Thursday, August 2, 2012

Choices, choices...

I was doing a little research at work on UI design recommendations, and I came across this Apple developer guideline that basically says custom settings are bad (or, at least, should be de-emphasized).  There are some technical reasons in there for why, but I want to highlight something they float by nonchalantly:
When you design your application to function the way most of your users expect, you decrease the need for settings.
Give the people what they want, and they won't want to change it.  Or, to put it another way, the people will take what you give them and like it.  The latter is basically the Cult of Apple's M.O., but there's actually some behavioral support to the idea (so let's calm down, shall we).  This raises an interesting question: is choice actually good or bad for design?

Given the participatory nature of video games, it can be easy to assume choice is good in gaming.  In fact, we generally tend to see choice as a good thing in all aspects of life.  The freedom to choose is a God-given American right.  Americans don't like being told what to do. Why not?  Fuck you, that's why not.  'MERR-CA!

But what role does choice play in game design?

One of the biggest complaints you'll hear from Diablo fanboys about Diablo III is the lack of choice over stat changes at each level-up.

Nerds raged for weeks over the Mass Effect 3 ending because the game seemed to disregard the choices they had been making up to that point throughout the past two games.

People get mad when you don't give them choices.  And they get madder when they get choices that don't culminate in consequences.  People just don't like the feeling that they've been deprived some sort of control.

But the issue of choice and its impact on how you enjoy something is much more complicated than you might initially expect.  Choice isn't always a good thing.  Choice can be crippling.  Choice can be overwhelming.  In fact, choice can even make you unhappier in the long-term.  But the thrust of western game design is steadfast in the opinion that the more choices you have, the better.  I'll discuss here a little bit on what we know about choice and its impact on our happiness.

How Choice is Good

When you hear psychologists sing the praises of choice, they usually cite studies of freedom or control. You'll hear about experiments in which old people in retirement homes live longer on average when you give them some semblance of control - even when it's something as small as having a plant to water or having a choice of recreational activities.  Depending on who you ask, you'll hear different theories on the mechanism behind exactly why this happens, but regardless, the commonality is that having choices leads to an increase in people's lifespans.

Recent work by Simona Buetti and Alejandro Lleras at my university (and other research that led to it) suggests that even the illusion of choice makes people happier.  When presented with aversive stimuli, people feel less anxious if they believe they have some control over the situation, even if they didn't and were only led to believe that through clever experimental design.

Interestingly enough, this is accomplished through the same psychological mechanism that causes some people to swear to this day that pressing down+A+B when you throw a pok├ęball increases your odds of it succeeding.  If the capture attempt succeeds, it's because you did it correctly; if it fails, it's because your timing was just off.  It was never just random coincidence.  At least, that's how our young brains rationalized it.  Of course we had no control over the probabilities of a pokeball's success - but we convinced ourselves that we did.

But did he time it right?!  (VGcats)

You can do something similar in an experiment.  You have a bunch of trials where an aversive stimulus comes on for a random period of time - sometimes short, sometimes long.  Then you tell your subjects that if they hit a keyboard key with just the right timing, they'll end the trial early; if it goes on past the keypress, it's because they didn't get the timing right.  As a control condition, you give people the same set of random trials but don't let them make any keypresses.  Now you have one group with absolutely no control over the situation and another group with absolutely no control over the same situation, but thinks it does.

What you'll find is that the group that believes it had control over the trials comes out of the experiment less anxious and miserable than the group that definitely had no control.

Even when we have no control or choice, we'll latch onto anything we can to convince ourselves we do.  That's how committed we are to having choice - even the illusion of choice is enough to make us feel better.

Of course, humans also show a similar to commitment to heroin.  Is it necessarily a good thing?

How Choice is Bad

This is the more counterintuitive of the two theses here, so I'll flesh it out significantly more.

This thesis has been pushed forward popularly by a behavioral economist named Barry Schwartz (who's just as old and Jewish as his name suggests).  If you'd like to see a TED talk about what he calls "the paradox of choice," you can see it here:

I'll hit some of the highlights.

Choice is paralyzing.  As Schwartz mentions, having multiple attractive options for something can make someone freeze up and put off making a decision, even if it is to that person's detriment.  Not having to make a tough decision can actually psychologically offset the cost of procrastinating on it.  Full disclosure time: I have not finished a single Bioware game because of this effect.  I know, I know, it seriously hurts my nerd cred.  I was probably one of the last people in this world who had the big plot twist in KOTOR spoiled for him in 2010.

Attractive alternatives make us think about what we could've had instead of what we chose.  We just can't let ourselves be happy sometimes.  When presented with multiple attractive options, all we can do is think, "Did I make the right choice?"  And we spend all our time obsessing over what's wrong with what we did choose and how the alternative could be better.  The grass is perpetually greener on the other side.  And it gets worse the more easily we can imagine or access the alternative.  I have an example to illustrate this point below.

Making a choice affects how we perceive the decision and ourselves.  I have an entire post about this very topic brewing right now, so I'm not going to say too much on this just yet.  For now, I'll just say that it's much more often that our actions direct our opinions rather than the other way around - we just aren't aware of it.  You actually do a little bit of cognitive acrobatics whenever a decision is made that all happens without you realizing it.

First, you convince yourself that your decision was the right one - but only if you can't change your mind!  One study (I have the citation somewhere, but I can't for the life of me find it right now) had participants take a photography class, and at the end, they got their two favorite photos developed and framed.  The twist: the experimenter said they could only take one home, and the class would keep the other for its own display.  The manipulation here was that one half of the participants could change their mind and bring the photo back, whereas the other half had to make a final decision right there.

Just because something is in black and white doesn't mean it's good

When the experimenters later asked the students how much they liked the photo they ended up keeping, the students who were allowed to change their mind were actually less happy with their choice than those who had to stick with their first decision.

What happened?

The people who were stuck with one photo didn't have an alternative available to them, so they spent all their time convincing themselves how awesome the picture they chose was.  The people who could change their minds were pre-occupied with whether they should've gone with the other one, and so spent their time thinking about everything wrong with what they chose.  Freedom made them unhappier.

(An important subtlety I should point out is that, on average, people are happier with their choices when they're stuck with them than if they can change their minds.  This is a relative statement.  You can still be stuck with a decision and dislike it, but - assuming your options were equally good or bad to begin with - you'd be even angrier if you could've change your mind.)

If you want to see an example of this in the gaming wild, do a google search for Diablo II builds and compare the discussions you see there to discussions over Diablo III builds.  The major difference between the games: you can change your character's build in D3 any time you want, but it's (relatively) fixed in D2.  People still wax poetic about their awesome D2 character builds to this day and will engage with you in lively debate on how theirs was best.  With Diablo III, there's mostly a lot of bitching and moaning. People seem to love their D2 characters and are indifferent or even negative towards their characters in D3.  Why?  The permanence of their decisions and the availability of attractive alternatives.

All these skills and I haven't a thing to wear

The second thing that happens after you make a decision is you attribute its consequences to someone or something.  Depending on how the decision pans out, you may start looking for someone to blame for it.  Things can go in all sorts of directions here.  Schwartz opines that depression is, in part, on the rise because when people get stuck with something that sucks in a world of so many options, they feel they have no one to blame but themselves.

I'd disagree with that claim - first, because the idea about justifying your decisions, which I described above, would suggest that you'd eventually come around and make peace with your decision because, hell, you made it and you're stuck with it.  Second, I don't believe humans - unless the predisposition towards depression was there already - would dwell on blaming themselves.  People tend to have a self-serving bias: they believe they're responsible for good things that happen, and bad things are other people's fault.

No, I think we still pass the buck to whomever else we can when a decision pans out poorly.  In the case of video games, if you made a choice and are unhappy with it, you blame the game developer.  If the player is unhappy with the choice they made, they don't suddenly think, "I've made a huge mistake," they think, "Why would the developer make the game suck when I choose this option?"  And sometimes, they have no way of knowing whether the other option that's now unavailable to them would've been better or worse.  The game dev just ends up looking bad, and people hate your game.  (Again, look at Diablo III among the hardcore nerd crowd.)

I've been thinking a lot about how these factors have historically impacted choice in video games and how I think they made various games I've played either awesome or shitty.  Based on that, I think there are a few simple rules devs could follow to make choice enhance their games rather than hurt them.

But that's for the next post.


  1. Great post. As a Diablo III player (and a big D2 fan) I think you nailed it.

  2. Totally agree. It is possible to overdo it with a wall of spells and skills, leading to the "Oh HELL no do I have to min-max my way through this nonsense" reaction I had last night when cracking open Heroes of Might & Magic VI - compare this to the much more manageable systems in III or IV.