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The Fallacy of Choice (In Games and Real Life)
by Ben Serviss on 12/06/12 04:24:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

This article originally appeared on

Molleindustria's Unmanned

Molleindustria’s Unmanned presents unclear choices in unconventional scenarios.

Games love to make a big deal about choices. Unfortunately, most of the time your only options boil down to either saving the helpless baby lamb from starving wolves or punting it to the pack leader, with nary a shade of gray in between.

With such shoddy ‘choices’ to pick from, any savvy gamer can easily size up the predictable ramifications for later gameplay, then depending if he’s playing through as a saint or a shithead, make the corresponding selection. 

How is this really a choice? More than anything else, choices in most games resemble a metagame that game designers play called something like “Stay in Your Lane.” Lawful Good, here’s your lane. Chaotic Bad, here’s your lane. Want to switch lanes? Go right ahead, but in most of these D&D wannabees, there’s simply no option to carve out a mixed path.

You’ve made your decision about how you’ll play, and though you can stray or even change philosophies, your choices amount to on/off switches throughout the game as opposed to real decisions that ripple out nuanced consequences.

Sounds like a pretty poor imitation of what real life choices are, right? Here’s where it gets interesting. Take this hypothetical scenario: It’s early in the morning, and you’re getting ready to go to work. Do you open the door and walk outside? Kick it down and leap out head first? Break the window and rappel out with tied-together sheets? Unless you’re a stuntman or a psychopath, you open the door like a normal person because it’s the minimal necessary action to take.

Lionhead's Fable 3

Lionhead’s Fable 3 strives to give players meaningful choices.

Think about it – all of the small decisions, or ‘choices,’ that you make in a given day are simply the minimal necessary actions needed to accomplish what you want to do.

Note that the definition of minimal necessary action can fluctuate wildly based on a few key variables: your overall character and morals, current mental state, and the information available to you at the time. If the morning you got ready for work, you discovered your house was on fire, then damn straight you’d bust out the window and get the hell out of there. But if you couldn’t smell the smoke yet? You’d walk out calmly like any other day.

(Aside: Simply put, if something gets in your way, then you step up the minimal necessary action required – this is the heart of dramatic tension, and the core to good storytelling in any medium.)

What I’m trying to say here is that every ‘choice’ you make in your life is simply based on these variables, which combine to point you to what amounts to the best choice at the time.

So if your choices in real life are not technically choices but more like confirmations of your character and morals, mental state, and information at the moment – how do we make choice meaningful in games?

One way is to break the constraints of the good/bad/neutral metagame by opting out of such bland logic completely. Molleindustria’s Unmanned is an excellent example of this. In the game, you play as a US-based remote operator for an unmanned combat drone patrolling in Afghanistan. Core gameplay consists of choices that range from the mundane to life or death matters, but always in the removed setting of the pilot who is never in danger himself.

Outcomes for each choice aren’t necessarily clear, and the results come across fuzzy – kind of like in real life. In a way, your choices in Unmanned are almost a reverse of what the industry typically considers cutting edge.

If sharper, more detailed graphics and increasingly complex mechanics are a measure of technical progress, then maybe fuzzier, murkier choices are the way to bring more sophisticated emotions to games.

Ben Serviss is a freelance game designer working in commercial, social, educational and indie games. Follow him on Twitter at @benserviss.

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Darren Tomlyn
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As usual, this reply would be based upon the contents of my blog, except that I haven't got to that point yet, nor have I finished re-writing the post describing the foundation upon which such matters would need to based, explained and described.

My blog in its current (incomplete) state is here:

But I'll try as best as I can to explain the nature of the problem we have, here:

This is a matter of linguistics - (the study/teaching of language, in this case, English).

The most basic problem we have, is that how the language itself, in general, is perceived, recognised and understood, is then affecting how it is taught and described in an inconsistent manner - we perceive and describe the language based upon the act of perceiving and studying its use, not the act of actually using it.

We're literally describing and defining the language as and by its effects, not its cause.

The direct effects of this for this particular subject matter, is that the overall concept the piece of information the word choice (in general) represents, is NOT recognised and understood. This means that the piece of information that just so happens to be represented by the word choice, is not understood in relation to the rest of the language. The same problem also affects the information represented by the words game, art, puzzle and competition.

We might know and understand HOW such words are used, but without knowing what basic concept such information they represent belongs to, we don't understand WHY.

Knowing and understanding what information the word choice is used to represent in and by ITSELF, is one thing.

Knowing and understanding what information the word choice is used to represent in RELATION to others/the rest of the language, such as game, puzzle, art and competition, is a completely different matter, and this is where the problems lie.

The word choice represents an application of the word choose, and the information they represent is affected in the same way.

The basic problems with what the word choice/choose represents for more general forms of behaviour, is that there needs to be additional context for it to be placed within in a consistent manner. Because we do not understand these words in relation to each other, however, (or even in isolation for some), such context does not exist properly at this time - hence the problems.

Choice, in and by itself, therefore means nothing for what the words game, art, puzzle or competition represent, but this isn't recognised, which is why there has always been so much talk and discussion purely about choice in games etc., without the additional context that is necessary for it to be truly meaningful.

And so we get a lot of inconsistent applications of such choice within games and other activities. Choice is not an activity, it's merely an action that may be found within such an activity, and therefore does not define it as such.

The specifics of why using choice to describe games and puzzles in general is simple:

There are two, different, main types of choice, and understanding and recognising such a thing is paramount for their application and presence in such different activities.

People can choose to do something FOR themselves - (writing their own story) - which also includes HOW to do such a thing.

People can choose between things/options presented TO them - (which can involve interacting with a story being told).

The former is what games can involve and the latter is what puzzles can involve, but none of this is fully recognised and understood at this time, which is why the line between game and puzzle isn't fully recognised to exist, especially for computer "games" - and since the two are incompatible - (the same story can not be written and told to someone, simultaneously) - we've got problems.

Only when choice is recognised and understood in relation game and puzzle, will we understand how to involve and apply them in a meaningful and consistent manner.

Alice Rendell
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This issue of choice in games has always fascinated me in the same way that free will and determinism discussions do in religion and philosophy. If everything is predestined then how do we apply free will. The point about "Unless you’re a stuntman or a psychopath, you open the door like a normal person because it’s the minimal necessary action to take" is completely correct but is the fact that you had the choices before you enough for us to understand that we have made an independent action of free will? Or if the outcome is based soley on cognitive learning patterns of what is the best action in certain situations then it would be the same result each time. This means, in game terms, that you are effectively doing what Chris Crawford refers to as 'Foldback Schemes'; all choices will bring us to the same place.

I'd be interested to here your thoughts Ben on games which don't advertise their content as having "choices" and if some of these games actually have more choices than games like Fable. For example, in Chess players use their knowledge of the basic cybernetics to then make choicse which can have real consequences, and the same could be said for games like Tetris. Maybe it's these types of games that really offer us meaningful choices.

Ben Serviss
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Right- I think the popular usage of choice in games appears most often as a moral dilemma of some sort because it has the potential to be more emotionally engaging than rotating a Tetris block the right way. Unfortunately, it seems like the results hardly ever match the intended outcome.

I would agree with you in your second paragraph - the heart of the gameplay in any competitive multiplayer game lies in the second-by-second choices you make (Should I go that way? Get this power up? Wait? Attack? Communicate with team members?), and in my experience, they are infinitely more interesting than walking down any pre-determined righteous/evil path that a designer has set up for you.

I think a possible route we could take this would be to combine the instinctual nature of choices you make in Tetris as the blocks fall faster, or in the last minute of a close Halo deathmatch, and marry it with something that engages you on an emotional level. The key would be to make sure they don't come off as out-of-the-blue QTEs, but that they make sense in the context of the game mechanics.

In essence, something resembling Telltale's The Walking Dead games (which I have on Steam but haven't played outside of the demo), which coincidentally (or not... :D) have garnered excellent reviews on how they integrate meaningful choices into the experience.

Darren Tomlyn
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@Alice and Ben

I hope you read my post above, (and also, hopefully, my blog), because that describes the context you need in which to place what you've written about...

Choice, by itself, means nothing for games or puzzles (or any other activity). All your talking about it trying to make a distinction between choosing to do something for yourself, and choosing between options given to you - (essentially games and puzzles, within the larger context).

Note: Tetris is a type of activity which can be seen as multiple different things, depending on the perception and recognition of the behaviour it enables from those taking part - (see also poker and solitaire/patience) - (though that does need the full recognition and understanding of such behaviour in the first place).

Games are DEFINED as and by people competing purely by their OWN behaviour - whether purely based on skill, or influence over chance. For example: snakes and ladders is ONLY a game of chance because the players roll the dice themselves - if it was rolled for them, it would be a competition.

Puzzles are defined as and by the act of interacting with a story being TOLD, (that has already been written before being interacted with), whether involving choice, discovery or inquiry.

Competitions are defined as and by the act of competing to be told whether or not you have won or lost, usually by chance (see the above example for snakes and ladders), or by a judge's decision.

ALL of the above activities can involve choice on behalf of those taking part.

A simple choose-your-own adventure book involves choice, but is a puzzle - a maze in literary form. The same activity in visual form (using video/animation etc.) is NOT currently recognised as being a puzzle at all...

Game: an activity in which people compete by writing their own stories.

Puzzle: An activity which involves (1) a created story being told, which people interact with, through power of choice, discovery or inquiry, or (2) interaction with a story being told, in order to solve a (difficult) problem.

Competition: (1) The state of competing. (2) That which is being competed against. (3) An activity in which people compete to be told a story, usually of chance or a judge's opinion.

Compete: trying to gain a story/outcome/goal at the expense of, or in spite of, someone or something else.

So, for Tetris, do you ONLY ever win or lose purely through your own behaviour? No. The whole activity is based on interacting with something that happens to you (blocks of certain shapes dropping down at certain speeds), which you need to manipulate in order to compete. Tetris is NOT a puzzle, because the story of the activity has not been pre-written, and does not, therefore, have a 'solution'. Although Tetris CAN be seen to involve a written story, subjectively, on behalf of the person taking part, it is not its default behaviour.

The default behaviour of Tetris, is to compete by interacting with a story being told, to be told whether or not you have won or lost. This is therefore how it must be defined - as a competition.

It CAN still be seen as a game, subjectively, as involving a person competing by writing a story, but that means separating the act of winning or losing from the act of competing itself, and subjectively perceiving and determining the difference between writing a story, and interacting with a story being told, when taking part.

Note: I'm not sure if we need an additional label for a perpetual competition. Games, by their nature, can be perpetual without any problems, and I'm sure it's possible for puzzles to be so great that they can be perpetual for all intents and purposes, too.


There is one related word that also matters for games and choice:


Since games are about people writing their own stories, they're really about the exercise of power - (the ability to do (or influence) something, and compete by doing it, by and for themselves) - over themselves or something they control.

But this is merely a condition of being able to write a story in the first place.

Alice Rendell
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Thanks for the response ^^ It is interesting that you mentioned The Walking Dead game, I too have heard positive reviews, and have played the first three episodes (which I thoroughly enjoyed). However, I wouldn't say the choices have major consequences, they can be likened to Fable in the sense that the story is ultimately linear but with a few "detours". In The Walking Dead you might get a variation of secondary characters depending on choices, but the events are sequentially the same. Having said that I did feel like I was making meaningful choices, and I think this is because of the emotion behind the choice (connection to characters, fear of the situation etc.) due to a great storyline.
I guess this is the same type of choice that you would get in (for example) Mario when thinking "Dammit, I should have jumped then instead", emotional reaction to the consequence of a choice, which makes it meaningful.