Leveling up. New items. High scores. New abilities. Upgrades. These game mechanics have a seductive allure known all to well to those of us who play video games.
A featured article at Game Informer explores this fascinating subject.
A few paragraphs in, a minor but significant error is made, taken from no less an expert than a Ph.D. psychologist who describes the mechanics as classical conditioning - immediately bringing to mind for many Pavlov and his famous salivating dogs.
However, game mechanics are an example of operant conditioning, not classical conditioning. Classical conditioning (also known as respondent conditioning) describes unlearned behavior (the behavior itself) elicited by the environment, i.e. salivating, eye blinking, sneezing, etc. and isn't affected by what comes after. Operant conditioning, however, is learned behavior (classes of responses) that is evoked by the environment and either punished or reinforced depending on what follows the behavior (i.e. reaching for cookies because they were delicious, or playing "just one more level" to get a special item.
This is an intermittent schedule, in particular a variable ratio schedule, the schedule that evokes the highest rate of responding across all organisms. Other schedules: fixed ratio, fixed interval, or variable interval all have lower levels of responding, whether you are a pigeon, dog or human.
What's fascinating is that operant behavior - which encompasses most everything we do, including our thoughts, does not need to be conscious. We can learn to be aware of our behavior, but we generally can't really be aware of all aspects of the schedule of reinforcement of which the behavior is a function. For example, we can only be vaguely aware of how pleasurable or painful an activity is, but a fuller account needs a high level of data collection (time, behaviors emitted, topography of stimulus, history of reinforcement, etc.). We can, however, make predictions, alter our environments and design rules for ourselves to follow.
A tad unfortunate that the psychologist on hand muddled the subject a bit. It may have been sloppy wording, but my suspicion is that his mistake is emblematic of a larger problem in which behaviorism is relegated to an important, yet minor "school of thought" in psychology. Skinner is taught somewhere after Pavlov, alongside Watson, and then passed over for Bandura, Piaget, and the ever-luminous Freud. This is an unfortunate, because in casting aside Skinner's work, including him among other "interesting" but unscientific and subjective, hypothetical (in behaviorism we call them "mentalistic") models, our power to not only define human behavior but to truly understand what creates and shapes it is sacrificed. Far from being an outdated "perspective", behaviorism is a hard science, and underlies everything we do.
So why isn't radical behaviorism, nearly seventy years after its development, embraced more fully outside a narrow clinical application of its principles in work with special needs populations, if it is such a fundamental description of why 7 billion humans do what they do?
Applied Behavior Analysis (the contemporary name for behaviorism), rooted in the philosophy of radical behaviorism, is complex. It requires a relatively lengthy period of study to begin to fully appreciate. It is also the case that one's own preconceptions about the nature of the "mind", human nature, and free will are challenged by the evidence. To accept radical behaviorism is to accept a materialist, deterministic, parsimonious, empirical account of human behavior, i.e. why we do what we do. This sets up a situation in which those who have not spent considerable time studying behaviorism likely do not understand it very well, and will fail to appreciate its power. Furthermore, they will not have come into contact with its salient features, namely hard evidence that overturns conventional wisdom held not only by the general public, but of many other areas of psychology.
Skinner described human behavior as a process of cultural selection, operating similarly to biological evolution evolution. In the Darwinist account, certain phenotypes are created, but then selected for by the environment, which allows certain traits to pass on generationally and others to die off. With behavior, certain behaviors are reinforced by the environment, causing them to occur again or more frequently, while others are punished, causing them to stop or occur less frequently. Just as the environment is a constant pressure on biological evolution (food, water, availability of mates, shelter, etc.), so too is cultural selection in the form of determining which behaviors will survive and which will fade away.
The theory of evolution is now over 150 years old, and although widely embraced by scientific and reasonable people, it's detractors still object to it on the grounds that it is incompatible with an intelligent designer, or God. Religious compatibilists such as the Catholic church, argue instead that God can still be present, in that he merely "got the whole thing going". I'm not sure if that makes much sense when you really think about it, especially in the context of their larger Christian doctrinal exegesis, but good on them.
The parallels with radical behaviorism are striking. Where evolution seems to kick God out of the equation, making biological selection possible through an entirely naturalistic, deterministic process, behaviorism seems to kick Man out of the equation in a similar sense, making cultural selection possible through an entirely materialist process as well. Where religious objections stem from a fear that their beliefs become nullified, objections to behaviorism also seem to arise out of fear: that their belief in the mind becomes nullified.
Just as religion looms old as history itself, and in this manner seemingly self-evident, so too does the notion of man's free will and self-determination. But both are a subtle matter of framing. A religious man looks around him and says, how could all of this come about without a masterful God? So to the free-will romantic looks within himself and says, how can I not be in control of my actions?
But as we began to understand the mechanics of atoms, fundamental forces and laws, so too were we able to see the universe as able to give rise to the astonishment we see around us merely through materialistic interactions. We then began to realize that our assumptions were themselves the product of cultural histories and particular to our time and place. As Pavlov began to discover the two-term contingency: connections between reflexive responses and environmental stimuli, and Skinner began to discover the three-term contingency: connections between our responses, environmental stimuli, and the probability of future responding, we can now see that the universe gives rise as well not only to our actions but our thoughts.
I think in many ways it has been easier for people to accept biological evolution than radical behaviorism. For one thing, the outside world is by definition objective, and much easier to control and manipulate. When you design an experiment to measure rainfall, continental drift, or star formation, no one worries about the ethical considerations. But when you begin to think about testing and controlling human populations, people naturally get spooked. And the cultural context for scientific paradigm shifts can't be understated. Radical behaviorism was literally being developed at the same time millions of Jews were being sent to gas chambers in Europe as a "scientific solution" to social problems; the rise of communism was building entire states on the notions of mass population control and social engineering.
But Nazism no more disproves the theory of evolution than totalitarianism disproves radical behaviorism. Sure, it raises some very urgent questions about how we structure our society. But at the same time, from a behaviorist perspective, so does the romantic notion of free-will. The difference is that the former is based in science, the latter on intuition and cultural tradition.
Video game makers and casinos aren't concerned with whether we accept it or not. They simply do what works. The choice for us is whether we want to be aware of why we respond in the ways we do, so that we might at least have a clear-eyed perspective on the world we live in, or whether we would rather dismiss the science in favor of what we would prefer to believe in. The stakes go far beyond video games. The principles of behaviorism shape every behavior we engage in, and describe how our behavior will be determined by our public institutions, our economy, our schools, our courts, and most directly, our intimate relationships. Every problem we have in life involves, by definition, a human behavior that is located within a complex environmental system of selection. The key to knowing ourselves, and our world, lies in understanding this process.