Operant Conditioning: How games condition players

Anthony Dennis
11 min readFeb 23, 2020


To present an immediate picture of operant conditioning in action. Allow me to guide you. Have you ever been in this position? A game has been released, and you immediately find yourself infatuated with it. This may be a massive gaming franchise, a simple mobile time sink, or a brand new and creative IP. As the game opens up to you, your interest never wavers. You are constantly jumping into this game over days and weeks.

You begin to plan small parts of your life around this game. This may be for a time-critical event or an in-game action that finishes at an unsociable hour. So you set an alarm. Then before you know it, the game begins to dominate your thought process and supersedes reality’s most pressing issues.

You begin to reach levels much higher than that of your peers on online leaderboards. The in-game rewards become more and more sporadic. Then in a moment of self-awareness, you realize that you are, in fact, not having fun. You begin to wonder how long you haven’t been having fun. Then just like that, this game that dominated your life exits it without a second thought.

The man behind the mind control

Many gamers will be familiar with this trend and may have succumbed to its charms more than once before. So it begs the question, after that moment of self-awareness. Why would the player subject themselves to this again and again? There are many factors at play, of course. Though the particular factor of focus here is ‘operant conditioning.’ A theory made famous by esteemed psychologist B.F Skinner.

He believed that subjects could be conditioned to complete or not complete an action through positive or negative reinforcement, respectively. Skinner tested this through ‘Skinner boxes.’ This would involve a lab rat being taught that by pulling a lever an arbitrary amount of times, that the rat would be rewarded with food.

Alternatively, it would receive an electric shock to negate this activity. One may find operant conditioning similar to that of Pavlov’s dogs being conditioned to associate a bell with food. The difference to remember is that Skinner’s test requires a proactive response from the subject rather than a subconscious reaction.

Although some may think that it is rather sinister to think that this method would be used consciously by developers. It has become clear that it is a popular medium to produce results within game design. Companies have invested millions into research on ways to implement this practice in game development.

Mobile game giant Zynga perhaps being the most notable for investing in the phenomenon. So with this rise to prominence, let’s explore this concept and find out just why we grind beyond the point of fun.

Getting the fish on the hook

It is important to note that through implementing the theory of operant conditioning in gaming development. That the developers’ aim is to increase player attraction and retention. The motivations of gaming developers for using this method may vary. Though ultimately boils down to getting the players in the door and then keeping them there on a long term basis.

Firstly, let’s address attraction. Developers ultimately need to get the player in front of the screen before the psychology can take effect. This is where clever marketing, advertising, aesthetics, and USP are very important. If the game does this adequately, they will have a player base to work with.

Then the task is getting the player invested and constantly returning to the game. Developers do this through rewarding and gratifying the players’ actions repeatedly from the start of gameplay.

Games will make opening tasks easy. They give players all the tools to do these tasks and then reward the player. Usually with items, in game currency or experience points, and level ups for completing said tasks.

This will come in different variations. However, the result remains that the player feels a dopamine rush for their actions. A massive return for minimal effort. Then through this, the player learns to associate completing these tasks with a gratifying feeling of accomplishment.

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What games do this?

There are many examples of games that have used this method in different formats. Games such as EA sports Fifa series that offers in game packs for completing routine tasks. Simple tasks such as play one game or score one goal.

Another is Farmville, a game that offers the players the opportunity to complete tasks in rapid fashion. This is through in game items that speed up the natural time of production. This is in addition to giving the player a surplus of items, in game currency and experience points.

Or Call of Duty, a game that uses matchmaking to allow players to initially fight against lower quality opposition. In which they achieve consistently good scores and rank up fast.

As these games progress, players are gradually weaned off the initial highs that the game presented. The rewards become harder to come by as gameplay either increases in difficulty. Or the investment of time to achieve rewards increases. So why is it that when this occurs, that we continue to play?

For many, the reasons are rather innocent. It may be for a general love of the game. For these players, the fun never really wavers, or at least not to the same extent of players without an adoration for the content. Others may enjoy the social aspect of the game.

They get to play with their friends and despite the slower progression. These players get their enjoyment through the social and community aspects. Then there are those that appreciate the challenge that this newfound difficulty provides.

However, many players do not share these views and, in these circumstances, would become frustrated and tired of playing the game. This is where retention tactics are implemented.

Keeping players on the hook

These are usually implemented from the offset and become more relevant as the game progresses. Developers who have initially conditioned the player to associate certain aspects of the game with a rush of dopamine aim to keep players chasing these moments. So often, developers use these triggers to control their behavior. The best way to represent this is through examples.

The most popular and perhaps notorious method of retention is through in game currency shortcuts. This often is seen in Zynga archetype mobile games or multiplayer PvP games. These games begin to offer fewer rewards and increase the time required to gain said rewards.

The option that has been available from the start of the game becomes a viable and desirable option. That option is micro-transactions. The player is offered a way to get an instant method of gratification in return for real life currency. The legitimate, cost free method is never taken away.

The player is always given a choice in the matter, but as the game takes away what made the player enjoy it in the first place. For many, it means either grind out long hours, simply walk away, or the company achieves its goal, and the player invests money in the game.

This is often seen in free-to-play games such as Farmville, Mafia Wars, or Candy crush and is their method of making profit besides perhaps advertising.

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Creating ‘Friendly’ Competition

Another method that is used to retain players is through social aspects of the game. Many games that are of a competitive nature thrive on the ability to pin you against your friends and global opposition. Menus, HUD’s and live in game scoring will often be littered with statistics. Stats that compare the player to their counterparts and tell them their progress or skill compared to rival players.

As players at the beginning of the game are treated to a more lenient starting segment. They will have been conditioned to seek the top spot in games as they feel gratification through success. Therefore, when the game becomes more competitive, and more skilled players are fighting for that same gratification. The constant reminders of performance serve as a way to keep the player motivated and invested.

Games that offer these facilities include Call of duty, Overwatch, rocket league, or Apex legends. This was also an area that companies tried to monetize but due to the competitive nature of these games. Pay to win features were seen to heavily affect the credibility of said games and their viability for E sports competitions.

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Subtle rationing

A tactic of operant conditioning within gaming that is worth mentioning. Is the rate at which the rewards and progression are slowed. The aim of these developers will be to inundate the player with a surplus of goodies. Then set out to gradually place these goodies behind certain hurdles.

The rate at which they increase the height of these hurdles is key to the success of this process. That being, when the player has invested so much time and effort and potentially money into the game. Understandably, they feel an obligation to proceed onward despite their disposition.

The developers use this fact to act as pressure to manifesting in the players’ psyche. This urges them to play on until their inevitable burnout.

The house always wins

Then we have the most harmful and sinister tactic of all developers when using operant conditioning. Of course, this is in reference to casino based games and gambling. Although they very loosely fit into the genre of conventional gaming. Developers are still hired to provide their expertise and create appealing games of this variety.

These are often games found on betting apps and websites such as bingo, cards, slots, or simulated sports betting. These games use a method called a ‘false contingency’ or ‘gambler’s fallacy.’ This is essentially a randomized win system in which you can always win. Provided you are lucky enough to be the one that does.

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These games create an environment of uncertainty through this. Hiding the true nature of the win rates and probability from the player. The player then plays the game, which will usually be themed or have some sort of gimmick. This makes the gameplay enjoyable or at least palatable.

Then we will give the player free turns or games in return for a small real currency deposit. They do this in favor of having the player win more, as legally, they cannot adjust the probability of these games. Then when the player invests, usually, they feel obligated to at the very least break even on their investment.

Then as is often the case with gambling, the player loses all their funds. They then invest again and try to get their money back, and thus, a toxic cycle begins.

Git Gud or die trying

Despite these borderline nefarious methods of using operant conditioning. There are positive examples of it’s use to encourage players to keep playing or play a certain way. The Souls-borne games made by From Software do this is a very unconventional way. Although, it’s a way that players have taken to none the less. These games are notoriously difficult. They pride themselves on their demanding and relentless nature.

Due to this, players through their mistakes and in game deaths are conditioned to play these games with more focus and caution. So this is not through the conventional reward method, but instead punishment. Granted, the player eventually gets gratification through succeeding through hard areas or defeating gargantuan bosses.

However, they must ‘git gud’ to do so. This method is also present in most games that have a pattern based enemy attack patterns such as Kingdom hearts or Cup head, for example.

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Negative reinforcement has been used before in games before with some MMORPG’s aiming to prompt players to rest and take breaks. This was by reducing XP a player can gain based on how long they’ve been active. However, when this was presented to the player base, it was met with criticism and backlash.

The developers then tweaked the system to reward returning players with an XP boost for returning after a rest. This was mathematically identical to the other system but tweaked to positive reinforcement. This perhaps goes to show why there is a scarcity of functional examples of negative conditioning systems.

Keeping it fresh

Operant conditioning with positive reinforcers is used in pretty much any game you can find in some regard. Though what makes them useful inclusions for the game in the long term, is how they grow. The more notorious examples use cheap tricks to trap the player. However, a game that wants to succeed on merit will create a conditioning system that stimulates the player.

This will be through making tangible emotional connections or having the system adapt and grow over time. A good example of the system adapting is borderland’s loot system. This system doesn’t vary or change in its overall presentation.

Although, it puts certain parameters in place, so the player never feels tired of the mechanic. Firstly there are the rewards themselves that are frequent. The rewards are scaled based on the area they are encountered in.

Then as well as that, the unique thing Borderlands does with its loot is that all guns encountered are unique. Therefore, you are not encountering the same rewards for your efforts. It means every encounter for the player that leads to a reward is new and exciting, and burnout is less likely.

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Adding to the cabinet

The platform which you play the game may also get involved in conditioning the player. Which, in general, they do rather positively. With reference to the Playstation’s trophy system, which rewards the player for playing certain aspects of the game. With a goal to push the player to play the whole game to completion and see all aspects, it has to offer.

It provides a reward with no investment other than what the player would have invested to play the game already. This then conditions players to seek more achievements through more games. A clever inclusion that ultimately generates sales for its platform without any harm to the consumer.

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The takeaway from all of this is that operant conditioning is present in almost every game. Developers take the role of this phenomenon very seriously and consider its effects when creating content. It can be a method used to trap and ensnare players or extort them financially.

On the flip side, though. It is used to create meaningful and motivational reasons to play games repeatedly. It’s important not to condemn this method as a nuisance or evil. Rather as a force to be wary of. So next time you are mindlessly playing, chasing rewards and grinding out levels. Consider if you are in control or if you are a lab rat pulling a lever?