Devious (and Virtuous) Games

A plague has taken over many video games, especially casual games. It’s called operant conditioning, also known as a Skinner box. Basically, games designed like this can compel you to carry out repetitive tasks long beyond any point of enjoyment or novelty. Tabletop games aren’t immune, either. But there’s a big dazzling bright side on how games can create real value for players, giving either a rich recreational experience or developing real skills.

The Box

Skinner was a behavioral psychologist who wanted to get beyond Pavlovian response conditioning and try to influence or control active decisions rather than passive reactions. He developed the Skinner box.

Inside the box is a small button and a food dispenser. An animal is placed inside and shown that pressing the button produces food. But food is dispensed at random intervals. At its most advanced, food is given frequently at first, then slows gradually to a trickle. This is called a reward schedule.

Once the test animal realizes they aren’t guaranteed food, they push the button more frequently. As the delays increase, anxiety is built over getting the next meal, so the button is pushed with greater urgency, and “success” is met with huge feelings of relief – but not satisfaction. And so the process continues.

Gaming in the Box

Many popular games, like World of Warcraft and FarmVille (and its numerous clones), are built as Skinner boxes. Rewards are scheduled to arrive at points when the player’s enthusiasm just begins to wane, usually in the form of leveling up or gaining items (often a series of collectible items). The player grows more invested and is willing to work more for rewards, so the delays between them grow longer.

In gamer lingo it’s called grinding. The game (at least this portion) is not actually fun, but the reward is considered worth the effort. Of course with WoW or FarmVille, the reward amounts to either a meaningless trinket or the capacity to work for more worthless rewards. The emotional payoff is based on the human drive to accomplish something, coupled with a human collector’s instinct. It’s sometimes called being a victim collector.

Virtuous Games

I’m coining a term. A virtuous game is one that provides real, valuable rewards. It could be on a schedule or not, but the point is the reward has a positive impact on your life. You are better for playing the game. There are a few kinds of rewards worth considering (inspired by yet another insightful video by Extra Credits).


Never underestimate the power of simple recreation. A Skinner box is ultimately work, not fun. Games that stimulate, tell a story, or otherwise put a smile on your face are all very valuable. Humans need work, rest and play for a balanced, healthy life. Pick-up games like Monsterpocalypse, Spirit of the Century or Munchkin can give a lot of low-brain-power entertainment.


Games can teach valuable skills, and learning even non-useful skills is good mental exercise. Newspaper games like crossword puzzles or Sudoku make you think and apply logic, and even on a simplistic level it still keeps your mind working. Strategic games like Settlers of Catan, Warmachine, Dungeons & Dragons, or just about any deck-building game like Magic: the Gathering or Pokemon keep you mentally engaged and teach you how to manage resources or make comparative decisions.

Traditional education is par for the course, too. Games with rulebooks or narrative elements heighten literacy, dice games boost arithmetic, and many games draw from history or mythology.


A cousin to learning, enrichment is when you gain insight or perspective into yourself, others, or life in general. Roleplaying games excel at this, letting players explore personas, emotions and conflict in a variety of ways. Even dealing with winning or losing, or good or bad luck is a valuable experience. Games like Vampire (Masquerade or Requiem), Dresden Files, or Shadows Over Camelot all require cooperation and inhabiting a character.

There’s often a great deal of cross-over, too. A casual game like Fluxx is very easy to play, leaning toward recreation, but with constantly changing rules it easily has a foot in learning. It’s competitive too, which gives enrichment a chance to show up.

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