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Lazzaro on Choices in Games

Lazzaro Back in July 2008, I ranted that a game isn’t a series of interesting decisions (contra to the famous Sid Meier quote). Later that year, in November, emotions in games expert Nicole Lazzaro and I struck up a conversation over email on the subject of choices and play while we were working on a book project. The following is a restructured transcript of our discussion.

Chris Bateman: Nicole, in your chapter for the book you claimed that there is a strategic game that players of slot machines engage in, when they try to pick the right machine. Do you really believe there’s strategy at work here?

Nicole Lazzaro: The players in Vegas that I've interviewed absolutely do. (I had to sneak a camera in under my coat!) Likewise the floor managers adjust the odds for different machines. The ones on the end have different settings than the ones in the middle. The reason there is a rolling jackpot above many banks of machines is that players will choose a machine that has not won in a while, “because the odds are better.” But in truth the odds of winning are the same. Like Bejeweled, players engage in a tight activity loop each time they go through an emotion cycle from hope to anticipation to seeing if they won. The simplicity of the choice tightens the activity loop and makes it more immersive.

Chris: It feels to me that you're reaching to maintain the illusion of omnipresent choice behind the pleasures of gambling.

Nicole: From my perspective, we see slot machines evolving and adding new features to create more engagement by adding other layers of fun. Players decide how many lines to play before they spin and often choose when to stop the wheel(s). More choices in the bonus rounds, more lights and video and so forth – I do think that choice is important in slot machine gambling.

Chris: I’m not convinced, personally. Consider this thought experiment: at a particular company, once per month, an employee is picked out of the tombola to win a prize. This lottery produces all the major emotions of play – excitement, fiero (i.e. triumph over adversity), even frustration and potentially relief – but it involves no choices whatsoever. Games of pure chance (Roger Caillois' alea) are not dependent upon choice, although games designed to leverage it still benefit from adding in choice as a mechanic.

Nicole: I see that the play in a lottery as a one-choice game, like rolling a dice. Players make the choice to enter (make a move) and how often. They often develop rituals such as blowing on the dice to improve their odds.

Chris: If they buy a ticket, sure – but in my thought experiment, there was no choice to enter, remember? They joined the company, the lottery comes as a consequence of employment in the company. You can't claim that the decision to join the company was a decision to enter the lottery because that choice was not part of their decision to join the company (they might not even have known!) Yet there is the lottery, offering excitement and fiero to them with no choices.

Nicole: Without a choice to enter (or in this case join the company) it's less exciting. But more exciting than joining the company without a lottery, I suppose. In lotteries, people have more fun when they can choose the number they play. They buy multiple tickets and fold up the corners of their business cards to increase their odds. They also play more on “lucky days,” as in “Wow, congratulations on that success! You should go play the lottery today.”

Chris: I suspect if you researched this, the excitement would be proportional to the prize to be won, and not on the existence or absence of a choice to enter…

Nicole: My point is just that there is a role for choice, even in gambling.

Chris: yes, I certainly agree that choice adds to the fun. I guess I’m just challenging you to admit that there is play beyond choice…

Nicole: Can there be play without choice? I doubt it. Making choices is a core element to fun.

Chris: I suppose I would reverse this claim – it seems clear to me that there is play without choice... the playground slide is the clearest example. You can claim that the decision to ride the slide is a choice, but clearly people decide to do anything they do, so this isn't much of a boundary condition as it is tautological. Or you can claim that the slide isn't play, but really, do you want to do this? What do children do in the playground if they don't play?

Nicole: The slide is certainly play. A playground slide to me is pure Easy Fun, exploration and just for the sheer fun of interacting with it. Like a wii-mote or the Danger Sidekick cell phone, it's simply fun to use without a goal. All of these respond to player’s actions.

Chris: But what kind of decision can there be in the case of the slide? The choice interpretation is easier if you treat the playground as one game with choices within it – do I ride the tilt-a-whirl or the slide? – but it becomes weaker the fewer things in the playground... when you get to just a slide, is choosing to walk to the playground really the choice that makes the slide into a play activity? It seems to me that one can imagine play without choices easily enough.

Nicole: Play without choice feels more like a movie than a game to me. Plus, on the slide players decide which way to go down, and how to move their bodies for each turn. Slides are more fun for those who are still mastering basic body coordination.

Chris: Well a slide or a rollercoaster feels more like a game than a movie to me. I wouldn't call either of them games – but I would call them play. But even in the case of games, I would say there can be games without choice – rhythm-action games, for instance. Dance Dance Revolution or Space Channel 5 offers the player no decisions at all (except, perhaps, the option to fail!) and neither do the cruder prototypes for this play, such as Dragon's Lair – that certainly feels more like a movie than a game!

Nicole: I see the nature of most interactions as choices, with movies offering little interaction and so lack choices. Slides are interactive with the player's body in ways that movies are not. Easy Fun contains a lot of free form play (like watching Sims in the pool and so forth). Dance Dance Revolution requires that the player choose what pad to step on at what moment.

Chris: Well what about memory games such as Simon – there's no choice in this game. It doesn't need it. Challenging one's memory is fun (for some but not all players). Simon doesn't need choice for its play.

Nicole: Perhaps we are diverging here because of our definition of “choice”?

Chris: Yes, I'm certain of it. I'm using “choice” as a synonym for “decision”, which then becomes “activation of the orbito-frontal cortex”... you use it in a much wider context. A lot of the things that you call choices don’t seem like decisions to me, and hence the essential disagreement.

Nicole: Perhaps by choice you mean a decision that requires the weighing of alternatives?

Chris: Yes, that's precisely what that particular brain region does, so that's what the term has come to mean for me. I think it's what a lot of people mean when they invoke the Sid Meier quote too.

Nicole: Well in something like Dance Dance Revolution and Simon there may not be heavy strategy, but there is choice. The choices that offer deep decision making map to what I call Hard Fun, and that requires strategy and the weighing of alternatives. Like a good game of chess there are a number of possible moves that affect later gameplay. However, it's not the only way people enjoy games. There are choices around exploration, imagination, and role-play; what I call Easy Fun. Whereas any music and matching game (including slot machines!) creates engagement through a rhythm of choices that I call Serious Fun. Lastly games such as Farmville and Restaurant City on Facebook and other social platforms create engagement because they offer the excuse to interact with friends.

Chris: It does seem like you use 'choice' in a very wide scope, especially compared to my use of 'decision' which clearly fits into your concept of Hard Fun. I'm rather on my own on this issue, incidentally – I think I'm the only person insane enough to attempt to defend the idea that there can be games without decisions (or play without decisions). But it comes down to where you choose to put your linguistic boundary fences – it's not an objective problem in any sense of the word!

Nicole: A touch of insanity is important for any industry pioneer. I think I was the only person insane enough to turn the camera around and research games by watching player faces. The major reason I self-financed the Four Keys to Fun was to kick start the conversation. It is only by working together that we develop the tools and language about what makes games so engaging. By exploring these linguistic boundaries we develop a deeper understanding of games.

Chris: What are you researching right now? 

Nicole: My next research project involves our upcoming iPhone game Tilt: Flip’s Adventure in 1.5 Dimensions. Reducing choice often increases the fun, so for this game I intentionally reduced the decision space to where the character has only four places to be and the game has no buttons. Like Bejeweled and Tetris the basic challenge for every game designer is making simple decisions fun. That’s what I like about designing casual games: the simple choices players make need to have emergent qualities sometimes this is strategy, sometimes it is the pure joy of using the controls.

You can learn more about Nicole and Chris’ perspective on games in the book Beyond Game Design: Nine Steps Towards Better Videogames, published by Charles River Media, which also contains chapters by other games industry veterans such as Noah Falstein, Sheri Grainer Ray and Richard Bartle.


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You are missing the point here and mixing up Play and Game. You claim there is no choice in DDR, which is utter crap; the choice is simple: Will I manage to hit the next step, or should I skip it and guarantee that I make the next step.

Can't you see this?

You are a off the ball, you are talking semantics. Become less academic if you want to talk games...

This blog is off my RSS feed now!

Chris, it would appear that you may need to define terms that are key to discussions much earlier in the discussion :-). Of all the people I know, you are the most likely to play Humpty Dumpty's language game - "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less." This makes it harder for anyone else to follow what you're saying; and this in turn means that you are more likely to be ignored in a world where most of us are struggling in the grip of the information tsunami and perforce have limited attention.

This may or may not be of concern to you, of course!

Well, I for one found the discussion interesting at least - and since it was partly fueled by the semantic differences, it is still worthwhile to me. :)

On the other hand you could use the the full "activation of the orbito-frontal cortex" phrase every time. ;) I'm only semi-serious here obviously, but otherwise, there is so much room for misunderstandings. Damn the language!

Also, I do think Chris' core point stands, that some things we generally define as "games" "play" or "sport" involve extremely minimal (equates to practically none) 'activation of the orbito-frontal cortex' ie: weighing of the alternatives for a decision. So in that regard, the famous Meier quote is irrelevant.

Peter: it's important to recognise that this was originally a series of emails being passed between Nicole and I, the main focus of which was edits to the manuscript of the book. This discussion of choice was a sidebar that cropped up between the main points over the space of about a dozen emails; I restructured it here to make it work as a conversation.

Regarding my use of language, I'd like to make the distinction between my beliefs concerning language and my use of natural language. As you know, I believe that the meaning of a word is how it is used, which means that rather than static definitions words are symbols which connote various meanings depending on context of use, background of understanding, and individual beliefs.

But pragmatically, one cannot explicate all the dimensions of this nest of vipers at all times - I tried to behave this way at one point of my life and it drove me quite insane! My pragmatic solution was to proceed under normal conditions with my own lexicon as the default until it becomes apparent that there is a tangible disconnect. (Since I regularly consult multiple dictionaries to compare my terms to some sort of baseline, my own lexicon reflects more than just my personal beliefs - most of the time, at least!) I turn to discussion of terms when it's clear there's a difference in semantics. The obvious alternative - immediate definition of terms - makes casual discussions impossible, and this exchange was originally a casual discussion.

Remy: I agree with you - this talk came out of the semantic differences; without that, we would never have teased out all this content, which I thought was an interesting take on an old topic. I'm shocked that it could have caused offence, to be honest, but there you go - people are strangely temperamental beings! :)

What was interesting to me was this distinction between "choice" and "decision"... I believe there is no major disconnect between the common use of decision and my "activation of the orbito-frontal cortex"; everything that in general terms people would consider a decision fits this neurobiological descriptor most of the time.

And in this regard, anon raises an interesting point about whether there is a decision involved in rhythm-action games - although sadly, the equipment doesn't exist that could test this. My instinct - from watching my wife play - is that no decision takes place. It can't because the time it takes to make a decision (in my sense, which I'm claiming also corresponds to common usage to a fair degree) is significantly longer than the time it takes to process moves in DDR. So what happens? Does another part of the nervous system respond? Or can the OFC respond faster in some contexts?

I suspect the former. When my wife misses a beat in DDR, it's because she's out of step; there is no decision here - she simply picks it up from where it went wrong. It's all she can do - it's far too fast at the level of difficulty she plays for anything else. (See also the role of decision time in calculating braking distances). A novice player - such as myself - might try and play by making decisions of the kinds that anon flags, but such an approach is ultimately doomed as the difficulty of the game rises.

In this regard, I welcome some perspective from the fighting game community, who also must react faster than a formal decision can be made... yet I suspect that this *does* feel like a decision. It seems to me, from watching such play, that the responses are reflexes i.e. conditioned responses, so how does the player weigh up between them? Do they learn to read the situation, and respond accordingly? (Which would fit the timings involved). Or do they make a decision each time? (Which raises the question as to whether the OFC *can* work "in double time").

And yes, my point here remains as you explicate it: if we think of games and play in terms of a series of interesting decisions we are narrowing our focus quite radically. That this is a kind of play that all game designers enjoy only heightens the danger of this perspective skewing how games are made for a wider audience.

All the best!

Yep this is a really interesting area when it comes to fighting games. Sometimes it is pure reaction, but sometimes, you are making decisions ahead of time, usually based on "best guess" information that you have at hand.

For example, in SF2 one player with Ryu is throwing fireballs at the other. The player will be deciding should I block, jump straight up, jump over them or attack, or attempt to do some other kind of counter (your own fireball back if you have the time). There isn't long to make your choice but you are definitely making a choice and not going on some pre-conditioned response.

However, players tendencies become readable, and at its heart its this game of weighted rock-paper-scissors with regards to the options each player has available.

Wow, there's really so much to expand upon here it would take forever. I think this excellent post is relevant & great insight though (from a far better player than me!):
He's examining the difference between prediction and reaction - different terminology, but I think you could almost replace 'prediction' with 'decision' at high level play. At low level play where the 'correct'(best) reaction moves are not known to all players, there may also be more decisions made even in reaction.

Remy: thanks for this! I agree with your suggestion that "prediction" would be a form of what I'm terming here "decision", namely a process of weighing up options.

Thanks also for the link... looking at this makes me wonder about the reaction process, which seems to be partly pre-established but also partly "pre-loaded"; as if the player weighing up the nature of the context of the battle establishes by decision what the possible reactions might be, and then primes the relevant reactions for response.

It's a fascinating area for research, although sadly not one that I can pursue myself. :)


I disagree with anon - without a perfect combo, the best scores are withheld from you - but in DDR, I think there are serious decisions to be made: which foot do I use to hit each arrow?

Typically, within a song this will be done on a reactionary basis but after failing to hit a button (or multiple buttons...) I'll play that moment over in my mind, considering if I could have used a different sequence of feet in order to set myself up better.

I think that the 'good game' quote implies a 'choice' is 'an evaluation of multiple actions/sequences of actions of potentially differing "value"'.

My first reaction before typing the preceding paragraph was to agree with you. However, even a slide or a rollercoaster can be an invitation to choose which action will maximise your fun. Will screaming and raising your arms heighten the experience? Or will sitting perfectly still allow you to better focus on the changes in pressure as the air rushes past your body?

Of course, there are variations within this and I imagine that some personalities would consider this in exactly the same manner as they would the question of 'what action will best preserve my empire?' in Civ.

Bezman: thanks for adding to this discussion!

The position you put forward here is the same as Nicole's, namely that choices are available in all situations. I am sympathetic to this view, but it has to be remembered that - just like my view - it is somewhat contrary to the view of games as being fundamentally composed of decisions in the stronger sense of the word, being rather the view that all play is effused with choices. Not all choices in such a view are equivalent to decisions in the other view, which strikes me as being much closer to the perspective of game theory.

As to this question as to whether or not there is a choice to be made in playing DDR... As I've said before, watching my wife there is no way any conscious decision is being made when she plays. She executes the "score" in the same way she would with music. True, there may be room for some self expression in this kind of activity, but this just goes to show the distinction between (game theory) decision and (aesthetic) choice.

I think I can highlight this example with the case of Space Channel 5, in which buttons are pressed, but few would argue there is a choice of which finger to press each button. The possibility might be there, but once one's hand is configured to the controller, the same finger keys the same button. I think my counter-example has some merit.

This discussion has widened the question of decision vs choice for me; Nicole's example of the slide offering choices was quite convincing to me, and your example of the rollercoaster reinforces it.


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