Gabriel Profile picture
Jun 26, 2018 12 tweets 3 min read Twitter logo Read on Twitter
I think I've figured out the underlying mechanism behind Skinner Boxes. Turns out compulsively pulling a lever is the result of a survival skill and fundamental building block of general intelligence. Furthermore, ALL games are gambling. Here's why:
#gamedev #showerthoughts
As a game designer and realist, my interest is understanding how things work. For the last two weeks I've been on a thought journey that began at loot boxes, went through matchmaking systems and ended in the realization of what the mind is actually trying to do.
Gambling is generally defined as involving money. This is wrong. Money has value arbitrarily, and anything can be defined as having value. Games are great at assigning value to new symbols, e.g. ladder points and different gear rating. Gambling is an intelligence process.
The key is variable outcomes and an expectation to influence them. When you start a new level or begin a PvP match you don't know what's going to happen. Even in deterministic games like Chess, there is a set of outcomes--explicit and emergent--you hope to influence.
Explicit outcomes are victory/defeat, coins, ladder points and anything that is tokenized and earned. Emergent outcomes include learning a new mechanic or tactic, winning with a particular set of constraints or someone being an asshole in the chat.
Flipping a coin isn't fun. Neither is Tic-tac-toe once you learn how to play. To a new player, a game system looks like chaos. Your brain is trying to find the outcome-maximizing pattern. Fun is the process of transforming chaos into pattern to maximize positive outcome.
The trouble with matchmaking, and why it often feels so un-fun, is because regardless of your skill the system is trying to produce an even match. If the outcome is all you care about, it's been statistically reduced to a coin flip. To enjoy PvP look for outcomes other than W/L.
Non-game apps are also designed to provide variable outcomes, with complex systems that offer optimizable patterns: Tinder, Instagram, Twitter, chat rooms, etc. This is why they are fun and addicting. There are even "loot box" youtube videos now.
Loot boxes have been vilified recently. But, they are merely explicit in their design. Complex game systems, such as those in <your favorite game>, while fun (as defined above), are just an exercise in chance--gambling. Hating on loot boxes while playing other games is hypocrisy.
When I was young I remember seeing rats play basketball at the museum of technology. It's amusing, but it's a Skinner box with more complex rules, and yet that seems better. Our set of expected outcomes may differ, but I believe we play games for the same reason as those rats.
The rat pulls the lever because it's the only action available. It needs the food to survive and the faster it pulls, the more is generated. The pattern is optimized--It's figured out the rules of a very simple game.
I hope to make better games with this in mind. That is what I am optimizing for, but perhaps the set of outcomes is greater than that.

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