4 December 2019

Psychology of Choice in Video Games


This topic came up when I was playing Marvel Champions: The Card Game with a few of my nerdy tabletop buddies. In the game, you get to pick a character, which will let you play with a character deck. The goal of the game is to defeat the villain of the day, by taking out minions, healing and mitigating incoming damage and punching the bad guys in the face! Everyone took the starter decks and had an absolute blast. We were appreciating the game’s portrayal of the different characters and mechanics, doing flashy and thematic moves and overall just enjoying our night.


This was where it got weird: after our first couple of games, we saw in the rulebook that we can build our own decks but with some limitations. The rules described that we can choose one character deck (such as Spiderman, Ms Marvel) and combine it with cards from any one Aspect (Justice, Protection, Leadership or Aggression). There are also Basic Cards (efficient, general cards) that all players can use, irregardless of character or Aspect. Sounds great, right? You have all this freedom to build your deck however you wanted…with some limitations.


So we got to building, and suddenly, this game that we were enjoying seemed terrible!


• You have to use every card in your character deck: Oh, I can’t cut cards that I don’t like?
• No more than three copies of non-unique cards: But this card is so good!
• No more than one copy of unique cards: Okay, that’s fair…I guess.
• More heroes are coming soon!: Wait, that means we only have 5 characters to choose from for now?


And so on and so on…


And as the Marvel fanboy at the table, I was very perplexed. I was scratching my head over it, thinking to myself about why this had happened. Just a moment ago, me and my friends were enjoying this wonderful board game. Now we’re told there was a deckbuilding aspect and everyone is grumbling about the lack of choices. That doesn’t make sense! You were just told you had more choices.


This led me through a rather deep rabbithole, as I scoured the internet for journals and articles on the psychology of choice, perception of choice and decision making. And I found some pretty juicy stuff that was very relatable to gamers.


Framing is when you present something in a positive or negative connotation. One of the most infamous cases where this is relevant is our long-time favorite, World of Warcraft! During WoW’s early days, the developers wanted to encourage players to play for a few hours then take a break. To achieve that means, they gave an EXP penalty to players the longer they play. Players would slowly go through EXP degradation until eventually maxing out that penalty and then earning a certain minimum.


And everyone thought it sucked! So the developers at Blizzard went back to the drawing board…and all they did was flipped everything around. Instead of EXP penalties, now everyone gets a Rested Experience Bonus! Instead of penalized experience, that’s now the normal experience! Blizzard presented their EXP system so that if you logged out for a while, you’ll get a bonus when you come back. The time needed and the progress a player makes were exactly the same, but now…everyone loves it! This was exactly what they wanted from the developers!


People hated the system when it was presented as a penalty for playing for extended periods of time, but they loved it when it was framed as a bonus for taking a break from the game for a while.


Satisficers/Casuals vs Maximizers/Tryhards
Now, the word “satisficers” might be an odd word to most of you. That’s because it should be, because it’s a term that Rebecca Shiner coined for her experiment on decision making. Groups of people were asked in a questionnaire and grouped into “satisficers” or “maximizers” with questions such as “When I watch TV, I channel surf, often scanning through the available options even while attempting to watch one program” and “I never settle for second best.”


The participants were told to rank nine posters from which they liked best to least, then they were told that there are extra posters, and that a participant could keep one. One batch was told that the choice was irreversible, and that they couldn’t change their decision later. The second batch was told that they could change their mind and switch for another poster anytime within the next month. They were then told to rank the posters again, and then filled in a survey form about the satisfaction levels regarding their choice of poster.


Naturally, the “satisficers” were satisfied when their choices were final, but the “maximizers” were more satisfied knowing that their choices were reversible. A lot of you readers might relate to one spectrum or the other, and these two decision making styles can be reflected in our playstyles in the form of casuals and tryhards.


When casuals are faced with having to make (potentially) hard choices, their enjoyment of the game deteriorates. Likewise, when a tryhard feels like their choices are overly limited or have no options, they get frustrated and anxious about making choices.


More choices are good, but too many choices are not
During my search for answers, I also read a book called The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz. And while some of it is very cut and dry, there was a very interesting viewpoint presented. If choices are good, and more choices are better, surely more is always better, right?


Well, interestingly, as we get options, we gain more autonomy and freedoms to make the choices that we want. Inversely, a lack of choices makes us feel that our hands are tied and that we do not have the capability to determine where our efforts and resources go to. However, there is a certain “breakpoint” where giving more choices beyond that has a negative effect on people.


When overwhelmed with too many choices, we start to suffer from regret, anxiety of missed opportunities and choice paralysis. A good example is Path of Exile, a game with a mind-bogglingly large skill tree (that looks less like a tree and more like a circuit board!) which can overwhelm newcomers very quickly. Take a look at this monstrous skill tree. Just look at it. LOOK.



All in all, there has to be a balance between the choices presented to people, and finding that sweet spot might take some trial and error.


Putting it all together
So, how does all of this tie into what me and my friends experienced at the table? Well, the game was framed as a deckbuilding game, which drove our standards really high initially. Next, everyone at the table were maximizers/tryhards, we wanted to be able to customize our decks, but there seemed to be a lot of restrictions to what we can do. Lastly, our choices were limited. Marvel Champions is a brand new game with expansions that haven’t been released yet. However, all of these would not have detracted from our enjoyment of the game if we haven’t been presented those options at all.


I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this, and I hope it can make you readers a little more self-aware about the games that you play, the choices you make and the games that you will support! My name is Trilz, and I will see you in the next article!



Sevdalis, N., & Harvey, N. (2007). Biased forecasting of postdecisional affect. Psychological Science, 18(8), 678-681.
Shiner, R. (2015). Maximizers, satisficers, and their satisfaction with an preferences for reversible versus irreversible decisions. Social Psychology and Personality Science, 6(8) 896-903.


Written by: Dexter Lim aka Trilz
The views expressed are those of the author and do not in any way, represent nor reflect those of HP OMEN and its affiliations.

Written by: Dexter Lim aka Trilz
The views expressed are those of the author and do not in any way, represent nor reflect those of HP OMEN and its affiliations.