Decision making is not always easy (citation needed), especially when moral judgements are at play. A lot of media creates great opportunities for us to watch why other people make decisions, and to understand their context and reasoning, but I’ve always thought gaming (video and table-top) provides unparalleled opportunities to let us explore others' lives. Gaming lets us express ourselves in ways that would be difficult or impossible in real life, creating catharsis and the exploration of identity; but it also pushes us to build empathy through making decisions we never normally would.
Today, we’re going to focus (as we often do here) on the decisions.
In part one we discussed the sliding scale of decisions, from those we are aware of, to those that feel automatic. We then discussed how this affects us as gamers, and what to be aware of from a designer’s perspective. Today, we're going to build on some of those ideas, by looking at more complex decision making and information processing.
Brains are not static, there are ever-changing levels of base activation, driven by context and past experience, priming us to act in any given situation. This is also one of the mechanisms that makes brains so good at pattern recognition. If we are presented with a piece of information at the start of a sequence or story (for example, starting a modern military shooter and finding out you're working for a PMC), our brain primes us for the most likely next steps (the inevitable betrayal or revolution that sees us fighting against the PMC for the majority of the game)...
I must start with a disclaimer. I am not an academic. What I am is someone with a psychology degree, experience in a decision lab, and someone who "knows just enough to be dangerous". If you are here for an academic work, you may find the work of Chris Summerfield and his team more to your liking (http://decisions.psy.ox.ac.uk/).
This said, what I am interested in discussing here are my own mental heuristics of how decision making applies to gaming - I hope you find them useful as thought exercises, but please don’t expect me to be submitting them to Nature any time soon.
Right, let us begin...
Decisions are everywhere in games. Often cited design advice is that good games are a series of interesting decisions, but we rarely dig into what we mean by “decision”. We often use the word just for conscious decisions that we make, for example, leaving a thoughtful or angry comment below; however, if we take a psychology definition, it is “the cognitive process resulting in the selection of a belief or a course of action among several alternative possibilities”. This is immensely broad, and covers more than it may appear on the surface. Let's take killing Toriel, the player character's adoptive mother in Undertale, as an example of the layered decisions that occur for any action: