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The end of skinner boxes

By on November 26, 2013
FlickrCC by Jean-Jacques Boujot

Earlier this month, Pocket Gamer published an interview with me about skinner boxes. Here’s an extract:

Would you say that ‘operant conditioning’ in games – e.g. the basic slot machine model – is sustainable?

There will always be operant conditioning driven games that will work. There will always be a population who likes basic slot machine games, for example. It has a relatively low cognitive load and is an escapist experience.

Ultimately, if it is going to be sustainable, developers need to look at increasing the game experience in three different areas.

Firstly, you can up the spectacle – and we’re seeing that happening. It doesn’t matter so much if you’re not learning something new, if you are seeing something spectacular. That’s why we’re seeing budgets in free-to-play games going up.

Secondly, you can increase the reward level. If players are no longer responding to this behavioural operant conditioning stuff, developers can think “let’s ratchet up the rewards.” Real money gaming is way of doing that.

Another is the Japanese phenomenon of complete gacha. That’s where you ratchet up the rewards but in order to gain the rewards you have to do a bunch of tasks to gain an item.

You repeat this cycle three times again to get four quarters of a lottery ticket just to submit it. And maybe you win, maybe you don’t, and if you don’t, you start the cycle again.

The nested randomness is very compelling from an operant conditioning standpoint, so much so that the Japanese government has essentially banned it.

Finally, your third option is to do something new and creative. If you are, by background, an analytics-led suit, it’s harder to imagine how to do the new and creative than the other two options above, so you’ll up the spectacle or up the reward.

In the interview, I argue that psychological tricks can only take you so far, and that the era of operant conditioning fre-to-play games is coming to an end. This is a good thing for games. You can read the full interview here.

About Nicholas Lovell

Nicholas is the founder of Gamesbrief, a blog dedicated to the business of games. It aims to be informative, authoritative and above all helpful to developers grappling with business strategy. He is the author of a growing list of books about making money in the games industry and other digital media, including How to Publish a Game and Design Rules for Free-to-Play Games, and Penguin-published title The Curve: