Forewarning to the regular readers; I’m talking about video games today. In particular, a fantastic action-adventure game I was turned on to by friends called Far Cry 5. That’s not an entire truth; I’ve played the predecessors too, but this one stands out to me narratively because it has a story based around social control. As a Board Certified Behavior Analyst, I’m drawn to these things. Imagine a world not so different from ours, where a doomsday religious cult takes control of a part of Montana and spreads a violent vision across the state corrupting the citizens to the new lifestyle of brutalization and indoctrination. That calls for a hero right? That’s the game. The thing that makes this interesting to a behaviorist is how it uses those social forces in-game to create fictional forms of coercion that in many ways matches the existing psychological science of conditioning. I like this game. It’s complex, it’s fun, and I’m going to be testing myself in its new Infamous difficulty mode over the next two weeks and during Extra Life to rack up some more donations for the local children’s miracle network hospital near me (link here and below). I’ll also try to keep spoilers beyond the psychological methodology to a minimum, Let’s get on to the psychology.
In the game, there are several bosses who control section of the map. Each of them represents a different form of that control. Spoiler alert. But honestly, no large reveals here. Joseph Seed is the big boss. He’s a sort of preacher borrowing from several religious traditions to deliver his idea on a “collapse” of society and a vision for a simpler future. He relies on a group/mob mentality, social reinforcement (a semi-Bandura style of vicarious punishment) and a form of authority that borrows from his own charisma and the religious texts he cites. Not too out of the ordinary. His doomsday cult also employs sub-bosses. John, a former lawyer, who is obsessed with having his devotees say YES, and uses similar group and social coercion. Faith, who uses a toxic mix of drugs called Bliss to create hallucinogenic induced indoctrination. Believable to a degree. Then, there’s my favorite and the reason for this post; Jacob. Jacob is a little different. He’s said to have a soldier’s background, but he uses a method of conditioning, which he refers to as a basic classical conditioning, with a substance (drug) related assistance. This puts his subjects into murderous rages/trances when he plays the song “Only You” by The Platters. He tries to make his method sound simple. He tries to make you believe it’s just simple stimulus pairing through classical conditioning.
Jacob does abhorrent experiments with these methods on both animals and humans, causing devastation and treachery across the part of the story. It’s very tragic. The thing is…he’s not just using classical conditioning. Conditioned stimulus with a conditioned response? Not quite. There’s more to it. He tries to explain his method several times and even uses the standard definition of classical conditioning to describe how he creates these diabolical effects, but when we look at the practice there’s a sinister amount of complexity that he leaves out. This fictional boss Jacob might think that it’s simply food deprivation, a song, practice in his chairs/training chambers that do it; but he’s selling himself short. He’s actually using both classical conditioning and operant conditioning. That fiend.
Jacob’s Classical Conditioning
It might surprise you, but Jacob didn’t invent this form of conditioning. It actually has its origins with a researcher named Ivan Pavlov (and also Edward Thorndike) involving the well-known experiment with bells and salivation. There we see the pairing of a conditioned stimulus with an unconditioned response. Basic stimulus-response psychology. Now, in this fictional world of Far Cry 5, the bad guy Jacob references these things, and even Pavlov (“Pavlovian”) once or twice. I think narratively, it makes sense. He’s training killers. He sees his conditioned stimulus (a song) and their response (murderous rages) to be synonymous with that process. Except… when we look at the training, it’s not that clean. There are parts that seem to follow this method; mainly that he is engaging in a stimulus pairing procedure that works on a learned behavior change for the individual. The environmental event (or stimulus) precedes the response he is looking for. That makes sense too. Even the cutscenes play out the process correctly! We assume the original neutral stimulus “Only You” by The Platters does not lead to murderous rages to an ordinary person. He needs to make that connection happen in his victims by pairing stimulus and response. Jacob pairs that neutral stimulus, with an unconditioned stimulus (threat, through some form of a hallucinogenic and visual process), to elicit an unconditioned response (attack). Then, following this, he presents the newly paired conditioned stimulus (“Only You” song) to elicit the newly conditioned response (attack). Makes sense, right? Somewhat. But look at the training methods a little deeper and we get some complexity. He has the stimuli he wants available. He has the song. He has the wolf pictures, and the predatory images of wolves killing deer, but he also adds something else in… Reinforcement and Punishment during his trials.
Operant Conditioning through Discrete Trial Training (DTT)
The reason I like the Jacob missions so much is that they do use real-world conditioning methods. They just undersell them a little. Jacob, the big bad guy I hated through two playthroughs of this game, uses both classical conditioning and operant conditioning to make his process work. Also, some fictional drugs and hallucinogenics, but let’s focus on what we know. Operant Conditioning is different from Classical Conditioning (or “Pavlovian Conditioning”) in one major way; it focuses on the ability of the subject to respond in a specific way, followed by a reinforcer in order to increase the frequency of that behavior or shape it towards a targeted goal. When someone mentions B.F Skinner, or Skinner Boxes, this is the type of conditioning they are talking about. Again, MINOR SPOILERS. Jacob does that to our character the first time he catches us. It’s not just the classical conditioning process of the song to the natural response of attacking when threatened. He trains our character to make that stimulus and response relationship stronger, and introduce faster and more vicious shaped behaviors to the repertoire of the character. It’s tragic. It’s sad. But his method is theoretically sound. You see, he uses what we behaviorists call Discrete Trials. The situation for each trial is exact. The Discriminative Stimulus (SD) to set it off is the same each time. Here is where the operant part comes in. The character is tasked with eliminating all enemies using the provided weapons, in an interval time frame, to complete the task and receive reinforcement for the chained behaviors. This follows the three-term contingency known as A-B-C. Antecedent. Behavior. Consequence. Let’s break it down.
(ANTECEDENT) aka Discriminative Stimulus- “Only You” Song, and visual presentation of threat-related stimuli.
(RESPONSE) – Eliminating targets.
(CONSEQUENCE)- Added time to the interval to allow for more time to complete the task for further reinforcement, and verbal praise from Jacob in the form of “Good”, “Cull The Weak” etc. This is Reinforcement.
Or… (CONSEQUENCE)- in the form of Punishment. Fail to complete the task by either being killed by enemies, or failing the time interval, and you meet the punishment contingencies of starting over from the beginning, or verbal reprimands in the form of “No”, “You are weak”, “You are not a soldier”, etc.
In other words, Jacob is shaping repertoires. He’s not just pairing behavior. He is creating a series of trained responses, operants if you will, in the presentation of his conditioned stimuli to be completed in a way that he controls. It is the fundamental ingredients of all learning, but he has twisted it a little to make this heroic character fall right into a trap of uncontrollable lapses in judgment and responding in cruel ways that are uncharacteristic or were a part of the character from the start. Chilling, right? But like a rat in a maze, or a box, the character must follow these in order to progress. Press the lever, get the cheese. Shoot the opponents, get the praise and progress.
Meta Game Talk: Conditioning The Players
Let’s talk a little about the big picture here. Yes, Jacob is fictional. Yes, this heroic character is fictional too. But when we look at the game from the lens of how it works on player reinforcement and punishment, we can actually see ourselves in the picture of this box. We are also conditioned, if we choose to play the game and continue to play the game, in a way that shapes and sharpens our behavioral repertoires. The same Discrete Trial Training that Jacob puts our character through, we are also participating in, and are contacting that same reinforcement and punishment as though it were our own (broadly speaking). We want to succeed. We want to continue. We want to win.
So, we get faster. We get more accurate. We learn the patterns. This is why we train. As Jacob has said so many times during these repeated trials. Each time, giving us a little more of a challenge. Each time, progressing us with different response repertoires to enact on the challenges in our way. It’s fun. In some ways, it can be a representation of the game as a whole. There are many reinforcers out there to get. Many contingencies to engage with. Even multiple endings (that’s the part that got me doing it twice).
I learned to shoot through both enemies in the revolver scene from the left. I learned to take the submachine gun in the next room and work from low to high, right, center, to left. For the shotgun, I turned corners with two lefts and one right at head level and tapped at the first sign of movement. For the rifle, I stayed low and aimed in short bursts, leading a clear line through the middle, and for the LMG… well, let’s not give it all away just yet. Your repertoires need honing too, and there are many variations that work.
That’s the fun.
The Behaviorist’s Take:
5/5 Stars for me. This game has been a joy to relax with. It’s challenging, but still can be taken in small parts and missions as time allows. It’s not too much of a time sink for someone on a professional schedule, and not too much of a learning curve for putting half an hour a day in. The story is strong, the emotional bond between the heroic character and the sympathetic (and often funny) people they meet is also a great time. They even let you make your own custom levels and challenges for your fellow players in an Arcade mode. I dig it.
As I mentioned above, this will be my game for the Extra Life 2018 Charity Event taking place the first week of November. I am, believe it or not, the weakest player on my team, but I love talking behaviorism and psychology and will be doing it all day to support the locals in Philadelphia, raising charity funds for the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). I’m not only an outsider fan of their great work with children, I often have direct contact with the children’s hospital in my day to day work with young populations and can’t speak highly enough about their commitment. Extra Life is a legitimate charity, and 100% of the funds go directly to the children’s hospital. I’m leaving my link below and will be overjoyed if readers could contribute in some part to my goal so I can hold my head up high this year. Any amount at all. I’ll be streaming and will be happy to respond to any comments. Have ideas that I missed? I love those. Send those too.
Comments? Like? Questions? Leave them below!
Cooper, John O., Heron, Timothy E.Heward, William L.. (2007) Applied behavior analysis /Upper Saddle River, N.J. : Pearson/Merrill-Prentice Hall
Far Cry 5 [Software]. (2018). Ubisoft Montreal, Ubisoft Toronto.
Christian Sawyer, M.Ed., BCBA (original Photography/Screenshots)
Steam. http://www.steam.com- Far Cry 5 Logo