Vague Patch Notes: There’s more to Skinner boxes in MMOs than mere repetition

Well... it's a box, and one of the people in it is probably a skinner?

As I started watching the latest World of Warcraft video to whip people into a furor, I very nearly turned the thing off as soon as I heard my long-hated coldest of all takes, the one people frequently use to dismiss games they don’t like and generally bring up as a particularly facile argument about games using randomized rewards. “This is just a Skinner box.”

I see this argument put forth a lot, and not only does it often get said without any understanding of what the term actually means, but it frequently gets tossed out as an obviously bad thing while failing to actually dig into any of the reasons why this might be a bad thing or might have a negative impact.

So let’s talk about the Skinner box concept, where it applies for games, why it doesn’t mean what you think it means, and how to avoid being the gaming equivalent of the guy who thinks he’s brilliant for claiming that Beauty and the Beast is about Stockholm syndrome.

The Skinner box is a device named after Dr. B. F. Skinner, which he created while working as a graduate student at Harvard University. Skinner, who disagreed with the notion of free will and believed that behaviors both human an animal were determined entirely by prior experiences, developed the box as a way to test operant conditioning. Skinner himself disliked having the device named after him and asked colleagues to refer to it as a lever box in published documents.

When people refer to something as a “Skinner box,” they’re usually referring to a very specific configuration of the box, which featured a lever, a food dispenser, ample space for a rat to move around, and a rat as a test subject. When pressing the lever caused food to fall from the food dispenser every time, the rat would press the lever only when the rat was hungry. However, if food was only dispensed some of the time, the rat would continually press the lever, hoping that any given press would produce food.

And if I press it enough time, sometimes there's a story!

It’s important to note that the actual operant conditioning chamber has a number of variants while still being the same basic setup; for example, if there are two lights in the box, one green and one red, the rat can be taught “food when green is on, electric shock when red is on.” But all of that is beyond the scope of the comparison; what people are talking about is the idea that you are repeating some action in the hope that maybe this time something good will happen. Repeat the same action, hope you get a drop or a bonus or whatever.

But the important part there is that you have to be repeating the same action, over and over, without variation. It’s something you’re chasing even if you don’t need it, just because you can and because sometimes you get it.

This definitely does apply to elements of video game systems, but the problem is that it only does so in the broadest strokes. To use World of Warcraft as an example, if you’re hoping to get a piece of Azerite armor from World Quests, you’re not doing random World Quests in the hopes that you might get it. You can immediately see what you’ll get from a given quest; you’re just keeping your eyes open for when it’s available as a reward. Sure, you might be hoping for Titanforging on a piece and that may or may not happen, but the base reward is never in question.

Saying that a game is a Skinner box is usually meant as a comment on “this game rewards repetition.” But that’s only half of what the experiment being discussed actually was about. Yes, it was rewarding the rat for doing something repetitive, but it was something repetitive without any sort of assurance of when it would get something. It required randomization, so every press might mean a reward (food pellet) or might mean nothing.

Consider that if the rat always got the pellet, the lever got pressed only when the rat needed food. I’m not looking at the study right now, but I’m relatively certain that it was the same if the rat knew it would get food any time it pressed the lever twice or every third time or whatever. It’s about that uncertainty, that maybe this will be the time you get something good.

Or, put more simply, this is not actually an indictment of repetition, but attaching random rewards to repetition. Repetition is just the same thing, over and over. If the reward is either always the same or broadly the same, you don’t actually have the same operant loop.

This also could be used as a springboard to discuss a larger issue with the original study and the evolutionary behaviors involved; while I again do not have the journals right in front of me, there are doubtlessly papers linking the need for constant attempts to get food with the idea that food is normally scarce in the wild, along with the lack of other meaningful stimulation in the environment. But let's puncture one theory at a time.

When I run an Expert roulette in Final Fantasy XIV, it’s random whether or not any items will drop which I want and it’s random whether or not I’ll win any rolls for those items. But every time I run it I know exactly how much currency I’ll get, and that currency is used to ultimately buy the more powerful rewards in the game. So while my overall rewards might vary a bit, the rewards I get are very fixed. And they’re limited to once per day, which further reduces the “keep rolling, maybe this one will be good” syndrome.

In Granblue Fantasy, which I’ve become quite fond of, you draw new characters and summons out of random boxes. “Aha, randomness! You’re just being trained to keep spending money in hopes of getting something!” Except that most people recommend holding on to your free drawing options until you have enough to “spark” for a character or summon; you get to choose an available character by drawing enough times, and it’s entirely doable for free on a reliable basis. The random draws you get in the process of sparking vary, but they’re essentially the bonus, not the reward.

That’s not to say that Skinner’s research into operant conditioning doesn’t have any applications when it comes to video games. There are definitely games that do use that sort of randomness to entice behavior. For example, slot machines.

But repetition is not in and of itself something that makes a Skinner box. Doing your daily world quests for Emissary quests in World of Warcraft has broadly fixed rewards and a couple of random ones. Crafting several dozen of the same item in Black Desert in hopes of reselling them has fixed rewards. Mining asteroids in EVE Online? Same deal. Sure, you might get lucky, but even the luck is pretty well known. Doing a world quest might not get me a Titanforged item, but it’s not going to suddenly reward me with a new mount if that’s not on the reward list.

It is also not the same as a box in which a lady shows a great deal of skin. No idea how Dr. Skinner would have felt about that.

This is why it bothers me when someone’s hot take boils down to “hey, did you realize this game is a Skinner box?” Because not only is it referring to a very specific interpretation of that concept, but it’s willfully misrepresenting the concept to imply that repetition is always bad. Heck, doing the same thing for the hope of a reward isn’t bad in and of itself! It’s just an aspect of rewarding you for specific action.

“But you’re just gearing up only for more gear to drop later!” Again, that’s not a Skinner box. That’s an entirely different element of game design. And you can argue whether you like it or not, but that is a discussion for another time.

All games are, on some level, about repeating actions. That doesn’t make them bad. You’re trying to form unbroken lines of bricks, or eat pellets while evading ghosts, or even just get all of the cards in a deck to line up in sequence. It’s not some unique psychological trick except insofar as human beings like to do stuff.

When people complain about something as a Skinner box, the real complaint is more often along the lines of “this action has to be repeated over and over but isn’t fun the first time, much less the eighth.” And that’s a real complaint, something that speaks to a problem with the way the game is designed and what the designers think is fun.

It’s just not a problem with any relation to Dr. B. F. Skinner. Although he probably wouldn’t think you had any choice in claiming it did, so carry on, I guess.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.
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