Comment Spotlight: Meaningful Decisions

There’s a lot of writing about game design in both theory and practice, but what most of it boils down to is that the opportunity to make meaningful decisions on a regular basis is fun.
Alexander Williams

That puts a lot in a nutshell. Why is too much randomness a problem? Your decisions have no meaning if they do not affect the outcome. When the outcome is known at the start due to radically uneven opponents, again your decisions have no effect on the outcome. If the outcome is mutable, how meaningful was that decision when it is wiped away with the next tide? And of course grinding is when you have stopped making decisions and are just carrying out a known algorithm 1000 times until you level, get that rare drop, etc.

The extreme case is “no decisions,” like Progress Quest or Candyland, but the less that it matters what decision you make, the closer you get. If randomness or the starting state determines the outcome far more than your decision does, you could just as easily make the opposite decision and get the same outcome. If the outcome is mutable, and 30 seconds after you’re done the result is wiped away, you could just as easily make no decision or just not show up and it makes no difference. The game plays itself, with the player just cranking the wheel to make it go through the motions.

In some sense, part of the point of games is to have low impact, mutable decisions. You get to fight dragons, blow things up, and conquer the world without any risk to yourself or others. No matter how important your decisions are within the game, once the game is over, you declare a winner and are done. But your decisions need to matter within the game or else your participation in the game does not matter even within the game, at which point it is recursively pointless.

: Zubon

4 thoughts on “Comment Spotlight: Meaningful Decisions”

  1. Part of the challenge of game design, both in terms of tabletop and video games, is trying to figure out what context the player’s decisions are meaningful within. And generally there are multiple contexts in which a single decision can exist simultaneously – is a single strike of a weapon meaningful enough to be worth a decision? Is it more useful to create decisions at the level of a single resolution for a whole combat encounter with the decisions being how can I set up modifiers which change the outcome in accordance with my wishes? Is randomness at all desirable, or is the dynamic input of other people sufficient to define a context of sufficient importance that the player’s decisions carry enough weight on their own?

    Thinking about and understanding contexts is hard. It’s even harder for people who have only been exposed to one “contexts creator”-type-of-game. For example, you’ve probably noticed that people who have only ever played D&D only seem to be able to understand and express the kind of contexts that they interact with in games at the scope of those found in a D&D campaign: where do I stand when I swing my sword? Do I swing my sword or do I move? Do I use this spell now or do I save it for later? Do I try to create an advantage for this particular exchange or do I wait? Likewise with people who have only played one particular “context creator”-type-of-MMO/videogame. You can tell when the only exposure someone has had to a type of adventure game has been World of Warcraft, because they always express their understanding of contexts in the framework of a World of Warcraft exchange: what skill do I use right now? Can I abort my auto attack? Do I stand in the red ring? Do I need a group for this or can I solo it?

    All these are questions that are meaningful in contexts which are presented by the type of games that a lot of people have been exposed to but no more. They have no framework for creating or understanding contexts beyond those because they’ve never been exposed to any. This can be a real problem, especially when they are writing at length and considered authoritative on questions of game design, on questions of what is a good game experience.

    For an average player, you might think that asking questions which go beyond what kind of contexts you can experience in your gameplay is wasted time. After all, your game doesn’t cater to managing those contexts. But getting experience with wider contexts means that you as a player can create entirely new experiences and thus “meaningful decisions” in games with essentially static contexts. That’s what people who came up with ideas like “naked runs to Ironforge” effectively did, came up with an entirely new context which was layered on top of the game experience as presented in which allow them to make entirely new meaningful decisions – which enhanced their level of fun.

    As a tabletop wargame/RPG player, and especially as a designer, you absolutely have to think about the context which provides and creates the ability for players to make meaningful decisions. If you want to talk about those contexts in a meaningful manner, you have to understand what creates them, what undercuts them, and what decisions there are to be made within them. That’s really hard for some people, in part because they simply don’t have the context to understand that their context is limited.

    Ultimately, you are absolutely correct – one of the points of games (pluralization necessary and deliver it) is to provide a context in which meaningful decisions are not life or death and in which experiment with decisions is contextually safe. But along with that, at least for the ones that are most meaningful, is an inherent lack of safety. Unless the decision can impact the possibility of the player getting what they want (at whatever time), the decision is inherently meaningless and if the meaninglessness of that decision is not immediately apparent but become so as play continues, you can see exactly the sort of effects we see in the MMO community, where initial enthusiasm for a game is high even though the design is less than what it could or should be, and as play continues players recognize that their decisions are increasingly detached from any sort of repercussion, so you see the instances of griefing, of antisocial behavior, and of game abandonment increasing beyond what you would expect as a result of people simply growing away from the game.

    Figuring out what is “meaningful” as a decision requires figuring out what kind of context that meaning must occur within. When the designer’s idea of that context differs from what the player can observe and learn from playing the game, you get all sorts of horrible and dysfunctional play. At the best of times, you get unintended play – which creates it’s own meaning.

    There’s lots of good, complex, chewable stuff in there. I wish more games, and more game commenters, had more experience and understanding of these ideas which I think of is fairly basic.

    One day, we’ll even get Tovald to play a game that is not hinging on a d20. I keep hoping for Microscope (, but that might blow his mind clean open at the seams..

  2. For whatever reason, the comments on this post in particular are getting flooded with spam, so I’m closing them.

Comments are closed.