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.
WHAT IS A 'SKINNER BOX' GAME?
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.