About ten hours into any MMO, after much optimism that the game will somehow be different from others on the market, I find myself  turning in a pile of items for another thousand experience points, and a sword that gives me +2 more agility than I already have. And you know what? I spent thirty minutes of my life doing a repetitive – and only slightly amusing – task just to gain an arbitrary upgrade so I can stay on the same track as the ever scaling monsters and ambitious players. That isn’t fun. Fun is getting on that roller coaster you were always scared to go on, screaming your head off, then wanting to do it again. It’s doing that stupid, silly or outrageous thing that you don’t get to do everyday. What most MMO’s provide is simply a re-creation of the rat race all too similar to the one we have in real life.


If you’re into any sort of game design, psychology or just read a lot of articles about video games, no doubt you will have heard of the Skinner box. It’s one of the main psychological principles of engagement for a lot of games, but it’s one that is relied on far too much. Skinner boxes, or operant conditioning chambers, are devices used in behavioral studies in order to achieve certain responses from differing types of stimuli. One of the major findings from some of the earliest experiments was that if food was rigged to drop every time a lever was pressed, the rat would eventually stop pressing the lever. When food was to drop randomly upon a lever press, the rat continued to press the lever for a substantially longer time, not unlike a gambler spending a weekend in Vegas.


skinner box


Many of the lessons to be learned from the Skinner box, including entropic reward ratios, have been applied to game design as well. Much of game design actually revolves around conditioning. You want the player’s response to the stimuli present in your game to be one of joy, or horror, or sadness or perhaps all of these and more. This means that games are essentially operant conditioning chambers set to invoke different engagement types and emotions for recreational use.


While designers do often employ a variety of psychological concepts and triggers in their design, a good designer will always make sure the emphasis is on engagement and create their own mechanics for the exact response they wish to draw out. If we go back to the start of online games, and even their current form, problems such as latency and bandwidth crunch often get in the way of large-scale, real-time gameplay, which popularized the current format of hot-key based combat. This meant that designers had to come up with engagements that could compensate these limitations, while simultaneously getting the player to play as long as possible and keeping subscription money coming in. So it makes sense that Skinner box theory was rapidly introduced into the MMO, even if it isn’t the most inspired choice.




The good news is that as designers are starting to come up with new answers to the online problem, MMO’s are benefiting. Games such as Guild Wars 2 and The Secret World have started using smarter design to compensate for their limitations, and even one of the worst offenders, World of Warcraft, has found a way to spice up it’s core mechanics and quests.


What is worrying is that a surprising amount of single player games are seeing the Skinner box as a paint-by-numbers way of creating fun. Borderlands 2 is a game in which you can have a handgun that turns into a grenade, or a shotgun that shoots fire. Sounds like a stupid and frenetic run and gunner, right? It is, as long as you’re fine with shooting X number of bandits for gun that does +Y damage. There’s also Diablo, Divinity, Dead Island, Xenoblade Chronicles and many others that eerily remind the players of MMO grind at times.


Sometimes it’s not as much of an actual problem; Xenoblade Chronicles had a relatively unique take on the hot-key combat system, a gripping narrative and some intriguing mechanics, but even with all of the narrative strength and cool ideas you could throw at a game, I find it hard to not get fed up with the pointlessness of it all. Why should I kill a certain number of mooks for some stupid item in Diablo when I could instead sail across a massive ocean, finding new and wondrous islands as I go in Wind Waker? Poorly implementing a guaranteed psychological constant  at the cost of creativity, effort and inspiration to safely sell a few more copies is not art. Selling a product that periodically injects endorphins into the customer’s brain sounds like something out of some sort of sci-fi speculative fiction novel. A way to pacify the working masses into forgetting their humdrum lives.




Life’s too short to settle for mass-produced, factory-assembled happiness. Making and playing games should be a passionate experience, and if there’s no passion in the design, you can bet there will be no soul in the gameplay. So designers, take chances. Tell the story you want to tell and make the game you want to make, just don’t waste your audience’s precious few moments of life with a facsimile of enjoyment.

As artists and craftsmen, this is the last thing we could ever want to accomplish. We in the games business are in a special place. We have the opportunity to open minds, to explore new worlds, to pass on our experiences, our sorrows, joys, insecurities, and accomplishments with our audience. Yes, single player games are more or less recreational operant conditioning chambers. But the responses invoked should be of the sort to make a person’s life better, simply by giving them a sense of perspective that they didn’t have before. Not by giving them a happy pill and patting them on the head.


Special thanks to Saotome for authoring this article.

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