One of the most common techniques that video game developers use to keep people hooked on their product is what’s known as the ‘virtual Skinner Box’. The concept is based on a theory by BF Skinner, who argued that a person will do something with more frequency if there is a reward at the end of it. In games, this means that you return to the product time and again in order to achieve something – a high score, a new level, upgrades to your character, etc. This is something that has existed in video games for as long as they have been in existence from Space Invaders to Candy Crush.
The virtual Skinner Box is an unavoidable problem with video games. In order to be entertaining, to keep its players mashing the same series of buttons, they have to have some addictive factor. However, this same concept is somewhat manipulative when it’s misused by ‘freemium’ games that use it to sell add-ons or unlock exclusive content.
A new smartphone game is challenging the concept of the virtual Skinner box though – Desert Golfing from Blinkbat Games. The concept of the game is to pull and launch your golf ball across a two-dimensional desert terrain with the aim of getting it into the hole. Once you have succeeded, you move onto the next level. Then the next. And the next. And the next. And the next. It never ends. There is no high score table, no restart button to play a level again, no goal to achieve and no people to compete against.
Desert Golfing essentially subverts everything we have come to expect from a video game, and it will have its many critics for doing so. Some of the most damning remarks about the game range from it being “pointless” to being “dull”. However, there are just as many gamers who believe this is a truly remarkable experience. It has shot up the iTunes charts since its release a few weeks ago, meanwhile a writer at Arts Technica said it had him “feeling a little philosophical about game design, and even life in general”.
There is a reason for this: the minimalism of the game allows those who download it to focus on the retro beauty of its 2D design, which is both intricate despite its simplicity and nostalgic in the way it channels the aesthetics of early video games from the 1980s. And for those among us who appreciate the art of making smartphone games, rejecting the virtual Skinner box in order to achieve this is a daring and refreshing step.