Video games as choice environments.

For starters, click here to take a look at an image I stumbled upon a few days ago. Okay, got it? Good.

At first glance I got a quick chuckle out of this and moved on to more pressing avenues of procrastination, but it hit me a bit later that this provides an excellent jumping off point for discussing some interesting questions that lie at the intersection of cognitive science and video games. So what's going on in the image anyway? Without taking any sides (this thing is surprising capable of inciting flamewars on gaming forums - examples here and here), we have a commentary on the evolution (or devolution, according to some commenters) of map design in first person shooters from relatively complex, non-linear environments conducive to exploration, to linear, highly structured levels more focused on presenting a particular story to the player. I don't want to spend too much time focusing on the details of the image itself, but a couple of things are worth noting. First, it should be clear that whoever created it (I wish I knew who the original creator was...anyone with insight please let me know!) is talking about single-player, or at the least the single-player modes of, first person shooters (FPS henceforth). Unless we count the chainsaw animations in Gears of War, there don't tend to be cutscenes in multiplayer game modes. Second, "scripted event" (here's a good description of the term if it's unfamiliar) is a more apt term to use here than "cutscene", but the point remains that main distinction being drawn is that between structured linearity on the one hand and free-roaming exploration on the other. Third, while we're obviously talking about a didactic generalization here, I take no stance on how representative this is of the true evolution of FPS map design. Though it fits comfortably into my intuitive sense of things, I am no authority on the history of FPS map design.

With that out of the way, let's get to the bigger picture. What this image captures is a distinction between games that maximize freedom for the player and those that minimize it in service of creating a very specific game experience. We can take sandbox style games like the Grand Theft Auto series or Just Cause 2 as examples of the first category, with on-rails lightgun shooters like Time Crisis being an extreme example of the second (plenty of modern FPS with linear campaign modes are also good examples, and more in line with what the cartoon was going for). From this perspective I could easily frame this discussion in terms of the the too-much-choice effect or cognitive overload, á la our previous two posts, but I deliberately used language of constraining/maximizing freedom to distance myself from that discussion and offer up my perspective, namely that games represent beautiful examples of choice architecture.

I borrow the term from Sunstein and Thaler's 2008 book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness. Thaler and Sunstein are economists, and the book deals with a lot of specific topics that I don't take up here, but their concept of choice architecture is an elegant one that has been a shaping factor of my personal research interests and given me a new way to think about game design. The idea is actually quite simple - "a choice architect has the responsibility for organizing the context in which people make decisions" (p. 3) - and can be applied to everything from choosing the organization of a grocery store to designing computer user interfaces to making the layout of a restaurant's menu. The point is that the decisions people make are unavoidably affected by the design of the environment in which they make them - there's no such thing as neutral design. There is plenty of psychological evidence for this perspective, largely stemming from the literature on heuristics and biases, but I'll save that for future posts. Suffice to say now that every design element of a choice architecture is going to encourage people to make one choice or another.

Back to video games. It may sound as if I'm saying that everything is a choice environment (which isn't completely untrue), so what makes games special? The answer is that a video game represents a closed, fully realized choice environment. Let's contrast this with the grocery store example. In this case, as the grocery store designer, let's say I'm trying to create an environment that will maximize sales. There are certainly design elements I can manipulate in the process, such as which items are on which aisles, the ambience of the store created by music, lighting, and color schemes, and so on. There are, however, many constraints on what I can and cannot do. Certain items need to be refrigerated, and the locations in the store where I can install the coolers are limited, plus there are many legal limitations on how I can design my store (in terms of fire escapes, for instance). We could surely add to this list, but the point is that real-world choice architects face limitations in how they go about their task. If we step into the vide game realm, however, these limitations all but disappear. A game designer has, at least within the constraints of the graphical capabilities and user interface of whatever platform being developed for, near complete freedom to create the virtual world as she sees fit. This means one can create a game world without the limitations imposed by OSHA, Newtonian physics, or most anything else. It follows that video games represent one of the few (possibly the only) environments where a designer truly has complete control over choice architecture. Where else, other than non-interactive film or literature, do there exist such immersive, fully realized environments? The really interesting implication here is that, in the context of the game world (setting aside the possibility of hacks or other exploits), the decisions the player can make are 100% subject to the constraints imposed by the game designer. To come back to the cartoon I opened this post with, video games are fascinating in that they permit such a debate to even exist. Without taking any sides with respect to which of the two scenarios the cartoon shows is superior, we can see that the cartoon is capturing the power of the game designer in the virtual environment, who is able to craft specific game experiences (though things like map design) in a way inconceivable in other domains.

It is this way of talking about games really captures their value as a research tool, since they allow us to explore the effects of environmental factors on individual and group behavior at fine-grained levels of analysis with far more freedom than in real world experiments. Ina research context, video games can allow us to strike a desirable balance between experimental control (we can completely specify the user's interaction with the game, after all) and ecological validity. For those unfamiliar with the second term, it refers to a study's ability to replicate real-life scenarios (So, for example, social psychology studies that ask people to make judgements on hypothetical situations described only in text form lack ecological validity, while those that actually place people in a social situation would be considered more ecologically valid). This last point warrants a more extended discussion than I have room for here, but I mention it to elaborate the thesis that games represent a useful - though woefully underutilized - means of exploring important questions within cognitive science, especially with respect to how people's actions are shaped by their physical environments. I've taken a rather roundabout path getting to this final point, but I hope that I've illustrated this central theme of my approach to games clearly. It will definitely be a perspective I bring to posts in the future.

Video games as choice environments. by Jared Lorince, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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