Social Games and Skinner Boxes

Hey there, ladies and gents. Today I’m going to talk about a now defunct social game known as Cow Clicker. It involved, uh…clicking a cow to get points. That was pretty much it. Oh, and you could also customize your cow with a wide array of colorful and unique skins. Sounds like one of the most boring social ‘games’ ever made, doesn’t it?

Developed by Ian Bogost, it was designed to satirize one of the most common- and most distressing- elements of social gaming. Even in spite of this- or, perhaps, because of it, it generated 50,000 players a month and thousands of dollars in revenue at its height. People, it seems, didn’t get the joke. They simply became addicted.

Why? What was it about Cow Clicker that drew everybody in? Furthermore, what does its popularity say about gaming as a whole?

By the way, this post contains some strong language. Sort of. Honestly, you’ll know it when you see it.

As you can probably surmise from the title, we’re going to be talking a bit about B.F. Skinner, and the principles of Operant Conditioning. For those of you who don’t know, quite some time ago there was a rather intelligent fellow named Skinner. He decided that he wanted to study behavior, and the effects of behavior on cognitive function. This led to the development of a theory known as “operant conditioning.”

Essentially, operant conditioning features two key tools: reinforcement and punishment. They’re pretty much what they sound like- reinforcement causes a behavior to occur more frequently, and punishment causes it to occur less frequently. Either of these two can either be positive or negative in nature. For example, negative punishment is a pretty common tool used in parenting- it’s called being grounded. Positive reinforcement, on the other hand,  could be something like an employee getting a raise for being hard-working.

Negative reinforcement, meanwhile, refers to the removal of a negative stimulus, and positive punishment could be something along the lines of shocking a lab rat for pressing the wrong button.

You’re probably wondering why I’m giving you a (highly) abridged explanation of Operant Conditioning. I am, in fact, going somewhere with this. I haven’t lost my mind (yet). Trust me.

Behaviorism in Gaming

Instead of cows, you click crops. IT’S A DIFFERENT GAME, GUYS.

Now, if one really wanted to, they could see reinforcement-reward system in pretty much every single microscopic aspect of their day to day life. That includes game design. In truth, Operant conditioning and the lager field of behaviorism is only one facet of human psychology. It’s not the be all and end all of human development, nor is it the only thing that plays into game design. We’re getting sidetracked, however.

Earlier, I used the example of Cow Clicker. It was pretty much the greatest simplification of a social game imaginable- it was literally a Skinner Box. Players clicked a cow to be rewarded with points. They used these points to purchase better rewards. The clicks were timed- you could only click once in a while, so it encouraged people to keep coming back, and keep clicking. The kicker, of course, is that it was designed to satirize social gaming, to draw attention to the fact that the vast majority of social games were simply glorified Operant Conditioning Boxes- just as it was itself.

The Darker Side of Social Games

The best thing about cliches is there’s usually some truth to them.

Games like Farmville are even worse. They not only provide positive reinforcement in the form of better crops, more money, and better items, they provide positive punishment for players who aren’t active enough. If you don’t log in enough, your crops die. That’s not even the most insidious aspect of the game, either. It uses a ‘carrot on a stick’ method of drawing people in…then after they’ve enjoyed the reward system a bit, hits them with barricades that prevent progression- then offer the ability to pay real money as an easy way to pass by the barricades.

Not to mention the more people you get playing, the more cash and XP you can get. It’s effectively designed to get as many people playing – and addicted -as possible, through social obligations and a shallow system of reward. I’ve blocked the entire Zynga family of applications due to how often I’ve been spammed with requests to start playing.

Thanks, but no thanks- I’d rather play a real game.

That’s right, I went there. I do not, nor will I ever, consider titles like Farmville to be video games.  They are  essentially marketing tools disguised as a mode of entertainment.  I see no enjoyment in them- I find them shallow, repetitive, and ultimately fruitless. My, I’m a pretentious ass today, aren’t I? Perhaps I should buy myself a Fixie and a case of PBR soon. Oh, and I can’t forget the thick-rimmed glasses.

My eyesight’s terrible, anyway.

Final Word

Well, that’s one way of expressing it.

*Ahem.* Right, I’ll try to structure this argument in a constructive fashion. To that end, I’ve a question (or rather, a series of questions):

What is your goal in farmville? To farm crops and make money. What will you do with that money? Expand your farm so you can farm more crops and make more money.  Why do you want to expand your farm? So you can farm more crops and make more money. Why do you want to make more money? So you can expand your farm and farm more…

Okay, alright. I’m sure you get it by now. Farmville literally serves no purpose beyond drawing you in to an endless cycle. Business Insider put it quite well, actually, detailing how Farmville completely violates Rogger Caillois’s six criteria for a game:

(1) Farmville is defined by obligation, routine, and responsibility;
(2) Farmville encroaches and depends upon real life, and is never entirely separate from it;
(3) Farmville is always certain in outcome, and involves neither chance nor skill;
(4) Farmville is a productive activity, in that it adds to the social capital upon which Facebook and Zynga depend for their wealth;
(5) Farmville is governed not by rules, but by habits, and simple cause-and-effect;
(6) Farmville is not make-believe, in that it requires neither immersion nor suspension of disbelief.

In other words…Farmville and its kin are not games. Not in the traditional sense. I don’t deny that there are plenty of brilliantly made social games with story, substance, and immersion. Games which require actual skill – and not just brainless clicking – to play. What I do reject is the idea that any game which plays like Farmville has any of the above.

It’s here that we run into a bit of a stumbling block…if Farmville isn’t video game, what is it, exactly?

That, my friends, is a question for another day. I hate to cut this short, but I’ve prattled on far too long already. I’ll definitely be looking at this topic in more depth at a later date. For now, I hope you all have yourselves a wonderful evening, and I shall see you on Tuesday.

Image Credits: [Madame Pickwick's Art Blog] [PC World] [novascene] [noocksworld]

One response to “Social Games and Skinner Boxes

  1. Pingback: 2012 Wrap-Up « Ralph Barbagallo's Self Indulgent Blog

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