Musings on Decision Fatigue and Game Design
An intriguing article in a recent Sunday New York Times Magazine had me thinking about the role of choice in games. The piece, “ Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue?” by the Times’ Science columnist John Tierney, served as an introduction to the concept of Decision Fatigue, and a related notion, termed Ego Depletion. The concepts focus on the idea that a person’s willpower can be thought of as something that can be used up throughout the course of a day: each choice I make during the day acts like a tiny withdrawal from my cognitive bank account, and at some point I’ll have made so many decisions that it will be substantially harder for my brain to make subsequent choices. And this is where things start to get interesting, because according to Tierney, once my brain throws up its figurative hands and says, “no more, I can’t take it,” I will likely take one of two shortcuts:
“One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences. (Sure, tweet that photo! What could go wrong?) The other shortcut is the ultimate energy saver: do nothing. Instead of agonizing over decisions, avoid any choice.”
Interesting as this may be, what does it have to do with games? If I’m being honest, I’m not entirely sure. I started this post a week ago because I know that there is something important wrapped up in these concepts. Choice is central to game play; no less than one of the elder statesmen of games, Sid Meier, summed this up when he noted that “Games are a series of interesting choices.”
In the words of Tracy Fullerton, in her superlative Game Design Workshop, choices in games only matter when there are consequences to these choices:
For a game to engage a player’s mind, each choice must alter the course of the game. This means the decision has to have both a potential upside and a downside; the upside being that it might advance the player one step closer to victory, and the downside being that it might hurt the player’s chances of winning. This concept is often called “risk versus reward,” and it is something we face every day in our own lives, not just in games. When Sid Meier says “interesting choices,” what he means is that the game must present a stream of decisions that directly or indirectly impact the player’s ability to win. This is because, in addition to story elements, drama and suspense in games can arise naturally from asking players to make decisions that have weight and consequence .
When we play really absorbing games, the consequences of the choices that we make – though technically restricted to the computers, consoles, or boards that enable game worlds – feel very real. As a result, games can be exhausting exercises: after playing 8 straight hours of Battlefield Bad Company 2, I’d be very suspicious of my faculty for judgement.
At the same time, games can provide framework for exploration of consequences of decisions so that the the next time we encounter a similar decision in real life we are better equipped to make a choice without having to take on the mental burden of trying to weigh the pros and cons of the alternative courses of action.
So, are games things that contribute to Decision Fatigue? Or do they have a restorative function, in effect helping to re-charge my decision making capacities? My guess is somewhere in the middle. And, by avoiding making a decision in this post, I’ve thus spared my limited mental capacity for a place where my decisions really matter: online games.