Tuesday, January 21, 2020

A Tale of Two Chickens

A Skinner Box is any setup rewarding "good" behavior and punishing "bad" behavior. If you imagine that humans have transcended the animal kingdom, start looking for Skinner Boxes in the animal world (e.g. reproduction = good = reward; not sleeping/eating/drinking = bad = punishment), and you'll find that every damned one of them not only engages humans but absolutely captivates us. The shitty reward pellets are THE GREATEST THING EVER ("Go Cubs!!!").

Whenever we find ourselves in Skinner Boxes - as we do a zillion times per day - we instinctively strive for the cookie, and avoid the electric shock. We're no fools. We know how the game's played.

As I wrote here:
When the subject learns that a certain action triggers, say, an electrode buried in the orgasm part of its brain, that action will be repeated, over and over again, ad infinitum. It will become the defining action of the subject's life. It's the action that makes the good thing happen.

The reward must be well-suited to the subject. If the subject is a chicken, which is basically a biological device for pecking endless grain, you set up your Skinner box to feed the chicken. And the chicken will never stop responding in the way you've trained it to. It never "gets wise". Blessed with the result it most seeks, there's no reason to ask deeper questions. The chicken thinks it's just killin' it.
I'm a slightly wiser chicken (#slightlywiserchicken). I've noticed that the cookie's not so great, nor is the electric shock particularly damaging. I've transcended the must-have-cookie/must-avoid-shock mindset. If you tempt me with a cookie-producing red button and a shock-producing green button, I'll triumphantly call out "Skinner Box!!", press nothing, and breathlessly await some Higher Reward.

I feel as though I've ingeniously gamed the game, but:

1. There is no higher reward.
2. The other chickens think I've lost my mind.
3. I annoy the bejesus out of lab techs, who do not admire test subjects who catch on. The sheets on their clipboard do not have a third box to check. You will be not feted but refuted.

And, alas, I'm only a slightly wiser chicken, not the Chicken King. So I keep repeating this move over and over - hollering "Skinner Box!!" and awaiting the recognition that never comes. Perhaps I just need a different sort of Skinner Box. I'm winning the hell out of the next level, but that's just not the current gameplay.

Psychologists have found that if you consistently reward good behavior and punish bad behavior, the subject becomes well-behaved. But if you mete out reward and punishment randomly, the subject loses its health and its hair, and ramps up into anxiety or down into depression. The subject goes nuts (#nuttychicken).

I have been a rejected slug in the coin chute of every institution and system that's ever made the error of receiving me, and they've responded with torture. In all the many realms I've toiled, I've been deemed fantastic by a few and contemptible by many. And there's been no pattern to it, though I've scrambled to try to straighten it out. It can't ever be straightened out if you categorically transcend Skinner Boxes, because Skinner Boxes are all there is. You want cookies? Press the button that gives you the frigging cookie. Don’t overthink it!

When a world runs on reward/punishment, the slightly wiser chicken (#slightlywiserchicken) can only amuse itself via showerings of chintzy cookies and feeble shocks. The pointlessness of it all, and the randomness of the outcomes, feel horribly oppressive. And it's all on dopey me, because my visceral determination to always break the box cannot lead to any happy result in The Only Game There Is.

I attended music school with a talented sax player. He kept his head down and pushed the right buttons, for which he was duly and consistently rewarded. I fought mightily, mashing all the buttons, or no buttons at all, triumphantly hollering "Skinner Box!", determined to opt out of poultrification.

My friend was promoted to the good band, I was demoted to the special needs band. He graduated with warm handshakes and proud well-wishing, I dropped out wordlessly and was never to be mentioned again (I've been purged countless times; e.g. don't look for me in the Wikipedia listing of prominent NY Press alumni, and AO Scott's kind shout-out here was an anomaly).

In the 90s, I blasted out of the stifling chrysalis of the conservatory, befriending every elderly black forgotten jazz great I could find stranded in dismal-but-swinging gigs within a three hour drive of Manhattan. I stretched in every respect, playing all styles with monogamous devotion (and promiscuously eating my way through every cuisine). I had drive.

My friend moved to NYC along with some classmates, with whom he played exclusively. They were fine, but I asked him why he didn't take advantage of the incredible pool of experience and talent. I told him about my gigs with guys like Walter "Baby Sweets" Perkins (the hot drummer of 1959), Eddie Barefield (who'd been an elder mentor of Charlie Parker back in the 1940s), and Shorty Jackson (a pianist who'd played with Stepin Fetchit and who was so old that literally everyone who'd ever heard of him was long gone). My friend listened with polite interest, and replied, with the smooth confidence of a winning chicken, that "the guys I went to school with are the guys I like to play with". Less tolerant in those days, I let my disgust show, and we lost touch with each other.

Decades later, I just found a gig of his on YouTube. He sounds good. He always sounded good! But his progress has been incremental, not exponential. He’s still that same guy, only more polished. He never reached escape velocity. This is what comes from persistent cookie seeking; of turning toward positive reinforcement like a rhododendron angling toward the sun. It's a perfectly lovely low-friction lifestyle so long as you never seek transcendence; never glimpse the tedious banality of the game.

Tormented by random reward/punishment; despised by officiators, gatekeepers, and dweebs in six different fields; bald, haggard, and perpetually uncomfortable; I’ve managed to claw out the creative results I'd hoped for (see "Genie Wishes"). But he has a career.


Anonymous coward said...

I got a long comment, I split into two. Part one of two. A major theme in your post is the path of least resistance. The path of least resistance is skinner box, trashy cookie good annoying shock bad. Deviating from the path has consequences. Reminds me of a poem by Robert Frost. I find that society punishes people who stray from the path, I decided as a scientific experiment to not brush my teeth to see if brushing teeth was a waste of time or helped. Guess what, my teeth got worse and I am still paying from taking the road not taken as in Robert Frost.

Same goes with anti-vaxxing, anti-flouride, raw vegan, again I took the road not taken, and it has made all the difference. Yet, I wonder how the people fare who never take the thorny path? People who always follow the skinner box/path of least resistance. Which goes to a point you made about random consequences and nutty chickens.

Let's say I could borrow Dr. Who's time machine or a parallel universe where I took the milder path. I don't think it would have made that much of a difference. We live in an arbitrary and discriminatory society according to Privilege, Power, and Difference
by Allan G. Johnson (Goodreads Author)
Reward and punishment are random, or more accurately white, male, non-disabled, heterosexual, and many more privilege. In short, poor at 20 poor for life or classism. Yes, I could have mad e better choices and worked harder, but I most likely would only have been slightly better off.

Life, society, and videos games solemn reward creativity or straying from the path. In dungeon crawls like Shining in the Darkness the player is rewarded for grinding. Exploring every single inch of every low level cave several times over until the mid-boss is trivial and the boss is easy. Straying from the skinner box means finding the shortest distance in the maze to the mid-boss.

The player will almost certainty be overpowered and be punished. Even worse, if somehow the player defeats the mid-boss often the player becomes stuck as a game changing event occurs and all the low level monsters are replaced with higher level monsters denying the player the ability to grind and thus making the game virtually impossible if not impossible.

For example, in DnD Warriors of the Eternal Sun, the town disappears after a certain event. Brutally punishing players who take the fastest route and rewarding adventures who grind ad nausea. In Nintendo game Exodus, a similar event happens, where the monsters spike in difficulty.

In Final Fantasy tactics and Elder Scrolls Oblivion, games where the monsters level up as you do the game quickly becomes impossible if you deviate from only a few possible strategies. Conditioning the player to avoid hundreds of mediocre strategies and only focus on a few excellent strategies.

Anonymous coward said...

Long comment part 2 of 2.

Players often become annoyed, look up online a strategy guide the few overpowered tactics and punished for trying to learn on their own. Think about it a player can read a manual and follow the guide verbatim and rewarded or stray and be punished. In this case, video games are skinner boxes.

Why is this bad? Well in a game magic the gathering, a card game, an overpowered deck, Ravager Affinity swept the format. A game that could have 5-6 vastly different decks or archetypes was effectively reduced to one. There might be small differences in one Ravager Affinity deck versus another, but the format was stale.

Another example is in Master of Orion 2, it all comes down to destroying the Guardian which rewards the player with a very powerful ship, more powerful than the ships required to defeat the Guardian. The entire game is reduced to who can most quickly destroy the Guardian. A diverse environment of fauna is reduced to a mono-culture.

A final example, in never-winter nights Hordes of the Underdark the Barbarian and Gnome Wizard seem the only viable strategies. Both high hpts and high damage, brute force, just run into a room and kill everything in a few seconds. I tried the green punishment button of trying a rogue and an arcane archer, both were much weaker and I found the game literally impossible with both. Despite a dozen or so classes, only two you could beat the game with. Thus conditioning the player to play only a Barbarian or Wizard.

In contrast remove the competitiveness, reduce the difficulty, and a whole bunch of strategies and diversity become available. Note, some games are so difficult that simply removing the overpowered strategy will not help, because then the game would literally be impossible. For example, in Final Fantasy tactics geomancers are under-powered, there is no way that they can win, taking out the overpowered strategies would be irrelevant.

In summary, in a competitive environment whether it be a board game of Monopoly, an online game, or careers we a trained to follow the path of least resistance and conditioned by a skinner box. The few overpowered strategies become the reward and the vast multitude of strays become the punishment. Over time only the overpowered strategies will remain anyone who tries anything different will be punished and ridiculed whether they deserve it or not.

Worst case scenario, the difficulty is placed so high that only wall street CEOs can make a decent living. You make one little mistake and you forever an outcast and destitute. Best case scenario the difficulty is so low that terrible strategies can seem fun, exploration is enjoyable, and creativity is rewarded. I love it when playing on a low level difficulty, single player in Master of Orion 2 when I deliberately pick the worst possible faction and am pleasantly surprised when I still win.


Blog Archive