Skinner Box Mechanics: The Unaware Gamer

Booting up my Shield, I quickly opened my app drawer and launched Modern Combat 5. As the game loads up I am greeted with my profile stats. Matches played, KDR, accuracy; all of the typical stats recorded in shooters. I entered into the matchmaking queue for a team battle game and waited to join the server an begin the match. 10 minutes later, new numbers flashed across my screen. My match KDR, XP gained, weapon XP gained, accessory unlock progression, and weapon unlock progression all appear with intent to keep me playing. Just one more match and I could unlock that new scope. Just one more match and I can use that new SMG. Just one more match and I can unlock that new perk. Trying to blink my eyes I look away from the screen. The nearby clock reads 1am, I’ve been playing for two and a half hours. “Why can’t I put this game down,” I think as the next level loads and I repeat my actions all over again.

The simple answer to this is “Skinner Box.” For those who are unfamiliar with the terminology, B.F. Skinner was a psychologist that is most known for his work with behavioral studies. His most well known experiment dealt with his operant conditioning chamber — more colloquially referred to as a Skinner Box. Put extremely simple, a test subject is put in a room with the option of two actions, one that is rewarded and one that is punished. Through operant conditioning, the test subject will avoid the action that is punished regardless of the effects of the rewarded action. The usual example is a rat that gets food when it pulls one lever and a small shock when it pulls the other. This idea has loosely been translated to gaming in reference to games that continuously praise the player for doing just about anything. Call of Duty and World of Warcraft have so much to do and unlock that practically any activity will result in a popup telling the player they are now closer to doing X of that action. Not only is there a seemingly endless amount of things to do but the player is constantly encouraged to keep doing them, regardless of how mundane or boring those actions are.

Another form of this is the “bigger numbers getting bigger” game mechanic commonly found in RPGs. Think of games like Diablo, Torchlight, or Borderlands. As enemies get more health the player needs to deal more damage. When you first start a game it takes 3 hits to kill a goblin and in the end game it still takes 3 hits to kill a goblin…but now you are doing 6000+ damage per strike so things have change, right? I have spent countless nights grinding for the best equipment in RPGs before. But realistically the difference between the equipment I had and what I was looking for wasn’t much of a difference, it just has some numbers that were a little larger.

This is not the first time the term “Skinner Box” has been associated with gaming habits. Nor is this the first time I have heard of the comparison. And that is what this is all about. I understand that when I grind out gear in RPGs or levels in an FPS that I am being encouraged by the game to continue playing. I understand I am in the box and pressing the lever that tells me how awesome I am and that I continue to press the button. My question is, “Why?” This thought came about as I groaned about the slow progress in unlocking the best pistol in Modern Combat 5. I’ve fully upgraded the penultimate pistol but will still have to play about 10-15 matches to unlock the last, and then another 10-15 to unlock its attachments and I wondered to myself why I am even doing it. I never really used one prior to this grind and I am likely never to use one after I finish this grind but I am still grinding for it. And after this I am likely to grind out the rest of the weapon types despite having maxed out my Recon class. I understand that these goals are not “fun” and yet I still work towards completing them despite them being less than enjoyable. Maybe “Skinner Box” mechanics are simply that alluring, maybe I’m not as strong willed as I believe myself to be. Whatever the reason, at least I am aware of my surrounds, my label as “test subject.” That’s gotta be better than blindly playing games unaware that the fun was lost hundreds of matches ago.


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