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megpie71: Impossibility established early takes the sting out of the rest of the obstacles (Impossibility)
Saturday, April 2nd, 2016 09:59 am
For those who are confused about the title, a Skinner Box is a piece of behavioural psychology experimental equipment - basically it's a box with a button (or lever), and slot by which a reward is delivered (usually food). You put an animal such as a pigeon or a rat in there, and the original experiment was to find out what worked to get the animal to push the button on a consistent basis. Turns out inconsistent reward is the secret to getting the most consistent button pushing.

This knowledge has been put to good use by the designers of various flash-based and mobile games (not to mention the designers of slot machines and other such gambling games) for human use. You keep the pigeon pushing the button, and hint the frequency of the reward might be greater if they, for example, prime the pump by contributing a few extra dollars, and voila! You have a money-making machine right there.

I decided in a fit of boredom to get involved with a couple of different Skinner box style games over the course of the Easter weekend. One of them I'm still playing, the other I've largely left alone. The games were the Android version of Marvel Avengers Academy (AA), and the browser game GoodGame Big Farm (BF).

Now, both of these games require you to click on things and set events in motion, and then wait a certain amount of time for those events to complete, then collect your reward. Some events are fairly fast - two to three minutes. Others can be eight to ten hours long. In both cases, you can speed up the progress of whatever you're doing by purchasing the in-game premium currency (Infinity Shards in AA, Gold in BF) and using that to fast-forward through things. Of course, in both games, the premium currency is given out in dribs and drabs as a reward for gaining enough experience to go up a level (about 4 shards per level in AA, about 50 gold per level for BF) but you can get access to more by spending real-world currency to purchase the premium currency through their store.

(The stores largely sell this currency for round amounts of US dollars. I'm not in the USA, and the Australian dollar is not doing too well against the US dollar at present. Plus I'm on the dole, which means my spare income is not so much minimal as non-existent. I haven't been seriously tempted by either of them).

The reward for completing tasks is usually the in-game standard currency (or something you can sell to receive the in-game standard currency in BF), and possibly a few collectible bibs and bobs which go toward helping your heroes get some special character or perform some special action. In AA, you can get textbooks (which help you acquire new characters) or Pym Particles (which help you clean up the debris on new areas so you can place more buildings and create more facilities), as well as whichever bits of tat (I've seen Jetpack upgrades and Asgardian jewellery so far) are required to get your new character on side. In BF, you get various collectible bits and pieces which can help with generating collective missions, or earning various bits and pieces to decorate your farm. The rate at which you get these things is inconsistent and hard to predict (although the tasks which take longer will tend to drop more), and there's the "inconsistent reward" part of the Skinner box.

Now, of the two, I find I'm much more comfortable with AA - I can set my characters to doing something that will take 30 minutes, 2 hours, 4 hours, 8 hours, and just switch the tablet off (or set it to charge, which takes about 5 hours) or go to sleep, and check back in again when I have a bit of a break and pick up my rewards. There's only been one time-limited task (recruiting Pepper Potts as Rescue - and for that one, you pretty much had to spend real cash to buy shards, because the in-game time limits weren't achievable[1]) in the game so far, and that means there's no pressure to be constantly checking every few hours. It isn't anxiety-making, and for me, that's a good thing.

BF, by contrast, is one time-limited short-term task after another after another, and to meet the goals for those tasks, you pretty much have to be sitting and watching your farm constantly, and calculating whether or not you're going to be able to meet the goals they're setting. I got to the point where my mood was suffering (I have depression with co-morbid anxiety, which means anything which makes me anxious triggers the depression) and where I was starting to feel stressed out by the pressure of keeping up with the game. To the point where I wound up making a folder specifically for the bookmark for the game so it wasn't sitting there in my "visited often" list reproaching me. I'm tempted to head back to it today, but I doubt I will. The game is, for me at least, a worse time-sink than TV Tropes, and RationalWiki combined, and it doesn't leave much time around the edges of things for doing anything else. I don't know about other people, but I have a life outside my web browser.

The other big difference for me is AA has another source of inconsistent reinforcement - it has an interesting storyline, which gets advanced when you perform certain tasks, and which acts as the equivalent of an ongoing serial. So I find it's easy to get into a routine with that game - log in, collect the rewards from the last lot of tasks, catch up with whichever new bits of story have been generated by those, do the easy (short-term) tasks for each character (and pick up rewards as available), then get them going on the longer-term stuff (prioritising who gets to do what if there's a clash). It's also worth noting if you have the same activity on multiple quests, you only have to do it once - so if, for example, I have Tony Stark required to get in repulsor practice on the firing range for two different quests, provided I've opened both quests, one fifteen-minute bout of repulsor practice will get the job crossed off on both. So if, for example, I have Black Widow required to research at the Archives for two hours for three different quests, while Tony Stark is required to do archive research for eight hours for one, Black Widow gets priority.

So, of the two games, I'd argue for me, Avenger's Academy is the more successful Skinner Box, in that it'll keep me coming back in the long term. I don't mind the long waits between each activity, and I also don't mind the slow pace. The storyline is enough to keep me going for now. Big Farm, by contrast, is a bit too frenetic and busy for my liking - the rewards aren't worth the stress of constantly pushing the buttons.

[1] Once I realised this, I stopped worrying. Establishing a task as impossible always makes things a lot easier.