A Behaviorist’s Take on Far Cry 5

Far Cry® 5 (3).png

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.

Far Cry® 5 (2)

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.

Far Cry® 5

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.

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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.

Extra Life Donation Link

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.

Image Credits:

Christian Sawyer, M.Ed., BCBA (original Photography/Screenshots)

Steam. http://www.steam.com- Far Cry 5 Logo

Tabletop Roleplaying with a Behavior Analyst


There are a vast array of opinions on role playing games. The stereotypes about them are prevalent in the popular culture of movies and televisions shows- mainly depicting the socially inept cliches rolling dice and spouting an incomprehensible language of their own. That type of depiction does get laughs, but it also is unlike anything I’ve seen in reality. I was influenced by those caricatures of role players too. For a long time I did not understand the appeal of piling up in a dark basement, playing a game about pretend people where nothing really mattered and there were so many rules to learn. Where’s the fun in that? It was the wrong outlook, but the right question. There was fun in it. It just took the experience to actually try it out and find it for myself.

Tabletop Role Playing is just a form of collective story telling. If you’ve ever seen a fictional movie and been engrossed in it, or had an idea for a novel, these are the same types of precursor behaviors to putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. There’s a fun to that. Taking on a different personality for a moment, and seeing a viewpoint unlike our own. If we want to get psychological about it, there might be some aspects of Adlerian play theory, or Bandura’s social learning through vicarious reinforcement in there. The gist of it is; one person sets the stage of the story and determines the rules of how the game is played, and the players take on a role and navigate that world for a collective goal (most of the time).

If you’re the type of person who likes making materials like token boards, graphs, or craft projects- this is right in your wheelhouse too.

It’s best to start off as a player before deciding to run your own game. You get to understand group dynamics and how collective story telling works. I was in my 20s when I first started this type of role playing. I started late. I tried a little of everything I could get invited to. Some people like settings with dragons and elves, but that’s not my type of thing exactly. I gravitated towards more realistic settings where interpersonal relationships and psychology was more grounded in humanity. Fictional worlds not too different or fantastic from our own. What I learned quickly is that these games work on Skinnerian principles- many things do, but role playing had a specific feel of reinforcement schedules that was familiar to me. The person who runs the game, sometimes called a referee, sometimes called a DM, sets the scale of what actions are reinforced and what are not.

Sometimes these are fixed reinforcement schedules based on experience: points that are rewarded that can be applied to the characters skills and attributes to make them more proficient, or more hardy to tackle the adventures. A measure of how much the character grows.

Sometimes these reinforcement schedules are variable ratio items: like in-game money, armor for your character, and tools that they can use to tackle different obstacles. A measure of what the character has, or can spend.

The players themselves run into variability by natural consequence; every action they decide to have their character make, if it is a specific skill or difficulty, comes with rolling a die to see if they succeed or fail.

These can be run like any other Skinner box. Compound schedules appear to be the most interesting to players. A fixed ratio that can be expected- perhaps collecting something important for one of the protagonists in a decided location. Or maybe a variable ratio- deciding what foes give up what item or monetary reward for being bested. Some people run their games with combat in mind; every situation is a nail to be beaten down by a well armed adventurer’s hammer. There’s a thrill to that kind of gameplay, but I find that it isn’t compelling enough for me. I prefer to create stories that have the opportunity for danger, but the risk of engaging in combat is sparsely reinforcing and has a greater opportunity for punishment. A live by the sword, die by the sword style of reinforcement schedule. There may be rewards to a quick and brutal choice, but a player can lose their character just as easily. I like using social stories in therapy to develop more adaptive skills. I use that same mindset when designing a game too- why resort to violence when you can talk your way out of trouble?

Say there is a dark concrete room, dim lights, seven enemies outnumber and surround a poorly armed player group. If they choose combat- they would most likely lose. It might work. I would allow it. Let the dice roll and see if they succeed. But more often than not, a clever player can decide to roll their die in a very different way; persuasion. I set the mark much lower for that if they have the right pitch. They make a deal even the most brutal enemy couldn’t refuse. The die is rolled- they win. Now there is one enemy less, and one more temporary friend to the adventure. The other enemies aren’t just going to stick to their hostility- maybe they overheard that, maybe they’re swayed too, maybe this causes division in the enemy group. The player group capitalizes. They play bluff roles. They play intimidation rolls. They play oratory rolls to back their fellow players up with a rousing speech. The tables turn, and now they’re on the side with higher numbers and that piece of the game is won.

That situation is harder to pull off for players. It takes more thought. More coordination. Turn taking. A minute or two to step away from the game, collect their ideas, then bring it back. I’m not trying to run a stressful table here- thinking is allowed. They devise a plan that works better than pulling a sword and pulling a trigger. I reinforce. Experience for “defeating” an entire room. They did after all. “Tangible reinforcers” in game for the characters. They get a bartered deal that they’d never get anywhere else if they’d been violent to these bad guys. Negative reinforcement- they avoid the aversive harm that is revealed to them when they now know- after persuading their enemies- that the enemies outmatched them in hidden weapons. The players used teamwork, not just some haphazard dice throwing about blood and guts. Group bonus. More experience for everyone. Why not? They played the game their way and they played it smart. These were not just four people sitting around a table doing their own random guesses for a quick and easy win, they came together with ideas that I would never have thought up for the story and won it themselves. They changed the story. Now it’s my turn to adjust my ideas to their new role played reality.

Now…It doesn’t always play out that way. Variable reinforcement is a necessity in a game of rolling dice. So is variable punishment. Sometimes the dice roll, and there’s a failure. Or worse- a critical failure! Not only is the prize not won, or the intended action not completed; it was actually a detriment to even try. Players have crashed a car. Blown up a usually harmless household item. Set a pacifist character in the game into a fit of rage and spoiled a whole quest line. That bank vault actually had a skunk in it. It happens. It’s something like a gamble, but when the reinforcement flows heavier than the punishment, it’s all worth it. It evens out. It takes a strong story, it takes a coherent direction and narrative, but the players do all the heavy lifting. They think. They plan. They roll the dice. Everyone has a great time.

You get to see patterns in that. Make it more challenging the next time. More engaging. Take the next story point in a way that you’d never have thought of before.

Let’s not forget that even when the game is done, there’s a friendship there now. People got to know each other a little better. They got to see people they talk to in a different light, more creative to one another, more inventive. Sometimes some playful rivalries come out of it. There’s also a community out there with shared experiences that goes beyond individual play groups and tables. Thousands of other people playing the same game their way. I personally love the community. I have ideas about how to run the game, and run it by others who play the same game but have done it better than me. I adapt. I improve. Sometimes, I even have an idea about how psychosis works in this imaginary world, and reach out to the internet with an interpretation on new rules-….and the creator of the game itself (Maximum Mike Pondsmith) replies.


Talk about fun. Talk about reinforcement. I’ve learned never to underestimate what a good table top roleplaying game can be, or what it can bring to an otherwise ordinary afternoon. If you’ve never tried one? It’s never too late. Groups are out there with every age, every time commitment, and every skill level. Give it a shot. You might just like it.


Questions? Comments? Likes? Leave them below.



Behavioral Science In Video Games

In behavioral science we like to look at things that are concrete and observable. Why do people respond to specific scenarios and stimuli in different ways? How do they differ from one another? How can we adapt what we present in ways that either increase or decrease a person’s responding? These are questions we can apply to our area of interest; Video Games, in order to explore what game designers have put in to their medium to get you hooked and keep you hooked. Video Games require the audience to participate in ways that other art mediums do not. It is the direct responses of the consumer that shape and define their progress through the game and a hallmark trait of video games is using rewards as marks of progress that get people to play longer, increase their own skill at the game, and master objectives that the designers put in place. Let’s discuss some of the behavioral principles that may in play with the games you know and love. See if you can identify these concepts in your own experiences with video games.

Reinforcement vs. Rewards

In behavioral science, we use the word reinforcement to define a consequence that strengthens a future behavior, when presented with the same setting/stimulus (antecedent). When a reinforcer is presented after a behavior, we expect to see the probability of that behavior to go up the next time the person is placed in that situation. It is the foundation of learning and operant behavior. Operant Behavior is a large piece of this conceptual puzzle; it is behavior that has been shaped to serve a purpose in the environment, which has been reinforced in the past. How does this differ from rewards? In gaming of all types, there are rewards. These are pre-set consequences or prizes that follow the completion of specific objectives laid out for the player. Some prizes/rewards are interesting to a player and keep them engaged with the game, and others do not, leading to disinterest or a falloff in responding (playing). What makes a reinforcer different from a reward, is that reinforcers are dependent on the individual’s future responding. When we say reinforcer, we are saying with a degree of certainty that this “reward” has effected behavior before and is preferred by the individual, because it has been shown to have worked in the past. Let’s look at this scenario:

Player 1 must press the circle button when presented with a box in order to break the box and gain a prize (100 points).

If Player 1 presses the circle button and breaks the box, and gets the 100 points, they have been “rewarded”.

If Player 1 presses the circle button and breaks the box, gets the 100 points, and presses the circle button when presented with more boxes in the future, they have been reinforced.

It could be said that 100 points was enough to reinforce the behavior. This effects future playing behavior by pairing a preferred stimulus (the points) with an operant behavior (pressing the circle button) in the presence of the box (antecedent). This is also called the Three Term Contingency.

If game designers want their players to learn certain skills specific to their game, or keep people playing it, they need to focus on casting the widest net of reinforcers, rather than just rewards. Anything can be a reward, but only when it’s considered a reinforcer, will we see players use those skills to progress again and again.

Schedules of Reinforcement:

In the example above, we have a single situation, with a single reinforcer. Games are made up of varied scenarios, competing choices for the player to take, and sometimes we see two types of reinforcement used at the same time. How does that work? Sometimes a player is presented with an opportunity to complete two objectives at the same time. This brings a level of challenging complexity that most players enjoy more than a simplistic single system of reward, because it raises the stakes in terms of what they can receive. Let’s take a look at some simple schedules of reinforcement below:
Fixed Ratio Reinforcement:
In this schedule of reinforcement, we see a set rate of responding met with a set amount of reward. So if a player beats 1 adversary and receives 200 points, this is called a FR1 (fixed-ratio 1) ratio. If a player needs to beat 2 adversaries to receive 200 points, this is called a FR2 ratio, and so on. The benefit of this style of reinforcement schedule is that it is consistent and a player can depend on it. If they can predict the amount of points/rewards they receive for each action, they can match their responding to the amount of reinforcement which satisfies them.
Variable Ratio Reinforcement:
Some people know this schedule of reinforcement from RNGs (Random Number Generators) that are put in games to provide variability, and also for some people, a very strong system of reinforcement. Gambling also runs on this principle. With variable ratio, there is percentage that the response will be rewarded. Unlike the Fixed Ratio, prediction of the reinforcer does not follow a fixed series. The Player must rely on chance, or repetition of responses (for more opportunities) in order to receive a reward. Sometimes this can come in the form of an increase in magnitude of the reward (an adversary sometimes is worth 100 points, but may also be worth 500), or frequency (some adversaries reward points, others do not). As we may expect, the chance to receive a large reward for a standard amount of effort can be a very reinforcing contingency.

Looking at these two schedules, we can expect that both have their respective fans. Some players prefer predictability and something that can be planned for. A specific amount of successful responding would equal an expected amount of reward, every time (Fixed Ratio). Others, enjoy the variability; sometimes even a standard amount of responding could pay off in a huge reward (Variable Ratio). When we combine two or more simple schedules, we get the complex schedules:

If you give the player the option between a Fixed Ratio and a Variable Ratio, we call this a concurrent schedule of reinforcement. It would look something like this:
If a player walks down path A to fight the goblins, they can expect 100 points for each goblin adversary beaten, but if the player goes down path B to fight the birds, there is a variable chance of getting 800 points for each bird beaten. Both of these options are available and do not necessarily reduce the option of pursuing the other. A player could fight the goblins for a little while, then choose to fight the birds. The options are both available, thus concurrent. You see these schedules of reinforcement common in games that allow for free exploration, or multiple avenues to the same objective.

If we give the player both a Variable Ratio and Fixed Ratio at the same time, we call that a superimposed schedule of reinforcement. It would look something like this:
A player is set in a scenario where they had to face both goblin adversaries and bird adversaries at the same time. Each goblin adversary that they beat would reward them 100 points (Fixed Ratio), and each bird adversary beaten would give a chance of getting 800 points (Variable Ratio). These two schedules are now running at the exact same time, and the player has the opportunity to pursue each simultaneously.

These are just a few examples of the type of reinforcement schedules you may come across in games. There are no real limits to how many schedules of reinforcement may run concurrently or superimposed. You could run multiple fixed intervals at the same time (An orange is worth 100 every time, an apple is worth 200 points every time), multiple variable ratios (An orange is sometimes worth 100 points, an apple is sometimes worth 200 points). The possibilities are limitless. There even exist schedules of reinforcement that rely on intervals of time, rather than responding (every 3 minutes you receive 100 points, or sometimes every 10 minutes you receive 100, regardless of what responding the player is engaged in).

It stands to reason, however, that the more schedules which run at the same time, and the more complicated the contingencies of reinforcement, the greater the risk that the player will not understand what responses or choices are actually being reinforced. This may lead to some misattribution, or superstitious responding (responding that has been reinforced by a contingency that did not actually exist). When reinforcement schedules are too complex or not clear, they can create confusion with the players, and result in loss of responding or interest in the game.


Human behavior is not always easily predicted, and even in video games, game designers can create vast systems of intertwined schedules of reinforcement that keep players enthralled for hours, but there may come a point where the expectations of player responding do not match the predictive models. We have to be aware of some of the other factors in behavioral science and research that influence a decrease in responding (playing) or disinterest. Below are just a few of these that we commonly come across in video games.
Punishment: Punishment is a condition where a stimulus is either presented or removed that decreases the probability a behavior would happen in the future. It serves the opposite purpose of reinforcement. It comes in two variations; positive and negative. These terms do not reflect anything “good” or “bad” but rather an addition or subtraction of stimuli which has a marked effect on the decrease of future behavior when given the same (or similar scenarios). In video games, they look something like this:

• Positive Punishment: A player walks in to a hole. That player receives damage. The hole is the presentation of a stimulus, and assuming damage is aversive to this player’s style or goals, they would be much less likely to walk in to it again.

• Negative Punishment: A player buys an overpriced item in an in-game shop. Assuming the player has lost a significant amount of something that was preferred in exchange for something non-preferred, they are not likely to repeat the buying behavior in the future.
S Δ (S-Delta): S-Delta shares a similarity with Punishment in that it does not strengthen or reinforce a behavior or series of responses. An S-Delta is a stimulus that when present, a particular behavior receives no reinforcement. An example of this might be, if a player is used to running down a path to pick up items/points, the hold down the “Run” button to increase their reinforcement. However, if this same behavior was attempted when in the presence of a wall (S-Delta), that behavior of holding the “Run” button would not receive the same reinforcement. Running behavior is not necessarily punished overall, but it is less likely to be used for reinforcement in the presence of the wall.
Ratio Strain: Ratio Strain is a condition where an increase in response is expected, but the reinforcement is not enough to maintain it. An example of this may be, if a player is used to defeating goblins for 100 points, but is then presented with Super Goblins rewarding 100 points which are much more difficult to defeat, the amount of reward is no longer reinforcing enough to maintain the repetition of responding. This can often be solved by raising the amount of reinforcement to match the effort.
Satiation: Satiation is a common modifying condition for human behavior. There comes a point when a specific reinforcer is acquired to the point where it is no longer a reinforcer anymore. An example of this is, if a player is satisfied with having 10,000 points, and achieves 10,000 points, any future accumulation of points would not reinforce the behavior to continue. The reward condition would remain, but it would no longer be considered reinforcing. This may often be solved by allowing some time to pass to the point where that satiation condition is no longer present, or changing reinforcers.
Response Effort: It is the amount of effort a person has to put forward to complete a target behavior. This is not a barrier to playing in itself, but could denote a change in difficulty. So if we are reinforcing the behavior of defeating ghosts or eating dots, the amount of effort may be how fast a person has to respond to obstacles, or the amount of fine motor skill necessary to navigate to the objective. If the amount of effort exceeds what a player can respond to, we can say the response effort has been set too high to be reinforced.
The Social Factor

We would be remiss in ignoring one of the strongest forms of reinforcement that may not necessarily be provided in the game, but the product of success or even the pursuit of playing could give us; social reinforcement. Sometimes players enjoy the thrill of competition (competitive multiplayer), others enjoy jolly cooperation (cooperative multiplayer). Many find strong reinforcement in sharing their experiences (streaming), or showing off completed objectives (trophies/completion). Bringing other people in to the experience of interacting with video games is by no means a new prospect, but quantitatively measuring social reinforcement in video games is still very much an avenue of research worth pursuing. Some examples that game designers may be able to follow to collect that data may be; how many times multiplayer aspects are utilized, the duration of multiplayer aspects to their game, viewership in streamed media, and of course, consumer demands for specific social aspects that would be feasible in a game. There may also be examples where developed games rely too much on external social reinforcement without providing sufficient contingencies of their own within the game’s design.

Balancing it all

Video Games are rich examples of how human behavior interacts with digital entertainment, and the concepts above are just the tip of the iceberg. Some games employ one or two of those concepts, others employ complex systems of intentional reinforcement and punishment. With different generations we have seen popular features rise and fall but all seem to follow the basic principles; objectives, responses, and rewards. Reading this, you may have some ideas on some other phenomena that might have an effect on the relation between video game and human. The concepts above is in no way exhaustive, but it’s a topic we may be able to explore a deeper in the future. Leave comments below with your thoughts, theories, and opinions.

  • Fantino, Edmund; Romanowich, Paul. (2007) THE EFFECT OF CONDITIONED REINFORCEMENT RATE ON CHOICE: A REVIEW. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior
  • Pipkin, Claire St Peter; Vollmer, Timothy R (2007). APPLIED IMPLICATIONS OF REINFORCEMENT HISTORY EFFECTS. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis.
  • Skinner, B. F. (1953). SCIENCE AND HUMAN BEHAVIOR. New York: Free Press.
  • Skinner, B.F. (1938). THE BEHAVIOR OF ORGANISMS. D. Appleton & Company.

Photo Citations:

  1. “Dark Souls 3” – Ethan Russel
  2. “Mario” -Freeimages.com
  3. “Pacman”- Freeimages.com
  4. “Arcade”-Freeimages.com