E-Learning, ELearning, Game Design, Gamification, Gaming, Instructional Design, Training Design
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Operant Conditioning in Games and E-Learning – Turn to the dark side…

Well this has been way too long.

First of all a big sorry for the lack of a meaningful post recently, but I know you’ll overlook that if I quickly start off with this weeks topic!

I’d like to look at Skinner’s Operant Conditioning and its application within the world of gaming and E-Learning. Operant conditioning has become a bad habit within games but I do not think that this applies to E-Learning at this stage in its lifecycle. More to the point I actually think that we can benefit a lot from taking advantage of Operant Conditioning the way that games did during their boom in popularity.

So what is Skinner’s Operant Conditioning?

Skinner (1948) studied operant conditioning by conducting experiments using animals which he placed in a ‘Skinner Box‘ which was similar to Thorndike’s puzzle box.


Skinner showed how positive reinforcement worked by placing a hungry rat in his Skinner box. The box contained a lever in the side and as the rat moved about the box it would accidentally knock the lever. Immediately as it did so a food pellet would drop into a container next to the lever. The rats quickly learned to go straight to the lever after a few times of being put in the box. The consequence of receiving food if they pressed the lever ensured that they would repeat the action again and again.

Positive reinforcement strengthens a behavior by providing a consequence an individual finds rewarding.

We can all think of examples of how our own behavior has been affected by reinforcers and punishers. As a child you probably tried out a number of behaviors and learned from their consequences.

For example, if when you were younger you tried smoking at school, and the chief consequence was that you got in with the crowd you always wanted to hang out with, you would have been positively reinforced (i.e. rewarded) and would be likely to repeat the behavior. If, however, the main consequence was that you were caught, caned, suspended from school and your parents became involved you would most certainly have been punished, and you would consequently be much less likely to smoke now.

Using Skinner’s Operant Conditioning in Gaming

This is a very questionable approach, whenever we are conditioning humans to act a certain way calls up some interesting moral points – especially because we are designing with this end in mind. But for the sake of this discussion lets overlook that for now… Games in recent times have been focusing on how they can continue to stimulate secondary reinforcers in their product. Secondary reinforcers (EG. social recognition) do not reach a ceiling as Primary reinforcers (food, sleep etc) do. Think about games such as Farmville, Candy Crush, Bejewelled – if you have ever played one of these games you have also probably played past the point that they became ‘fun’ (primary reinforcer) because of operant conditioning.

These games focus on levelling systems, point scoring systems and social media integration to get you saying “just one more level then I’ll put it away…” which always turns into five more levels and another twenty minutes passing.  What is happening here is that games are using techniques from Skinner to coax us into putting more time in, we are being conditioned to continue our experience. But don’t these points seems similar to the gamification methods we’re being told to employ?

In games there are alternate ways to grab engagement as I’ve discussed in my other posts. These revolve around topics such as narrative, novelty, exploration, flow, etc. I would argue that these elements are harder to design in the world of E-Learning as we are often limited by the software, our clients or settings in which we are working and implementing courses. The amount of times I’ve worked with large companies who still have bandwidth issues is amazing…

So if we cannot use the deeper gaming theories to pull through engagement as easily, do we have to turn towards the “dark side” and look at conditioning our users to engage?

Operant Conditioning in E-Learning.

Following on from what I’ve just discussed, one of the key requisites of a lot of clients I work with is that the course is engaging and will pull in those people who do not readily open and complete E-Learning modules. If we are faced with bandwidth issues, challenging SMEs, limited budgets or software restrictions I highly recommend using some operant conditioning to create your engagement.

What we are trying to create is a reward schedule for the learner and without labelling them as the ‘rat’ in Skinners experiment, ok, wait, I am labelling them as the rat, but in the nicest way possible as the outcomes work in the same way. We want the learner to complete a certain action and when they do they will be rewarded for it, this could be by the use of points, a levelling system or an increase in their abilities in game. What we are doing is essentially saying to the learner, if you complete this process you will get a reward, that feels good doesn’t it? So why don’t you do it again… And again… And again.

For the rest of this post I’m going to focus on one way to use operant conditioning to drive engagement without the use of particularly complex or bandwidth hogging approaches, it’s the levelling system.

Levelling System

Levelling up is a concept in games in which a character experiences some sort of progression that usually entails unlocking new abilities, skills, access to new items, access to a new area of the game, or as a benchmark of how far into the game a character is. As a gameplay element, it was first widely introduced to audiences through the original pen and paper Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game. In its simplest form, levelling up occurs through the process of gaining enough experience points until a target experience point total is reached. Once the target is met, the player’s character “levels up,” and a new target experience threshold is set.

As an example, most characters start at level 1. To get to level 2, a character must acquire 100 experience points. To do so, the character must kill other creatures or complete various tasks or quests in order to gain the experience necessary. Once the character meets these requirements and acquires 100 experience points, he or she will then level up to level 2. Each subsequent level usually comes with benefits such as increased power, new abilities or items, and access to new locations. The amount of experience points required to reach the following level is also typically increased.

A levelling approach is a really great concept in the world of E-Learning, but try to attach great rewards to reaching a new level. Unlocking the next section of a course really isn’t that much of an engaging factor to a learner but allowing them access to new abilities or increasing the number of options available to them does.

You can also use levelling systems independently from rewards and as a part of social recognition. You can add the points that learners score from answering questions or scenarios correctly to their ‘experience’ points, so therefore learners who are level 6 in the module would have answered more questions correctly than those at level 3.

If you do want to look at unlocking areas of the course for learners as a reward think about offering them the choice of what they would like to unlock rather than just saying ‘here’s your reward, go enjoy this section on manual handling.’ The Super Mario RPG has some really nice examples of how you can lay this out if you need a little inspiration, see the image below.


What we are doing is creating a rewarding process for the learner, the idea we want to subconsciously or consciously create is that ‘I know something good is going to happen when I complete this section or when I level up.’ The content then becomes something to engage with naturally as the learner wants to be a higher level than their friend, they want to get to the next section of the course to receive more experience points and they will care more about making mistakes.

From an E-Learning perspective using a levelling system also allows us to create a really nice user interface, we can clearly display experience points, current level, progress etc all with relative ease.

By adopting a levelling system in your next project you create a very strong engaging message that is becoming more recognisable universally. One game I play a lot is Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, the game itself has a brilliant levelling system and I’m quite happy to admit I am the rat in the Skinner box with this game.

Hearthstone uses a levelling system, but one that has a slightly different feel from traditional systems. When you play a ranked match in Hearthstone (this means that your score is saved against the universal leaderboard) you receive a star if you win. There are 25 ranks in the game (25 – 1) and by achieving a certain number of stars at each rank you move up a rank and your status within the game improves.  Ranks 25 – 20 require 2 stars to advance, ranks 20 – 15 require 3 stars and ranks 15 – 10 require 4 stars and rank 10 – 1 require 5 stars. If you lose a game then you also lose a star, this actually helps to create a more engaging experience as you fight back to try and earn the star you lost. At the end of each match you are presented with a screen that shows your current rank and star total – another reinforcer that you are either close to moving up a rank or fighting to keep the same rank.


Enough about Hearthstone now as I could really speak all day about it! But that is just another way we can use levelling systems in our projects – keep it simple as they are usually the most effective systems you can implement.

I hope this post has provided you with some more ways to use gamification in your work and as always, I’ll see you again soon!


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