How much choice do players really want?

In his last post Matt discussed how players may modify different UI components so as to deal with the slew of motivationally relevant elements they encounter during complex and dynamic gameplay. This personalization of one’s interface allows the player to attend to and process information in a manner that is maximally engaging by allowing a closer match between one’s pool of cognitive resources and the cognitive demands of one’s gameplay experience.

One might also note that this act of customization is likely in itself a motivating aspect of gameplay.  Indeed, literature on gratification, learning, and user interfaces all find that individuals tend to prefer and become more engaged in exercises in which they are permitted at least some degree of control, customization, or personalization. And research specifically focusing on MMO gameplay like that discussed by Matt  has found that players who are allowed to customize their avatar are actually more physiologically aroused by and cognitively in tune with their avatar’s onscreen actions.

One explanation for these sorts of findings stems from self-determination theory. SDT, which itself is comprised of multiple sub-theories, essentially suggests that we all have an innate, adaptive desire to exert control over the circumstances in our lives and that in being able to make choices for ourselves we exercise and validate a sense of  autonomy. Further, (and key to our discussion) SDT reasons that because we are driven by a need for autonomy, we are more likely to be intrinsically motivated by conditions in which we can determine our own outcomes. In other words, we enjoy having a say in what happens to us, and therefore we enjoy having the option to choose.

Such a predisposition naturally explains the enjoyment one might find in the diversion of games, particularly those types of games in which players are permitted to define themselves and their conditions through customization and deciding between alternatives. Role-playing games, for example, do exactly this, as they typically allow players to name characters, assemble self-selected teams, customize character appearances and equipment, decide both depth and breadth of character skill specialization, discover multiple winning strategies, and explore both narratives and environments in a non-linear fashion.

And indeed, in the last few years other game types have become increasingly infused with such elements. First person shooters such as Modern Warfare and Borderlands are including progressively more intricate systems of skill specialization and equipment customization. Sports titles across the board have picked up “franchise mode” systems in which players not only enact the sporting events themselves, but get to make decisions regarding line-ups, draft picks, and athlete contracts. Even fairly simplistic puzzle games like Bejeweled now regularly include the player selection of alternate gameplay bonuses for each round. It would seem that titles found in all sorts of traditional “genres” are catering to a player desire for determining the circumstances of one’s own gameplay experience by including more choice decisions and more alternatives from which to select. And such commercial trends have been corroborated by academic research which has found that subjects report higher levels of enjoyment for and tend to spend more time playing games that offer relatively greater amounts of choice to their players.

However, can there be such a thing as offering players too much choice? A number of studies in real world environments have found that despite being driven by and showing a preference for an increased number of options and alternatives, people placed in scenarios that cater to this drive may experience certain negative consequences (a phenomenon termed the “paradox of choice”). For example, having an extended amount of choice options has been found to be demotivating, resulting in inaction or decreases in performance quality. In addition to such behavioral effects, “too much choice” has also been said to lead to specific cognitive detriments. These include delay or paralysis when faced with making a decision, negative affect or frustration in light of making a decision, and potential regret with one’s choice after a decision is finally made. Such negative consequences stem from the fact that having a large number of choices increases the amount of information an individual must process in order to make an informed/wise/rational decision.. This can become quite a demanding, challenging, and frustrating deliberative task as options are made more extensive. Yet, despite these negatives, people tend to nonetheless show preference for having an extended number of choices available.

Is there reason to believe that the problem of “too much choice” may carry over to virtual game environments? Well, to the extent that the choices they present are informationally sparse, have short-lived consequences, and allow for switching a decision at a low-cost, then games can likely avoid decision-paralysis, frustration, and regret on the part of players. However, this is increasingly not the case. In-game choices are not only becoming more numerous and extensive, but also – particularly in the case of large-scale virtual worlds and online networked gaming – more permanent and more costly to undo. Further, player customization options are increasingly non-trivial, as many decisions have real consequences for in-game success, in terms of both overcoming the hard-coded challenges and garnering social capital within a community of players.

Take for instance World of Warcraft, in which players currently face an environment filled with 19,363 types of armor, 718 trade good items, between 150-250 different abilities per player class, another 150-250 different talents per class, 263 different animal mounts, and 1,999 types of consumable (finite use) items (  Moreover, many of these different options are compared on a large number of attribute ratings – bonuses to one’s armor rating and stamina, for instance. Such attributes, both in their number and in their often incomparable effects, only exasperate the process of deliberating over and selecting from alternatives.

For many players facing these choices it is important to make the right decisions, as they often have implications not only for a character’s ability to complete new missions or explore new zones, but also for the social desirability of the player in the context of team-based group play. (Indeed, whether achievers, explorers or socializers, all types of players are often best served by making the “correct” decisions.) But again, to make an informed decision in such an information rich choice environment requires some cognitive heavy-lifting. It takes time and effort to identify relevant information, to weight and compare options, and to then make a decision. And while a given number of players may get their kicks from this process of testing out the relative superiority of alternative “specs” and gear sets, we may anecdotally assume that many players do not particularly enjoy such an exercise. Such players (likely more casual and less hardcore in their gameplay style) surely still take pleasure in the freedom to choose, but may find it frustrating to do the work necessary for ascertaining the “right” choice.

Ultimately, the issue of “too much choice” may pose a relatively larger problem for game environments than real world scenarios. Unlike the real world, games are constructed with the express intention of being enjoyable.  However, if players who find it frustrating or paralyzing to deal with extensive options are required to do so in order to progress, frustration may increase and enjoyment may suffer.

Therefore, as player choices become more numerous, complex, and consequential (and thus more taxing and demanding), how might designers reduce the potential for players to grow frustrated or paralyzed when deliberating over what decisions to make?

1) Reduce choice. One solution would be to simply reduce the amount of choices players are permitted in games. But such an approach would throw the baby out with the bath water: a reduction in the number of options and decisions presented to a player would indeed dispel the negative consequences of choice, but would also junk the intrinsic rewards SDT tells us are conferred by the freedom to choose.

2) Reduce information. Another approach would be to continue the current trend of increased availability of choices, but to simplify the informational load of these choices. For example, this could be achieved by decreasing the number of component attributes players need to compare when deciding between multiple alternatives. However, such a tactic would have to be conducted in moderation, otherwise it may merely result in a multitude of choices that feel obvious, hollow, or insignificant

3) Reduce processing. An alternate solution may be the inclusion of decision-aiding tools that help streamline the information load placed on the player while still placing the actual decision in the hands of the player. Returning again to Matt’s post, UI mods already permit this to some extent. Other tools would include player-accessible data aggregators and the ability to crowd-source. Though these devices may have their own drawbacks (for example, decreasing the player’s immersion into a virtual world’s fiction), they may still be less detrimental to player engagement than flat reductions of choice or choice attributes.

Developers have thus far been able to keep up with the increasing preference amongst players for more choice in their gameplay experiences. Yet, if current trends continue, players in all sorts of games may soon find themselves with more choice-related information than they can handle. At that point designers will need to find means by which to stave off the detriments of “too much choice” while still catering to a player desire for freedom. However it’s done, it will clearly require a careful balance of alleviating the cognitive demands placed on players with promoting the feeling of autonomy that makes our choices meaningful.

How much choice do players really want? by Jim Cummings, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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  1. Motivate. Play. - GDC Tuesday: Playdom on Behavioral Economics in Games - [...] and I have actually written on the paradox of choice. The paper is still in press, but for those …
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