The power of chess, the paradox of choice – Part I

June 3, 2013

If you’re going to read my blog, you should know one thing about me: I like to learn from the mistakes of history. That is, I like to generalize knowledge from one situation and apply it to another comparable situation.

See? I just did it. The idea of “learning from the mistakes of history” is that you’re supposed to understand the meaning of once-learned lessons, then apply them when you find yourself in a comparable situation. So then I said “I like to generalize knowledge,” which is a generalization of that common advice. People often grant me little more than a blank stare when I draw parallels between lessons learned, so I wanted to give you a “generalization alert” before I began really writing.

Today I want to point out that the following two things teach us the same general lesson about game design, and it’s an important one.

First is in the post title: “The Paradox of Choice,” a speech by Barry Schwartz in a 2005 TED talk. To quote:

“When people have no choice, life is almost unbearable. As the number of available choices increases, as it has in our consumer culture, the autonomy, control, and liberation this variety brings are powerful and positive. But as the number of choices keeps growing, negative aspects of having a multitude of options begin to appear. As the number of choices grows further, the negatives escalate until we become overloaded. At this point, choice no longer liberates, but debilitates.”

Having too many options leads to paralysis, not freedom. I’ll assume you’re convinced by his speech (and countless examples you’ve encountered) and move on.

The second is a principle of game design. In the advertizing for Jonathan Blow’s Braid is the following:

“Every puzzle in Braid is unique. There is no filler.”

When developers come up with a new game mechanic, the challenge is to fully explore the mechanic . . . and then stop. Giving the player “different relevant things to do” is fun. Forcing the player to do “the same thing twenty times” (“filler”) is not fun.

I argue that these lessons are the same. In game design, “choices” and “things to do” are synonymous: unlike with books, for games the audience is an active participant, and every choice means actively doing something. So, after playing a videogame RPG once, a player may “choose” a different character class and then have more “things to do,” playing the same game in a different manner.

The lesson, then, is “A well-designed game has the correct amount of choices, elements, mechanics, and so on, with little excess.” Need more quotes to convince you? Okay, have some Shakespeare:

“Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit / And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes, / I will be brief”

And Lewis Carroll:

“‘Begin at the beginning,’ the King said gravely, ‘and go on till you come to the end: then stop.'”

Are we set? Because, at this point, many designers — and players, and readers, and advertizing executives, and anybody else in “our consumer culture” as labeled by Barry Schwartz — would agree that one should give the player things to do, yet have no idea what I mean when I talk about “brevity” or “stopping when you come to the end.” After all, consider the RPG example: if people have played the game once for each character class, what could be better than giving them another character class so they can enjoy the game again?

And why is “chess” in the title of this blog post?

In my next one, I will explain with examples. And, well, brevity may be the soul of wit, but this will take some length.

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