On Film, the Skinner Box, and Television

I usually leave film and television reviews to the professionals. Generally speaking, they understand the media far better than I do. However, there are a few things I’d like to say – some negative, some positive – on the general subject of how film and television works are made, and what trends seem to be manifesting in the process lately.

First, let’s set some ground rules: I’m not here to promote or deride any particular film or series; I may use a few as examples, but by and large I’m interested in the larger picture – the trends and forces shaping modern film arts.

Second, I may need to bring my readers up to speed on some psychological research that’s been done regarding a similar, but off-tangent, media: video and computer gaming. So let’s get that out of the way now, shall we?

Skinner Boxes and Addictive Gaming

B.F. Skinner was a professor of psychology at Harvard. He was also an inventor, author, and social philosopher. Way back in the 30’s or so, while he was still a graduate student, he created the ‘Operant Conditioning Chamber‘, now commonly referred to by the nickname ‘Skinner Box’.

In brief, the box could be used to experiment in the field of behavior deterrence/reinforcement – using animals as the test subjects, of course.

The methodology was simple: use rewards and punishments in carefully controlled increments and timing to train a test subject into or out of the desired behavior.

Fast forward to the modern day, and it’s not too surprising that the creators of video games are very interested in applying Skinner’s research to game creation: after all, games are now focusing on replay factor and MMO subscriptions, rather than single use purchases. Games like World of Warcraft and Farmville are particularly egregious examples of behavioral modification through Skinnerian reinforcement techniques. For more on  this subject, you can check out the Cracked article here, which does an apt and accurate job of bringing this nasty subject to light.

Movies, the cash cow and art form

Movies recently have started very obviously color-coding their films in order to produce the desired emotion: green for an off-kilter effect (Fight Club, The Matrix), blue for horror (The Ring, Saw), gray and washed out for an apocalyptic, gritty feel (The Book Of Eli, Terminator: Salvation). This has nothing to do with art, and everything to do with creating a recognizable tone that the audience will behaviorally associate with other films they’ve seen in that particular genre. Generally the movies that do this follow the color coding of other, successful, predecessors.

Psychologically speaking, until you sit back and really analyze the film, your responses to the film will tend to be influenced by your feelings about that other film. It’s subtle, and very real science, and allows film-makers to be hap-hazard about cluing the audience in to the plot. All that’s needed is a sketchy outline, and we fill in the painting with our minds.

I’m not saying that there haven’t been beautiful and amazing films released, nor that the only ones worth considering are independent – far from it. I just think it’s a worrying trend towards artistic laziness and Skinnerian plot techniques.

Film is still the mildest offender of the three major moving-picture media (games,TV,movies). And don’t be worried that somehow the studios are going to control your brain – there’s no profit margin. Lol.

the Boob Tube and the Skinner Box
When one sees a character one identifies with rewarded, one tends to feel rewarded themselves. When one sees that character punished, that same identification works to make one feel punished. This can form an addictive cycle, forcing watchers to tune in for every episode in order to feel the rush of reward and punishment. This is most prominently used in daytime soaps like All My Children or Days Of Our Lives, but it’s increasingly common in prime-time television. Everything seems affected, from reality programming like Biggest Loser and Next Food Network Star, through the crime genre like Bones and NCIS, to shows like Glee and The Gates.

In the case of the reality programs, the audience feels attached to the outcome because it could be them up there. In the case of Bones, NCIS, and similar shows, the interactions between major characters often occlude the ostensible premise of the show, and create reward/loss scenarios. In the final two examples, Glee and The Gates, the only seeming purpose of the show is character interaction in a reward/loss paradigm, any reasonable course of action being thrown out the window in favor of cheap drama – to the point of the ridiculous.

Final Summary: Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love the Skinner Box

In the final analysis, these shows and games and movies may indeed be using cheap, contemptible and dirty tricks to get us to watch, play, and pay. The question remains, is that necessarily so bad?

I’ve done some waffling on this: I don’t like it when someone tries to get inside my head and condition me to like things. It’s creepy, and it brings up too many Brave New World connotations for me to be comfortable.

On the other hand, I’m a realist, and it seems to me that as long as there is a competitive entertainment industry, there will be attempts to gain market share by any (legal) means necessary. Is it a good thing? I don’t know. But I know it’s probably here to stay.

My opinion is that it’s only bad when the quality of the medium is reduced to the point of honest bafflement over a show’s popularity – i.e. when most of us are watching it, and not knowing why we watch it, or hating ourselves for doing so. In point of fact, most of the shows, movies and games I’ve mentioned are in and of themselves pretty enjoyable – and would be more so if the creators weren’t so pathetically eager to pull out the stops in a cynical bid for our wallets.

So gimme a pellet, Skinner – I’m ready for my box.

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One thought on “On Film, the Skinner Box, and Television

  1. Eh, you may be reading too much into this. It’s possible, for example, that people watch certain TV shows regularly because they’re good TV shows. There doesn’t have to be anything more than that.

    That said, I’m sure various companies would like to think they’ve mastered some Skinnerian formula to keep us all tuned in. I don’t know that they have, but I’m sure they’d like to think they have.

    Like

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