What Makes A Skinner Box?
Last Updated: 2019-08-08 18:04

One common theme that I return to, time and time again, is that of addictiveness. More specifically, what makes something habit-forming in a bad way? I've previously talked about this in the context of Attractors. Lately, my thing to hate on is mobile games, or the thing that they represent. Which, yes, is a little late to the game. And I don't even play games on my mobile phone, so it seems a little out of place.

But I digress. The point here is to talk about the Skinner Box. Or, the application of the same concept to human things. Gamification and notification spam both fall into this category. But maybe not games. But maybe some games. Definitely mobile games. The point here is that there's this category I want to get some clarity on, and it's about these things which seem habit-forming and suck you in.

So, what's clearly a Skinner Box? I think that clicker games are totally Skinner Boxes. Also Clash of Clans, Farmville (i.e. everything Zynga / Zynga-clones). But this line is often hazy; Candy Box was innovative and exciting in certain ways. There was a game a while back about alpacas eating one another that seemed surprisingly deep for an idle game. It's one thing to put on a sophisticated veneer on a game, but it still seems fine to critique the underlying mechanics.

What does make a Skinner Box?
  1. Lack of a challenge
    1. Despite having progression, idle and clicker games don't really have anything that forces the player to do anything strategic. They just...click things, and they get reinforcement.
  2. Instant gratification
    1. Mobile games often leverage this desire by time-locking content, prompting you to pay in order to get something now. The other thing to pay attention here is if the feedback loop is tight.
  3. Incentives to keep going?
    1. Intermittent rewards / reward schedules
What doesn't make a Skinner Box?
  1. Skill and growth
    1. The more something is like an instrument or a sport, the less it seems like a Skinner Box. Although the many casual LoL players seem to indicate that even something which has a high skill cap can still be addictive.
  2. Meaning
    1. The more you invoke artistic purpose, narrative, or some other agenda, we seem to be a lot more forgiving about the actual mechanics involved.
  3. Instrumentality
    1. When we're hungry, we eat and eat and eat. And no one bats an eye. The same thing with sleep. Stuff that's useful isn't often seen as dangerous.

Of course, not everything can be a Skinner Box because then the word loses its meaning. The above is a first attempt to tease out exactly what makes something more on one side of the boundary than another.