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

    
10
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.
newest oldest most liked
Subscribe to:
Reader
Jeffery Witman

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.

Assuming you’re correct here, what’s the MMO analogue to this? What games gives you exactly what you want after 3 dungeons or 5 raids? I can think of a few that give special currencies you can spend on special items (Tiamat raid in Neverwinter, for example), but they are far from what people usually refer to as Skinner boxes, and far from the norm in MMOs.

I’ve seen it used, mostly, as a criticism of RNG loot boxes that cost money (either directly or for keys to open them). They’re usually filled with junk that has a low enough nominal value to be considered nothing at all. People are enticed to spend money on it by the very low, lottery-like chance of getting the one or two high value items such boxes drop. This is the Skinner box. Keep paying to push the lever one more time in the hope that you get a food pellet instead of just a whiff of food.

Reader
Kickstarter Donor
Pandalulz

Man, when I play MMOs anymore, I always feel like the little red light is on. I keep playing but nothing good comes of it. :P

Reader
Witches

Designers have a rough idea of what is fun, and they go out of their way to force people to do things they don’t have fun doing, the pvper needs to do ops, the pveer needs to pvp, end game people need to do the story, all of these are just delay tactics.

As for the term, the internet is full of people parroting things without any knowledge of what they are saying, down to not even knowing how to spell certain terms.

Reader
Schmidt.Capela

The fact you know the general shape of the reward doesn’t matter; what matters is that you don’t always get the reward you want among all potential rewards you could get, and what determines if you don’t get the desired reward is random chance. If the game element fulfills that it’s a Skinner Box, regardless of how much the devs attempt to disguise it as something else.

The titanforged crap Blizzard came up with is a great example of how sleazy dev can turn otherwise fixed reward quests into Skinner Boxes. Yeah, you know the name and general properties of the item you will get from the world quest, but what you truly want is the elusive, perfect titanforged version of it, which you have but a very slim chance of winning.

Also, having a limit on how often you can interact with the Skinner Box mechanics don’t make it any less of a skinner box. Quite the contrary, as it uses other psychological shortcuts to make players feel bad if they lose any chance to pull the lever for their daily pellet, reinforcing the behavioral compulsion of the Skinner Box model.

BTW, the Skinner Box also shows the same results with pigeons, demonstrating that this behavioral short-circuit happens even with simpler brains than those of mammals. Using its principles in games is basically a lazy way to get people to waste time with things they might not even enjoy.

Being aware about this is why I intentionally filter out any non-guaranteed rewards when I’m deciding what to play next. And if I ever get stuck because I need something only available as a random reward in order to progress, I will leave the game rather than go play the little lab rat to the dev’s Skinner Box.

Reader
Arktouros

I don’t think game designers think repetitive tasks is fun. I think they know that many people will keep doing something until they get that reward and thus use it as a game design tactic to keep people playing. It’s the Skinner Box equivalent of making a rat press the lever hundreds of times in order to get food. If people want a feeling of being “finished” or “done” in MMO games then never letting them feel that way is a strong way to keep them playing.

However that kind of game design has been used for years now. Many players are conditioned to the ideas we see in each game. Concepts like “end game” show a clear conditioning to the idea that you have to max out character progression before you can start playing the actual game. How many times have you had a super low drop rate item on a quest and immediately draw a comparison to a past game who did the same? When you see an item with a purple border do you inherently think it’s better than an item with a green border?

That conditioning also means being able to spot similar methods used as well as us “rats” learn. A great example is companies selling us lockboxes for money with RNG rewards to get us to spend more money. However we can take that exact same concept and equally apply it to the very things we’re doing in most of these MMO games as we’re spending time to get randomized rewards designed to get us to spend more time.

While I agree with you that companies certainly aren’t running experiments to guide behavior they absolutely are 100% doing data gathering and data analysis in order to make game/business decisions. That has huge impact and studying the ways we react, the kinds of things we’re conditioned into, etc are all hard to really dismiss.

Reader
Sunken Visions

Exactly, the Skinner Box isn’t about repetition, it’s about time. The more time you spend doing something, the more value you assign to your gains and the less likely you are to abandon your investment.

Modern business isn’t about giving people what they want, it’s about getting as much as you can for as little effort as possible. Time sinks are a tried and true method of bilking people, so they’re going to be implemented at every opportunity.

Line
Reader
Line

There’s definitely a skinner box component to modern MMOs.
You do the thing because that’s all you’ve always done, and you want more, even if it’s unlikely to get you what you want.

But I think what’s a lot more revealing is in the conditioning that will appear even in other situations: people will play different games, and expect the same action to get the same result.
Take an MMO with raids, but they’re only cosmetics, and plenty will complain that they don’t get the same usual food pellet with stats.

As for the RNG component… that is beyond disingenuous.
You can’t get what isn’t on the loot table, yes; but you are also doing X content for the very slim chance to get the titanforged piece with an extra stat and extra gemslot.
Certainly not because you get the base item that you throw away instantly when you get it.
And more importantly: you don’t do X things because they’re fun.
Never.
Skinner box MMOs are not about fun; nobody ever wants to do obsolete content if they don’t get rewarded, they haaate any social activity, they just want their fix.

It’s fine to be addicted to RNG, but playing WoW, FFXIV and Granblue Fantasy is already a clear symptom.
And I played such games like for decades. Including those 3.
I feel much better now that I threw away all that timegated/lootbox garbage out of the way. Opening a card pack or getting that 1% drop on a boss is nothing more than an annoyance and a very literal waste of time.

Reader
Loyal Patron
Patreon Donor
Armsbend

This emphasized line: “but it was something repetitive without any sort of assurance of when it would get something”seems to be the same argument as pay lootboxes. You get something – even though it’s something you didn’t want; that no one wants – but since you got something it’s fine. It doesn’t fly with me.

I don’t think (on the surface I haven’t studied his experiments in depth) Skinner’s intent was to say it is either a reward or no reward it was to say you can get people to do things if you play with the reward system.

I appreciated how you laid out the experience – but I didn’t find your argument compelling enough to think WoW isn’t a skinner box. I know what I’m getting into with these things though – some skinner boxes are fine wow included.

Reader
Shadex De'Marr

I will have to agree with Armsbend. The very mention of the box potentially including:

“food when green is on, electric shock when red is on.” But all of that is beyond the scope of the comparison

Only to then say that because players know what the reward is before they select the quest so it can’t be a Skinner Box comes across very contradictory.

Now I am not saying that what any of these game developers are doing is inherently bad. I am a firm supporter that knowledge is power and if you know doing X will elicit behavior Y then more power to you. I personally feel what needs to happen is the education of the player base/consumer to recognize these tactics so they can then make a ‘conscious’ decision to act on them rather than a subconscious one.

A brilliant article was written years back regarding a tactic of listing products at very expensive prices only to then offer limited time ‘deals’. In truth the deal price was the originally intended listing price but buy initially introducing the product at a higher price the ‘real’ price them seemed like an opportunity a consumer could not pass up. Sales soared. Steam has made an entire business out of this model alone. Now as someone that knows this system I can recognize it and work it to my advantage.

So yes it is a Skinner’s Box but that doesn’t mean that articles should not be written to educate so that players can stop playing games that rely too heavily on the system and force developers to find new a varied ways to interest us. A win/win.

Reader
ThreeSpeed

Running eleven alts per week through ICC hoping to get Invincible sure feels skinner boxy