Happy Labor Day, everyone! You made a great decision in electing to come over and read this post about choices in video games! So let’s celebrate by talking about choices in games.
I started researching this topic a few weeks ago, actually, and it spiraled out of control and became an enormous tome-like document, so I’ve decided to break it into three parts.
Part I (this one) will discuss the different kinds of choices that we as humans make in a day, and the psychology that goes into making those choices.
Part II will delve into how and why choice matters in video games, or if it matters at all. We’ll also talk a little about the illusion of choice in games.
Part III will finish up this mini-series with an examination of morality choices, specifically in comparing morality bars to more nebulous “moral” choices in video games.
A Choice Made, a Decision Finalized
What is a choice? In our most extreme definition, everything we do that isn’t controlled by our autonomic nervous system is a choice. But let’s take a step back. What do we choose, and what do we decide?
I tend to differentiate choices from decisions in video games. This is going to get a little particular, but bear with me. A decision in a video game can be based on a mental calculation. For instance, you might know or infer the results and you decide whether the consequence is “worth it.” Most behavior modification theories are based on this idea of antecedent, behavior, and consequence (sometimes referred to as “ABC.” A few studies are linked at the bottom). In this case, the antecedent would be the presentation of the choice (for instance, choosing party members in an RPG game) and the consequence would be the stats that your party would have. Your behavior (or choice) is a calculation: is it “worth” having two mages if it means I have to leave my tank behind?
This is exactly how we make decisions in real life. For instance, if I’m your boss and I tell you to attend a meeting on Sunday morning at 4:00am and I would pay you a bonus of $10,000, but wouldn’t punish you for not attending, would you do it?
Antecedent: inconvenience of Sunday at 4:00am
Behavior: attend meeting or not?
Consequence for attending: $10,000
Consequence for not attending: sleeping in
You would decide which consequence is more appealing to you, or whether the antecedent is “worth” a “yes” response.
But what if I instead said that the Sunday meeting was at 4:00am, in a town 500 miles away from you, and I’d only give you a $100 bonus? What if I said if you didn’t show up, you’d be fired? What would it take to get you to the meeting?
This is a calculation, a decision.
A choice, by comparison, is something that makes you pause and think. The answers aren’t nearly as mathematical, and often pose conflicting information so you must switch from your logical, calculating brain to overcoming some kind of internal conflict. You’re now having an emotional response to the situation. As such, you’re now trying to regain homeostasis in the face of conflict, rather than just crunching numbers. Additionally, you might not know the consequences of your actions, adding pressure.
For an example, some people had to choose between leaving behind Hawke and Alistair in Dragon Age: Inquisition and expressed distress over it, since the one left behind might or might not die (I had a different choice because of how I played the previous games, but it’s a good example anyway).
Hawke was the playable character (designed by the player) in a previous game, and Alistair was the goofy, loveable sidekick/romance from an even more previous game. Both characters (usually) evoked positive feelings from the player, and the player was invested in both of them. But no math or stats here: which one do you choose to send to their almost-certain death?
For a real life example, I’d look at the trolley dilemma, a thought experiment in which you see a trolley coming down the track. As it approaches a fork in the tracks you see 5 people tied to one path and one person tied to the other. The trolley is headed straight for the 5 people, but you have time to flip the switch, which will result in the single person being killed but saving the other five. Do you flip the switch? What if you had to (for whatever reason) physically push someone in front of the trolley to stop it from hitting the five people? Would you push the person? What if it was someone you knew?
This is a choice. Emotions and morals have come into play and the scenario has far surpassed a simple calculation of “Is getting up very early in the morning worth $10,000?”.
Gaming Your Choice
The game might be devious in other ways, too. It might not give you all the data you need to make a decision and require you to make a choice quickly, sometimes forcing you out of your usual pattern of play (say, having to break cover and run after Meryl in Metal Gear Solid because you don’t know if she’ll disappear forever if you don’t catch her. Or, chasing after the mushroom in Super Mario Bros without knowing what baddies are going to pop up).
Alternately, the game might offer a faster path to the player, fraught with exponentially more enemies than the slower path, like in Metal Gear Solid: Snake Eater or Guns of the Patriots. Now the game is pitting the player against him or herself; the player might want to take the path that is most time-efficient, but doing so could cause an in-game consequence they don’t want (being spotted and shot at, in this case).
One of the more interesting (but less stressful) choices are when you are given a choice between two things you as the player want, but you can only have one. Dragon Age Inquisition drove me up a wall with this with the Inquisition Perks – you could only choose one, and there were options for upgrading how many items you could carry, to increasing how many experience points you’d receive for “X” behavior, and so on.
So there are many ways that games offer players choices and opportunities for decisions during play. But what does all of this mean when put in a playable context? Do the choices actually matter? Are more choices better? What do we mean when we say (if we say) we want “more choices” in video games?
What do you think? Is there a difference in the kinds of choices we are forced to make in video games? What are some of the hardest choices you’ve made? The hardest decisions? I’d love to hear your stories in the comments!
Stop by next Monday for Part 2 of this series, where we’ll discuss when and why choice matters in video games. And come by this Wednesday as we delve into theology and the world of Thedas.
Until then, thanks for stopping by, and I’ll see you soon!
For more on the ABCs of behavior modification:
Eckert, T.L., Martens, B.K., DiGennaro, F.D. (2005). Describing antecedent-behavior-consequence relations using conditional probabilities and the general operant contingency space: A preliminary investigation. School Psychology Review, 34(4), 520-528.
For more on the trolley dilemma:
Thomson, J.J. (1985). The trolley problem. The Yale Law Journal, 94(6), 1395-1415.
Or the easier to follow Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trolley_problem
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Really great post! It’s pretty cool to stop and really think about things like this. 😀
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Thanks! Glad you liked it! There are so many great details in video games that we simply accept when they’re there (but notice when they’re gone), so I’m glad you appreciate delving into the details!
Of course. Gaming is definitely a medium that has many layers to it. Heck, I’ve replayed Shadow of the Colossus about 4 times and each time was a different, personal experience for me. But having choice in games is easily one of the best features that a lot of games have adopted these days…as long as it’s done right.
Do you share these posts on any video game websites? I work over at Now Loading and this sort of content is just fascinating to read. If you were open to the idea of posting on our site in addittion to your blog, I’d be more than happy to help you get started. My e-mail is email@example.com 🙂
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Yes, I absolutely agree with “as long as it’s done right.” Thank you also for your comment on Shadow of the Colossus; I’m planning on delving into the more emotion-based ends of games in the coming weeks, so it’s nice to see someone who has had such varied experiences within the context of a single game over multiple playthroughs.
I actually don’t currently post on any other websites, but am very flattered by your offer! I am definitely interested and will send you an email as soon as I click “post comment” 🙂
I feel the Dragon Age choice fell a little flat with me, as I didn’t use the system they made for recreating saves to import, and ended up with the completely not mine generic Hawke or the I-don’t-remember-who-they-are Stroud as the sacrificial options. I carried no emotional weight with either of them.
Video games, I feel, have long had difficulty with making a choice have meaning. A lot of choices may have very drastic in-story impacts, but a lot of them don’t really reach the player. Going by your example, traveling 500 miles for a 4 a.m. meeting for a mere $100 is not something I’d consider in real life, but in any given open world game, I’ll send them fast-traveling across the country, arriving at some ungodly hour in the morning in game time, in order to turn in a quest worth a pittance. May be inconvenient for the character, but it’s all the same to me as the player unless I’m immersed enough to start considering these things.
Kind of makes the Mass Effect Kaiden vs. Ashley choice seem all the more powerful when you realize that choice has actual ramifications that they carried across a trilogy. At the same time, the lack of meaningful choices when that was expected points to a lot of the rage at the ending of Mass Effect 3. May indicated what a lot of the irritation with the Telltale Formula’s about, now that people have had enough of the similar games to realize their choices don’t matter as much as they seem, the players are disconnecting from the plots and characters within.
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Thanks for your thoughtful comment! You’re right, video games by their nature have difficulties “reaching” the player emotionally, because at the end of the day, we are removed from the characters. What happens in-game is never really going to affect us. So Link dies; Ganondorf doesn’t jump out of the television and take over Earth. You’re also absolutely right that my early-morning example doesn’t work in a video game, because usually characters don’t have to worry about sleeping, eating, or maintaining work-life balance, so they can show up at any time and they’re fine.
That’s why in a game, I would file my 4:00am example under a “decision.” It’s a mental calculation – moving the player to X spot at Y time isn’t inconvenient to you as a player and will not negatively impact you or the game, and there is a benefit to the action. Thus, you decide to make your PC travel to the other end of the galaxy in the middle of the night. The consequence (getting the item/whatever) is worth the antecedent (traveling across the galaxy at 4:00am with no negative effects to you or the game no matter what), so you perform the behavior (fast travel).
You make a good point about my Dragon Age example: that particular moment requires a certain amount of emotional investment in the characters for it to really fall into my “choice” category, especially since it doesn’t have much in-game consequence either way. Some people were choosing between Alistair, who they may have “romanced” in Origins, and a character they created, which in my mind translated as them being much more emotionally invested in both characters, creating a “choice” scenario that I thought readers might relate to.
This emotional investment is needed across examples of “choice.” I actually would put Kaiden and Ashley in the same category as the Hawke/other person choice, with the exception of when a player is faced with “generic Hawke” and “mustache-Warden.” From what I’ve read on the Bioware forums, people either made a “decision” (based on who has the better stats/story arc/whatever), or were making a choice (“I can’t stand Kaiden/Ashley and can’t live without Ashley/Kaiden!”). Assuming you didn’t have “generic” people in DA, you had to choose between two characters you knew (even me. I chose based on story-arc. It seemed fitting that Loghain’s sacrifice would be more meaningful than Hawke’s in the world I had created).
It seems that your DA characters didn’t provide the same “punch” as the Kaiden/Ashley choice did because of how DA managed previous game data (shame on it), but I would still suggest that the underlying principles are the same. I’ll try to include more cut-and-dry examples from now on, but thanks for keeping me on my toes with this one! 🙂
Choice needs some sort of emotional component to it, by the definition I’m using. You need to “feel” that it’s going to make a difference, either to you personally (you are emotionally/morally invested in a character/situation, e.g.) or in the game (an undesirable consequence that may or may not happen based on your actions).
And before I talk even longer, I’m going to invite you to come back next Monday, when I talk about whether and how our choices matter in games, because you raise very good points about this. Thank you so much for your comment, and I’m looking forward to hearing what you have to say as this topic continues!
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There many sorts of choices, aren’t there? It’s hard to pin down what makes for a choice “good” or “bad”, but I’ll try and throw out some generalisations here (apologies in advance for a long comment!).
I’m not a big fan of the Western RPG create your own character choices which ask you to pick your character stats in advance of playing the game. Do I want my character to be smart or brawny? I don’t know, I’ve not played the game yet! Put the same choice in the middle of a game and I don’t mind it nearly as much. Fallout 3 has its “perks” system where every level up nets you a new perk, and the Deus Ex series has something similar. I quite like those choices (even if sometimes I agonise over them) because at least by a certain point I know what my playstyle is like in those games and what will be useful to me over somebody else’s playstyle.
In general I like it when a game is transparent about the ramifications of choices and lets me make an informed decision. I often find it anxiety inducing if I’m near the end of a game, and you’re being asked whether you want to press forwards and yet aren’t sure if/where the “point of no return is”. I like it when a game is nice and upfront about it: “if you go forward now you will not be able to complete sidequests, you can’t save and you will be forced down a path to the end credits”. Thank you. Some games earn your trust with these things, others don’t. Persona 4 was pretty bad about this, it doesn’t give you much advance warning about the approaching end game, and in general there are tons of choices throughout the game that have zero effect, only to come across dialogue choices in the final portion of the game that determine whether or not you get the “true” ending or not. It’s inconsistent.
Lastly I’ll give an example of a game that handles choice extremely well in my eyes: Shadow of Memories on PS2. It’s an entirely linear game but it has two dialogue scenes with choices that dramatically impact the outcome. When I first played the game it wasn’t immediately obvious that my choice of dialogue was going to have a major impact on the game’s story, but after I selected an option the game immediately warned me with an “Are you sure?”. I promptly backtracked and changed my choice. After all, the game was letting me know this was something important! As it turns out it was extremely important: each of the three choices affects the ending you receive, with six possible endings, all substantially different and a direct reflection of the choices you made. I know people fetishise choices in games these days, as if the more choices you have the better the game is, but I would much rather have three meaningful choices over the course of a game than thousands of insignificant ones.
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Thank for your comment! Lengthy posts are fine; I love a good discussion!
I wholeheartedly agree that I much prefer building my character during a game than beforehand. I remember the first RPG I ever played was on a console, and had no background whatsoever. I made my choices based on “Oh, I like stealth games, so I’ll be a rogue” and “gee… they have higher dexterity than anything else, I’ll pop in a few more points there, then.” Not much of a choice, there; it was more of me shrugging, randomly pressing buttons, and hoping for the best. I’d hesitantly put that under “decisions” but it’s really a grey area. You are working with stats, especially if you play a lot of RPGs and/or you know what you’re doing (unlike I did!!), but you also don’t really know what’s coming down the line.
This part is a matter of preference, but I sort of like when I’m in the middle of a game and I think, “Arg, if only I could… (fill in an ability of another class).” For me, it mimics real life, when we’re put into situations only with what we have and we need to problem solve. For a silly example, I’m not six feet tall, so I sometimes need to get a stepladder for things (“Arg, if only I was a little taller.”) But yes, I’ll agree it’s REALLY frustrating to want to build an amazing character but not know what would best suit you! (Glares at Demon’s Souls taunting her from her “to play” pile).
I’m with you regarding the endings of games; I love when a little message pops up to warn me, so I can do all the little “saved for later” things I wanted to do before the game ended. As real as any game is, it’s still a game and I think a little warning about the story arc can be nice in some situations, like you’ve mentioned! But whatever the game does, you’re right that it should be consistent. Your decisions should always affect the game, or not.
I never really got into Persona 4 (maybe I didn’t play it long enough), but it sounds like I didn’t miss too much if that was the case! And I’ve never played “Shadow of Memories”; sounds like one I’ll have to look into!
So glad you brought up meaningful choices; check back next week for part two; hopefully we can have a good discussion!!
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