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Skinner's Box and Video Games: How to Create Addictive Games

This is a mouse getting a piece of food in a Skinner's Box scenario. This is also you playing an addictive video game. You just don't realize it yet.

This is a mouse getting a piece of food in a Skinner's Box scenario. This is also you playing an addictive video game. You just don't realize it yet.

What Is Skinner's Box and How Does It Apply to Video Games?

Whether we realize it or not, many video games are made with addictiveness—not fun—in mind. Considering the success of such video game industry giants such as Zynga and how much they are worth as a company on the market, it's no surprise that games are being commercialized in such a manner.

Read on as I explain the psychology concept of Skinner's Box and how it relates to video game creation nowadays.

Skinner's Box: A Bite-Sized Summary

Some time ago, a psychologist that went by the name of Burrhus Frederic Skinner decided to put a mouse inside of a box. This box contained a lever which the mouse could press to open a closed compartment, revealing food. The mouse would then be conditioned to expect food after pressing the lever. This is known in Skinnerian psychology as continuous reinforcement.

Skinner, a devious psychologist, decided to start rewarding the mouse's efforts only part of the time (this is known as interval reinforcement). He found that the mouse would keep pressing the lever until it got food, no matter how long it took. Skinner staggered the interval distances more and more, but the mouse pressed on.

The Birth of Addictive Video Games

You've probably started to draw parallels between some of your video game experiences and the situation the mouse went through inside of Skinner's Box. The mouse was conditioned to expect food as a reward for pressing the lever. In addictive video games, you are conditioned to expect a reward for "pressing a lever" as well. In this case, the lever is your mouse, keyboard or gamepad, depending on the video game genre and the game console in question. The reward can be anything, such as points, virtual money, real money, or anything and everything in between—and you'll keep clicking until you get it.

Once upon a time, video game developers didn't use such underhanded tactics to get people to play their games, mostly because they didn't have to. Video games in the old days tended to be short and fun experiences meant to pass the time. Since their games were inherently fun, people would beat them and restart them countless times, just for the heck of it.

Online Gaming

Unfortunately, online games started becoming more popular. While some online games are basically clones of established classics such as Tetris and Space Invaders, there are others that exist in a persistent virtual world. Some of these are known as Massively Multiplayer Online Games (more commonly known as MMO Games), where a large number of gamers can get together and accomplish goals together. Others are just casual online games, such as Farmville (a game created by Zynga).

In both cases, the inclusion of a persistent world forced video game developers to find a way to keep their community playing the game as long as possible between content updates. So, video game companies started doing research. Psychology research (Zynga really went the extra mile here). They realized that all they had to do to get people to play their games for life (or at least a very long time) was bait them, much like how Skinner baited the mouse into mindlessly pressing that lever. Then, it wouldn't matter if they ever updated their game again, as the poor gamer victims were doomed to a life of gaming servitude.

Monetization Schemes in Online Games

Monetization is the main reason why online game developers want to create games you won't want to stop playing. The two most popular schemes of monetization are:

  • Pay to Play: This involves a subscription (usually monthly) that costs a variable amount of money to maintain (the industry standard seems to be $15).
  • Microtransactions: As the name suggests, this involves the player paying for small bonuses to improve their gaming experience. Games that use this model can be free to play or pay to play.

Zynga is king at exploiting microtransactions in their 'Ville games. For example, in Farmville, you can use your money to purchase livestock, trees, and bushes, which give you a tangible in-game benefit in exchange for some of your real cash.

Why Make an Addictive Game?

The reason is quite simple. In the course of their research video game companies realized that, no matter how fun you make a game, once the fun is over gamers will stop playing (generally speaking; there are many notable exceptions) and go on to another game. In most genres, this doesn't matter, as that person has already purchased a copy of the game and there are no upkeep costs or added benefits for the company in question. For online games, there are additional considerations of bandwidth and constant content updates to keep the virtual world fresh and vibrant for the player community. Thus, it's in these companies' best interests to get people to pay for their game on a continued basis.

The Difference Between Fun and Addicting

You might be feeling guilty of being addicted to any video game now that I've spent the last few hundred words badmouthing addictive games. However, there is a big difference between a game that's addicting because it's fun and a game that's addictive.

  • In the former case, you can't put the game down because it's fun. Once you beat the game, you can just go play the next game and all is well.
  • In the latter case, you can't put the game down because you become reliant on it, like a drug. Like other forms of addiction, you can't put the game down even if you hate it!

If you're playing a genuinely fun game, there's no shame in that. If you're playing an addictive game, run away like the plague before it consumes your life!

How to Create Addictive Games

All video games created to be addictive share several traits:

  • A reward system that slows down over time. The most common system is the level system, where it takes more and more experience points to get new levels. Zynga's Farmville has crops that take longer and longer to harvest.
  • An end goal that is eventually replaced with another end goal, ad infinitum. The creation of new dungeons in World of Warcraft defines this trait.
  • A reason to be addictive. I haven't seen an intentionally addictive game that wasn't made that way to make money. Monetization is the name of the game here.
  • Repetitive gameplay to the point that it's not fun anymore. The companies are banking on the game being so addicting that you won't care.

The worst part about the whole situation of addictive games is that it shows a vehement lack of care by the video game developers in question. It's as if they're indirectly telling you that you're a mouse in a Skinner Box for them to exploit for big bucks, and not an actual human being.

Why I Hate Zynga

There are too many reasons to mention, but here's three of them, just to give you a taste:

  • The exploitation of human psychology to make a quick buck. They even went so far as to hire a Skinnerian psychologist to make their games more addicting. Isn't that admitting that you realize you can't make fun games?
  • No effort to innovate. They have a whole series of 'Ville games that only differ cosmetically. Who needs to innovate when you have addictive games, right?
  • They're a key proponent in the commercialization of video games, which is a far cry from the humble origins of the industry when video games used to be works of art.

I could go on all day, but I think these reasons will suffice.

Only You Can Put a Stop to This!

This article explained Skinner's Box and how it relates to the video game industry today. Addictive games are created at the expense of their consumers and it is companies like Zynga that roll in all the cash. The worst part is that these companies don't have any passion for video game development. They are only looking at the bottom line and how much more money they can milk out of a game or a franchise. While video games have always been a business, at least before there was passion involved.

Only you can put a stop to this tendency by voting with your wallet, or not playing at all (in the case of free to play games with microtransactions).

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this subject, so please post them in the comments section.

Until the next time, take care and have fun!


Ali on October 01, 2017:

Skinner boxing is a necessary evil for games.....I do not totally disagree with such tactics.

Zeron87 on August 25, 2016:

And that's what happens when businessmen get involved in video games. It's the only Achilles Heel to the capitalist system: when people who only care about making things for profit dominate a market. I'm hoping the new explosion of indie game developers, along with better technology to make such creations easier, seriously put a bind on their control of the video game industry. When games are made by people who want to make the best, funnest games possible, like our fellow gamers, everyone wins.

But that's not the only problem here, is it? We as gamers need to step-up and stop supporting developers producing baiting pay-for-breadcrumbs DLC and sequels only possessing "a fresh coat of paint" as an improvement. Oh, and we need to STOP supporting the gaming magazines that are in the pockets of these companies...

Great analytical hub, man. Love it.

Darrin Perez (author) from Puerto Rico on January 12, 2013:

Hello there Rob! Thank you very much for your in-depth comment! It's very much appreciated. Thanks for reading! :)

Rob Winters on January 12, 2013:

Excellent analysis of a real world example of the power of reinforcement.

Continuous reinforcement is very powerfull for establishing new patterns of behavior but intermittent reinforcement is the king at most efficiently maintaining said behaviors in the long term as it has a built in resistence to extinction.People don't know exactly when the next reinforcement or hit is coming but they know it will - hence the addictive nature of gambling for example (just picture the regular slot machine addicts - powerfull stuff).

In similar (albeit morally more dubious) experiments to Skinner's described above they showed that after a period of presenting a reinforcer (e.g. a piece of food) to a cat for pressing a lever etc. that if they paired the presentation of the food with an aversive stimulus such as an electric current through the floor of the cage that even after a sustained period of then presenting the current without the food that the animals would continue to seek out the shocks alone, so powerfull was the establishment of the pairing of connection between the two stimuli.Up & Very Interesting :-)

tonio09 on November 27, 2012:

Your point of view is quite simplistic. First of all, define "fun". Tetris can be addictive as well, just like Space Invaders. In addition, there's quite a few addictive games that don't rely on micro transactions, such as Starcraft. All in all, very shallow article that shows lack of in-depth research...

amberlewis from India on January 24, 2012:

ok, this is good for you.

Eric Newland from Dayton, Ohio on January 23, 2012:

Yeah, I used to play several Zynga games. Then, one by one, I asked, "Why am I doing this?" and stopped playing them.

Honestly what happened was the updates kept making it more and more time consuming. I had fun playing Mafia Wars when I could level up once or twice, burn off all my energy and stamina, and wait until the next day while my stuff recharged. Then came all the incentives to ice hundreds of times a week and higher experience payoffs, and suddenly I could literally level up all day long. And the more I was able to play...the less I wanted to.

amberlewis from India on January 15, 2012:

Very good and appreciative text.Well i don't know anything much about addictive games.I have played a few ville games in my past time but these games get much effect at my mood.Your blog give me many info. about these games.

Darrin Perez (author) from Puerto Rico on January 15, 2012:

You should stop playing Zynga games! They're terrible! :/

I have a few friends that play Farmville, but I've never really been tempted by it. It looks way too repetitive for my tastes.

I Googled Bubble Island just now. It's similar to a game I used to have for my cellphone. Fun stuff, indeed! I can see why you couldn't stop playing it! :P

Thanks for reading and commenting!

Susan Keeping from Kitchener, Ontario on January 15, 2012:

Very interesting stuff. Don't play Bubble Island...when I play that game I feel all of my motivation to do anything else slipping away :)

I have played a few Ville games and eventually get sick of them because to get anywhere you need a gazillion friend to play and send you stuff, etc.

I have to stop playing those Zynga games...