’t anything wrong with that. While I am not always interested in being constantly rewarded for my efforts in games beyond simply experiencing the game itself, even I can appreciate ranking up every now and then in an online shooter. I just think it is important to be cautious of bad games trying to condition us to keep playing them, as opposed to games that don’t need the Skinner Box method of conditioning at all. The more aware we are of the games we play and how we play them, the the smarter we as players will become, and in turn the games will become smarter too.

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  1. I get how you feel.Vincent. This Skinner Box approach doesn’t really work on me anymore either. I’ve more or less lost all interest in multiplayer games because the bells and whistles just don’t matter to me anymore and there isn’t a game that holds my attention for its gameplay alone at the minute. On the other hand I just finished Tales of Xilllia on PS3 and loved it so much that it went into my top 10 games. Now I know there is lights and sounds when you rank up but it was the story, character skits and amazing battle system that kept me interested.

    • I really want to get into the Tales series and I have heard very good things about Xillia. Shiny bells and whistles are great and all but these days I find myself much more interested in mechanics (or lack thereof), characters and stories.

      I haven’t really been into a multiplayer game for a while, but I thought SSX had some really neat ideas, I liked Black Ops 1’s unlocking system where you used in-game money so you could unlock what you wanted when you wanted to, and I have started playing League of Legends and I really like a lot of it’s multiplayer ideas too. Then again, I wouldn’t have played any of those games if I didn’t enjoy actually playing them, Skinner Box conditioning or not.

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