Science Fiction Problems: Video Games (The When’s, Why’s, Do’s, and Don’ts) Part III

This is the third part of a series. To see Part I, click here. To see part II, click here.

So, last week I gave a long-ish introduction to the history of the idea virtual reality in science fiction, and its relationship to video games. I then listed two things to think about when considering if you should focus on video games in your story, saying that you shouldn’t if they don’t actually add anything, but if you decide it’s important, to use video games as a vehicle for discussion rather than just a neat background. Well, while I still think these are good points to consider, I think I’ll handle this topic  in the same way as I did with my series on writing aliens, all in the hopes that I can help get those creative juices going for anyone who’s interesting in putting video games in their sci-fi story. So, here are some levels of consideration you might not have thought of.

Of Farmville and the Social Gaming Boom

Like REAL farming, but without the BENEFITS!

One phenomenon that I have not yet seen addressed in science fiction is that of social gaming, accounting for the habit-forming, relatively simplistic video games that for some strange reason, average people (typically considered “non-gamers”) go crazy for. When you actually break down what these games have to offer as far as entertainment value, there’s very little to them- very small rewards strewn across an endless series of small, easy goals in an ever-extending period of time. So what makes these games so addicting, if they really aren’t all that fun to play? Well, some of it comes from the simple relaxation of playing an easy game with minimal commitment requirements, but there’s actually a somewhat devious psychological trick being employed here, called the Skinner Box.

The Operant Conditioning Chamber, created by B.F. Skinner (hence: Skinner Box), is essentially a cage outfitted with a button that, when pushed, rewards its occupant with a treat. What Skinner discovered through his methods was that he could not only condition his test animals (and later, humans) to push the button to get a reward, but control how often the action was performed. I won’t get into the minutia of how this worked, but essentially, Skinner’s tests essentially explained certain confusing human behaviors (such as gambling) by demonstrating that random or infrequent, small rewards were more effective in persuading the test subject to perform the desired action more frequently than to simply give the reward each time. This trick is used to make consumers play these games well beyond enjoyment, and with very little effort on the part of the games’ creators.

So, how is this phenomenon important? Here are some ways in which Skinner-box social games could develop in the future (and hence, in your story):

  • A Differentiation Between Cultures: While a consumer-driven market of entrepreneurial game developers will not usually stoop to this cheap trick, a 1984-esque Big Brother type government-funded industry certainly wouldn’t have any qualms about it. Such an inherently manipulative tool as the Skinner Box could very easily be used to create a series of seemingly entertaining video games to lull a dependent social class, making it easier for a dictatorship to keep its power. Alternately, the free people of a country with a more laissez faire government would likely place great importance and renown for the most artistic and creative games, as they would with movies and other forms of media. Keeping this in mind, you could use what kinds of video games are available in certain cultures to characterize and contrast them.
  • The Presence of Gamification: The Skinner Box principle could also be used by employers to (at least attempt to) encourage efficiency. If all of their tasks were “gamified”, turned into mildly entertaining mini-games, then employees would be more likely to stay engaged in their work and perform their allotted tasks on time and with a reasonable degree of enthusiasm. Imagine if bonuses were awarded randomly, with a sort of percentage-based chance that with each repetition of the task, the employee would win paid vacation time, or bonus pay. It would be up to you if this sort of practice represents intentional conditioning or just hyper consumerism, and whether or not there are ethical problems with this practice.

Well, that’s all for this week. Next week I’ll look at a direction I think mobile computing and video games are going, and how you could use that in your story. Let me know if there’s a something you think I missed or should cover, and I’ll try to get to it next time. For now, here’s a hilarious spoof commercial for the most notorious of social games- mild language warning.



Until next week, how many of you have ever gotten hooked on one of the Skinner Box games like I described above? Anyone else sort of resent companies like Zynga for pulling such a cheap trick to get people to waste a bunch of time farming electronic corn? Let me know in the comments below!

About erikthereddest

I'm a Masters student in English, and I love technology and Science Fiction. I am refining and enhancing my (admittedly novice) writing talents under the sage advice of my friends here at Lantern Hollow Press, and with the great many books I am reading from the best authors I can find.

Posted on July 13, 2011, in Cliches, Erik Marsh, Inspiration, Lantern Hollow Press Authors, Science Fantasy, Science Fiction, science fiction problems, World Creation, Writing Hints and Helps and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. FARMVILLE IS EVIL!! It is the Devil and will turn people in to zombies if played too long (and not the cool zombie ninja pirates, either)!

    Seriously, though, I like the idea of the culture clash between games. You could also employ one between a ‘gaming’ culture and one that looked down on any virtual (or ‘unreal’ or whatever) environment, one that sees it as a waste of time when you could be having real experiences. The moral and ethical distinction between the two could be presented in a number of ways.

  2. I get caught up in these for about a week at a time…the latest was Dragon’s of Atlantis, which took my mind off my money problems for about two weeks until it became extremely annoying.

    And yes, I do resent the companies that make them, these games are something of a moral cesspit that emphasizes both the inability of Americans to recognize what is important (so many people spend money on these games) and the greed of major corporations.

  3. Aside from the deep, disconcerting sense of being completely and utterly manipulated by a screen covered in animated pixels, I do enjoy a good mini-game because I’ve always loved games that involve building rather than destroying. I don’t like shooting games, I’m terrible at racing games, and I swiftly grow enraged with puzzle games. Building games, such as Roller Coaster Tycoon, Sim programs, or home architect programs (not a game, but I love playing with them!) are more my thing. So while Farmville sets my teeth on edge simply because of the hype (and because I’ve never wished to own a farm) I have played its cousins involving restaurants and bakeries and villages, etc.

    However, I do get bored of them quickly if they cease to hold at least a minimal challenge. I play them obsessively for a few weeks and then find a new one and shamelessly abandon my thriving little empire where it stands.

    So does that make me a hopeless slave to miniature virtual worlds or am I just a very bad business owner?

  1. Pingback: Science Fiction Problems: Video Games (The When’s, Why’s, Do’s, and Don’ts) Part IV « While We're Paused

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