BF Skinner, noted researcher and psychologist, had trained rats in cages to press a lever in order to get a pellet of food. Yes yes, it’s the Skinner Box. He was running out of pellets one night, but rather than stop with the experiment, he decided to change it so that the rats got a pellet after hitting the lever ten times instead of one time. And thus, he discovered a new idea: operant conditioning.
How does this relate to video games? A million ways.
Game designers frequently ask the question “What are we expecting of our players?” which is another way of asking what the contingencies are for their actions. Very simply, if you hide one video game hamburger in every fourth or fifth video game trash can in a side-scroller, what you’re expecting your player to do is break every single trash can in order to find the randomly distributed hamburgers.
It’s basically actions leading to rewards, and making the rewards so that you are getting the actions you want from players. Let’s dive a bit deeper: one type of contingency is fixed interval schedules- for every ten minutes of playing you will level up, which tends to get people interested at first but then the predictability turns them off and they lose interest. There’s also variable interval schedules, which mean that it’s random how long it takes you to earn the next reward. It could be three minutes of battling a tough enemy, or 20 minutes of easy enemies. People tend to stay interested in these types of reward systems in games longer, because they can’t predict them. This interesting article at Gamasutra gives way more detail and also pointers on how to design games that people will NEVER WANT TO STOP PLAYING.
Massive Multiplayer Online games have been a great example of operant conditioning in motion, the most popular one being World of Warcraft. Before MMO’s, games were cut and dry, start here and end here, and they cost $60. Now they are lifelong quests complete with monthly subscription fees, and you have to keep those people interested in the long term, by doing things like adding random achievements and side quests for you to go out and earn just for the heck of it, rather than working towards a larger goal within the game. As Serial Ganker claims, “This environment, intentionally or not, is ripe with positive reinforcers that are ideally suited to encourage addictive behavior.”
Game designer Jonathan Blow (who made the awesome and addictive game Braid), gets even more harsh. In a speech he gave in 2007, he said
“It’s considered best practice: schedule rewards for your player so that they don’t get bored and give up on your game. That’s actually exploitation.” Developers should provide activities that interest players “rather than stringing them along with little pieces of candy so that they’ll suffer through terrible game play, but keep playing because they gain levels or new items.” “I think a lot of modern game design is actually unethical, especially massively multiplayer games like World of Warcraft, because they are predicated on player exploitation.”
This stuff is all fascinating, but I also feel like most players know that they’re being strung along at times. But sometimes, working towards 30 headshot kills is just enough to keep you motivated in your own life.