We Like Choice

The more I work in the areas where I work (which frequently feel more like play, and the more they feel like play, the better the results I tend to get), the more I think that my entire profession, or series of professions, can be distilled into a single concept of the science of choice.

Games are about choices. They fundamentally are about choice and consequence, which is a variation away from Jim Gee’s codification of the game experience as the scientific method. What is interesting and, to me, justifies that variation is that players are not purely objective oriented. They truly delight in finding ways to get bizarre results out of an intentionally predictable interface, and this becomes a form of self expression. We have handles, in terms of our online identities, for a reason beyond their simple utility. Providing environments promoting choice results in increased player loyalty, faster spread of viral material, and a generally happier player base.

Marketing is about choices. The number one thing you cannot do without resorting to dishonesty (which inevitably backfires) is market a poor product. Trace patterns in people who have had exceptionally strong careers in marketing and you will generally see a high level of skill in selecting what they market. Viral marketing is about setting up an environment where your prospective buyer can make a choice and feel good and rewarded for making that choice. Facebook, one of the most powerful recent marketing and social networking tools, is inherently leveraging choice in a way that MySpace failed to accomplish.

Writing is about as choice-driven as anything I can think of, not just in terms of the above scenarios where you are predicting or attempting to influence choice, or the ways in which choice plays a role in everything in life, but storytelling fundamentally also comes down to choice (and, again, consequence). Storytelling is, in general, another broad metaphor, if you incorporate interactivity.

The further we get from having to expend all of our energy to ensure our basic survival, the more we value choice. Free will becomes of value when you are equally safe making decisions on your own as you are placing your fate in the hands of a dictator (one who is stronger than you and will ensure your basic physical protection). This is largely why we are seeing an explosion of choice-as-personal-expression, from online avatars to personal websites and blogs to downloadable single-unit portions of music. There are entire services now, like Second Life, which on a basic level exist only to allow you to make choices. They don’t even bother to throw much of anything else into the mix.

AnthologyBuilder has been making the rounds on various journals, though I heard it first from Matt Rotundo. I talked about something like this in my many maunderings on new speculative fiction models, so I’m tickled that something like it (which must surely have been long in development then) now actually exists. It has interesting implications, including potential undervaluing of future collections compiled by the author, which is reason for caution, but overall it’s a terrific thing, the iTunes of fiction.

There’s been an evolution in game design over the last decade emphasizing choice and player expression. It’s taken the industry this long to come fully to terms with the fact that maximizing player decision-making isn’t a bad thing. Some guidance is still needed, which is what will differentiate a world like SecondLife from an actual game — but you would be amazed at the reticence of game designers to put choice in the player’s hands, even in something as inherently social, expressive, and commercial as an MMO. Games like A Tale in the Desert take this to new heights in experimentation (and there is no question that designing for choice is an expensive process), but overall for some time now the industry has been waking up to the value of allowing the player to make simple, even completely meaningless, choices, and rewarding them for it.

This is venturing on a lot of words over something that appears to be an obvious realization, but the concept of choice is as fundamental as the concept of freedom, and it is equally overlooked in so many enterprises. Choice is good. Choice is fun. Choice is what life is about. In a world where we have a profusion of information and manipulatable media, the differentiating factor is how we navigate that media, which comes down to identity, which comes down to choice. It amazes me how much StumbleUpon can multiply your web traffic, and this, too, is choice and identity based, leveraging word of mouth and encouraging users for finding cool stuff on the internet. In any undertaking where your objective is to reach more people (in depth or in breadth), I can think of few ways in which adding an element of choice wouldn’t drastically improve your reach and the resonance of your effort. And I do think that all art ultimately becomes interactive, or it becomes extinct.

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