Monday, 9 September 2013

Why World of Warcraft isn't a Skinner Box

The title of my post, for those with an understanding of the concept under discussion, is intentionally controversial. Alternatively I had considered using the title: "What are the mechanisms underpinning the partial reinforcement effect?", but I feared that such a heading would limit my audience to a very particular niche. To anyone whose understanding of "gaming" ended some time around the advent of Pac-Man, you might understand many of the words used in my title but not understand how they fit together. So, for starters, I'll briefly describe what the issue is and then I'll explain the problems with it.


Games like "World of Warcraft" are often accused of being "Skinner boxes", for example Cracked and Penny Arcade have popular articles on the topic. This is a pejorative term and refers to the style of gameplay that they employ; specifically, they scatter various rewards throughout the game to get you to keep performing the same actions over and over again, in lieu of keeping you interested through the use of compelling plot lines or stories.

The 'Skinner box' label comes from research done by B.F.Skinner who looked at how different schedules of reinforcement affect behavior. In particular, he found that when pigeons couldn't reliably predict how many responses were required, or how much time needed to elapse, to receive a reward then a more persistent behavior was generated. The easiest way to think of this is to compare your behavior when operating a vending machine to your behavior when operating a slot machine. With the former, the requirements for receiving your 'reward' (your chocolate or drink) are clear - you put your money in and you get your selection after putting in the code. With the latter, the requirements for receiving a reward are much fuzzier - you can put money in a number of times before getting a 'win', and sometimes there are large gaps between wins.

What effect would you expect each contingency to have on behavior? Unless you are routinely faced with dodgy vending machines, you should expect your behavior to be more resistant to periods without rewards in the slot machine situation compared to the vending machine. That is, if you put your money into a vending machine and don't get your can of coke, you're unlikely to keep putting money into it in hopes of finally getting your can of coke. Instead you'll just conclude that the machine is broken and either call the company to complain, or just type out an angry status update on your Facebook. Conversely, if you put money into a slot machine and don't win on the first spin, you're likely to continue playing and maybe even put more money in when it runs out. This is because you understand that not every spin is a winner and sometimes you have to wait for a reward.

The argument, therefore, is that games like 'World of Warcraft' scatter rewards in this variable way so that players can't predict when the next reward is going to come, and this creates the same kind of addictive behavior we observe in people who play slot machines. If my explanation above isn't very clear, then this video from the Penny Arcade should make the position easier to understand:


After reading the description above, you might be thinking that it sounds pretty uncontroversial so what problems could I possibly have with it? Well, there are two main issues I have with calling games like this "Skinner boxes": the first is purely definitional and the second is a more fundamental complaint about their representation of the concept.

To understand my first complaint it helps to look at what a Skinner box actually is. In the discussion above it has been redefined to refer to an artificial environment where addictive behaviors are born but in reality it is far more general than that. Skinner created his 'Skinner box' as an experimental analogue to the real world, where he could recreate environmental variables in a systematic way and objectively study the resulting behaviors. Creating addictive behaviors through the use of variable reinforcement schedules was one particular use of his Skinner box but it was not the only use of it, and it was even used to create behaviors that were easily extinguished (like the vending machine) to contrast with the effects of variable reinforcement schedules (like the slot machine). 

What this means is that to call these games 'Skinner boxes' is like calling bridges "physics labs". They are tools for studying the relevant phenomena, not a nickname for the phenomena themselves. But, in saying this, I do realise that I am being a bit of a pedant here. Language evolves, terms are co-opted to explain different or related issues, and so even though I find the term to be wildly inaccurate (and arguably harmful to the popular understanding of psychology), I can accept that this new meaning can be a useful proxy for a newly defined concept. 

However, my second complaint is more serious. As mentioned above, the Skinner box is an analogue for the real world contingencies. That is, it's not a tool for creating nefarious new methods of behavioral modification but rather it is simply recreating these contingencies that are already in place in the real world. More importantly, practically every contingency maintaining our behavior in the real world is on a variable reinforcement schedule. When you develop positive associations with a friend or significant other, they don't reward you with love on a fixed schedule, where every Wednesday you get a set amount of love (okay, maybe for some married couples this is what happens but other rewards are sprinkled throughout the week as well).

When people complain about games being Skinner boxes because their use of variable reinforcement schedules creates a more persistent behavior, they are simply saying that we enjoy playing games. This is all 'enjoyment' is - it's choosing to engage in a behavior over another behavior. In other words, all games are Skinner boxes. All games are artificial environments that use variable reinforcement schedules. What fun would a game be where every response was rewarded? 


If you're concerned about your favourite game being a "Skinner box" because it rewards you on a variable schedule then your only alternative is to 'play' on the currency exchange machines - after putting in your $10 note, you can celebrate your success of winning ten $1 coins. The key is to understand that games aren't addictive despite not being enjoyable, but rather they are addictive because they are enjoyable.

This doesn't mean that we can't criticise game creators for producing superficial and mind-numbing games that lack any real content, and it doesn't mean that we can't demand better gameplay, better plot lines, and better character development, but it does mean that we cannot base these arguments on problems with the supposed 'Skinner box' design.


  1. "When people complain about games being Skinner boxes because their use of variable reinforcement schedules creates a more persistent behavior, they are simply saying that we enjoy playing games."


    I think it is weird that when people assert that "revealing compelling plot" every-so-often in difficult to predict ways isn't itself just another example of variable ration reinforcement.

    1. Exactly. And although I specifically directed that comment at games, it has a more sinister effect when the general idea is applied as a criticism to behavioral therapies.

      That is, there is often the accusation of "brainwashing" or "unethical manipulation" when behavioral therapists use what we know about behavior to treat a range of disorders. The idea being that it is "wrong" or "unnatural" to use behavioral contingencies to shape behavior.

      But, of course, behavior is shaped constantly by the environment in a number of ways. It's not a matter of shaping behavior versus not-shaping behavior, but rather a recognition of the fact that sometimes it isn't the best option to leave the development of a child or individual to the random and uncontrolled natural contingencies.

  2. I'm glad to see a new entry, hope to read you again in RatSkep soon too...

    1. Hey Asta, thanks for the comment. I know I've been slack with my updates but I have a few topics lined up so hopefully I can find time to publish some of them.

      As for Ratskep, I won't be returning any time soon. Partly because I still have at least two more months of being banned, and partly because I'm not sure there's any value in posting on a site that would ban someone without reason.

    2. Yeah that ban was a vulgar sample of the common unfairness practiced there. But ignoring the political aspect some discussions are interesting. Aaanyway, glad to see you are still around writing about behavior analysis.

  3. Could there be a difference between enjoyment and compulsion that you aren't addressing in your "people play games because they are enjoyable" comment? For example, I find that some people will play or continue to play a game out of a feeling of almost addiction (just one more level) rather than enjoyment - I've found myself doing the former sometimes having stopped enjoying playing.

    1. Hey, thanks for your comment.

      What I was getting at with my comment was to point out that just because a specific type of reinforcement schedule was used to generate and maintain a behavior doesn't mean that there is no enjoyment. It's true that things like gaming can become a compulsion as well as enjoyment but the point is that you have to enjoy it (or at least some component of it) for it to become an addiction or a compulsion.

      This is why people become addicted to drugs like heroin or cocaine because it gives them highs, rather than drugs like ipecac (the drug that induces vomiting). Of course, just because a behavior is built from enjoying it doesn't mean that being compelled to do it doesn't have negative drawbacks - for addicts this can be the hangover, or gamers it can be the realisation that you've missed another day of work or skipped an important social event.

      But there is still some kind of reinforcement in doing it, even if only momentary, and this reinforcement offsets any negative effects of the overuse.

      Hopefully that clarifies my comment.

  4. There are many games which seem designed to make players keep playing not because of enjoyment but because of addiction/compulsion, or they have been "conditioned" to keep playing. I've played some of these where they've got the balance/parameters wrong (for me anyway) so I didn't keep playing for that long but I noticed others who kept going and going... ;)
    There is a difference between finishing food because you enjoy it, and finishing food because you have been conditioned to finish food.