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Recuperating the Paradox of Choice in Video Games

by Brian Flory

“No matter what type of player you choose to be” claims Martin Tyler in the introduction to FIFA ‘10’s player creation mode, “the ultimate goal is simple: To become an international star...”

                Yet the implication remains that the play experience will be substantively different. Indeed, Mr. Tyler (the emcee for the character creation process), suggests, for example, that the bigger you are, the less mobile you’ll be. A demonstration of a similar effect occurs at approximately the 6:13 mark in this video, as the player adjusts his height, causing his various statistics to fluctuate.

                While some would argue that such options add to both the replayability of the game as well as its share of the market - by providing a different experience to the same player or making a wider array of play experience available to a broad player base, respectively, I am unconcerned for the moment with replayability or marketing.

                Instead, consider the proliferation of options in many contemporary video games. This example is relatively simple - the player can adjust his or her play experience by building a stronger, faster, or more accurate avatar, adjusting the avatar’s abilities on a variety of axes. While this does make many options available to the player, at the same time, it prevents the player from enjoying far more options than would be the case if the player could not customize a player at all. In a game with two options, say the original Mario Brothers, where one can play as either Mario or Luigi (differing only in the color of their costumes), one “misses out” on very little when one selects ones character. However, in our own age of branching storylines, customizable avatars, and a variety of play settings such as difficulty, it is more difficult to ignore the road not taken.

                Barry Schwartz argues in his book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, that our ability to take pleasure in our choices actually diminishes in the face of so many options. In the opening case study of the book, the exploding varieties - styles, cuts, and colors - of jeans presents us not only with many more options of jeans to purchase, but requires us to likewise forego many more options of jeans in order to settle on one decision. One can mitigate this somewhat by purchasing, say, a pair of jeans for each day of the week, but the fact remains that no matter one’s decision, there are options necessarily options left unexercised, always room to wonder if one might have been happier on another path, to ruminate over what was lost by making a decision.

                Yet, one must wonder to what extent this applies to gaming. After all, can’t one simply replay the game, as implied above, taking a different path and making different choices? Perhaps. But just as is the case with the jeans, one expends a finite resource in order to exercise more options: money or time respectively. Given that neither of these resources are infinite, any game that presents a player with a conscious choice presents the inevitability of wondering what might have been. For the record, I would argue that what I shall call reflexive choices - whether to duck beneath or jump over an impending threat, to shoot or dodge, and so forth - because they rely more on trained reflexes rather than deliberation over consequences to inform them, do not suffer this drawback. One rarely wonders what might have been had one ducked rather than jumped, provided one’s avatar survives.

                Furthermore, deliberate choices offer another obstacle to enjoying the full range of options present in a video game, particularly apparent in a game with branching storylines. Let us pose a hypothetical game wherein one can choose, through a simple and transparent mechanic, a “good” path and an “evil” path, and the entire game takes only five minutes to play. One assumes, given that there is no incentive to do otherwise, that the player will choose the path that will give him the most pleasure in playing (even if that is merely the pleasure of knowing that one has done a “good” thing). The Paradox of Choice suggests that the player will inevitably suffer for eliminating the possibility of enjoyment in the path not chosen.

                In theory, the player could play the five minute game one way, play again the other way, and gain full enjoyment from both paths. However, I would argue that the experience of each path is structured by that which the player has and has not previously experienced of the game. The “good” path, for example, is qualitatively different based on whether or not the player has experienced the “evil” path. Rather than simply being “good,” (or for that matter, simply being called, “the game”), it can only be understood in comparison to the evil path. It is unclear, for the moment, whether these additional playthroughs, freighted with additional meaning due to a semiotic positioning, are more or less pleasurable than the first playthrough, though it’s likely that this varies not only from game to game, but from player to player.

                Thus, as argued by Mr. Schwartz, additional options present in game play reduce the pleasure taken in the experience of that play. To extend this argument to games, I would suggest that it is unclear whether the additional pleasure made available to the player through a proliferation of options balances out the diminishing of pleasure that is the result of being forced to choose only one path. It is clear, I think, that factors like “replayability” recuperate, to some extent, this diminishing of pleasure, but it remains to be determined whether this recuperation is sufficient to balance the disappointment of being forced to choose, or perhaps, hopefully, whether the additional pleasure gained far exceeds the loss.

FIFA Create A Player

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FIFA 10's Create a Player Feature

from FIFA 10 Create-A-Virtual Pro (2009)
Creator: vip2gaming
Distributor: youtube
Posted by Survey of Interactive Media
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