Dr. Skinner, your birds are angry

Rovio has announced that Angry Birds Space was downloaded 10 million times in less than three days. In fact, the game has been downloaded half a billion times since it was released three years ago. It’s amazing that the Angry Birds phenomenon is still so powerful, but not surprising when viewed through the lens of behavioral psychology.

Shortly after the original Angry Birds iPhone game was released in December, 2009, IGN posted a review:

“It’s a very simple formula, but thanks to precise controls (you drag your bird back in the slingshot to determine power and throw angle), great puzzle designs, and excellent atmosphere, Angry Birds is outrageously addictive. (Really, I am sleepy today because I played this until three in the morning.)”

The thing that kept reviewer Levi Buchanan awake until 3:00 wasn’t flying birds, but an intermittent, unpredictable schedule of positive reinforcement.

Angry Birds and Behaviorism

Prior to my life as a professional nerd, I was a special education teacher. I spent over 10 years teaching kids with autism and other developmental delays. My classroom was part of a residential school that implemented the Lovaas Method of Applied Behavior Analysis. Ole Ivar Lovaas and B.F. Skinner were our Steve Jobs and Jonny Ive. I even met Dr. Lovaas once. Shook his hand. Yeah, it was cool.

Positive Reinforcement

Crucial to our work was the concept of positive reinforcement. Briefly, positive reinforcement is anything that increases the likelihood that a behavior will be repeated. For example, a Seaworld employee wants to train a seal to “shake hands” with its flipper. The trainer knows that the seal loves to eat smelts. [1. I’ve no idea what seals like to eat.] During training, the seal is given a smelt whenever it extends its flipper to shake the trainer’s hand. Eventually it figures out what’s going on and will extend a flipper to receive a smelt all on its own.

Of course, the technique isn’t limited to marine life. Many of us work 40 hours a week to receive a paycheck. My kids make their beds and I kiss them and tell them what a great job they’ve done. They enjoy the praise and affection from dad, so they’re likely to clean up again to get more kissie face.

Others hurl birds at pigs. When you conquer a level by demolishing the structure and defeating the pigs, you feel good. “Hey, I did it!” You enjoy that feeling, so you’re likely to repeat the behavior that introduced it. Namely, playing Angry Birds.

“But Dave,” you say. “I don’t win every time. Therefore, I’m not receiving the positive reinforcement. So why do I keep playing?” Actually, that’s precisely why you keep playing. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. You aren’t 100% certain that any one bird will land successfully. That intermittent schedule of delivery is extremely powerful. Let me explain.

No, there is too much. Let me sum up.

Intermittent Schedules and Extinction

Imagine you work in an office with a break room. There’s a vending machine in the break room that dispenses soda. Every day at lunch you put four quarters into it and hit the bottom button. Why the bottom button? Because, for some reason, it gives two cans of soda. You get two for the price of one. Sweet!

One Monday morning you go in and hit the bottom button. One can comes out. You hit it again. And again. Nothing. You try again the next day. One can. Two days later. Three. One can each time.

On Friday you figure, “Well, that’s over. No more twofer’s for me.” Still, you tap the bottom button, just to give it one last “chance.”

Two sodas pop out.

You’re hooked. Now you’ll hit the bottom button every single day. What’s more, you’ll tolerate longer and longer periods of “failures,” as you’re certain it will “start working” again if you just keep trying. Each time it does, your conviction is further solidified and the reward is more enjoyable. “Maybe this time.”

If you never received a second can on that fateful Monday, you would have stopped performing the behavior. That’s called extinction.

Putting It Together

Angry Birds delivers positive reinforcement on an unpredictable, intermittent schedule. As such, it’s extremely powerful and all but immune to extinction. Incidentally, blackjack tables work the same way.

There’s much more to Angry Birds’ popularity, of course. It’s cute, funny, portable, inexpensive, easy to learn, the graphics are pretty, etc. The developers and marketing team have done a great job. But the behavioral aspect is undeniable.

Either that, or the folks at Rovio are actually Ktarians.