Psychological Exploitation Games


We tend to think about things that are designed to cultivate addiction with disgust for a very good reason. When we think about casinos, or drug dealers, or pyramid schemes, I think it’s reasonable to have a strongly negative reaction; even more so when we think about those who actually end up falling into the chasm – those who get addicted. Addiction is a terrible thing, and those who actively try to bring it on should be – and mostly are – maligned in our society. Our disgusted responses to “the drug dealer” or “the pyramid scheme salesperson” are useful defense mechanisms against something that’s actually “offensive”; something that goes on the offense against our well-being and mental health.

But when it comes to digital interactive entertainment software – videogames – that defense mechanism seems like it just isn’t there.

I played Fallout Shelter recently, mostly just as an experiment. I knew what it was beforehand – an exploitative skinner box bar-game (the red bar is too low, tap the red bar! The green bar is too low, tap the green bar!). I knew that whatever “depth” was there would be basically solved after a few minutes, given that I have an adult human brain, and all that would compel me to continue playing beyond that point would be a carrot dangled on the end of a stick. My expectation was completely correct.

Why is it that people don’t seem to care if they’re just being exploited by videogames? Maybe it’s the fact that drugs can destroy your health and gambling can destroy your finances, whereas videogames don’t typically have a reputation for doing either of those. Instead, addictive videogames are designed to destroy your time.

Why isn’t “designed to destroy our time” a negative-enough quality to earn such systems a bad name? How did we get here? To answer this question, I need to dive back into the history of videogames. Specifically, to the world of RPGs.


Falling Out of RPGs

Despite the fact that I grew up with an extensive exposure to RPGs, over the past decade, I’ve completely quit playing them. I think it was Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion that was the last one. I liked the third installment, Morrowind, but Oblivion added stuff that annoyed me, like fast-travel, a green arrow that tells you where to go, global leveling, an awful persuasion system, and a lot more (I could go on). Back in 2006, those were the reasons I would give for why I didn’t like Oblivion.

But actually, those weren’t the problem. Ultimately, as I realized in my recent “Videogames Are Broken Toys” article, these systems really are toys at their heart. They’re things you play with, rather than competitively pursue optimization and some goal (unless that’s how you want to play with it!), and so who really cares if there’s a green arrow telling you where to go? As I’m sure the Bethesda guys would have argued, is it really that much more interesting to walk the bee-line to your next story-node without the green arrow? Ultimately, the green arrow was probably an improvement, all things considered. Same with fast-travel and global leveling.

The ESIV:Oblivion green arrow.

The ESIV:Oblivion green arrow.

The point is, contrary to what a lot of enthusiasts will tell you, RPGs have actually just been getting better over time. Sure, they have been stripping away a lot of the fantasy-simulation, story, strategy, toy-like properties, and, well… the actual role-playing that a lot of us really did like in older RPGs such as Ultima, Final Fantasy Tactics or the original Fallout. But that’s because, at their core, none of these things are really what drive RPGs anyway.

Regardless of what else is going on, there’s no RPG that doesn’t have at least some “progress engine” aspect as well. Whether it’s leveling up in Final Fantasy, finding rares in Diablo, or uncovering all of the map tiles in Morrowind, there’s always a carrot being dangled. They’re always just about to get really fun and interesting!

While there are many things to like about RPGs, their true engine – the thing that gets people coming back again and again, finishing them, the thing that usually gets people hooked, is the morphine drip psychological manipulation. And this is what newer RPGs are learning to lean on more and more, with less and less of the other stuff getting in the way of that.

Various elements of RPGs combine to exploit several properties of the human brain at once. In a way, the RPG represents the ultimate culmination of human psychological exploitation software, which explains why, in a desire to make as much money as possible, almost every AAA game now uses RPG mechanics.

RPGs utilize a wide array of techniques to exploit us. The need to gather, which kept us alive through harsh winters and explains interesting human behaviors, from collectors to hoarders. Random reward schedules and our propensity to see patterns in the noise. Some RPGs even have a little bit of seemingly half-decent gameplay, or a seemingly half-decent story which the player can tell themselves is the real reason they’re playing.

Wrap all of this up in some of the best interactive presentation the world has seen and you have a thing that is both spectacular enough to turn heads, and hooky enough to keep them there.



So that’s all well and good. Year after year, players like how our games present themselves, they’re buying them, they’re playing them through to the end. The arrangement certainly works for publishers, distributors, developers, and everyone else on that supply chain. Especially now that part of the loop we have people locked in involves in-app purchases!

A question is, does this really work for the players? What does the player really get out of being “hooked”? As someone who has gotten hooked many, many times, I can tell you that while you’re hooked, it’s fun. You’re excited to get back to playing when you’re not playing. It’s very engaging in a specific way, and for years now I have even missed that kind of engagement.

But there’s always a weird malaise that comes after you finish, or walk away from a system that works in this way. There’s always a deep feeling of “what the hell am I doing with my time” kicking around somewhere in your brain.

I should note that this is the case for some RPGs more than others. I mentioned above that a lot of RPGs have “seemingly half-decent” story or gameplay. I’ve written and done videos galore on why something like an RPG can’t have great gameplay, or great stories. But in the best cases – perhaps a Fallout (the first game) or Temple of Elemental Evil for gameplay, or a Planescape: Torment for story – you are probably getting some intellectual value out of those aspects. There are other exceptions, too, of course.

But for something like Diablo, or Pokémon, systems which are the grinding-and-nothing-but-the-grinding, you really are just having your time stolen from you. You are sitting there grinding. Mostly mashing a single button, mostly labor, waiting for the interesting thing that feels just around the corner, but never comes.

Collect Collect Collect Collect

Man, with this many Pokemon, there’s gotta be one that’s really fun to use… I bet it’s one of those ones I haven’t collected yet…

And yet, we don’t really draw a harsh line around these things. Because they’re kind of similar to Fallout, which is kind of similar to X-Com, which is kind of similar to Civilization, which is kind of similar to Chess. So really, Pokémon is like Chess, see!?


Skinner Box

These days, people use the term “skinner box” to just mean “a game or mechanism that uses grinding and/or random rewards to hook players”. I know a lot of game designer types don’t like this usage, mostly because the original Skinner box – the operant conditioning chamber – was actually just a tool which was used to study behaviors and reward schedules.

One of the findings we’ve made using this tool is the awesome power of random/variable reward schedules. In short, we find that when we dole out rewards at random intervals, we get the fastest response rates and the slowest “extinction”. In modern “gamification” terms, you might hear this called “retention” – the ability of your game to keep players playing.

I actually like, use, and advocate for the new meaning of “Skinner box”. We need a term to refer to these grinding, progress, labor, manipulative and exploitative systems so that we can properly malign them. Games like Fallout Shelter should be seen for what they are – drugs. They are not games. They are not entertainment any more than you’d refer to any addictive drug “entertainment”.

This is your brain on RPGs

This is your brain on RPGs.

I think the image of the rat in the box is actually quite appropriate. When you play these things, you are being used in quite a similar way. Your choices don’t matter. We’re not interested in you, we’re interested in what your brain does when we do X, Y and Z.

The frustrating thing is that since we’re so new at this, our ability to design systems isn’t really up to the task yet, and so it can seem like these RPG-grindy machines are the best we can do. Put another way, if you’re a player, and you have to choose between a really crappy strategy game, or a very refined RPG, I can see why most people are going to choose the latter.

Further frustrating is the meme that “all videogames are a waste of time”. Not all videogames are a waste of time. Studying and practicing a competitive game like League of Legends, trying to solve the most difficult puzzles in Portal, or creating an elaborate building design in Minecraft are all things that have real intellectual value for a human brain. Grinding out some more rare items in Diablo does not.

Developers and players alike need to wake up to this issue. It’s one thing to be a drug dealer, but it’s another thing to be a dishonest, sneaky drug dealer who markets to adults and children alike with colorful cartoon characters and fantastic music.


Using skinner-boxes isn’t as big a problem as smoking, but developers using cute characters to market them should face a similar kind of disgust.

Sometimes, it’s hard to say whether a system is exploitative or not, but in a case like the recent Fallout Shelter, or many other progress-based games just like it, it’s clear-cut: the thing is nothing but grinding. I heard people complaining about Fallout Shelter‘s controls, about its lack of content, even about its portrayal of women. But I heard no one say anything about the fact that it’s an exploitative drug whose only purpose is to destroy human hours.

In fact, the only time I’ve ever seen anyone bring this up was South Park‘s Freemium Isn’t Free episode, which I recommend. Satan does a good job of explaining some of the mechanics of addiction.

But it shouldn’t just be me and Satan talking about this. It’s important, not only because these games are sneakily robbing us of one of our most precious resources, but because the more aware we become of this, the more pressure we put on developers to create things of real value. I would have loved a Fallout Shelter that’s an actual strategy game. And maybe if more people were aware of this problem, that’s what we’d have gotten, instead of this insulting, condescending hamster-wheel app.


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  • TE

    I think everyone would benefit from going back to tabletop RPGs, maybe even reading Jon Peterson’s superb tome “Playing at the World”, describing the origins and creation of D&D. To be extremely brief, the goal is absolutely to simulate a fantasy adventure. The “adventure” part is important. The game elements make it interesting to play, but mastery of the game is obviously not the primary goal.

    This is what a few earlier CRPGs managed to almost get right. The adventure is precisely what quest markers and Skinner-boxing destroy. Advancement in most editions of D&D is incredibly slow. It’s not the point.

    In a way, game design has destroyed CRPGs. Instead of some grand vision of a fantasy simulation, we have tight feedback loops and meticulously balanced “loot” which feeds an addiction and encourages people to keep playing, but I question the extent to which they’re actually enjoying it.

    If we take a much more innocent view of RPGs as toys, I think it’s possible to create something truly great. And indeed, many modern tabletop RPG designers have done just that. See for example the “story games” movement.

  • Secret Library

    What? Mystery dungeon is… a mystery dungeon game. AKA a roguelike, like you know, that one game you made! Surely you aren’t saying roguelikes are skinner boxes?

  • I’m fully aware. 😀 And yes, I am saying that Rogue-likes are skinner boxes. They work a bit differently than other RPGs, but I think they’re fundamentally the same. Including the one I made, 100 Rogues (Auro doesn’t fall into this category, IMO, as it has no skinner-box type mechanisms at all).

  • Vegedus

    As someone whose favourite genre is RPGs, and have continued to play them for years now AFTER I heard of terms like skinner box and realized their exploitative nature, this is a subject I’ve wrestled a lot with. They’re still the games the games I find most fun, WHILST PLAYING THEM, though I’ve long since become averse to the worst of grinding. My tentative answer is that RPGs are ultimately not absolutely different than any other kind of game. All games are “exploitative” in that they interact with your brain chemistry to make you feel good about doing mostly pointless stuff. RPGs give you a dopamine shot from leveling up, strategy games give you a dopamine shot from winning or devising a new strategy, they’re not fundamentally different. RPGs are just more efficient at it. Winning a match of chess is not inherently more “valueable” or productive than leveling up.
    Unlike you, I don’t think this bit is unique to RPGs:
    “But there’s always a weird malaise that comes after you finish, or walk away from a system that works in this way. There’s always a deep feeling of “what the hell am I doing with my time” kicking around somewhere in your brain.”

    Sure. There is with every video game. Video games, at least the kind we’re interested in here, as opposed to purely educational focused games, for instace, are inherently a leisure activity. As such, they’re inherently unproductive. Recreation is arguably productive, but if I ever play video games in any other context than after a hard eight hours of work, as a way to unwind before the next eight hours of work, I’m wasting my time, at least as far as society or the economy is concerned. Whether I’m wasting my own time, from my own perspective, is a hard and very subjective question to answer, but again I don’t see it as fundamentally different depending on the genre of game you’re playing. Why is meaningless leveling up in-game, gaining virtual skills, less valuable than learning out-of-game, “real” skills playing a strategy game, that still is only applicable to that game. That are still worthless if I ever stop playing it.

    My disagreement ultimately boils down to one term you’ve used a number of times but I don’t understand (or don’t agree with), and I don’t feel you’ve properly defined (could just have missed it though):
    “Studying and practicing a competitive game like League of Legends, trying to solve the most difficult puzzles in Portal, or creating an elaborate building design in Minecraft are all things that have real intellectual value for a human brain.”

    ‘Intellectual value’. What ‘intellectual value’ does LoL have? I play a lot of LoL and minecraft, and have completed portal. Does that mean I’m smarter than people playing Fallout Shelter? Am I better at math or work or some other real life skill than them? Maybe so, but only to a slight degree. I still play, like everyone else, LoL to have fun, not to learn. I’m not playing it to be productive, and while those games might slightly build some real-life, generally applicable, skills, it’s not their intended purpose, and they’re not very good at it. I could learn more about architecture and composition than drawing and referencing for an hour than playing minecraft for ten. I could learn more about socializing by going out for an evening and meeting people than I ever have playing LoL. Portal might help your logical or vertical thinking, but it’s not gonna help you get through university much. I’m more likely to use it to procrastinate on my homework, than apply it’s knowledge to what I’m studying.
    What is this “intellectual value”? Why is important, defining almost for what you consider a good game, when none of they games you cite (or the ones you have made) have “learning” as a priority? Or no, rather, what is the good of a game that fosters “learning” if the skills you learn are domain specific to that game, useless outside it? How is it more valuable to learn something mostly useless than not learn at all?

  • Brett

    Another awesome article. Thanks for putting into words the reasons that these kinds of exploitative systems bother me so much. It’s much easier to make a Skinner-box than something that is genuinely engaging, and very hard to tell people that the things they “like” should probably be avoided. It’s super strange to have someone ask you to manipulate them, but as game designers, its a very real problem.

  • Secret Library

    Hmm, I don’t think I fully understood your argument then. I think maybe it would be nice to hear (at some point later) how they are fundamentally the same and what specific mechanisms you are talking about! To me, games like Zaga-33/Hoplite/Crawl don’t give the same sensation as Middle Manager of Justice (the only energy-mechanic game I’ve ever played).

  • Well in those games there’s a lot more going on than in the “pure” progress game things obviously. But I think if you watch what you’re really doing, especially in Crawl (less so in Zaga and Hoplite which are inching in the direction of “strategy game”), you’ll see that you’re mostly making obvious, rote actions and watching numbers go up. Key example is the fact that Crawl has an Auto-Explore key (“o”).

  • Dasick

    Auto-explore is just an example of a really bad band-aid solution. What really sets roguelikes apart from skinner boxes is that they present a non-trivial challenge. “Progress” isn’t there to exploit psychology, but to provide a long strategical arc tying many elements together. If you want to accuse more mainstream “roguelike” games like FTL of being extended skinner-boxes, I can see that, but the four roguelikes above aren’t a waste of time, despite their flaws

  • I actually disagree that they present a non-trivial challenge. It’s trivial in basically the same way grinding all your Pokemon up to level 99 is non-trivial. It takes a lot of time, sure, but that’s about it. And yeah I’m talking specifically mainstream Rogue-likes such as Crawl and also things like FTL, but not as much stuff like Hoplite or Zaga-33, where you actually have to think about inputs somewhat.

  • Dasick

    What I meant about FTL is that it has that stupid meta-game progression of different starting ships. But that’s the extent of similarity with diablo or pokemon. There is a main fundamental difference, namely the presence of meaningful failure. Walking in a straight line is trivial, but what if you have to walk across a rickety rope bridge? If you die in diablo you can easily recover the lost PROGRESS. If you die in FTL, you lose the MATCH.

  • Disquisitor Sam

    The missing link here is that roguelikes aren’t INTENDED to be skinner boxes, so they aren’t as pure. But you can draw a direct line between Rogue –> Angband –> Diablo –> Clicker Heroes. Each design progressively removes a few more of the elements of strategic tension that gave made Rogue what it was. Angband allowed players to go back to previous floors and even back to town, which destroyed the item ID system and the food clock. Diablo removed the loss condition upon death. Clicker Heroes was only doing the sensible thing when they removed dying altogether as well as enemies’ ability to fight back. Each design just made the skinner box more and more pure, more and more intentional.

  • Disquisitor Sam

    I hear this complaint all the time. “But it’s not DOING anything for you! I mean who CARES if you’re WINNING?” That sort of question comes from the same mentality that says it’s useless to get a degree in literature or philosophy because what kind of JOB are you going to get with THAT??

    The learning that comes from games is more subtle than that. A strategy game can train you how to think. Often times you’re in a slightly unfamiliar situation with limited time and resources, and you have to come up with a creative solution on the spot. Are you going to tell me creative problem solving is “mostly useless?” I can think of a hundred work situations or personal projects that could use a properly honed mind. Just because your situation doesn’t involve Wriggle’s Lantern doesn’t mean that your experiences up until that point aren’t informing your ability to function right now. This isn’t even mentioning the growing body of research that challenging games develop your brain’s cognitive ability and agility.

    All games teach, and what lessons they teach are important to grasp. If you teach someone that facing a struggle can often lead them to a solution, they’ll carry that forward into their daily lives. If you teach them that life is about constant consumption and indulging compulsion, they’ll carry that forward, too.

    You tell me which is more valuable.

  • neo_raven92

    “And maybe if more people were aware of this problem, actual strategy game is what we’d have gotten, instead of this insulting, condescending hamster-wheel app”

    Unfortunately, players of this day and age are used to think with their money first, then turn on their heads when it’s too late. They would complain about stuff only to keep supporting it anyway.

    We saw that with the DLC back when they were a brand new idea, we saw that with pre-order bonuses and day 1 DLC, we see it now with microtransactions in games that should not have them and we will see it in whatever practice devspublishers will get into their heads. Gamers are so gullible they will swallow anything hook, line and sinker.

  • Secret Library

    That’s an interesting way to look at it, Nassim Taleb says similar things about sports in terms of their non-transferability. It’s hard not to argue if you are talking only about material survival. But of course we are talking about more than that, life is bigger than physical comfort. I think Zizek goes to the extreme, but in The Reality of the Virtual/Perverts Guide to Cinema he speaks at length about the unreality of the real and the role of fiction in soothing the void of meaninglessness at the center of human existence.

  • Van

    You don’t understand learning, but intellectual value is irrelevant here.
    With most games you can waste all the time you want, but you can stop when you don’t feel like playing anymore. Skinner box games, on the other hand, make sure that you keep playing long after you’ve started hating the game. Their purpose is to create and perpetuate unhealthy obsessions and regret. I hope you see the difference.

  • Yuval Kalugny

    The comparison to drugs is interesting.

    I recently read about how it’s interesting how some drugs like Heroin, Cocain and LSD are forbidden by the state while Ritalin or Cipralex are encouraged – the reason being that drugs that make you productive and compliant are good for states while drugs that make you happy or rebellious (or poor and sick) are bad for the states. Your personal well-being being second.

    There are political and economic forces that BENEFIT from people wasting their time.
    Someone playing Fallout Shelter is not out there picketing for higher minimum wages, to be extreme.

    While it’s hard for most people to build something really cool in Minecraft (or in real life) or even to solve the riddles in Portal (or they’ve done them twice already 🙂 ) – everyone can spend hours clicking on bars.

  • Sevan Kirder

    It is not a game, it is an app 🙂

  • goldensyrupdumplings

    Is there any problem enjoying things that you understand and know to be ‘bad’, though? I played through dx:hr instead of replaying the original, I played through hitman absolution instead of replaying blood money, and I’ve been known to put on American Idiot (echhhh) at the gym for nostalgia’s sake. I know all of these are bad, and I often argue with people about just how bad they are. But if (for a small amount of time) they provide some enjoyment with full awareness of what they are, isn’t that Just Fine?

  • Derek Tumolo

    I’ve been playing a fair amount of Diablo lately, and for me, the grind is secondary to the optimization games. The systems are not as transparent as in Fallout Shelter. I don’t yet know the optimal build for my character, or the best way to upgrade my equipment, or even the fastest way to level. These are micro puzzles that I am thinking and learning about as I play. A key difference between Diablo and Auro is that there is a twitch game play mode where I can turn off my brain a bit and stop optimizing. I can just smash monsters, and its still fun and useful.

  • Benjamin Loxley

    None of the examples you gave are addictive, though.

  • DukeZhou

    A slightly different take is that the “journey is the point”. I am one of those people in WOW (and not the only one by far) for which roaming the wilds in animal form (I favor druids) hunting and gathering. I find it to be a very relaxing pastime, although it’s been years since I could devote time to such endeavors.

    But I found Fallout Shelter to be quite satisfying as well, despite the limited mechanics, as an RPG sim. It’s fun building and improving the “optimal shelter” and having a generation system for the population, who I can order into different classes with different functions.

    For me the real division is between games that offer a fair value, moneywise, for time spent engaging, vs. viciously exploitive games designed around monetization mechanics as opposed to game mechanics.

    Walking Dead: No Man’s Land I find to be an example of the latter. It’s actually not a bad tactical strategy game, but it is rendered unplayable after a certain point unless one chooses to spend money far in excess of the value the game provides.

    It seems to me that in the majority of these negative games, far more time is spent designing the monetization strategy, and the game itself is merely an afterthought, and almost always a clone.

  • DukeZhou

    I keep waiting for Diablo to show up on mobile so I can engage in the type of play modes you describe so well. (Playing it on PC would likely rob me of many months, which I can’t afford atm;)

    The entity optimization “game” is probably my primary fun point in any games which involve modification of the avatar, whether the object being optimized is a character or a spaceship.