Gloomhaven And The Skinner Box

As I mentioned in my first impression, Gloomhaven is remarkable not necessarily because it’s particularly innovative, but because it seems to do everything it wants to do better and more correctly than any other game in the genre. The cardplay is both simple to learn and full of interesting strategic decisions. The game scales to player count and difficulty better than any other game of its type that I’ve seen.

But as I play it more, I’ve been struck by how well Childress has been able to layer into the campaign so many different reward structures that make me want to continue playing. Given that it’s a legacy game you’re obviously going to be incentivized to find out what’s in the boxes and envelopes you haven’t accessed yet, but Gloomhaven runs with the concept of discovery and incorporates it into every aspect of the game.

On the macro level you want to discover the story, which you do by completing missions, which unlock more missions (which involves stickering a map board–there’s that tactile reward). Each mission might have hidden surprises like treasure chests to discover. You might unlock new events that happen during your travels, or discover a new enemy type you haven’t seen before. On a character level you want to meet your retirement goal. But you also want to level up and get more powerful. During each mission you might move towards accomplishing one or more of those things. You might also advance the prosperity of the town of Gloomhaven, unlocking more items to purchase at the shop with the money you gain through missions. Money is gathered by looting or ending a turn on its space, which encourages potentially anti-cooperative behavior. Similarly, secret mission objectives reward your character with perks for meeting a goal within each mission.

Stratified throughout every bit of Gloomhaven is a reward and discovery incentive that drives one to keep playing and keep unlocking new stuff. I love it, but it got me thinking about how games create an addictive quality to them. So let’s talk about Skinner boxes.

Two Types Of Conditioning

In psychology there are two main types of “conditioning”. Pavlov, who you might have heard of, worked with what’s called classical conditioning. He found that he could create involuntary reactions with animals–the famous example being that he conditioned some dogs to salivate at the ring of a bell after associating that bell with the delivery of food. This is an involuntary response to outside stimuli.

Operant conditioning deals with voluntary responses. A lot of the work on this was done by B.F. Skinner, who tested extensively with rats. The box would have a button inside, and he would test how frequently the rats would press the button when different positive or negative stimuli followed the pressing of the button. Long story short, he found that, as you’d expect, positive stimuli caused the button to be pressed more, and negative stimuli caused avoidance. Now, there’s a lot of interesting, groundbreaking psychological stuff that I’m sure I’m glossing over here, but the most interesting part to me is that he found that a “variable ratio schedule” caused the most obsessive button-pressing behavior.

What does that mean? Well, if you were going into this kind of experiment blind, you might think that a situation where the rat gets food when it presses the button would result in the most presses. If you thought about it more, you might realize that if you distributed the food every, say, 3 presses of the button, the rat would realize that (however a tiny rat brain can realize something), and you’d get more button presses per food unit. Play around with that and you could probably achieve a maximum ratio for that fixed schedule plan. But what Skinner found is that a variable ratio schedule works best. That means that the food will be dispensed after an uncertain (but somewhat guided) number of presses. I’m not entirely sure on the details, but maybe there’s a random chance each time and a guaranteed reward after a certain number of presses. But the point is that the reward will come out, but the rat doesn’t know exactly when.

It turns out that this kind of behavior charts over to people straightforwardly. We tend to do repeatable tasks with more frequency and regularity when there is a reward schedule with some uncertainty. This makes more intuitive sense when you think about the kinds of machines that utilize that kind of reward structure: namely, slot machines. They’re designed to give a reward, and you know that eventually they will, but you don’t know when.

In the non-casino gaming sphere, Skinner box principles have become somewhat of a hot-button issue. Loot boxes in video games operate more or less like slot machines. You can pay for them, and they have variable rewards based on rarity. So if you’re looking for something you don’t already have, you will eventually get that item, but you don’t know how many boxes (and how much money) it’ll take. Countries are now considering treating loot boxes as a form of gambling (in an effort to regulate it more). Mobile and browser games also utilize Skinner box principles in another way, by having the games themselves hook the players through variable reward outputs, then creating barriers to continue without paying money, waiting a certain amount of time, or harassing friends on facebook.

I had always heard about operant conditioning in this negative light, even when it was mentioned in the context of games that a lot of people like, such as the Diablo or Borderland series (not to mention MMOs). Those games may be compelling, but they still hook players through frequent rewards with randomized payouts. And it’s not hard to see why it’s portrayed negatively. When you continually get rewarded for repeated action, it sends positive chemicals to your brain that reinforce that action. It’s a type of addiction.

Where’s The Line?

But at what point does utilizing operant conditioning become bad? At what point do we stop saying that a game is engaging and begin saying that it’s addicting? Because, while I’m not a psychologist, I can’t find anything in my research that says that there’s a categorical difference somewhere along the line where it switches. How we judge operant conditioning in games seems to be entirely about other factors, rather than the psychological mechanism.

Look at it this way: a good story will keep readers engaged through what I think is the same kind of conditioning. We don’t know when something exciting or new or intriguing will pop up in the story, but they’re dispersed semi-randomly and it certainly seems to me that a good page-turner will do exactly that. Of course, you can enjoy other qualities of the book on top of just the story beats. The way the author uses words or stimulates the imagination can be engaging in isolation from the plot. Or think of a video game with looting that isn’t quite as much of a loot-fest as Diablo. There’s a thrill in seeing what’s around the next corner, and the occasional rare or unique item will keep you playin to see what’s next. I think by most people’s standards the difference between that being a cheap ploy or a rewarding experience will depend upon the quality of the rest of the game. In other words, operant conditioning isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but we judge it harshly when it’s used in bad games.

Back to Gloomhaven. There’s so much subtle, interesting operant conditioning in this game and I think it’s kind of brilliant. Your progression as a character is somewhat stable–you know generally how much XP you’re going to get on a mission, but that’s also highly dependent on if you win the mission. There are treasure chests on nearly every mission that give rewards of varying excitement. Each mission will usually also have some kind of additional reward for completing it successfully–new missions unlocked, achievements, items, or gold are all possibilities. Even within each battle you’re revealing cards from a deck to see your attack modifier–a deck that you modify as your character gets stronger.

Gloomhaven is filled with little pockets of surprise like that. Bits of randomness that function exactly like a variable ratio reward schedule pepper the game, even though the action itself is driven by player decisions. Generously, it lets you see your entire deck of action cards from the start, making you think through all of the possible combinations of actions you could do not only on the present turn, but on future turns. The amount of strategy in Gloomhaven dwarfs many of its peers, and the variety of characters available to play is absolutely wonderful.

But I’m not here to write another review, I’m here to make a point. Utilizing operant conditioning to make your game more addictive doesn’t seem to be a problem in and of itself. Now I’m not a psychologist and maybe I don’t understand a nuance of this idea that would create a bright-line between addictive and engaging game mechanisms, but the difference seems to be the quality of the game around it. If you can create a strategic, thoughtful gameplay experience while also keeping players engaged and wanting to come back to the game again and again, I don’t see how that isn’t exactly what you want to do with a game design. Gloomhaven nails it.

I have deliberately omitted discussing CCG’s, which use operant conditioning as part of their sales model. I’ll save that for a future article.

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2 thoughts on “Gloomhaven And The Skinner Box”

  1. I like your analysis a lot and agree that, consciously or not, Gloomhaven is using operant conditioning about as effectively as a board game possibly could. Its massive scale helps, as well … there is plenty of room to allow for gaps in-between larger rewards, as well as a wide diversity of the types of rewards attainable on a session-by-session basis. My one question to you, seven months after your first impression article, is do you feel that the narrative has held up for you over time? I love the way city and road events get added and removed from the deck based upon decisions, and that even the same events will have different outcomes for every group (based on, among other things, party composition and reputation). So unlike, say, Pandemic Legacy, which has surprises which are largely identical in chronology and in-game consequences for everyone who plays it, my party’s Gloomhaven experience may look very different from someone elses, even within the confines of the main storyline. My group has not gotten to our first retirement yet, and we eye the Town Record booklet (which can’t be opened until then) with anticipation and we wonder whether and how it will change the game. I suppose that’s the whole idea…

    PS. I also love the idea of one “mystery” where you completely control when it is revealed, which creates with it a whole different set of interpersonal dynamics. We have not yet succumbed to the “open this envelope when you feel you deserve it” temptation, but after every scenario it creates a robust (and entertaining debate). Fantastic.

    1. Honestly I haven’t been particularly impressed by the story elements too much so far. But the game itself has held up tremendously and all the little rewards–treasures and new encounters and new items–are certainly keeping my interest. I wouldn’t downgrade the score I gave in my first impression but I do want to see if the story elements still get better. I think I’m about 25-30 scenarios in, and my group has retired two characters. We’re not going to open the mystery package until all 4 of our primary characters retire, though it’s been tempting to cheat.

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