A more serious definition of games is that they are a collection of meaningful choices. But these choices are often difficult to create. Choices can extend from many different things such as where a player should travel to; how they should spend their resources; and how a character is created and customized.
In the end all meaningful choices in games boil down to the player question: how should they play the game?
Helping a player make informed and meaningful choices is part of what makes good games great. Those meaningful choices provide the player weight and substance to their player experience. But often in the pursuit of creating interactive and engaging experiences, we often fall into the trap of creating meaningless choices.
Designers and games-based learning educators are best helped by identifying a few key areas of meaningful choices in games. Those includes categories of choice, connected empathy, agency, restriction, balance, choice construction, and how players determine their strategy.
There are as many choices in games as there are games themselves. But meaningful choices are broken down into four main areas:
-Awareness: the player has to know that a choice can be made
-Consequences: the player’s choice has to be accurately represented in the game
-Reminders: the player has to be reminded of the choice after they make it
-Permanence: the player cannot go back and undo their choice (after seeing its effects)
What makes a choice meaningful?
Choices are ways for players to exercise their agency. This is their ability to control their own circumstances and path throughout a game environment. Some games have limited agency where the player is merely a spectator for some moments and don’t have any direct input (think of a video game’s cut scenes).
For most games, players are offered a few choices (i.e. in poker a player can bet, call, raise, or fold). An interesting variety of choices are key in making sure that players can exercise their agency within the game. However, some games (i.e. Go) provide an abundance of choice that could be considered paralyzing.
Perhaps one of the most iconic venues for creating meaningful choice are in role playing games (RPG’s) where players have the options to create their own characters. This involves everything from their aesthetics to their skills and abilities.
In this way, players embody a “connected empathy” to their choices. They are able to immediately relate to the choice that their character makes, because they created the character from the ground up.
The emotional connections we make is what makes us feel invested and a part of the progress of the game, its characters, storyline, and structure. Those meaningful decisions in turn make the whole game feel meaningful.
That’s part of the reason why permanence is an important facet of meaningful choice. The inability to go back to change your choice after you’ve witnessed the consequences is import to taking on responsibility for that connected interaction.
Likewise there is the added benefit of being successful later on in the game due a choice that you made earlier. Though, in order to have true connected empathy, that choice would need to be remembered by the player throughout their journey.
Agency, restriction, and balance
Agency is the player’s ability to make a choice. In RPG’s you can always give players aesthetic choices even if they don’t affect their game play. A classic example of this is choosing player colors in table top games or fighting over the battleship in Monopoly. Playing as the thimble or the shoe doesn’t give you extra starting cash, but the presence of the choice still gives players agency.
These choices give players a greater sense of power over what they can do within the game. If choices start with aesthetic decisions, then future choices can easily evolve into more meaningful ones that better shape the player’s experience. Further down the line those choices could make big sweeping changes in the narrative, player, and non-player characters (NPC’s).
But a delicate balance must be struck in order not to provide the player with TOO many choices. That could be interpreted as crippling. It’s why many well designed games give players a restriction of choices in order to not overwhelm them.
This has the added benefit of challenging the player to work around these restrictions in order to achieve their own personal strategy and game goals. A challenge which involves periods of memorable meaningful choices for players to make.
For designers and games-based learning educators, your choice construction can be a difficult prospect. But in order for a choice to be meaningful, it needs to show players clear possible outcomes as well as included rewards and potential risks.
With this in mind, the player can make an informed choice that gives their decision permanence. With permanence, a player can make a decision and let the remainder of the game remind them the consequence of that choice.
Some argue that there are situations where a player is given a choice where both outcomes are the same regardless of what the player’s action. Does that make the choice meaningful? Yes and no. For aesthetic choices, the outcome is not the same. The player has the agency to make the choice as they want it. That outcome is different than if the player had chosen randomly.
However, if a game presents two choices requiring different resources, positioning, or a different game state, but produces the same outcome, then it could be considered meaningless for the designer. Players on the other hand define their own meaning making through game play. So while designers have a hand in structuring choices, only players can determine their actual impact.
No matter how the choice is constructed, a well designed choice should have consequences that affect both the look and aesthetics of the game as well as consequences for player interaction and game play.
Player choice strategy
While designers can structure choices in games, it is up to the players to make those choices. When designers witness their players making the same choices repeatedly to their own success, this becomes the dominant strategy.
Once this strategy becomes widely adopted it could remove the impact of the choice structure in the game. That’s because only one choice appears to be more successful over another. This means that designers should balance their choices where there are multiple paths to victory. Design directions like this allow players to pursue their goals according to their own agency while still being competitive.
However that doesn’t stop some players from overcoming a dominant strategy by using an exploit. An exploit means that player(s) have found some aspect of the game which gives them an unintended advantage. Exploits are structures that weren’t originally intended by the designers.
An interesting example of this was in the original Quake when rocket jumping became a thing. Players could use their own rockets to gain immense height over their opponents that opened them up to more advanced movement techniques.
Though not intended, the rocket jumping strategy started as an exploit which became a dominant strategy later in the game’s life span. Dominant strategies have the opportunity to become one of the most clear ways to win in early game development due to the lack of refinement from designers. But further play testing and iterative improvement can balance out these strategies over the long term.
Conclusion and summary
Meaningful choices are one of those game structures that separate bad games from good games and good games from great games. To have meaningful choices in games you have to consider connected empathy, player agency, restriction, balance, choice construction, and strategy.
When it comes to choice construction you also have to be knowledgeable about awareness: does the player know that there is a choice to me made; consequences: does the player’s choice accurately represented in the game; reminders: are the players reminded of their choice after they make it; and permanence: the inability for players to go back and change their choices.
Choices are a part of many things in life as they are in games. However, games allow us to further explore the impact of our choices in examining their outcomes. That means that meaningful choices in games allow us to explore everything that our virtual worlds have to offer while giving us the freedom to take some risky moves.
Dave Eng, EdD