Welcome to the Cheesiest Blog on the Web

Any comments or questions regarding the content on this blog can be addressed to timothyjsharpe@yahoo.com

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Dangers of "Skinner's Box Games"

Skinner's box diagram
There have been trends in the video game industry ever since its creation, but none is more interesting yet possibly dangerous than what is becoming known as "Skinner's Box Games". For those who do not get the reference, these types of games are named after the famous American psychologist B.F. Skinner. The study that made him famous was a study of labrats, to whom he could teach to press a lever to be rewarded with food. Eventually, the labrats would press the lever whether or not food would be dispensed or not. In essence, the rats became "addicted" to pressing the lever, due to the rewards that they seek.

The internet has given game developers the means to create games with a similar concept to Skinner's experiment. These games are designed to be as addictive (and expensive) as possible, because developers realize that compelling a player to subscribe to the game (and thus pay for a lifetime) is much better than selling the game just once. In addition, the tricks that Skinner's Box games use to make their games addictive are easy to create, much easier than creating quality entertainment in their games. Therefore, games are both easier to produce and are more profitable than they ever were before.

They use the Skinner's Box psychology to keep players engaged and playing (and therefore, paying) for as long and often as possible, even if the game isn't really "fun". In a sense, they want players to "keep pushing the lever" over and over again. To accomplish this, they use a number of strategies:
  1. Use of collective items and virtual currency that satisfy human hoarding tendencies. Humans love to hoard and collect junk, and have the "best" that they can obtain. It's the same reason why people don't throw out the junk in their basement, garage, or attic that they never use - because they naturally want to horde items. In addition, just the knowledge that something exists that is better than we have drives us to desire it, whether we actually need it or not. It's the same reason why TVs keep getting larger and larger ... people want the "largest", best TV. And Skinner's Box games abuse this and creates virtual currency & items that players want and are willing to spend their time to obtain.
  2. Make one "press the lever" to gain rewards. To obtain these items and currency, they need to engage players to spend as much time as possible to obtain them. In a Skinner's Box game, "Pressing the lever" can take the form of many different things. It may be literally pressing a button.. or it may be killing 200 sheep to get that Tier 10 armor.
  3. Punishing players for "not pressing the lever". Likewise, a lot of Skinner's Box games punish players who don't "press the lever", or log in every day. Commonly, games have features or bonuses that expire with time, and players do not want to risk falling behind by "not pressing the lever".
  4. Creating a system of autonomy and complexity with a reward system more satisfying than real-life. They want players to get used to the game, make it is natural as real-life with rewards that are just as or more satisfied than rewards in real-life. In most people's real lives, rewards can be rather unsatisfying. But in virtual worlds, things are fair and rewards feel good.
Much like the rats in Skinner's Box, rewards at the beginning are common and easy to obtain so that players get a "taste" of the rewards. This is the "hook", this is how they train players to "press the lever". But as the game continues, it becomes harder, more challenging, and takes longer so players invest more time and resources to obtain them. Because players are already hooked, they keep playing even though the game is no longer fun and the rewards become rarer and rarer. Skinner's Box games are designed to never end, one can never beat them, and are designed so that players can never obtain everything they desire so they will have no choice but pressing the lever over and over again.

World of Warcraft is the largest example of a Skinner's Box Game.
There are two ways developers exploit Skinner's Box games, through subscriptions and allowing players to pay for extra features, some games do both. Subscriptions are effective for games that consume player's time. Because players will never get everything they desire, they will keep paying every month to gain everything that they desire. The game has no end, and they will pay for a lifetime. Some games allow players to pay for extra features. Because games start quickly, players miss the instant gratification for their actions. Paying for extra features provides a "shortcut" to gain rewards and get ahead - further working towards the Skinner's box trap. The two main examples of such games are MMORPGs like "World of Warcraft", and games on social networking sites, like Facebook. Excuses such games use are they need a constant source of money to pay for server storage and network speeds, but how much space do you think your game data really takes? How much bandwidth do you really use from their servers? It's a hell of a lot less expensive than what you're paying out of your pockets for.

Skinner's Box games form a legitimate addiction similar to gambling. It's dangerous because it wastes the victim's time and money... it is unethical, dangerous, abusive, and borderline criminal. A lot of the time, the games aren't even fun anymore, but players keep paying anyway, trained to keep "pressing the lever". Not only does it hog player's time and money, but it is also lowering the quality of games on the market today. So next time you're about to renew your prescription to World of Warcraft or buy Facebook credits for real money, ask yourself this question: Is the game really fun? Or does the game developer have you trained to keep pressing the lever... over and over again?

    No comments:

    Post a Comment