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RESEARCH BLOG #6: Operant Conditioning in Video Games

Operant Conditioning is the learning process in which an action’s consequences or rewards determine the likelihood that the action will be repeated in the future. It is based on reinforcement and punishment as well as repetition. Positive stimuli equals reinforcement, and reinforcement increases the likelihood that the behavior will be repeated; negative stimuli equal punishment, and increases the likelihood that the behavior will not be repeated. Both learning outcomes are based on repetition of the negative or positive stimuli in response to an action (Gazzaniga, et al). When users are playing a game, like Coasterville, for example, virtually stars, coins, fireworks, and confetti overload the screen when the player accomplishes a goal or clicks an interactive item. This is positive reinforcement. These starts, coins, fireworks, and confetti are the positive stimuli. It triggers the player’s pleasure centers, provides reinforcement, and encourages them to keep clicking for more. Games work on punishment as well. In traditional console games, like Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros. and Donkey Kong Country for example, when a player’s character ran off the edge of a cliff, they fell off into nothingness and died. The turn was over. The player had to restart the entire board. They were so disappointed. Yet it also encouraged the fact, because they wanted to keep playing, that they wouldn’t ever run off a cliff again—that next time they played that part of a level, they remembered not to go that way. Falling off the cliff—the negative stimuli— and ending a turn—the punishment— ultimately with repetition, encourages the player to play better, stronger, faster, smarter.

Zynga—Facebook’s highest grossing gaming application developers— do a great job of making their games work on the bases of Operant Conditioning; their games are designed to provide players with immediate early and immediate rewards which encourage longevity of play. With every new action, something more is unlocked, and the player’s progression is displayed in the form of virtual currency of various kinds, prompting additional action. The immediacy of feedback plays a major role in the success of a Zynga game’s playability. Rather than the game stopping and waiting for the player to activate it, like on traditional PC and console games, Facebook applications continue working while the player is away. For example, on Coasterville, players can still receive items and requests from friends while away, and they can see that a certain ride will take “14 hours” to build; once they’ve started to build it, they know that in that actual time frame, they can go back on to see the completed virtual results of their gaming progress overnight without doing anything at all.

Also, once player’s parks have been established, expansion of it depends on the player returning to play. Of course by this point, they’re hooked. If players want to expand their park’s boundaries to fit another coaster now, they need x amount of supplies, but to get those supplies, they need to “order them” from the park’s vendors, and the “order” takes “2 hours” to arrive. It takes more and more. The initial, immediate rewards are highly stimulating, but it takes playing and doing more and more to achieve that same level of stimulation as game-play progresses.


Gazzaniga, Micahel, Todd Heatherton, and Diane Halpern. “Psychological Science.” New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012. 3-46. Print.



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