Tuesday, August 24, 2010

On Motivation and Behavior Modification

Before reading this post, please read following two articles:
What is Operant Conditioning?
What is a Skinner Box?

The Skinner Box is evidence that our behavior can be modified by using response-reward systems. Concepts embodied in the Skinner box have been used to make slot machines addictive. Skinner Box concepts have also been used to make certain video games more addictive, particularly Massively Multiplayer Online RPGs (MMORPGs). This article explains how Everquest contains elements of Skinner Boxes (Everquest is a popular MMORPG released before World of Warcraft, the present MMORPG juggernaut).

As the article says, Everquest creates a network of Skinner Boxes, each tailored to the needs and goals of the player. Under normal circumstances, nobody would want to accomplish the time-consuming and repetitive goals the game requires. But once the implemented psychological tricks take hold of the player, hours can be spent (Or wasted, depending on your view) on the game.

Why is this relevant? Because by using a cleverly constructed game, we can see that boring activities can be made pseudo-exciting. At their base, these games seem to contain algorithms for motivation. If such a system could be harnessed for beneficial and productive activities (Those we need extra motivation for), it could (In theory) make us better people.

My overall intellectual well-being has basically been outsourced to Supermemo, and this provides a great deal of relief and comfort. "If my memory can be outsourced to an algorithm, could other mental burdens also be outsourced to an algorithm?" I thought. Thus, quite some time ago, work began on a "point system" for my life.

For the last couple of years, I have struggled on-and-off to create such a point system. Ultimately these experiments failed after a week or so of use due to the sheer impracticality of maintaining the system, as well as the unpredictability of life itself. I still believe that a workable point system exists, I just believe that my attempts were poor and inadequate. Interestingly, the comedian Demetri Martin has tried to construct a point system for his own life (Albeit it seems slightly different than the ones I've been making). You can read about his point system in this interview. The point system is discussed in the third paragraph.

My final conclusion was that the workable solution to this problem was basically an RPG to-do list. Instead of doing meaningless tasks within the game, this RPG would require that you do real-life tasks. Each time you completed a real-life task, you received some sort of in-game reward. Since an RPG to-do list did not exist, I began to work on creating one for myself. I began to write my ideas down in a notebook. The notebook went on to cover various design layouts, EXP and level progression, and many other aspects of how such an RPG would likely work. (I have played a bit of Persona 3, and this was the overall style I was trying to capture).

I downloaded the iPhone SDK late one night and went to sleep. The next morning I found the following Youtube video making the rounds of my frequently visited web sites:

How happy I was to realize that another company had already gone through the work of making such an application! Unfortunately, I will probably never see the to-do list RPG that I had seen in my head, but this will have to do for now.

Less than a week ago EpicWin was released, and I've been experimenting with it. While there are a number of obvious improvements that will be fixed very soon (They are waiting on Apple approval for their latest patch), the basic functionality is there, and I am very satisfied with it.

After choosing your avatar and name, you can create tasks, or "quests" as they are referred to in EpicWin. There are six different levels of importance you can assign to each "quest." The higher the priority, the more XP you gain, and the more progress you make on your "overworld map."

The rewards you get for accomplishing "quests" come in two forms: 1.) Leveling up your character and 2.) Loot (Items). The current maximum level is 20, therefore you will not level up as frequently as you will find loot. None of the loot you collect can be equipped by your character, which is mildly disappointing; but I suppose since there is no real game to speak of (You don't actually fight monsters), it's not that big of a deal. This feature might be added in the future, I would imagine.

Thus, while certain features will be added and certain tweaks need to be made with EpicWin, (More excitingly) the application itself is a basic but customizable Skinner Box. Within the last week of use I can already tell that it will be a useful motivator to help me in doing things I usually don't want to do.

For example, I am content with eating the same foods day after day, but I am also aware that trying new things is a good habit (I'm just not very good at it). Today, when purchasing a drink for lunch, instead of buying a flavor that I knew I would like, I thought to myself, "I don't want to drink something different, but if I'll get points for it, I will." I then put my predictable choice back and chose a flavor that I had never tried before. After doing this I entered "Try something new - drink" in EpicWin and received points for doing it. Another example: I don't like to dance. When a few friends invited me to some free Salsa lessons, my gut reaction was initially "absolutely not." Then I thought to myself "How many points would I get if I did go?" I then decided to get a big point payout by doing something that was really out of my comfort zone. I went dancing, made a few new friends and had a fantastic time.

In both examples (There are more), this shallow but consistent system of points motivated me to do things I did not want to do. And because the results in real life were very positive (I enjoyed dancing, I tried a new drink) and the results within the game were positive (I scored points and won a hat!), I can see myself using this program for quite some time. In the long-term, I hope to use EpicWin to establish good habits. Here is how I think it will happen over time:

1. Use EpicWin to do action x (Something I don't want to do).
2. Keep repeating action x because I'm getting points for it.
3. After some time (21 days? 30 days?), action x becomes a habit, and I no longer need EpicWin to keep doing it.
4. Repeat with action y

So (For me) EpicWin is basically the habit and motivation-creating algorithm I was hoping it would be. Maybe it will be useful to you also (Provided you have an iPod Touch or iPhone; If you plan on purchasing an iPod Touch, wait for a few weeks and a new one will likely be released by Apple.)

To conclude, here is an excerpt from a presentation about video game design and how Skinner-box-like psychological tricks are becoming part of our everyday life. Certain aspects of this theoretical implementation are quite interesting, while others are quite scary. Here is the presentation in its entirety. The entire presentation is worth watching. (Warning: The presenter uses some profanity). Also, this is EpicWin's official site.

In regards to the frequency of posting (Or lack thereof): Just because I can post a lot of stuff doesn't mean that I should do so. Rather than post a great deal of mediocre information, I would rather infrequently post interesting information. If I don't have anything interesting to post, I will simply not post anything. I don't want a blog filled with "Sorry I haven't posted anything recently, here's a funny picture of a cat" posts.

1 comment:

  1. Hello,
    I very much enjoy your writing. Could you update me on how the EpicWin app is working for you?
    I have been thinking about how to set up a skinner box for a couple of years now but I have never come close to anything that works.
    I am actually thinking about buying an Ipod Touch for the sole purpose of being able to use EpicWin. But only if it would increase the probability that I would study, meditate and tidy up in my apartment. Any thoughts?