This week in Meaningful Gamification, we’ve been looking at behaviorism, and the ways in which it influences game design (and hence gamification of all kinds).  Like any good biology major, I came across Skinner’s theories here and there in college; like any good Darwinist, I didn’t retain them in the Permanently Useful room of my memory palace.  As I attended to the class materials, and worked to re-learn these concepts, I became more and more grumpy about them without being able to clearly identify why. Finally, as I watched a contemporaneous video about Skinner’s experiments, one sentence jumped out at me:

“Skinner did this by keeping individual pigeons at about three-quarters of their normal weight, so that the birds were always hungry, and food could be used as an automatic reward.” (0:39)

75 percent of normal weight is not just a way to keep animals peckish: it’s starvation weight.  I won’t link to the medical studies I looked up to verify this, because they’re too depressing, but basically when researchers want to study starvation in pigeons, they aim for 60-80 percent of normal body weight.  In barn owls, it is also 80 percent. And, here’s the statistic I already knew, the one that made me stop and pay full attention to the video in the first place: Standards of care for people with anorexia require hospitalization if someone is at or below 75 percent of body weight.  Risks of non-hospitalization include suicide.

Skinner’s pigeon experiments thus included abuse, cruelty, and desperation as continuous conditions. The pigeons weren’t “blank slates” as they responded to rewards and punishments – they were undergoing continual punishment. The extrapolation of results obtained under such horrifying conditions to human beings suggests that Skinner and his followers shared an incredibly pessimistic view of the human condition.  If Skinnerian analysis applies to human existence (as plenty of human psychologists assert it does), then human existence must be pretty miserable. No wonder reading about behaviorism puts me in a funk.

Fortunately, I managed to cheer myself up. First, I reminded myself of the existentialists, particularly Albert Camus.  Camus’ brilliant essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus”, argues that life’s tragic absurdity can be overmastered by the power of contemplation, that “[t]he struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.”  Even if all our actions are perfectly meaningless, and we have no freedom of action, our will itself remains free. Like Sisyphus, or Molly Bloom, we can say yes to our lives, and in so doing, imagine ourselves happy.  Both the despair of mechanism and its anodynes predate Skinner, and he does nothing to overturn them.

In other words, even if Skinner is right about the implacable details of stimulus and response,


It would be possible to represent any human activity as pure math, to boil everything down to equations at a mechanical, biological, or chemical level.  Nothing would be left out, and someone looking at the event through a mathematical lens could be perfectly satisfied that everything was described as it should be.  That accuracy would do absolutely nothing to take away meaning. Knowing the math behind first love, or great art, or deep loss, would explain these things trivially, and allow reliable predictions about the mathematical characteristics of future occurrences. It might even spark some new insights about them, or the ability to influence their particulars – but it could never tell us what they mean.  Likewise, Skinner’s mechanistic claims imply nothing meaningful about the experience of being alive.

A starving pigeon might transcend its box, and Skinner would never know.