Life is Complex, Games are Simple

Matt Why do we do love binary choices in games?

Written by Matt Duhamel / Published on November 21, 2012

Guest Writer, Matt Duhamel looks behind the curtain of all the “complex” decisions games confront us with. 

Consider this scenario: you’ve just defeated the boss of the underworld and in his treasure trove you find four weapons. Each one has different stats, you can only carry one weapon, and you cannot sell the other weapons.

Do I start a spreadsheet? Y/N

“Uggggh this freaking spread sheet is getting complicated!”

Assuming you don’t stop playing on account of the draconian inventory system, you probably run a comparison between the stats of your current weapon with the four in the trove. Your criteria can be read as “is weapon X superior or inferior to my current weapon?” You will be making a series of binary choices until you’ve run out of weapons to consider.

Will I miss my old sword ? Y/N

"Yet there is a deeper, more constant fantasy: a longing to live in a universe where every choice is simple, and all the information is clear."
Consider another scenario. You are playing an action-adventure game where you are tasked with stopping an alien invasion. The game has a good/evil morality meter that records player choices. Your sidekick is accused of being an alien sympathizer and you are asked to interrogate (torture) him. You know that refusing gives you +50 Morality points and makes the game harder, while torturing your sidekick gives you -50 Morality points but makes the game easier. You know the game has four endings, based on your morality and difficulty levels, but you’re unsure which ending is designated “best” by the developers.

Will we still be friends if I waterboard him? Y/N

In the above situation it may seem like you are making a single choice among many outcomes, but in reality you’re making a series of binary choices that follow in close succession. Do I want the game to be easy or hard? Do I want to be moral or immoral? Do I think my decision matches up with the outcome that might be the “best” ending as envisioned by the developers?

Will I steal the orphan’s sweet roll? Y/N

Video games, despite often touting their complexity, are really just a series of binary choices performed in sequence. Yet this is not a failing of video games. The reality is all choices are a series of binaries. The difference between video games and the real world is that video game worlds are made up of very simple choices with very small sets of variables, most of them with an obvious right or wrong answer. It isn’t that game developers think simple choices make for engrossing storytelling; they are simply easier to design. There is, objectively, nothing wrong with that.

Is objectivity necessary? Y/N

“Should I shoot the Overseer or tickle him to death?”

Yet people are playing vastly more video games these days, and what we do on a regular basis strongly influences how we see the world. The question that keeps coming up in my mind, dear reader, is what happens when we are consistently making only simple choices? I can only speak of my own experience, but the answer isn’t encouraging.

 Do I like being called “dear reader?” Y/N

“Right and wrong” are words commonly heard during an election. The wrong man for the job. The right choice for our children. The wrong way to protect our country. I often sneer at this simplified rhetoric, knowing that the issues are complex. Yet when faced with the immense complexity of the issues presented to me, I too fall back on the type of decision making we do the most; simple, data-driven, binary choices. So I do research. Government reports, independent think tanks, media outlets. I try to arrange all this data into something like a stat block; a white sheet of all the pluses and minuses of each position. Quickly, I realize the biggest problem: there is too much data.

Can there be too much of a good thing? Y/N

Reports contradict one another, and I have no way of knowing who is right. Media outlets report information that turns out later to be false. Already, I feel a nagging thought: why can’t real life be like video games? When I pick a class in an RPG, I know exactly what all the pros and cons of my choice will be. Why can’t politicians do the same? The election is closer every day, and I seem to be no closer to understanding what is going on.

Does anyone understand what is going on? Y/N

In the end I compromise. I euphemistically call it “focusing on the critical issues.” In reality, I make decisions on one or two of the issues that have easy answers and I use those choices to decide my entire vote. Captain Picard supports the Prime Directive while Captain Kirk does not, so I will vote for Picard. Simple, easy, binary.

Do I like to oversimplify things? Y/N

Ideological voting is the inevitable result of these simplifications. News outlets know we do this, and they provide simplified rhetoric to satisfy the desire. In the U.S., this binary right/wrong mentality has been codified into our election system. Simplification combines with the rules and our psychology to inevitably result in only two choices. Even this article is a vast oversimplification. I am excluding many nuances and bits of information in order to make this piece easy for you, the reader, to fit into your busy schedule. Video game simplicity is becoming a feature of real life.

Is this really a bad thing? Y/N

Video game critics often talk about games as “power fantasies” or “wish fulfillment.” We adopt a persona that appeals to us. We want to be soldiers, assassins, lovers, criminals. Many brilliant people have debated whether it is right or wrong to live out these fantasies, and it’s worthy of much more thoughtful consideration. Yet there is a deeper, more constant fantasy: a longing to live in a universe where every choice is simple, and all the information is clear. There is not a lot of debate about that fantasy. Perhaps this is because it is a fantasy everyone shares.

Is this my fantasy? Y/N

About the Author:

Matt Duhamel is a writer, animator, and aspiring deep thinker from Seattle, WA. You can follow him on twitter @dualhammers.