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Behaviourism and Games


Recently I’ve been thinking about the relationship between Learning Theory and Game Design.  Clearly there are game mechanics that exploit particular learning traits and I thought it would be interesting to identify them.

Researchers have long studied the way in which individuals learn.  Over the years, academics have proposed a number of theories to describe and explain this process.  A recent assessment by Burgoyne[1] on schools of thought identified 14 different theories.  However, those fourteen fall into five broad categories that I’ll explore over the next few posts:

Despite the different concepts, it is worth noting that there is no definitive theory for how we learn, rather we exhibit different characteristics depending on the objective and circumstance.


Key behaviourist thinkers including Thorndike[2], Pavlov[3] and Skinner[4] have hypothesized that learning is a change in observable behaviour caused by external stimuli in the environment.  In behaviourist theory, change in behaviour demonstrates some learning.

Behaviourists describe “conditioning” as a universal learning process, dividing it into two types:

  • classical conditioning occurs when a natural reflex responds to a stimulus
  • operant conditioning occurs when a response to a stimulus is reinforced

The key principle of Behaviourism is the reward or punishment of a new behaviour, commonly described as the ‘carrot and stick’ approach to learning.  The theory states that rewarding someone for particular behaviour encourages him to behave in the same way in a similar situation.  The reward reinforces behaviour.  Conversely, if behaviour is punished, the subject is less likely to repeat it.  In Behaviourism, people can learn not to do things as well as to do things.

Behaviourism has had a particularly significant influence on teaching, training and instruction.  Learning objectives are typically described in Behaviourist terms and identify specific behaviour that is desirable (and hence rewarded).  For practical skills, a Behaviourist approach often follows a tell-show-practise-reinforce sequence.  This process describes what is going to be learnt, demonstrates how it is done, gives the learner an opportunity to practise and uses reinforcement to refine behaviour.  Rewards typically take the form of feedback.

A key feature of behaviourism is the fact it is based on observable behaviours: making it easy to collect and quantify research data.  However, there are many criticisms of the theory including its inability to describe learning that occurs in the absence of reinforcement (such as initial language learning), its disregard for changes in reinforced behaviour and its ignoring of any purely cognitive input.

Computer games are sometimes described as a “Skinner box” because of the way they offer reward or punishment for the player’s behaviour.  Like the classic experiment, many games require the performance of a repetitive task to achieve some goal or reward.  In behaviourist theory, a reward or positive reinforcer is anything that increases the frequency of a behaviour.  Conversely, punishment or negative reinforce is something that decreases the frequency of a behaviour.  The strict (narrative) structure and scheduling of rewards is classic behaviourism and characterises many games.

Traditional positive reinforcers in computer games include the following:

  • Points
  • Power-ups
  • Bonuses
  • Unlocks

Negative reinforcers include:

  • Failure to beat high score
  • An increase in obstacles or opponents
  • A decline in health

Multiplayer and social games provide a set of social reinforcers including:

  • Status
  • Leaderboards

Some commentators including the Georgia Institute of Technology professor, Ian Bogost, argue that gamification is a product of a simplistic Behaviourist approach to game design. Game designer, Jon Radoff continues:

“The behaviorist approach to games that channels inquiry away from the harder problems of immersion, cooperation and competition that is so important to creating successful game experiences.”[5]


[1] Burgoyne, J. , (2003), Learning theory and the construction of self: what kinds of people do we create through the theories of learning that we apply to their development?, M. Pearn (Ed.), Individual development in organizations: 3-16, Chichester, Wiley.

[2] Thorndike, E. L. , (1913), Educational psychology: The psychology of learning, Teachers College Press, New York

[3] Pavlov, I. P., (1927), Conditioned reflexes, Clarendon Press, London

[4] Skinner, B. F., (1974), About behaviorism, Knopf, New York

[5] Jon Radoff, Gamification, Behaviorism and Bullshit, Internet Wonderland, 9 August 2011


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