Opportunity Costs

Psychology and Game Design #1

Hello my wonderful readers! Today marks the start of my brand new, weekly series of blog posts Psychology & Game Design, in which I will be discussing what scientists rand researchers know about human behavior and how we can better utilize that knowledge to create better games.

To kick things off, I thought I'd start by discussing what is, arguably, one of the most important aspects of playing games, player decision-making. More specifically, today we are going to look at what economists tend to view as the most critical influence on the choices that we make, the opportunity cost.

Making Decisions

Many modern economists and psychologists believe that an important part of decision making, whether we realize it when we are making the decision or not, comes down to considering the opportunity cost of making that decision. This means that when determining whether or not we are going to make a choice we always consider our next best alternative to that choice, and whether or not it is worth it to sacrifice that alternative in order to make this choice. According to this idea, how we make choices essentially comes down to weighing our options.

For example, let's suppose that I (a college student) have 1 hour of reading to do for a quiz I have over some material the next day. I have a choice to make: I can spend 1 hour reading my textbook and, presumably, get a good grade on my quiz the next day. According to the idea behind opportunity cost, though, before I choose to spend that 1 hour studying, I will consider what my next best option is. In this case, I could spend that hour working on sketching out my latest idea for a game. If I spend an hour studying, I'll be sacrificing valuable game design time. If I spend an hour working on game design, I'm sacrificing a good grade on my quiz the next day. Which do I choose? Obviously game design.... right?

Designing Interesting Choices

So what does this mean when we are talking about designing better board games? How can understanding this principal behind making choices help us make more entertaining games?

Most designers, and players for that matter, would agree with you if you said that one of the most important aspects of designing a great game is including multiple paths to victory. Allowing players to have different options to pursue will both make your game more interesting and increase its replayability. This makes logical sense. A game that you can play the same way every time and always win wouldn't be all that enjoyable or interesting to most gamers.

Games with multiple paths to victory, however, force players to experiment with their strategy and try different options. However, in order for these multiple paths to create interesting options, the opportunity cost of those options should make that player's decision difficult. So, when designing a decision for players in a game, there are essentially two things to consider:

1) If a player is considering making one decision, what is the next best alternative of that decision?

2) Does that next best alternative provide enough value that it is difficult for the player to sacrifice that alternative?

What are your thoughts on this?

Are there other aspects that designers need to consider?

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