Why “Skinner Box” is a useful distinction

Dinofarm Forums member “SwiftSpear” wrote up an article yesterday which caused a strong reaction in me. While I am really excited that a lot of new people have started writing about game design, I also don’t agree with all, or most, of what people write. But this particular article is way wronger than average on something that’s really important, so I am deciding to take some time out of my day to go through it and tell people why.

Here is the opening paragraph.

A major meme running the rounds in game designdom right now is the dangerous evil of Skinner boxes, and how we really need to stop making games that are just Skinner boxes.  We especially hate games like Pokemon Go or Clash of Clans.  These insidious creations encourage you to log on at least once a day for an extra reward of seeing your resource bar creep up a little each time you put energy into the game.  Their evil plan is clearly to addict players with this scientifically proven simple reward method which humans have no ability to resist, thus we will ultimately take our time energy and money against our will.  Clearly Supercell, Niantic, etc, are key players in the downfall of society!

From my vantage point, it is not a “major meme running the rounds in game design right now”. I would say that probably peaked around 2010 or, after the release of Farmville and other Facebook games. In my view, it seems like very few people are writing articles about Skinner boxes and how evil they are (here‘s the last time I spoke about it, almost two years ago). But even if this is the case, framing his argument with a “the downfall of society” strawman is a really bad way to start the article. We’ll come back to that later.

Key Point

The main thesis statement of the article is that the distinction of “Skinner Box” isn’t useful because ultimately, all interactive entertainment are pressing the same dopamine buttons in your brain.

All that Skinner did was basic mapping of this universal process present in all higher level living things.  The complexity of the action required nor the diversity of the reward earned does not invalidate the basic mechanic under which we learn to repeat an action.  So it’s still a skinner box if the action required to get a reward is dense and multi dimensional like “solve this complex calculus problem”, and the reward is abstract and immaterial like “the joy of learning”.

It’s actually a pretty simple argument. He goes on to talk about how the reward could be anything—a pellet of food (as in Skinner’s operant conditioning chamber), a random cash payout (as in slots) or some understanding/learning (as in Chess). He goes on, then, to say that all games are really Skinner boxes, which of course, destroys the term.

Why he’s wrong

If you accept the claims of this article, there is never any reason to use the term Skinner box ever again, because it’s really just “game design”. So it’s important to understand that we are talking about losing this distinction.

It is true, of course, that there is something in common there, but it’s a little bit like saying that the distinction between rocks and human beings is meaningless because ultimately they’re both composed of atoms. Or perhaps a better analogy is people who define “altruism” out of existence by saying “well, technically, ultimately everything is done for selfish reasons!”

We don’t interact with any system, ever, at all, that we don’t believe we’ll get some reward out of.

Yes, it is true that ultimately, we do everything we do for a reward. This isn’t just limited to interactive entertainment, by the way! So maybe we should also not have a distinction between interactive entertainment and other kinds of activities, since they all just give us “rewards”.

This section struck me as particularly strange, and possibly nodding to some generally bad ideas about game design.

We also don’t really like games that satisfy us.  I mean, we enjoy playing them, and we might write a nice review about them, but we’ll usually just put them away after that and do not look at them again.  We’re far more enamored with the promise of something more.  Games which bring us back with hidden secrets (which reward you semi-randomly for taking time to explore and search more vigorously) and increasing ingame power for time invested are the games we go back to over and over again.


Back to the altruism example: it is probably true that ultimately everyone does things for selfish reasons, if you drill down far enough on their reasoning. However, that does not mean that we can’t make a fair distinction between some actions that are more altruistic than others. Me spending $10 on candy is probably less altruistic than me donating that same $10 to the ACLU. Yes, ultimately, you can say that both of them are motivated by self-interest, but the distinction still seems useful in a practical sense.

Or let’s talk about candy. Hey, maybe we shouldn’t have a “candy” distinction, because ultimately, it’s all just calories, right? Maybe the answer is that we just need to make better candy!

Above: worse candy

The fact that we can boil down to crazy edge cases or ultimate causes should not lead us to throwing distinctions like “candy”, “altruism”, or, indeed, “skinner box” in the garbage.

It is patently obvious that there is a meaningful difference between slot machines and chess. Swiftspear’s argument would have to lead us to believe that they are both the same, since they both have strong dopamine-button-pressing abilities. But the distinction that chess is challenging and involves learning seems significant enough. Some games are challenging, engaging, difficult, and much more like learning a musical instrument, and some games are more like getting into heroin.

SwiftSpear tries to address this point here:

As game designers, we TOTALLY should be doing our best to provide value to players outside of the raw feels produced by Skinarrian rewards, but in all honesty, that strategic trick which allows you to crush your Civilization V opponents is probably nearly completely useless in real life.  The fact that it feels so great to master is AWESOME, but it’s completely and totally Skinarrian reward.  You’re not going to actually use that thing to beat the stock market or build the next great startup.

While I appreciate his “honesty”, the litmus test is not, and has never been, “does this skill translate to some other discipline in real life?” That is not where strategy games get their value—also, no one thinks that that’s where strategy games get their value. This is again an attempt to say that because ultimately it’s all dopamine bumps, it’s all the same, which is about as useful as saying that humans and rocks are all just atoms.

I would go as far as to say that while Diablo or Pokemon (to me, classic Skinner Box examples in videogames) are highly addictive (by design), games such as Chess or Puerto Rico really don’t seem like something you’d want to apply the term “addictive” to. “Interested” seems like a better term, but sometimes they are almost the opposite of addictive. They’re punishing sometimes, in the same way that it is punishing to learn a language or to learn a musical instrument. You are constantly screwing up and feeling like you’re bad at it, and it’s hard, especially in the beginning.

I remember a couple of years ago playing Fallout Shelter. I didn’t feel any of that kind of “punishing” difficulty. I didn’t really feel interested, either. I just felt compelled. While you’re playing, you have this tired, weary impatience: “just let me at the next treasure already…” It can’t even be called curiosity, it’s just compulsion.

Skinner box suggests that a videogame is primarily focused around creating addictive compulsion and not anything else. Yes, addictive compulsion does give the player something, and maybe you can argue that the “random” reward schedule of wins and losses in a competitive game makes it share some qualities of a Skinner box. But you can not argue that “all that is going on in Chess is that it has created an addictive compulsion loop”, whereas you basically can say that for Fallout Shelter.

Why It’s Important

This seems like an important distinction, and so I will definitely continue using the term in the future.

And actually, despite SwiftSpear’s claim that “everyone is talking about Skinner boxes”, I think not enough people are talking about it. Addiction, generally speaking, is a major problem in society. It’s most harmful when it’s drug addiction, but gambling addiction is also up there. And some of these modern F2P games that have in-app purchases and everything come weirdly close to being a Las Vegas-style casino. In some ways, it’s extra problematic because they put colorful, harmless-looking cartoon characters all over it, suggesting that it’s just a kid’s toy. People have a decent understanding of what a casino is; they don’t yet really understand what these cute apps are yet.

What we need is an campaign to educate people about how these things work so that they can make more informed decisions about how they spend their time. This is why it pisses me off to see people who, beyond just ignoring the issue, would go out of their way to actively write an article suggesting that we diminish or destroy the distinction.

And make no mistake, while it’s unethical to abuse addicted players for financial gain, you DEFINITELY should be making a game which players can get addicted to.

Okay, so you’re saying make an addictive thing but… don’t profit off of it? Really, it’s bizarre that he would volunteer the idea of “ethics” only to lazily half-brush-it-aside. If I was writing this article there is no way I would bring up “ethics” because it

Minecraft is a WAY WAY WAAAAAAY better Skinner box than slot machines are (Auro too).

That’s funny, because people seem to play slots a lot longer than they do either of those things. And sure, Minecraft was successful, but I will bet you anything that in 10 years, few will be playing Minecraft, but people will still be playing slots.

I don’t want to be discouraging, but why did SwiftSpear feel compelled to write this article? Here is where I believe he shows his hand:

The Legend of Zelda executes the usage of operant conditioning brilliantly. First you enjoy raw exploration, finding amazing and interesting looking scenes.  Then you enjoy defeating monsters.  Next you enjoy finding hidden objects.  After that you enjoy solving puzzles and the feeling of intelligence that gives you.  Finally you enjoy unlocking the next plot point.  Each of these enjoyable thing is a reward the game meters out to you on a reasonably deliberate schedule.

Behold: the punchline to his strawman opening. The existence of this paragraph suggests that the actual reason for writing this article was more or less, “I like Zelda, and I don’t like that people have theory that suggests bad things about it!” or, “I want to justify/rationalize my Zelda addiction.”

The most charitable reading of this article would be something like, “I think all games should be engaging and compelling and keep the player playing.” I agree with this, in the loosest sense possible. But in that way, it’s kind of a deepity, because no one would disagree with such a statement.

If people like Zelda, or Pokemon, or Diablo, or whatever, that’s fine and you should continue to play those things if you enjoy them. But don’t try to create some “theory” to justify it that suggests actually they are indistinguishable from strategy games. Just accept that you are hooked on a sort of dumb, addictive videogame. We’ve all been there.

Skinner box is actually a great term, because sure, everything we like playing maybe uses B.F. Skinner’s operant conditioning on some level. But it’s the box part of “Skinner box” that points out that that’s all this thing is.