Facebook games really have revolutionized the way we look at reward and not necessarily in a positive way.
Naturally, Im not implying that a real line of cow-clickin beet-farmin pseudo-games is cynically manipulating a compulsive flaw in the human psyche to pass off half-baked hackery as legitimate, finished, enjoyable products.
I wouldnt dream of making such an insinuation.
So lets take a fictional game that well call Mafia Farm City.
Well set it in a magical world in which honest hard working wise-guys and mob bosses ceaselessly toil on their dragon egg farms at the top of their towering skyscrapers, taking a break only to lunch in one of the citys suspiciously familiar-looking restaurants and cafs.
Where traditionally reward is used to reinforce good behaviour, accomplishing a task in Mafia Farm City is a result of simply being there, clicking the button they tell you to. They drip-feed these rewards until the reward is associated wholly with the task: being online and pushing that button.
Rewards are designed to modify behaviour.
When were young, badges, stickers and sweets encourage us to do well at our school- or home-work.
During our free time, rewards encourage the development of useful skills to do well at football, we must improve our strength, reflexes and agility, while to do well at most computer games we start to learn adaptivity and problem-solving skills.
At work, incentives such as stock options encourage us to value the company were working for.
Mafia Farm City, by contrast, rewards the act of clicking. Its almost a meta-reward, rewarding you for wanting to get the reward. You dont end up any smarter, faster, stronger or better.
Youve not learned an important behaviour, youve just learned that wanting the reward gets you the reward.
Over time, Mafia Farm City starts to decrease your rewards. The drop-offs of unmarked bills are less frequent, deadly renegade squirrels up the frequency of their attacks on your opium crops, and your restaurant keeps filling up with pumpkins full of guns.
But you want the reward.
Oh, you want that reward a lot. Only, now, the reward isnt coming to you. And look down there! No, further. No, stop ogling the attractive models in the scam adverts around the game. There.
Yes, for just $5, you could have that reward you have been conditioned to want, the Gun-pumpkin De-clutterfy-er and feel fulfilled in your vital role as Chief Reward-Want-Getter.
In fact, you get thirty extra Reward-Want-Getter points if you just buy the G-p. D. instead of working (waiting, clicking things) for it. Thats enough to leapfrog your Facebook friends into first place on the Mafia Farm City Reward-Want-Getter high scores table!
So, you pay. You get your reward. You feel fulfilled, you succeeded at wanting something.
The Skinner Box, also known by the distinctly Orwellian name Operant Conditioning Chamber, was an invention of Harvard student B.F. Skinner, and revolutionised our understanding of the psychology of rats.
Specifically, we now understand that rats are animals with a high tolerance for boredom who really, really like to push buttons.
The rat pushes the button, the rat gets the reward.
In a Skinner Box, there is one very reliable way of increasing the fascination the rat has with the button, and that is to limit the reward, whether by a fixed timer or by a timer regulated by a random number generator.
Eventually, you end up with rats who are utterly obsessed by this seemingly ordinary lever, continuing to bash away at it long after the reward has been removed.
Of course, humans are completely different. There is, after all, no example of an enclosed, stimulus-deprived, solitary space in which rewards are grudgingly meted out in response to mindless button-pushing which humans can partake in.
Kate Dawson is a weary Facebook warrior who has seen too much. She writes blogs for School Stickers, who offer school badges, stickers, certificates, and a