tiny rewards: operant conditioning in video game culture

This post is about conditioned response, triggered by an unrelated video game design discussion (about using sound effects as triggers for data collection for analytics because “[…] all the semantically important moments in a video game have unique sound effects (or patterns of sound effects)” – Marc LeBlanc Facebook post July 16 2012).  One responder I won’t identify replied “I think it says gamers salivate when a bell is rung.”

When games, and their designers, are accused of manipulating players, akin to deceit, Pavlov’s famous salivating dogs are often cited.  I think this isn’t a fair summary of operant conditioning in games. This made me want to explore my own understanding of conditioned response, and how game designers use it.  Hence this post.

A more powerful example is in Jesse Schell’s Gamepocolypse talk, he gives many horrific examples of blatant manipulation of gamer behavior using a “bling!” sound effect for each. A s I watched, I said “no!” but felt “cool!” The sound effect told me I should feel satisfaction of getting points. That “bling!” sound was spending my conditioning capital, earned through game play.  At the end of the lecture, even after some reflection, I felt confused at an intuitive level. Is the Gamepocolypse good or bad? It’s bad, but it’s fun!    It’s good to reward toothbrushing!  It’s horrible if game designers place products in my dreams!  This confused, complex feeling is correct: operant conditioning is not simple. the drooling dogs of Pavlov are not the whole story.

I want to start at the research.  In achieving the conditioned response, Pavlov first identified an inherently rewarding activity (dogs eating).  He then connected the ringing bell to that event.  The final salivating-for-bell behaviour was “borrowing” from the inherently rewarding activity of eating. If he had fed the dogs dirt, would they learn to salivate with the bell alone?  I think not, because there was no inherently rewarding activity.

BF Skinner’s Law of Effect says “behavior which is reinforced tends to be repeated (i.e. strengthened); behavior which is not reinforced tends to die out-or be extinguished (i.e. weakened)” (source).

To measure this I use the metaphor of ‘conditioning capital’:  designers earn ‘conditioning capital’ by providing inherently rewarding activity.  This ‘conditioning capital’ can be spent for various purposes.

For example, when a designer places a “ka-ching” sound effect, they are either predicting the player feels game mastery at that moment (which earns conditioning capital), or rewarding player for doing what the designer wants (spending capital).

In my play experience, games often build conditioning capital with rewards. For example, when I earn a powerup, the game plays a “bling” sound. This is a tiny reward.  It feels like the game is recognizing, externalizing, and acknowledging my tiny mastery of navigation.

Collecting a powerup is inherently rewarding: it improves my options for gameplay.  The “bling” sound is extra. It’s not just audio feedback. “Bling!” is a happy sound in my culture. I enjoy hearing it on its own. It’s a tiny reward. It is also being reinforced. I get something good, I hear “bling”, thus “bling” means good.  The game is building a conditioned response.

If you doubt that effect sounds are more than pure feedback, do this thought experiment: Play a generic 2D platformer in your mind, replacing the powerup sound swith a culturally meaningless ‘tick’ sound.  Would it be just as satisfying as Super Mario’s sounds?  Is it clear how important positive sounds are for effects, and how much conditioned capital is on tap through these sounds?

Of course, designers can use operant conditioning to manipulate the player.  Jon Blow criticizes this (Blow 2011) and asks designers: ““Are you trying to take advantage of your players and exploit them? Or are you trying to give them something?”As a designer, I give these tiny rewards for many reasons.

* guide the player towards designer-desired gameplay (e.g. collect coins)

* to amplify and validate the internal reward (yes, player, that was good!).

Perhaps one could define “bad” game design as spending more behaviorial ‘capital’ than it generates.  For example, if a math-memorization game uses “Boss Killer” achievements and players’ pleasure is primarily a conditioned response accumulated from past experience of killing bosses, then that capital will run out.  It may take a while – a lifetime of gaming has built a lot of capital around certain reward signals – and but it could be a clear basis for judgement of game design.

This ‘conditioned capital’ is so large for certain video game sounds that popular media mocks our helpless responses, even while using it effectively. In the animation “Scott Pilgrim vs” (youtube), at 2:52 Scott hits the boss, earning a “KO” victory sound effect. At 3:13 Scott kisses a girl and gets a “Powerup” sound effect.  It’s not just sound effects. There are many visual effects with cultural capital. In the Scott Pilgrim comic book series, Scott gets a “level up” graphic when he achieves anything major.

I view the conditioning capital around these iconic sounds as a shared resource: a Commons, in the Tragedy of the Commons sense.  Low quality gamification can be seen as a pure “capital spend” of video game reward conditioning. For an extreme example, consider low-quality ‘gamification’ of a classroom: convert grades to “points” and assignments to “quests”, with no other changes.  It is a ‘pure spend’ – it is borrowing the ‘cool’ that kids associate with games – and obviously manipulative.  BK Skinner’s theory suggests it will quickly become less effective, unless there are some genuinely new experiences behind it.

Of course, operant condition isn’t the whole story of player motivation – far from it. Player motivation is complex and multivariant, and behaviorism is only one small part of the picture. For example, in-game achievements are sought for social status signaling reasons (Medler 2011, “Validating Motives” section). These powerful motivations could well trump any motivation from intrinsic reward or conditioned response.  But operant conditioning is a important topic in any reflective game designer’s mind.

To summarize, I believe games designers should build ‘conditioning capital’ by providing players with inherently rewarding experiences, and be aware when they are spending it.