Operant Conditioning: Why Games Give You Crappy Items

Loot rewards are important in games. Even if the loot in question totally sucks.

If you've ever played an RPG, you know the struggles of the early-game gear grind. We've all been there -- brandishing our crap-tier sword that is hardly sharp enough to cut through butter, scrounging together that set of low-quality armor so a strong breeze doesn't take us out. But as we progress into the later game, these items are of little to no use to us -- yet we continue to collect them in the form of quest rewards or loot from our slain enemies.

But why is that? Why do game developers reward us with low-quality gear at all levels? We've worked hard on our quests, so why are we getting loot that's way below us? 

Turns out, it's all about psychology. 

The science behind small & frequent rewards

Believe it or not, there is actually a method to the madness behind getting small, frequent rewards when we do simple tasks in the games we play.  The science behind rewarding mindless, repetitive tasks is rooted in the psychology of human behavior -- particularly in the area of reinforcement via rewards and punishments.

Before I dive in, let me clarify that when I say "mindless, repetitive tasks", I'm referring to the "grind" that we associate with RPGs -- especially dungeon crawlers like the Diablo series. We the players take the quests, slay the baddies, stomp the boss, and collect the reward. Then we rinse and repeat until we achieve our ultimate goal...whatever that may be.

For some players, the grind alone is an enjoyable enough aspect to keep them motivated to play the game. For the majority of players, though, it's the loot that keeps them slogging it out, dungeon after dungeon. The loot can come in many forms -- from weapons and armor, all the way down to trinkets and the mundane miscellaneous junk that you'll sell to the nearest trader. The important thing about the loot is that it's plentiful and it's given often

If you've ever learned much about psychology, this might sound vaguely familiar. That's because it's simply the in-game version of what's known as operant conditioning, a psychological theory that works with both the idea of reinforcing and punishing as a means of teaching us lessons.

Operant conditioning, a concept pioneered by psychologist B. F. Skinner, is based on two simple principles -- behaviors can be either rewarded by positive and negative means, or behaviors can be weakened and stopped by punishments. 

Dungeon crawler games reward you for dispatching of the baddies in the dungeon by having them drop loot. This is a positive reinforcement that is meant to incentivize you to continue to crush the hordes of enemies under your mailed gauntlet in the dungeons to come. There are also punishments for your bad behavior, which we can see in games like Dark Souls -- where if you were to kill one of the Blacksmiths, like Andre for example, he'll stay dead and you'll be unable to receive his services for the rest of the playthrough. 

Andre of Astora

At this point, you may be wondering what all this has to do with crappy loot? Well, the answer is quite a lot, actually.

"Physical" loot, regardless of its quality, is something that you can see and interact with, unlike the rewards of experience points or currency -- which feel more like just numbers but are of importance in their own rights. The frequent reward of these basic items helps to provide the player with incentive from the simple rationale that there will be a greater reward for them at the end of the dungeon or quest. 

Image of bleak falls barrow

A great example of this is the first real quest in Skyrim, which takes the player on a dungeon crawl through Bleak Falls Barrow. The player navigates the barrow, all the while fighting the barrow's inhabitants with the goal of recovering the Dragonstone tablet to further the main quest. Along the way the player can loot the bodies of their slain enemies and find a few chests full of goodies but it all culminates in the boss room with the reward of an enchanted weapon on the dungeon boss and 2 chests (1 out in the open, another slightly hidden away) with even better treasures inside.

Psychologically, this reinforces a few core game concepts:

  1. Dungeon crawling is a good way to gain experience, money, and items.
  2. At the end of the dungeon, you can expect to find a reward chest.
  3. Dungeons will typically have a boss or mini-boss with high-quality gear.

With these concepts in mind, the player will seek out more dungeons to explore and take on more quests, knowing that this is generally the most efficient way for them to increase in level and wealth. That's where the psychology meets the grind; the most logical reasoning for the frequent drop of low-level loot is because it is plentiful, cheap, and won't unbalance the game.

In a typical raider attack on Fallout 4, I'll defend my settlement from a wave of 3-5 raiders. That's at least 3-5 weapons and a smattering of armor pieces as a reward for a successful defense. One of the typical mechanics of these games is that they generally have some sort of crafting system that makes even the most basic item recyclable. This alone gives the player a reason to pick up more junk in hopes that it can be used for crafting later on, or at least worth some cash in the long run.

This psychological aspect of game design is especially interesting to me as an indie developer, because it's a party of gameplay that I didn't put much thought into until I started doing research for my own game development. But knowing that operant conditioning factors into how invested players get in a game will definitely be useful when it comes to designing an engaging experience. 

The constant reward of low-level loot serves a number of purposes. Besides being an incentive for players to grind their way through dungeons, or a reward for completing quests, or a valuable trade/crafting commodity, low level loot serves another purpose. It's a way for developers to satisfy a psychological craving players get in the games they play -- a means of reaching that feeling of satisfaction and achievement as they get one step closer to their goal.

Click to enlarge


Lover of gaming since he first wrapped his hands around the original GameBoy, to draining his allowance away at the local laundromat arcade cabinets as a kid, and now broadcasting his adventures on twitch.tv Justin practically dreams in pixels. When he’s not playing games he’s typically found prototyping a game concept or consuming otherworldly amounts of caffeine.

Published Oct. 25th 2016

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