Operant Conditioning

Way back in a simpler time (mid-20th century) a man named B.F. Skinner came across regimental experimentation by giving his rats less food pellets for every time they hit a lever, to save food and money.

A lot of the time in game design, people come across magnificent processes for design (like B.F. Skinner did for psychology) that they don’t quite understand (unlike B.F. Skinner) or exploit properly.

Coming across a process or a design that people find desirable often doesn’t go far enough these days.

Operant conditioning is the process of giving rewards or results for effort either over a certain amount of time, or actions. This is pivotal to good game design; in a lower-level examples it’s incredible important to level and systems design. As an example, when teaching a player a mechanic, making them go through a specific amount of actions for a reward, or making them expect that reward following a certain amount of gameplay, is dire.

Take this into account: you’re designing a game that has a player move continuously to the right direction, and you increase speed the longer you stay alive, with a single player input – press the button to go up, release to go down. Now, you have to add in rewards/pick-ups – coins. Let’s assume you already have kill volumes in the game (sections of the game that kill the player.)

What would you do to make sure that the player is feeling rewarded for surviving and self-taught in their eventual mastery? In this case, something called “interval contingencies” are perfect. Interval contingencies are rewards/results that are given over a specified amount of time, or within a range of time passed.

Solution: give them a row of coins in a straight pattern (just taller than their character’s hit-box) every 4-8 second. Why larger than their hit-box? You should not give them (in this case) the realistic opportunity of acquiring everything on the game stage (if you do there’s no next attempt at getting all of them) although it should always feel possible.

This is an example of operant conditioning, a process that many professional designers (game, level, or systems) use on a daily basis, and makes a clear distinction between those without jobs, and those with.

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