As we consume, those that create what we enjoy are constantly searching for ways to keep us wanting more of their products.
In no better place can that be seen than with gaming; As technology progresses, game developers are looking for new ways to keep us coming back for more. Your favorite hobby (and mine as well) is the culmination of an experiment in behavioral conditioning that dates back to the beginning of the 20th century.
While that statement is a bit of a reach, its validity is pretty sound; game developers are constantly testing new ways to keep you hooked on their games. The building blocks for this stem from a study performed in the '30s and '40s by an American psychologist named Burrhus Frederic Skinner.
Skinner developed what is known as an Operant Conditioning Chamber — coined the “Skinner Box” — that was used to test certain reward and punishment stimuli on animals and their behavioral patterns toward them.
All of the tactics that development companies use in order to keep you playing games are a part of the Skinner Box:
Positive Stimuli: Achievements, Levels, Skills, Talents, or Loot.
The picture above is a simple rendition of a Skinner Box — ignore the electrified grid — we’ll get to that later. What you should focus on is the response lever, the light, the loudspeaker, and the food dispenser.
When the subject hits the lever, it is sometimes rewarded with a combination of light, food, and sound. The rewards come in random intervals and only when the animal depresses the lever — this eliminates hunger and the lack thereof as a factor. Sometimes the reinforcements can come repeatedly and sometimes not for hours at a time. The purpose of the experiment is to show that the subject will continue to press the lever ad nauseam in hopes of getting some sort of reward for it.
If this doesn’t sound familiar it certainly should. While games don't possess such a primitive view of the experiment, they are filled with rewards that do little more than entice you to keep going.
When you level up in games like World of Warcraft or City of Heroes a sound plays, a light surrounds your character, and at certain intervals you receive new skills and achievements. As you continue to level up, you’re allowed to enter into higher-end content that can drop increasingly better gear at lower drop rates. Those lower rates require you to run the same dungeons and kill the same bosses on a regular basis in order to get the best equipment.
Even now, Blizzard has taken that a step further by introducing daily goals for dungeons and other monotonous activities like fishing. These mundane tasks reward you with emblems; tokens that allow you to buy the higher level equipment after you’ve earned copious amounts of them.
Shooters like Call of Duty and Battlefield: Bad Company have also joined the experiment by introducing perks and prestige levels: the games require you to play more often in order to acquire weapons and abilities that are only slightly better than your previous ones. Toss in some cool military ranks and hardcore tags and you have a model that keeps people playing. These are valuable, dedicated customers who will be foaming at the mouth when you release that new expansion pack or downloadable content. They’re essentially guaranteed profit.
The positive side is that most of these things at least have some sort of payoff — even if it is worthless in the real world. They make your characters stronger and allow you to work towards even better equipment released in updates to the game. This is especially true in online games where there are very specific requirements on both your level and equipment before you can even consider taking on that new dungeon.
Achievements and trophies are a different story altogether. Their mysterious purpose is to keep you playing and nothing else. Integrate a list that allows you to see how well your friends are doing and suddenly friendly competition is born.
So what happens when a player still resists the urge to continue on?
Negative Stimuli: Difficulty curves; Loss of Equipment or Money, Reverting to Earlier Levels or Progress, and Permanent Death.
The electrified floor we didn't pay attention to earlier? Let's go ahead and take a look at it.
When all else fails, punishing the subject can work just as well as a means of reinforcement. Making the games harder as a subject progresses — or better yet, at random intervals – means that the player is required to either rethink his play-style or grind until he is powerful enough to take on the challenge.
Humanity is, for the most part, a competitive species. It’s why achievements work as positive stimuli in the first place. On the other hand, giving a player an obstacle he can’t beat is essentially slapping him in the face and roaring a bestial challenge.
On top of that, many games rub salt into your wounds and really punish you for failing to bring your A-game. Demon’s Souls is a perfect example of this: When you die you start at the beginning of the game again. You don’t lose any equipment or levels but you do lose the souls (which function as in-game currency) that you've collected thus far.
Unlike other games, in Demon's Souls death is more like a painful reward; If you happen to learn from your mistakes and overcome what did you in, you'll get everything back that you lost on top of anything new you collected on the journey back. Diablo did something like this as well, but had you without your hard-earned equipment as well.
In other games, you simply lose progress by starting back at a recent checkpoint or the beginning of a level. While this certainly isn’t quite as punishing, it’s enough of an inconvenience that you won’t want it to happen too often. Games like Bioshock and its sequel (as well as many other games) have even added Achievements for finishing the game without a single death.
The End Result:
People are still using Skinner’s tests to this day. Different forms of the experiment, all following the same guidelines, have been used in pharmacology, behavior therapy, and even in education. The studies aren't done, either. As technology progresses, different stimuli will be created to further get you hooked.
So, without further ado, thank you for reading. Here’s a reward:
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