Friday, October 8, 2010

Loot as a Skinner box

Last night, my fellow officer was explaining our guild concept to a new guildie.  He is studying psychology and he mentioned Skinner boxes in the explanation.  No, I don't mean you skin a mob called a "box" and get epic loot from it.  I mean, a something called a "skinner box", but not a REAL skinner box, a software one.  One of the most famous skinner box conditioned mammals are Pavlov's dogs - who were conditioned to slobber at the ring of a bell.  I realised that I had not explained why our guild is doing what it is doing on this blog.  So, here is why.

Disclaimer - I am not a psychologist.  I am a trained scientist and I am using my skills learned within that to apply critical thinking and research to something I think leaders should understand at some level, or at least be aware of. I am sure that the below article will be contentious, and please comment if you have opinions or experiences to share!  There are a list of links to read if you are interested in more information at the end of the article.  If you read nothing else, read the one from

How is loot a software Skinner Box?
So the basics of the skinner box experiment are thus (I am going to assume you read the link above): Rat A in the skinner box is rewarded every time they press the button.  Rat B in another skinner box is rewarded randomly when they press the button.  Rat B will press that button more and more in hopes of gaining a reward, eventually just pressing that button continuously regardless of how much reward they actually have.

According to Skinner, Rat B displayed behaviors similar to a gambler.  The next press might give them the thing they are after.  It becomes less about the reward itself and more about obtaining the reward.  I can easily see how this would extend to WoW and loot.  Clearly, the lever is killing the boss and the reward is the Phat Lewtz we gain from the boss. 


There are many levels of reinforcement within WoW (and other games and MMO's) to keep us coming back for more.  There is simple randomness "Will my item drop?" then to compound that once it does drop, "Will I win that loot?".  That is one nasty lever!  Not only are you being conditioned by a random drop, you can SEE that random drop (which proves that the drop exists) but then that random drop is randomly allocated within the raid. 

Now let's take it one step further, I assumed that the boss died every time - it may not.  So, not only are your random elements "Will my loot drop?" and "Will I win it?" but also "Will we kill the boss?".  And one more element to that "Was I there when the boss was killed this week?" because perhaps you were unavailable that night, perhaps you were benched or perhaps the leadership team decided to not kill that boss that week.

Just think about all those variables for a moment.  All of those things that can affect whether or not you get the reward.  To use the schedule terminology, WoW raiding loot is a mixture of Fixed interval (ie weekly resets), variable interval (which bosses are killed a week, whether or not that boss has loot you want), variable ratio (who is in the group that week and your loot drops at a fixed percentage), and continuous ratio (raid loot drops every time, BADGES oh the Badges!).  It has several levels of reward abstraction (ie after the loot drops, it is still some ratio as to whether you get it or not).  It has multiple levels of concurrency and complexity.  Simply put, it is the most complex and amazing skinner box I have ever seen and I was completely sucked in by it for some time.  It is even incorporated into our jargon - Farming anyone?

Breaking Bad Boxes
There are many things that are done to break parts of the skinner box.  The main reason to break parts of it is that the skinner box makes you feel slightly out of control (well it did to me).  You don't know when the next "fix" is coming, when that next big win will happen.  This causes friction and frustration between guild members.  Good guild leaders understand this at some level, even if they don't understand why it is happening.  There are a few basic methods to break the mechanisms to keep your guild ticking along smoother than the average guild.

The first and most prevalent one is (obviously) be in a guild.  Reducing the number of people competing for the loot fixes the variable nature of allocating loot.  LFG system actually exponentially increases this variable.  If you want to gain an item, fix the group that you are going to be pressing that level.  Randomising the people you go with will increase the randomness of you gaining the item, and increasing the effectiveness of the skinner box around you.

Following on from fixing the group of people around you, comes using a loot allocation system (like DKP).  Making it clear when you will get that next piece of loot relative to other guild members removes a level of complexity to the system and calms people down.  It changes the Variable Ratio loot allocation to an Interval Ratio (In random kills, but x drops, I will get item y).  It would not have been hard to implement a DKP system within WoW, but they didn't.  They chose to keep the two level variable ratio.

Further to that is planning ahead - letting people know what your raiding schedule is.  What are you planning to kill when?  Who needs to kill which boss for their push at the reward lever?  How many badges do they need to upgrade an item?

The hardest thing to do is to create a culture where loot is no longer a reward, but a tool.  Loot is what you need to kill the next boss and the reward is working together as a team to overcome a challenge.  WotLK has made this VERY difficult to do, as they have created an environment that causes this challenge to have been removed placing emphasis back on loot as a reward and reinforcing the loot skinner box.  I think this last point sums up why I enjoyed TBC vastly more than WotLK.

Using the Skinner Box for your own reasons
Having tools to break the box and the knowledge that the box exists means you can manipulate these tools to create or break morale in your guild.  If you need people to turn up to raid nights? take away the predictability of what bosses you are doing when - add that element back into the skinner box of raiding and condition your guild to respond to that.  You can take it away at will and put up schedules again, but as soon as the members start slacking off, add it back in and they will be pre-conditioned to respond and turn up to raids again.

This is not as nasty as it sounds.

Understanding how this works is a wonderful way to break the conditioning on yourself.  Once you can break it on yourself you will be much more objective and strategic in how you run your raids and how you run your guild.  It also allows you to break the subscription model the skinner box promotes and ensure you have a good balance of gaming versus Real Life.  It is another tool in your guild leader arsenal to use, or to leave in place.  It is your choice. 

Given how well constructed this skinner box is, I am not surprised that there has been very little written on the topic.  Here is a quick link spam to articles I have read in the past (and could still find links to) on the topic.

Mecha the Slag - from July 2010
Tobold from 2007!
Moose Bites from 2009
Nick Yee on the EQ skinner box
Gamasutra from back in 2001! from this year with some great links I recommend you read including some I already had read and linked above.