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Radoff: Games Are Not Skinner Boxes
Radoff: Games Are Not Skinner Boxes
August 10, 2011 | By Dennis Scimeca

One might expect that the author of a book titled "Game On: Energize Your Business With Social Games" would be an enthusiastic proponent of gamification, or injecting game-like elements into products or activities that are not games, in order to make them more appealing.

Jon Radoff may subscribe to the theory in a general sense, but not in the way it's typically discussed. "There's a lot of superficiality out there," Radoff said. "Bringing games into a business, building any kind of game, is a lot harder than simply building a points system, or a rewards system."

Radoff, the founder of the social media company GamerDNA, and current CEO of social game publisher Disruptor Beam, was the guest of the Gamasutra-attended August edition of local dev gathering Boston Post Mortem, and delivered a presentation called "Game On: What Motivates Gamers?"

Radoff believes that social media technology has reshaped the game market by changing both who the consumer is and what they expect to get out of games by providing a new landscape of opportunity for products. Unfortunately, too many developers involved in social gaming and gamification are locked into the outmoded psychological principle of the Skinner Box.

"Those two categories [social gaming and gamification] share one thing in common... this idea that you can reprogram peoples' behaviors if you just give them enough rewards," Radoff said. "I want to demolish that theory and present you a more meaningful way to look at not just social games and gamification, but all games in general, something that's a more all-encompassing theory of what makes games fun."

B.F Skinner is the best-known figure of the behaviorist school of psychology for his invention of the operant conditioning chamber, more popularly known as the "Skinner Box", an apparatus used to train the behavior of lab animals. It's a device Radoff believes most people in the games industry have heard of.

"Over and over again you read articles online that tell you that games are Skinner Boxes, and that if you can just figure out the reward system, and the way to give the food pellets back to the player to press their pleasure center, they will become addicted and they will play forever and ever," said Radoff.

While Radoff doesn't dispute the idea that there's some amount of conditioning that occurs for certain aspects of games, that's not what provides depth to gameplay or makes things interesting, and Radoff finds it surprising that game developers continue to take the concept of the Skinner Box so seriously when mainstream psychology left the associated theories by the wayside decades ago.

Radoff would rather look to Harvard psychologist Steve Pinker and the concept of evolutionary psychology, which argues for the existence of certain cognitive mechanisms we have evolved into, such as our desire to play. "Animals play to practice the things that are going to be important in their life," said Radoff. "My own branch hypothesis off of this is the idea that the human capacity for games stems from our capacity for play."

"We want to play with psychologically-engaging activities," he said. "We want to do it in a safe place. We want to be able to try out things that we couldn't do in real life." Radoff predicts that games which account for the things that have been important to human beings in evolutionary time scales are going to be successful games.

"We're not Skinner Boxes. We don't just learn games because the game gives us a reward payoff. Games are there because they're important to what it is to be human," said Radoff. Neurological evidence suggests that many parts of the brain that are activated during a virtual experience mirror the same brain images during a real-life occurrence of the same experience.

"It suggests the hypothesis that play is a way to practice the real things that you might encounter in your life," Radoff said. "It's a way to strengthen some of those cognitive connections in the brain that are relevant to important activities."

The key to using this knowledge successfully in the pursuit of building better games is finding ways to categorize the behavior and motivations of game players outside the Skinner Box metaphor, Radoff said. The Bartle Test of Gamer Psychology, which scores players in the categories of Killer, Socializer, Achiever, and Explorer, was a step in that direction but didn't quite hit the mark, according to Radoff.

"It doesn't provide a model that applies to all types of games," Radoff said. "It's very specifically MMO-centric. I think it would be helpful to have a model that we could use in thinking about virtually any game experience. The categories [Bartle] came up with are [also] based on his own observations but they're not based on any unifying theory of why things would be that way."

While writing Game On, Radoff developed his own model, drawing upon knowledge of what's important in evolution and the psychological mechanisms that all human beings share. His model uses four different categories: Immersion, Cooperation, Competition, and Achievement. Radoff feels these categories more closely reflect the workings of the human mind in regard to our propensities for storytelling and altruism, our being subject to the fundamental basis for evolution, and our enjoyment of skill mastery for its own sake.

"I think that you have to figure out which of these elements really makes sense for a game, and draw upon several of them to make a successful game experience," Radoff said. "Think about the Skinnerian stuff in the process of maybe reinforcing the pattern and frequency of rewards that tell [players they're] doing things correctly. But it's fundamentally about these evolved traits that are important to people. I think if you take a survey of the most successful games out there, you'll find that it's these attributes that are what's associated with the most enduring game franchises that exist."

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Todd Boyd
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Thank the heavens that someone in the industrial-level social gaming space understands that games are more than just grinding and points.

Michael O'Hair
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Show me an MMO that doesn't employ Skinner Box-type methodologies (to some degree), and I'll show you an MMO that won't retain users for any profitable amount of time.

["Animals play to practice the things that are going to be important in their life," said Radoff. "My own branch hypothesis off of this is the idea that the human capacity for games stems from our capacity for play."]

What activities in MMO gaming are users practicing and sharpening for use in the real world; other than limited communication, unorganized teamwork, or designation of targets for online avatars to attack until dead?

[His model uses four different categories: Immersion, Cooperation, Competition, and Achievement.]

None of those categories are a substantial deviation from Bartle's Killer, Socializer, Achiever, and Explorer categories.

Immersion = Explorer; Explorers tend to Immerse themselves in the game world until they have visited and experienced as many regions as possible.

Cooperation = Socializer; Socializers tend to Cooperate with other players to achieve their objectives.

Competition = Killer; Killers thrive off of Competition with other Killers and players.

Achievers = Achievement; hard to break that one down...

Shawn Johnson
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Very valid points. However, I don't think MMOs were the focus of this article. Mr Radoff was talking about something that encompasses all games. :)

Carlo Delallana
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"What activities in MMO gaming are users practicing and sharpening for use in the real world; other than limited communication, unorganized teamwork, or designation of targets for online avatars to attack until dead?"

I'll give you the last one but the first two seem like very important skills to develop. The ability to coordinate complex team activities (synchronously) while using limited forms of communication/collaboration tools.

Actually, your last criticism can be translated into a useful skill: sticking to a task until it is done ;)

Luiz Monclar
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Just logged in to say how thankful I am for you writing and posting this article.

I'm Game Designer who just started working in the industry, and last year, while still on university, I came across an article that compared games to the Skinner Box, and it utterly disgusted me!

I just couldn't believe that big crap. Playing games are a whole lot more than just that, and I believe you couldn't have written it more perfectly. I just couldn't get to a definition by myself like this before, but you did it, man.

Thanks for sharing it.

Mark Kreitler
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@Luiz: like it or not, that model thrives in some games. Classic RPGs and most MMORPGs, in particular, rely on it to keep players hooked until longer-term systems like socialization can take over.

Fortunately, most games don't require Skinnerian mechanics to succeed. In fact, reliance on Skinner-model rewards is a good indicator as to how much your design appeals to the higher-level brain functions Radoff mentions. Need a lot of Skinner? Chances are your base design isn't much fun.

On the down side, the Skinner-designs work, at least to some degree, and they are easy to monetize, which means they aren't going anywhere any time soon. If you stay in the industry, you'll eventually find yourself with the unenviable task of trying to design a real game around the requirements that you produce a monetized Skinner model.

Luiz Monclar
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Yeah, I recognize that it is something that's present anyway, but I'm glad it's not the only thing.

And yeah, I've already found myself having to do that kind of task, it sucked hard, it was unenviable indeed, but it had to be done.

Glad I'm no longer working on it though.

Mike Engle
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Games are activities and rewards.

Deeper games may be a bit more abstracted, but at their core they can all be boiled down and called "skinner boxes" because they deliver rewards to the player at certain intervals based on the player's behavior.

Only games which distance themselves from BEING games manage to distance themselves from the core behavioral patterns observed by Skinner's experiments.

Bart Stewart
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"'[The Bartle Type system] doesn't provide a model that applies to all types of games,' Radoff said. 'It's very specifically MMO-centric. I think it would be helpful to have a model that we could use in thinking about virtually any game experience. The categories [Bartle] came up with are [also] based on his own observations but they're not based on any unifying theory of why things would be that way.'"

A larger-scale unifying theory of gamer motivations, you say? Funny you should mention that.... ;) (And Michael O'Hair: I think you have the Radoff-Bartle connection Exactly Right.)

At any rate, I think there may be a confusion of levels happening here. Understanding gamer motivations is like having a strategic plan -- it's important, but the value of a strategy is only apparent when it's applied down at the tactical level of real interactions.

Skinner box design -- operant conditioning -- is a tactical-level application of fundamental motivations for play. It's valuable to understand what motivates a gamer, but that only guides the design of gameplay mechanics such as short-cycle action/consequence loops. Such loops can either reinforce or punish player actions coming from any motivation.

Fortunately, short-cycle action/consequence loops aren't the only arrow in the game designer's quiver. There are other mechanics that gamers can enjoy, and the art of design is knowing which of these best achieve the designer's strategy for building a game that expresses a coherent vision. Designers should use all techniques available to them for helping gamers have fun.

Michael Joseph
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Using psychology as a prominent driver in a game's design in my opinion represents a terrible set back for this industry.

The point isn't whether games are skinner boxes or not, the point is whether games will be designed to exploit real or perceived vulnerabilities in people to maximize sales of widgets. That many companies should start to do that in the games industry is not a surprise... afterall it goes on in all of the other industries... and we hate it. Don't we?

It's sad when marketing and game design mate and produce a litter of consumer junk.

This mixing is what gives us so much bad food, bad tv, bad films, bad music, loads of plastic trinkets and junk, learn x in 21 days, a pill to make you skinny, a device to shake the fat off your arms...

Fortunately there is good food, some good things on tv, some good films, some good music, some quality products, and legit excercise equipment. Oh... and some good games.

Michael Joseph
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And let's not forget the elephant trying to hide behind the curtain...

A lot of people play games or watch a ton of TV and movies because they need to escape their broken lives in their respective broken societies. Often times it doesn't matter if they think the show kinda sucks or that they still go to see a movie despite the lack of enthusiasm and low expectations they have going in... they just want to escape for a while.

There's nothing wrong with escapism. Maybe at least it keeps people from abusing alcohol and other substances in an attempt to cope with a lot of unnatural dysfunction in their lives. But maybe game devs shouldn't pat themselves on the back too much when their game sells 3 million copies because in a some ways its like peddling bubble wrap.... some users gotta just keep popping those little cells.

So games are a form of escape for many and I for one think there's an ethical problem with explicitly setting out to design games that exploit human psychology.

Bart Stewart
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This use of psychological insights in game design really needs a good debate. Is it OK or not? Why?

I tend to answer "yes" because I don't see it as marketing to (i.e., exploiting) human vulnerabilities. Instead, I see the knowledge and use of psychology as a way to give gamers more of what they actually enjoy.

Is it possible to misuse these tools? Sure, just like any other tool there's the possibility of unscrupulous implementation. In particular, psychological techniques can be used to manipulate people without their awareness, especially if people are typically vulnerable to such techniques.

But there's nothing inherent in knowing how our wonderful minds work that makes such knowledge always evil. As with any tool, it's how you use it that determines its ethical status.

So the question is whether the power to make more enjoyable games comes at too high a risk of misuse. I don't think so. That genie is already out of the bottle. These techniques are known, and they will be used. As long as the developer isn't trying to hide them, why not use them to make games that are more satisfying?

Michael Joseph
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I think if you talk to a good salesman who knows his job he'll tell you that "want" is very often manufactured. There's a pretty good documentary called "The Century of Self" which you can find on google video (if it's still there) that examines the history of how formal pyschology became involved in product marketing and design and eventually politics (particularly election campaigns but we all know it's gone far beyond campaign season). I think the results are unquestionably bad and completely out of control. Social responsibility has completely gone out the window and the result of this pervasive anything goes to make a buck or win an argument mentality by producers is a loss of principles and ethics that has spread to the general population and it's a loss that people don't even notice missing within themselves. But I digress...

I think "giving people what they want" sounds really reasonable at first blush, but really it just means measuring want by how much of something you can sell. This calls into question the nature and orgin of any particular "want." Who's to say that some other products would be better if you took into account other factors? Who's to say that fewer dominant products is better than a vast variety of competing products in every conceivable category. Because if your measurement of "want" is how many of one particular brand of product is sold and how much money it brought in and if ever increasing want of a particular product is good/desirable, then seems to me you wind up promoting monopoly without even knowing it. I think clearly the impetous for the use of psychology in game design is cracking some psychological holy grail code and being able to make a gajillion dollars. I don't really think it's aesthetics or you'd just hire a quality art director and artists.

Incidentally, cigarettes and alcohol generally are consumed despite unpleasant first time experiences using those products by most people. In fact in the documentary "The Century of Self" they describe how smoking by women was increased by deliberately associating smoking with sophistication and sexual liberation in their advertising campaigns. This may sound very obvious now but back then this type of marketing thinking was ground breaking. Thus people be persuaded to want something they didnt want before.

People want all kinds of things but we also live in a society and not everyone's wants can be fullfilled. We do place limits on certain behaviors, the sale and manufacture of certain goods, certain services because we recognize that we want to live in a peaceful, stable, secure society. And once upon a time we even placed limits on how news was broadcast over the public's airwaves (see Fairness Doctrine) until Reagan killed it. Nowadays it's legal to flat out lie to the public in news reports.

So I think the history of using psychology in product design and marketing and beyond has been awful. Product placement in games certainly relies on it. And my position there is also that subliminal advertising/marketing is unethical.

Lastly I'll just clarify my only goal is to persuade people to think about the issue and make their choice with at least some consideration. I'm certainly against bans of any kind. The choice is for each individual developer to do what they think is right.

Tony Ventrice
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There is a lot of this negative reaction going around regarding facebook games and 'gamified' websites and the primary reason seems to be an inability to differentiate these experiences from 'real' games. The term 'game' is very vague, but in the sense that it's being defined in this article, facebook games and gamified websites are NOT 'games'. Instead, they are activities that borrow *some* aspects taken from traditional games -chiefly operant conditioning aspects. Fine, they aren't games in the same sense as Halo, WoW or Civilization, but is it really a huge travesty if some people call them games? Console and PC gamers aren't going to stop buying and enjoying traditional games just because there are virtual farms on facebook and collectible Monopoly pieces at McDonalds.

In fact, the traditional games industry should be happy about this development -it is of no threat to established genres and it is, if anything, blowing out the market to double or even triple-scale. Now, more than ever, game designers are needed to step up, apply their expertise, and get paid for it. But instead too many of them are sitting around whining about how these new 'games' aren't any fun.

Michael Joseph
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re: Instead, they are activities that borrow *some* aspects taken from traditional games -chiefly operant conditioning aspects. Fine, they aren't games in the same sense as Halo, WoW or Civilization, but is it really a huge travesty if some people call them games?

Ok what would you call them? I mean besides "activities that borrow some aspects taken from traditional games...