You’re walking down the street, on the prowl for Pokemon. You ignore the throng of Rattata lying before you and get ready to cross the street. Stop. There’s a rare Charmeleon just a few steps out of reach. Between the Pidgeys, Rattatas, Caterpies, and other cannon-fodder lying between you and the nearest Pokestop, you’ve finally come across a rare beauty. This is a once-in-every-five-hundred-encounters type of thing.
Your heart begins to race, and with your eyes glued to your phone screen, you run straight towards your goal with a spring in your step and a complete disregard for the traffic surging all around you. You’re hooked on the screen, obsessed with that damn Charmeleon, and you can’t tear yourself away. You’re an addict, but not necessarily a video game addict. You’re a gambling addict.
Using a core gameplay system built around randomness and unfavorable probability, Niantic, Google, and the Pokemon Company have created a game that encourages gambling behavior and detracts from long-term player fulfillment, thereby leading to frustration. As the months have passed and Pokemon Go has receded from the limelight, many now wonder how such an “instant classic” has since fallen by the wayside. Let’s find out.
Lab Rats or Lab Rattatas?
Long ago, in a psychologist’s laboratory far, far away, a now-famous researcher named B.F. Skinner discovered many of the underlying mechanisms of human and animal behavior. His most well-known theory, which has since become known as “operant conditioning” does well to explain basic human motivations and learning patterns related to gambling.
It works like this: by providing reinforcements and punishments, researchers (or game designers) can manipulate and shape a person’s behavior. B.F. Skinner put it this way: “the strengthening of behavior which results from reinforcement is appropriately called ‘conditioning’. In operant conditioning we ‘strengthen’ an operant in the sense of making a response more probable or, in actual fact, more frequent.”
I know, I know, I don’t like academic jargon either. But, it makes a lot of sense when put into context. Children learn the boundaries of their actions all the time – a little brat who sneaks a cookie from the kitchen cookie jar will likely face consequences and cut it out. Maybe a time-out isn’t enough to stop that kind of thing, but a loss of TV or GameCube privileges will certainly bring him in line (seriously, the latter hurts…). After facing punishment, that kid probably won’t do it again, right? The probability of him stealing a cookie again goes down. That’s punishment. It decreases the probability that the behavior will reoccur.
Reinforcement does just the opposite; it increases the likelihood that the behavior will reoccur. If a kid gets all A’s in school after struggling to do well before, maybe his parents will give him a new game to celebrate and reward his achievement. That’s positive reinforcement at work. However, that’s only one kind of reinforcement.
The other kind – negative reinforcement – still increases the chances that the action will occur, but it’s a lot less pleasant. When a parent tells their kid, “you’re grounded if you don’t make all A’s this semester,” that’s a form of negative reinforcement. It increases the likelihood that the kid will make good grades, but it’s (hopefully) not the first thing those parents think of.
Okay, that’s nice, we understand why kids respond to reward and punishment. So, what the hell does this have to do with Pokemon?
A lot, actually. As far as basic behavior and motivation are concerned, it turns out people are probably a lot closer to Pidgeys and Rattatas than you might think.
Pigeons Catching Pidgeys
Armed with the knowledge that reinforcement and punishment can influence behavior, Skinner set out to test the boundaries of operant conditioning.
This is how the experiments went down in Skinner’s lab. Using the infamous Skinner Box and a few cooperative Rattatas and Pidgeys (I mean, rats and pigeons), researchers tested “schedules of reinforcement,” to find out which type of schedule could influence behavior the most.
Long story short; they tried a bunch, but the Variable Ratio schedule worked best. Skinner’s rats pressed a lever to release food into their cages. But, pressing the lever didn’t always work. Under this schedule, the rat would need to press the lever an unknown number of times before receiving food. Sometimes the food would appear after only a couple presses, and sometimes it would appear after dozens of responses. Just like a slot machine.
Image courtesy of SimplyPsychology.
If you’ve ever been to a casino, you’ve probably seen people sitting at slot machines for hours at a time. Slot machines reward participants in a random yet calculated frequency to ensure that players lose money in the long run yet still feel motivated to keep pulling that lever. Likewise, Pokemon Go features random encounters with a large numbers of trash (such as Pidgeys and Rattatas) sprinkled with rare gems such as the Charmeleon mentioned above. For people with a drive to finish the collection and truly “catch ‘em all,” Pokemon Go may keep them entertained for months on end.
But for most players, Pokemon Go quickly creates burnout as players waste dozens of Pokeballs on useless Pokemon in order to level up. As these same weak Pidgeys and Rattatas become more difficult to catch at higher levels, progress slows down and Pokeballs become scarce, thereby encouraging players to spend more money. By itself, this isn’t the nail in the coffin that drives players away from the game (plus, it makes the devs a lot of dough in the short term). Plenty of games slow down player progress at high levels in order to let new players have time to catch up. However, coupled with the fact that rewards in Pokemon Go aren’t all that rewarding, it’s easy to see why people burnout and drop the game entirely.
In games like World of Warcraft, Hearthstone, or the original Pokemon games, lengthy grinds still feel worthwhile in the long run. Even though random chance dictates whether players will get a chance at epic loot, legendary cards, or rare Pokemon, the rewards give players durable power. Once you get that rare item, you can put it to use immediately and win more. When a gambler wins $10,000 at a slot machine, that reward immediately makes up for the effort (as long as you haven’t been losing all day). However, due to Pokemon Go’s bizarre training system which differs from the original games, a rare Pokemon that you catch may not be usable if you haven’t already caught that type of Pokemon before.
Even if you catch that Charmeleon, it probably won’t be worth much if you throw it against the Pokemon at the nearest gym. If you haven’t at least caught a few Charmanders before, you won’t be able to level it up by much and you probably won’t be able to evolve it, either. You’ll have to run the same gauntlet of random chance and variable ratio rewards over and over and over and over again.
The original Pokemon games featured a mixture of variable ratio schedules and fixed interval schedules. You might have to spend hours hoping to get lucky in order to catch a Tauros at the Safari Zone in Pokemon Red and Blue, but once you did, you didn’t have to worry about randomness any longer. You could simply start training with that Tauros, thereby converting the game from a variable ratio schedule of reinforcement into a fixed ratio schedule of reinforcement. Once you caught that Tauros, you could have a rough estimate of how long it would take you to train it and make it worth your time. In other words, you could see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Unlike the original handheld Pokemon series, Pokemon Go relies entirely on variable interval schedules of reinforcement. Pokemon Go didn’t fall by the wayside because of poor battle mechanics and buggy gym battles, although these were major factors too. Rather, it fell out of favor thanks to poor training mechanics that turned basic gameplay routines into a slot machine.