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The Human Loop

The Human Loop is something very important to our every day lives, something we should spend more time understanding and working on to improve our interpersonal communication. Learn more about the Stages of Learning and improving your communication.

It’s a Small World

In my job as Senior Producer managing the external development for Reliance Games, I work with people and companies in many time zones. I work with developers in countries from the Philippines to the Ukraine and everywhere in-between. My producers are located in Pune, India, while I am in San Francisco, California. I attend conferences all over the world (in one case I attended PG Connect in both Bangalore, India and PG Connect in San Francisco, California, USA). Looking at my job I realize how much smaller our world is becoming.

I work with people all over the world making entertainment for consumers all over the world. As the world gets smaller and our relationships become more international, it has made one item clear in my mind; how we communicate and relate to other people is more important than ever. Interpersonal relationships and how we deal with each other, as people, is a key part of our day - not just for business, but also for our everyday lives.

Our interactions with other people leave a lasting impression. Like a pebble in a pond, our daily communications with people can create a ripple of interactions that can spread and spread. The term, “pass it forward”, applies to our everyday communication with others. We can pass forward positive interactions or negative feelings, all dependent upon how we communicated with others.

For those of us whose job is to manage people, it is especially important that we realize the impact we have on those around us. As a manager, a large part of my job is to coach and mentor others – both my direct reports and other people inside and outside the company. I need to understand how my communication will impact those around me. I need to know how to motivate people and how to encourage them in their daily jobs and their overall careers.

Everyone, regardless of profession, has something in common; something that I always realized is important and recently have found to be even more critical. That something is that we all, on a daily basis, interact with other people. We gain and pass along information with each interaction. How that interpersonal communication occurs and how we respond to it, effects those around us. And these interactions stimulate further interactions—they ripple outward. I call this feedback interaction with those around us, The Human Loop.

To help everyone be more productive and lead better lives, it is important we take the time to examine The Human Loop, how it works, and what are its component parts.




noun: loop; plural noun: loops

  1. a shape produced by a curve that bends round and crosses itself.
    "make a loop in the twine"
  2. a structure, series, or process, the end of which is connected to the beginning.
    "a feedback loop"

Everywhere around us there are loops that we interact with and learn from. At the level of our personal interactions is the loop between people I call The Human Loop. But there are other loops that are part of The Human Loop and make up the fundamentals of our daily lives. Everything starts with the very basic action that drives every living thing - the Feedback Loop.

Feedback Loop – A channel or pathway formed by an 'effect' returning to its 'cause,' and generating either more or less of the same effect. A dialogue is an example of a feedback loop.

The Feedback Loop is evident in our everyday lives. Going to a particular store to utilize our “reward points”, or frequenting one airline over another for miles, are both examples of a Feedback Loop. Just about everything we do is part of a Feedback Loop. And these Feedback Loops apply to our interactions with others. How we listen and react to those around us creates a loop. One person’s bad day can easily become a bad day for others as our interactions create a loop which ripples outward to everyone we come in contact with. Understanding how this feedback affects those around us can help us achieve better results in our daily life.

Loops are also very prevalent in gaming, especially our free-to-play mobile games. In mobile, our Core Loop (or Monetization Loop) is critical to success. It is studied, reviewed, and tuned constantly. There are a number of good articles you can find talking about Core Loops and Compulsion Loops in video games. As these have been written about in-depth already I won’t go into them here. Here are a couple articles on the subject you may want to check out:

The Importance of Core Game Loops – by Jerry Momoda

The Core Gaming Loop in Mobile and Social Games – by Ben Hall

The Compulsion Loop Explained – by Joseph Kim

These loops, as they relate to video games, are something I continue to learn about while developing mobile games. There has been a lot of research and discussion on how loops work in games to both make a better game and increase our revenue.

While we may spend time studying the compulsion or engagement loops that relate to our business, I feel there is one loop that we don’t discuss or study enough; the Human Loop. The Human Loop describes how with every person we come in contact with there is an exchange of information both ways. The Human Loop is the Feedback Loop between people. The very first Human Loop we experience is between our parents and us as children. Parents use rewards and punishments to teach us. Later our instructors in school assist the parents in this basic learning operation. Then we head into the work force and we look to our managers to be mentors. For us all to be more successful, I believe it is important we understand the Human Loop that exists between us all.

I am sure we all have stories about good and bad managers. We can think back to the times where we were really motivated to do our job; excited in fact, to come to work. Then there are those times we can recall where we really did not feel motivated at all. Think about these different experiences. What was at the root of the difference between feeling good and motivated, and feeling demotivated? Most of the time it comes back to the interactions you had with those around you. These interactions are what make up The Human Loop.

This presence of loops has moved deep into our everyday lives and we find ourselves with Feedback Loops, Core Loops, Gratification Loops, and more. As consumers we encounter loops constantly in marketing. The world of entertainment is all about getting eyeballs and closing the loop between the entertainment and your checkbook. All these loops make up what I feel is the most important loop, The Human Loop. And to understand this loop we need to understand its basic components.

Cause and Effect : The Heart of The Human Loop

Cause and effect is the basic loop that surrounds and influences us every day. As human beings this drives us.

The law of effect basically states “responses that produce a satisfying effect in a particular situation become more likely to occur again in that situation, and responses that produce a discomforting effect become less likely to occur again in that situation.”

We are creatures who learn. And hopefully we use our positive experiences as learning experiences and pass that learning onto others. The old adage, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” is entirely appropriate. In addition to learning from our positive experiences we take a lot away from our negative experiences as well.  Every interaction and experience is a learning moment.

In the development of a game, we study how to best engage our users and motivate them to take action. The way we “teach” people in our games is the same as how we should be teaching and interacting with people around us.

Every day we interact with people, and we take information away from each experience. These learning experiences end up affecting everyone around us. It is critical that we each realize the influence we have on each other. How we communicate and interact with each other directly affects the mood and productivity of the people involved. Understanding how our exchange of information can be more effective is useful to us all. We should hopefully be spending the same amount, if not more, time studying the Human Loop in our everyday life as we do the Core Loops in our games. By doing so we will be more effective communicators.

At the root of The Human Loop is how people react and learn from the stimulus around them, from other people. Our dealing with others is a loop where information is exchanged and there are takeaways. The takeaway from our communication is learning. Understanding how people learn is critical to understanding The Human Loop.

Operant conditioning, sometimes referred to as instrumental learning, is a method of learning that occurs through rewards and punishments for behavior. It encourages the subject to associate desirable or undesirable outcomes with certain behaviors.

The Process of Learning

The process of how people learn is something I learned a long time ago and has continually been of use to me during my career as a producer. Understanding how people learn (operant conditioning) is critical to The Human Loop.

Understanding how people respond to others and how they learn is very important in understanding the best way to communicate with others. Some key concepts in operant conditioning are reinforcements and punishments.

Reinforcement is any event that strengthens or increases the behavior that follows. There are two kinds of reinforcers:

Positive reinforcers are favorable events or outcomes that are presented after the behavior. In situations that reflect positive reinforcement, a response or behavior is strengthened by the addition of something, such as praise or a direct reward. For example: an engineer on the team solves a particularly nasty bug.  During the team stand-up the manager praises the engineer for his great work.

Negative Reinforcers involve the removal of an unfavorable events or outcomes after the display of a behavior. In these situations, a response is strengthened by the removal of something considered unpleasant. For example: every Friday the producer has a late afternoon status update meeting.  Everyone on the team dislikes these meetings.  The producer tells employees that if they are ahead of schedule on their tasks then they can skip this meeting.

In both of these cases of reinforcement, the behavior increases. In the first example, positive reinforcement, the engineer will work harder to fix bugs to gain the praise.  In the second example, the producer uses the removal of the unpleasant meeting to increase work in the team.

Punishment, on the other hand, is the presentation of an adverse event or outcome that causes a decrease in the behavior it follows. There are two kinds of punishment and it can be difficult to tell the two apart:

Positive punishment, sometimes referred to as punishment by application, involves the presentation of a negative consequence after an undesired behavior is committed. For example: during a press interview the designer says something he shouldn’t have; afterwards he is scolded by his manager.

Negative punishment, also known as punishment by removal, occurs when a favorable event or outcome is removed after a behavior occurs. For example: two artists argue constantly about who gets to use the render machine next, the machine is taken away so neither can use it.

In both of these cases of punishment, the behavior decreases. In the first example, the designer will speak incorrectly in interviews less often to avoid the scolding.  In the second example, the artists will argue less to avoid their render machine from being taken away.

"Reinforcement" and "punishment" refer to their effect on the desired behavior.

1.  Reinforcement increases the probability of a behavior being expressed.

2.  Punishment reduces the probability of a behavior being expressed.

"Positive" and "negative" refer to the addition or removal of the stimulus.

1.  Positive is the addition of a stimulus.

2.  Negative is the removal or absence of a stimulus (often adverse) that is already present.

Now we take these concepts of reinforcers and punishment and apply it to how people learn. Our goal is to understand the best way to elicit the desired response from others.  And for others to learn from these experiences so positive behavior increases.  This is learning.

There are four basic consequences based upon the above application of reinforcement and punishment. These are sometimes referred to the Four Stages of Learning. The way people learn is directly based on how to utilize these Four Stages of Learning.

The Four Stages of Learning

In every interaction, information is passed between the two participants. How that information is conveyed directly impacts how we respond. There are four basic ways people learn and if you understand these, then it will help you choose the best type of reinforcement that will allow you to achieve the outcomes you desire.

The Four Stages of Learning in the priority order of their effectiveness is:

  1. Positive reinforcement occurs when a behavior (response) is followed by a stimulus that is rewarding, increasing the frequency of that behavior occurring again. In the Skinner experiment, a stimulus such as food or a sugar solution is delivered when a rat engages in a target behavior, such as pressing a lever.
  2. Negative reinforcement occurs when a behavior (response) is followed by the removal of an aversive stimulus (escape), thereby increasing that behavior's frequency. In the Skinner box experiment, negative reinforcement can be a loud noise continuously sounding inside the rat's cage until it engages in the target behavior, such as pressing a lever, upon which the loud noise is removed.
  3. Positive punishment occurs when a behavior (response) is followed by a stimulus, such as introducing a shock or loud noise, resulting in a decrease in that behavior. Positive punishment is sometimes a confusing term, as it denotes the "addition" of a stimulus or increase in the intensity of a stimulus that is aversive (such as spanking or an electric shock).
  4. Negative punishment occurs when a behavior (response) is followed by the removal of a stimulus, such as taking away a child's toy following an undesired behavior, resulting in a decrease in that behavior.

Our goal with all communication should be learning by positive reinforcement.

I believe it is important that we all examine our interactions with others, our Human Loop, and try our best to apply positive conditioning whenever possible. By doing so we are creating a positive learning loop that will then be passed on to others. And, we will increase the likelihood that positive response and behavior will increase in the future.

Example of Positive Reinforcement (BEST type of learning)

The engineer on the team is ahead of schedule and is showing team leadership by helping the other engineers on their work. The manager praises the engineer give him a small gift certificate for the local, favorite, team lunch spot.

Provide a positive stimulus for the behavior wanted.

Example of Negative Reinforcement

In order to ensure team members stay on top of their schedule the manager tells everyone in the morning that they must stay late if they don’t have their daily tasks complete.  If the team member finishes their daily tasks then they can leave at the “normal” time.

Remove a negative stimulus once desired behavior is exhibited.

Example of Positive Punishment

An artist has a tendency of showing up late in the mornings. Next time this occurs the manager makes an example of him to the team. The manager calls him out, tells him he needs to be at work on time, and tells him he needs to work late to make up for the missed hours.

Provide a negative consequence when undesired behavior is exhibited.

Example of Negative Punishment (WORST type of learning)

Once a week there is a team lunch that everyone really enjoys—a great team bonding experience. A designer did not finish his tasks for the week and the manager tells him that he will not be attending the team lunch next week since he didn’t get his work done.

Remove positive stimulus when undesired behavior is exhibited.

I recommend examining how you and others communicate and react to each other. Take a moment and review your interactions with others and apply these to the above four methods of learning. Compare how that experience felt to you (and to others) and see how it ranks in the learning stages. Hopefully we all strive to create conditions of positive reinforcement in our daily Human Loop.

For my references and more information on the stages of learning and operant conditioning please see:


Our growth as a person continues everyday, and some of the most influential people in our lives are our managers. Managers should understand how to teach and create the best ways for those around them to learn. Managers are mentors and teachers, and they need to be aware of how their method of communication affects others. Even if we are not managers, our daily interactions are all teaching moments.

The most important part of our day is our interaction with other people. The basic person-to-person communication that creates our Human Loop, is the root of most everything in our lives. When we speak to or listen to another person we impart something to them. We teach and learn with every communication. I feel that The Human Loop is something very important to our every day lives, something we should spend more time understanding and working on to improve our interpersonal communication. Or perhaps I am just old fashioned. Or, maybe I’m just out of the loop.

About the Author

Matt Powers has been making video games for over 20 years. Currently he is a Senior Producer at Reliance Games managing the external production of mobile games. If you liked this article or have any questions about it, please leave a comment. 

You can find more articles on Gamasutra written by Matt here:

If you would like to contact Matt you can email him here: [email protected]

You can also find him on LinkedIn where he would be happy to connect with you.

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