The Peanut Gallery Presents: Skinner Boxes

pg_titlecard_032Hello all, and welcome to the Peanut Gallery for August. It’s been a long month filled with a lot of behind-the-scenes work and outside-of-Badly Productions events. As such a little housekeeping is in order.

Unfortunately, recent events, along with other duties, have forced me to take a long, hard look at what I can do with the time I have available, and the simple truth is, I’m unable to continue the Peanut Gallery at the same length. Don’t misunderstand, the Peanut Gallery will still happen every month, but I’m unlikely to write something as large as my article on Darkest Dungeon or Heroes of the Storm. That being said, I’m still going to be talking about the same games, game systems and general geekery I normally do, just in an abridged form. So with that out of the way, let’s dive in!

Have you ever found yourself sucked into an MMO, continuously killing monsters and collecting bear asses until you reach maximum level? Stayed up late raiding with your friends for essentially no reward? Well, it’s not just because you’re the kind of person that obsesses. Or rather, that’s not the only factor.

You see, games like Candy Crush or World of Warcraft utilise two different methods of game design to keep gamers reeled in, and these elements can be seen in multiple different types of games! The world of games almost functions inside its own ecosystem, with desirable and popular game traits, or mechanics passed down and around the gaming world. And few mechanics have been as effective or prolific as Skinner Boxes.

A Skinner Box originally referred to an apparatus developed by Burrhus Frederic Skinner, but in time, its effects and ideas have spread into the wider world. You see, a Skinner Box is anything that creates incentive via the medium of reward to influence behaviour. Originally, it was used to study pigeons, being a simple box with a button. If the pigeon pressed the button, it got food.

There were a number of discoveries created by this, as until now, a lot of experiments followed Pavlov’s psychological experiments, being primarily concerned with reactions to stimuli. Skinner’s work, on the other hand, was focused on actions, getting animals (or people) to do things. He made some significant discoveries, including the notion that it’;s better to reward people after pressing a button a set number of times (don’t give them the reward too often) and also that tangible rewards, such as food or other materials, begin to lose their lustre as time goes on. The reward simply gets dull, something that didn’t happen with immaterial things.

So what does this have to do with games? Well, it’s simple! Skinner boxes are all over the place. RPG’s have levels, or that new weapon,  or even something as trivial as a new mount, and yet people will grind hours upon hours to get said things. Even if you have 100 hours of content , people will burn through that. So how do you stop people from moving as fast as possible?

The answer is to gate content behind something that, on average, can’t be completed via brute force, or at least takes forever to do so. You can run a dungeon all you want, but the only way to get that one single drop you need is to get lucky with the RNG. There’s other kinds of gates, monetary, item or ability-based, but these, along with the Skinner Box experience, provide a significant chunk of the playtime for many games.

Skinner boxes are all around us, From MMO’s to Candy Crush, to Farmville and even to strategy such as XCOM or StarCraft. Their existence is a key part of the gaming industry, and people have criticised their overuse. That’s not to say that all Skinner Boxes are bad; it’s the journey, not the destination that matters, and being a Skinner Box doesn’t stop a game from being interesting, fun or well-designed.

What are some other examples of Skinner boxes you can think of? Are they overused?


  • (Hey late comment!!) I suppose the ultimate example of a Skinner Box would be the Monster Hunter series. Then entire thing is based on grinding for better armour and weapons, with no other reward than the fact that you now have better armour and weapons. Then you use that new armour, and those better weapons to hunt an even bigger monster, to get even better armour and wepaons.

    That’s not to say that the game itself isn’t fun, it certainly is. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of staring down some enormous beastie getting absolutely wrecked, farming for better armour, and training your own reactions, to be able to come back and take down that monster that so roundly trounced you.