Yes, Learning Games Can Suck

B.F. Skinner, somewhere around the 1930s, ran all kinds of wild experiments that were absolute game-changers.  Before them, behaviorists and philosophers claimed that we could only condition reactions (*ding* ~Pavlov).  Skinner’s contention was that you could go further and condition volition - and he set out to prove it.  

Check out this video where he conditions a pigeon to do a complete turn.



He called this operant conditioning, a type of learning where behavior is controlled by consequences.

Many of today's games build on Skinner's discoveries.  The G-word (gamifi..yuck I can't finish it...) buckets a ton of initiatives under the 'serious gaming' movement (relabeling Skinner's Box).  The unfortunate thing, is they're also forgetting some of Skinner's key corollaries - the result being underperforming gamified experiences (bullshit detector: shitty games).  

As example, consider that under operant conditioning, rewarding each time is discouraged (did your brain just melt?).  Instead, use active behavior with a random reward.

Pause a minute, and think about this scenario:

You could spend 4-5 hours at the casino playing slots, and (maybe) come out $100 ahead.  You know you could find a job where you punch a button for 4-5 hours and get a steady $100.  Why have you already chosen the casino while reading this paragraph?  Because it's fun.  But do you win each time you pull the slot arm?  

Let's dig more into this while you try to remember where you stowed your green translucent casino visor.

Primary conditioners (still stealing from Skinner here), have a diminishing return once you're satiated - markedly the flesh and bone stuff. Things like food, sex -- you'll typically want less when you’re full or worn.  

Step outside the biological realm though, and you'll see a whole new behavior: think cash and social approbation.  

We're delving into Adam Smith territory, who wrote that we desire "not only to be loved, but to be lovely", that we seek "not only praise, but praise worthiness."  The drive for approbation generates all kinds of incentives - in fact there's no limit (Snapchat as witness).

The smart folks at games companies have been milking this forever; we’re seeing it in LMSes as they cross over to game-based learning too.  They rely on incentive schedules that are tirelessly pulling your levers - hopeful that you'll repeat actions far past their novelty.  

The unfortunate thing, is that their design challenge isn't to craft a great experience: it's to use Skinner's box to author the illusion of engagement.  

Badges, loot drops (random) and leveling are the usual go-tos, and inexperienced designers hope they'll really put the reward chokehold on you.  

"I just need to finish my level."

"I just have to get to the next checkpoint."

"I'm almost done."  

( never really are...)

It's Skinner Box 101, and it's endemic of all these empty experiences.  

Points are the easiest driver for these behaviors. Anything with a clear and manifest reward will have you button-mashing to those three lines above (which is why we've seen such a proliferation of rotten point-badge-and-leaderboard systems). 

Game-based learning vendors gravitate to points for this easy (lazy) reason.

The casino does the same through a different means: infrequent wins. You _believe_ that you're destined to win, and even more crazy, that a particular slot machine is 'due' to pay out (so you'll keep feeding it so that others don't reap what you've 'sown' - if you know math, you know this is nuts).

Are you being gamed? It’s time to catch on; your learners will.

Think outside the box (couldn’t resist)! Engaging and compelling are not words of equal value. Compelling games can actually be quite awful at their core.  

Have you considered mystery (curiosity is one of the most powerful operant rewards), narrative (a great story can prey on the need for closure, or just be plain entertaining), and flow (get learners in the zone)?  

When teaching, remember Skinner's quote:

"Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten."

Park the racing game, and do it right.