I am the rat in the skinner box


Posted on 22 October 2012 by jose

I've been reading a number of articles recently concerning games, their reward systems, and addictive behavior. Some talk about classics like Everquest (Evercrack) or somewhat more recent games like World of Warcraft. Others discuss Facebook games like Farmville and Mafia Wars. Today, I read an article by a game developer about extrinsic vs. intrinsic rewards in a game, and how putting in quests in their game nearly ruined it.

It struck a nerve: a few years ago, I was one of the millions of people hooked to a Facebook click-task games. It took more than a year before I realized how much fun I wasn't having, which was an interesting discovery in itself. Why would I continue to play a game that had as its main appeal the reward of a spot on a leaderboard based entirely on how often I clicked a button? The answer to that is simple and complex: brain chemistry. Knowing I was the best at some part of the game and putting in the obsessive time to stay on top created a feedback loop that kept me in the game for a long time. This works exactly like many other social games on Facebook: get friends to join, and you get some boost (reward). Click a button every X minutes and you got a semi-random opportunity to advance (reward).

I try to avoid placing value on social networking games as compared to other types of games, as one can easily boil down the essence of all video/online games to button clicks. Part of the reason I stopped playing social networking games, though, was the realization that to win, one did not require any skills. A reliable alarm clock and an obsessive desire to "win" the click race was all that was needed. The kinds of games I truly enjoy have a strong story or interesting characters (ideally both), and require moderate hand-eye coordination (in other words, a modicum of physical skill), though this last simply means clicking a button with precision. I am OK with this; I frequently wonder if the millions of people who play click-task/social networking games have similar realizations and have made peace with that reality ("It's fun and it doesn't demand a whole lot of my time or attention"). It's fascinating to realize that life is filled with these sort of click-reward scenarios; it may not be possible to escape from being that rat in the skinner box.

But back to gaming, sort of. I get a great deal of pleasure from crossing things off a list; it's that feeling of accomplishment that a task is finally done. In many contexts, this is actually a positive trait. I feel that in the context of gaming, it can be limiting. Granted, there are games where this is appropriate; most games tend to fall apart without a quest structure. But when I think about the hours I've spent in Hyrule, enjoying the moment, exploring, discovering, or the hours I've spent in the historical settings of the Assassin's Creed games, walking around in awe at the recreation or reimagining of ancient monuments and figures out of history, it almost makes me resent the fact that I'm "supposed to" return to a main quest line to further the story. And I do enjoy the story; when I think of those games, though, my mind soars at the memory of exploring a game with no cues from the game itself, the only agency my own whim, creating the game and making it my own as I play it. No Achievement checklist to slog through, and no in-game railroading of options.

The next time I play a game seriously, assuming the game lends itself to unconstrained play, I will attempt to avoid the compulsion to check things off and simply immerse myself in the game, allowing my imagination free rein. And if I do decide I want to cross something off, I will make sure it is of a checklist of my own devising.

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