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Radoff: Games Are Not Skinner Boxes

Social game developer Jon Radoff argues that designing games as Skinner Boxes is an outdated practice -- gamers really "want to play with psychologically-engaging activities."

Dennis Scimeca, Blogger

August 10, 2011

5 Min Read

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."

About the Author(s)

Dennis Scimeca


Dennis Scimeca is a freelance writer from Boston, MA. He maintains a blog at punchingsnakes.com, and has been known to drop a smart-aleck quip on Twitter: @DennisScimeca.

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