Are Loot Boxes just glorified Skinner Boxes?

Recently, there has been a popular trend in AAA games, of adding what the industry now calls loot boxes.
This introduces a system, where the player will pay real money, in exchange for the game to drop random in-game items and features.
The phenomenon has been so widespread, that Jim Sterling – a youtube content creator and journalist – even declared 2017 to be the year of the loot box. (Sterling, 2017)

In 1948, Burrhus Frederic Skinner introduced a new take on behavioural psychology: Operant Conditioning.
What Skinner did, was to enclose an animal into a box, outfitted with with a way to grant a reward (a button, which would provide food when pressed), and a way to inflict punishment (an electrically charged grid on the floor of the box).

skinner box
Skinner’s box

The important takeaway from Skinner’s findings in relation to games, is the conclusion that if you reward the animal every time they perform an action, they soon grow tired with said action. However, if you only reward the test-subject a fraction of the time, they will keep attempting, obsessed with the task.

Looking at the recent trend concerning loot boxes, it soon becomes clear that they build on these exact concepts.
The loot box comes at a price – a microtransaction – but do not guarantee the desired outcome. If the player does not gain the particular item they had hoped for, the only option is to simply repeat the action until they are successful, even if repeating the action means a loss of something valuable.

Loot Boxes, as shown in the game Overwatch (Blizzard Entertainment, 2016)

It is for this exact reason that certain games are now subjected to investigations about whether or not they directly provoke addictive tendencies in players. (Knaus, 2017)

By reproducing the exact techniques Skinner talked about in the forties, these games has now turned their reward system so addictive, that people – not unlike skinner’s animal test subjects – simply cannot stop pressing the button in the box.



Sterling, Jim (2017) The Year of the Loot Box: (The Jimquisition) .
Available at: (Accessed: 15 November 2017)

McLeod, S.A., (2007) ‘BF Skinner: Operant conditioning’.
Available at: (Accessed: 28 November 2017)

Knaus, Christopher (2017) ‘Gambling regulators to investigate ‘loot boxes’ in video games’. The Guardian.
Available at: (Accessed: 30 November 2017)



McLeod, S.A., (2007) BF Skinner: Operant conditioning.

Clubit (2017) Loot Boxes.
Available at: (Downloaded: 28 November 2017)



Blizzard Entertainment (2016) Overwatch [Video game] Blizzard Entertainment.

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