A game is a series of interesting decisions.
If indeed Sid Meier is right (and who would challenge his authority?) then designing a game is about designing decisions, and how can we design decisions if we don’t understand how they are made? Classical game theory assumes players are unswervingly rational in the pursuit of their goals, and perhaps some games (such as chess) promote such a mode of thinking, but in general we are not nearly so logical. We make mistakes, we overvalue certain alternatives, we are dishonest and we give in to social pressure. Moreover we fail to recognise these failings even when we repeat them regularly.
The title Dan Ariely’s book sums up his position. We are Predictably Irrational. We make decisions badly and we do so with surprising consistency. The book surveys fifteen years of research demonstrating the many ways in which this is true. Some highlights for a game designer:
- If presented with multiple options, we have a strong tendency to try to keep them all open, rather than settle for one, even when the cost of not choosing is greater than the cost of the worst choice.
- Pleasure cannot be separated from expectations. We enjoy Coke more than Pepsi because we expect to. Wine tastes better if we are told that it is expensive.
- We are much more likely to be dishonest with ‘pretend money’ than with cash, even if there is a direct conversion between the two.
- We are more willing to help others for free than for a small payment.
Each chapter also considers the wider ramifications of the findings, with regard to how we live our lives and structure our society. I find it intriguing to consider how we can design games to feature these kinds of decisions — or to avoid them.
For an academic author, Ariely’s style is remarkably friendly and accessible to a popular audience. For those who wish to delve more deeply into the research, an extensive bibliography is provided.