For anyone who knows me in person or has read this blog, it’s no revelation that I hold Dark Souls (From Software, 2009) in high consideration, and consider it a huge inspiration in terms of games design. I’m forever amazed that no matter what games design theory you think of, Dark Souls has an interesting application for it. This blog will briefly explore one I have studied recently: operant behaviour in games design.

In the 1930s, psychologist B.F. Skinner brought forward the theory of operant behaviour, arguing that behaviour is learned through a set of reinforcements and/or punishments (McLeod, S., 2015). As Salen and Zimmerman note, this is an important concept in games design, as it allows designers to “shape the actions players are likely to take in the future” (Salen, K. and Zimmerman, E., 2004, p. 345). Three of these reinforcements are of particular interest for this post: positive reinforcement, negative punishment, and the more subtle negative reinforcement. Read on to find out more…

The Dark Souls series uses a fairly straight-forward way to reward players for killing enemies: they gain points. These points, called “souls”, are an in-game currency allowing the players to level-up but also to buy items. This is positive reinforcement: a positive stimulus (souls) after desired behaviour is exhibited (killing things).

In most games, rewards such as experience points and money are never lost and can be spent at the player’s convenience and whim. Not so in Dark Souls: in order to spend their reward, players must either find a merchant in the world or, to level up, reach one of the “bonfires”, safe places dotted through the levels. A very real challenge occurs here: if the player dies before reaching a merchant or bonfire, they lose all the souls they have accumulated. This is effectively a negative punishment, removing a positive stimulus (souls gained) after undesired behaviour is exhibited (dying).

However, the game uses an interesting mechanic to turn this punishment on its head: the player can recover the souls if they reach and stand on the exact location where they died; furthermore, the game only allows the player one chance (one “life”), after which the souls are gone forever. This is in the realm of negative reinforcement: removing a negative stimulus (losing the souls) after desired behaviour is exhibited (reaching the place of death and not dying), adding an interesting layer of complexity in the way the game handles punishment.

Schell (2015, p. 223) explains that taking risks in games is exciting, but that this must be balanced with efficient use of punishment. It’s interesting to note that Dark Souls asks the player to take risks for both punishment and reward, an unusual proposition. Indeed, Dark Souls is not just a “git good”, tough game – it is a game that embraces operant behaviour theory to play with its players’ complex minds, making punishing gameplay all the more rewarding. Ornstein and Smough* salute you!

*A diabolical duo teaming up for one of the toughest boss fights in the series. Yes, I summoned Solaire to beat them. The game designers wanted me to!


From Software (2009) Dark Souls. Namco Bandai Games.

McLeod, S. (2015) Skinner – Operant Conditioning | Simply Psychology. Available at: (Accessed 30 October 2017).

Salen, K. and Zimmerman, E. (2004) Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

Schell, J. (2015) The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

All images my own.