I've recently seen the term skinner box thrown around more often as a derogatory term by reviewers for free-to-play games that use predatory practices to encourage players to spend more money than they actually intend to.
The term seems to originate from the research of a well-known biologist, B.F. Skinner, referring to a device that is used to train animals in biological experiments (such as training mice to solve mazes, or training a parrot to associate a colour with a button). See https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1998-06434-011 for an overview or https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0003347270800343 for an example. Or read the original paper here. The animal learns to respond in a certain way to a stimulus and receives a food reward for correctly doing so in a reinforcement learning process.
Some semantic change seems to have happened when this word is now used in the game (review) context. Games don't literally trap people in tiny cages and force them to do certain actions to stay alive (that would be a rather unethical experiment in many ways), so it clearly means something different here.
There are many techniques modern game designers employ in free-to-play (and recently, also in paid) games to encourage users to spend money, from the straightforward to the subtle. Some examples are (with an example game that includes this technique):
- Allowing the purchase of actual straight up power increasing bonuses (skipping content or in multiplayer having advantages over those who don't), Example game: Maplestory.
- Purchasing 'cosmetics', making the characters look aesthetically better in some way for those who spend. Example game: Dota-2
- Unlocking 'more stuff' I.e. the gacha or lootbox system where spending money unlocks additional gameplay options via more available characters or items, but what you get is random. Example game: Genshin Impact.
- Skipping some kind of progression system by spending money. Example: Bloons TD 6
- Gating 'game time' in some way, requiring a resource necessary to continue playing and then making more of it available for real money. Example: Candy Crush.
- Making things happen faster in simulation and strategy games when you spend. Example: Clash of Clans.
It's not entirely clear to me which of these techniques fall under the term, i.e. "which are skinner boxes, and which are not?",or if reviewers are using it more as a blanket derogatory term for those types of transactions they personally emotionally disapprove of. Is there an objective or reasoned definition of which variants/strategies generate the 'conditioned responses' Skinner has written about in his papers?
- What does it mean for a game to be a 'skinner box'?
- Specifically: What are the requirements?
- Is there a generally agreed-upon definition?
- Could it be that this varies from person-to-person?
How it could be subjective (conjecture): what causes addiction, which is very similar to a conditioned response in some ways, varies from person-to-person, thus which techniques qualify as sufficient conditions for a game to be included in the set of 'skinner box' titles are subjective if this is the correct definition for 'skinner box element':
a to the person reviewing it addictive or enticing element that involves spending real money and conditions them to spend more