Earlier this year I was playing through Bioware’s Dragon Age: Origins and found myself on the twin points of one of the company’s signature dilemmas: with which of the non-player characters should I pursue a romantic interest? Should I woo the crabby but sexy Morrigan or should I court the more pure hearted and worldly Lelliana? Or hey, maybe I should put the “role play” in “role playing game” and succumb to the roguish1 Zevran’s advances? Oh, I can’t commit! Bioware has been presenting me with this same basic choice since Baldur’s Gate2 and I always end up doing the same thing: I string everyone along as far as I can until I’m absolutely forced to make a choice.
So why is this? Why do I invest so much mental and emotional energy into this pointless choice between make-believe people in a video game and why am I so reluctant to commit?
Well, part of the reason is that humans hate to lose choices. Or, more to the point, we hate to lose options. Psychologist Jack Brehm3 coined the term “psychological reactance” to explain the concept that we really hate to lose options or freedoms once we think we have them. A child will want the toy they showed no interest in moments earlier just because her sibling is playing with it now. When shoppers in Florida were told that a certain kind of laundry detergent was banned, they rushed to not only horde the soapy goods, but they began organizing caravans to import them from neighboring states.4 And some members of one messageboard community I regularly visit reacted to having a particular curse word5 automatically replaced by the word “tapir.” They found progressively more insidious ways of circumventing the ban and by adopting “tapir” as a well known code word for the very thing it was supposed to replace, resulting in more name calling than before.
Behavioral economist Dan Ariely provided a neat example of psychological reactance in his book, Predictably Irrational, and I think it’s directly relevant to my inability to let go of romance options in Dragon Age. Ariely and his colleague created a little computer game where participants could choose between three doors –red, blue, and green. Players had only 100 mouse clicks to “spend” in the game by clicking to navigate between doors and then clicking in the rooms on the other side of each door. Clicking once inside a room yielded a random amount of money within a certain range. The red room, for example, could pay between 3 and 9 cents for each one of the player’s limited clicks, but the blue room may pay between 8 and 16 cents per click. Only the players didn’t know the ranges; they had to experiment to determine the optimal way to play the game and maximize their payout. But here’s the trick: If a player ignored a certain room for 12 turns (i.e., clicks), the door to that room would shrink and eventually disappear –gone was that option! But players could “reset” the door by clicking on it just once before it disappeared (an act that cost 2 clicks without generating any money).
So what did people tend to do? Even after discovering which room yielded the highest payout –in real money– they STILL tended to go back and waste clicks on lower paying doors just to keep those options open even thought they didn’t intend to actually exercise them. This was totally irrational, but psychological reactance made them reluctant to lose those options.
I think the same thing is at play when we wring our hands over closing the door to one of Bioware’s trademark NPC romances, especially after the point where we have nothing to gain by stringing the other players along. I’m not sure that the wizards6 at Bioware call it “psychological reactance” in their design documents, but I bet they’ve figured out that this approach adds a lot of drama and tension to the game, which we react to well in the end.
This kind of thing is so common in character progression as to be mundane (do I spend my talent points upgrading weapons or stealth abilities?) but game designers can certainly aim to do the same thing by giving us irrevocable choices in narrative branches. Making choices that kill the player have little tension, because you can always load a saved game. But forcing a player to make a choice that will result in losing one party member or another will cause real consternation. Remember the fates of Ashley Williams and Kaiden Alenko in another Bioware joint by the name of Mass Effect? The tension could be highlighted even more when we have to allocate (some might say “waste”) limited resources to keeping options open as long as possible. Or force a player to choose between upgrading an ability or getting a chance to complete an entire side quest. By leveraging psychological reactance designers can inject a lot of hang wringing into the experience that will be remembered for a long time.7