Turning Work into a Skinner Box

What makes video games so addictive? Why is browsing the web always easier than getting work done?  Why can’t we make work as addictive as browsing the web or playing Call of Duty?

Part of the reason is, video games and web surfing are both examples of skinner boxes.

A skinner box is a machine that randomly drops a reward. These are incredibly addictive for the human brain. Web browsing is addictive because we might randomly find a nugget of information that’s useful. Modern video games usually incorporate some sort of skinner box with item drops. However, the trend in games is towards something much more sinister than just a simple skinner box.

Modern video games strike to the core of the human psyche, and create a meaning machine for their players. Incredibly, they create a synthetic world wherein the players derive actual life meaning and significance from their play.

The Big Three for Life Meaning

  1. Autonomy – Ability to determine what you will do (ex: choose your character, choose your crops, choose your avatar)
  2. Complexity – Complicated tasks, not mind numbing repetition (ex: team online gaming, different classes, different weapons, strategy combinations)
  3. Effort and Reward – Rewards must be immediate and tied directly to effort (ex: winning achievements, leveling up, kill streaks)

Effort and Reward

At work, it’s often difficult to tell whether our efforts will be rewarded. Especially if we’re working in a creative field, it’s quite often the opposite. Our efforts may seem useless and wasted. And that’s discouraging.

Now consider an online video game, like Team Fortress 2. We have achievements. We have visual clues to immediate progress. We have random object drops. Just playing means we might win a new, rare item.

Don’t underestimate the power of this simple principle. We must see progress towards goals in order to stay motivated.

Hacking the Skinner Box into Work

We must begin with the definition of daily goals. Without goals or achievements, it’s impossible to experience the reward of achievement. And that’s dis-empowering. Because as we learned before, a direct connection between effort and reward must be experienced.

But goals aren’t skinner boxes unless you design them as such.

So when you set goals, design them as possibly unachievable. Making goals like, “get the laundry done today” are bad, and goals like “make two sales today” are good. There is the possibility that things won’t get accomplished, which sets up the addictive skinner box.

A calendar next to the work office could be used to set up a direct response to daily goals.

We could place gold stars on the calendar for every daily goal accomplished. After a month, we’d see direct visual feedback of all the work accomplished. A calendar full of gold stars is imaginary and dumb, yes, but so are the video games.

Your mind can’t tell the difference between a gold star and a new weapon in a video game and a new car. To your mind, they’re all rewards. So spend the 90 cents on gold stars and get visual feedback on progress now.

Go Beyond Skinner and Create a Meaning Machine

We’ve already learned the principles for a meaningful life. Autonomy, complexity, and an effort to reward connection. Daily goals and gold stars will add meaning to the day, but what about longer term needs?

Why not have achievement bars in real life? We know the effect they have on the mind in video games, so why wouldn’t they work for real life goals?

Define any damn long term goal you want: to save $100,000; to build a boat; to retire by 40; it doesn’t matter. Anything you can describe visually, with a progress bar that advances daily. Every day add another line to your savings.

Our goals also become the opportunity to add complexity and autonomy previously missing from work.

Understand, we can design our work lives to be just as addictive and fulfilling as the video games we’d rather play instead. But that involves a conscious decision to design our own “game” of work.

Who’s World Are You Living In?

Understand, it is very easy to be seduced by the synthetic worlds created everywhere. We can be conscious of the ways they work on our brains, or we can be ignorant.

Why not use them to design our own personal game of life?

2 thoughts on “Turning Work into a Skinner Box

  1. if you’re working in a bureaucracy and not experiencing random item drops, you’re doing it wrong. Seriously, finding out that your co-worker’s daughter just got a part in Swal Lake qualifies.

  2. I think this is why metrics-based projects (e.g. selling software online, growing a blog) are so appealing. They have a built-in progress bar, e.g. sales, pageview, etc.

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