Psychological Reactance and Bioware Games

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.

Oh, which doors to close?

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


1. Literally
2. Viconia, before you ask.
3. Brehm, J. (1966). A Theory of Psychological Reactance. New York: Academic Press.
4. Cialdini, R. (2009). Influence: Science and Practice. Boston: Pearson Press.
5. The one that starts with “C” and refers to a certain part of female anatomy, if you must know
6. And doctors –Canadian ones at that!
7. Thanks to PoG reader Martin for his insightful e-mail about Fable 2 romances and Ariely’s doors experiment, which reminded me that I had thought it explained Bioware’s romance choices back when I first read it.

10 thoughts on “Psychological Reactance and Bioware Games

  1. When you mentioned you’d been making these decisions ever since Baldur’s Gate 2, I briefly reflected on all the romance decisions I’ve had to make in BioWare games since BG2…only to realize that the first BioWare game to give more than one MALE romantic interest for us ladies was…Dragon Age: Origins. Huh.

    Anyway, I definitely like to keep my options open in these games as long as possible. The reason I point to is that the lovely people at BioWare have put a lot of time and thought into these choices and the branching storylines that result from them, and once I definitively choose one path, I have resigned myself to miss the other path. I guess that sounds a lot like the psychological reactance you’ve described, but it’s not just keeping options open for the sake of having options; it’s keeping options so that I can sample more of the story. There’s a curiosity factor here, helped by the fact that I can even make a decision and then reload and then make a different decision (I have no idea how I will survive what I assume will be unalterable choices in SWTOR). So even though I might know from the start that I want to romance Kaiden, I’ll lead poor Liara along as long as I can so that I feel like I’m more fully appreciating the extent of the game. (Big mistake, by the way–I was so embarrassed by the Liara romance dialogue. On another note: Why would I blush so hard when a fake person in a video game, which no one is seeing me play, says something embarrassing? I reloaded and it’s like it never happened–but somehow it still haunts me!)

    Anyway, I guess I like to say my reluctance to make decisions is due to the fact that I want to see, as far as I can, the direction different decisions would take me (without playing through the whole game again, especially because, as hard as I try, I usually make most of the same choices the second time). But I can definitely see some psychological reactance in me as well, and maybe it’s even related to my own explanation.

    Sorry for the rambling, but this is a very interesting post.

  2. It’s odd how rarely games really force you to choose, as Mass Effect did between Kaiden and Ashley (not that that was much of a choice; sorry, Kaiden). Plenty of games have it at a low level – “What will you put your stats into?” – but most of them allow you to get around it by, say, eventually gaining enough skill points to level up in everything, or at least most things. Are game designers scared that cutting off choices will cause players too much anxiety?

  3. Great observations, Jamie. I’m bookmarking and annotating this puppy. By the way, been reading for a while. I appreciate being able to play at being high-brow with your terrific posts.

  4. @Fraser – Designers are definitely afraid of cutting off choices. Players don’t like the idea that early choices could negatively impact their characters down the road, and are quite vocal when they feel that they have gimped themselves early on.

    Most players will tell you that they want their choices to mean something in the game world, but the truth is that they feel a strong sense of loss when forced to make hard decisions.

  5. Thanks, all.

    @ Eleni
    Keeping options open to experience the story is definitely part of it, as are achievements. But you still have to make a choice eventually and there’s stuff later in most of these games that you only get to see if you pursue one romance to its conclusion.

  6. Interesting observations. When I’m in a situation like this in a game I try to string several along for as long as possible, but I usually know who Im going to settle on near the start.

    I think in my case it’s largely down to a fear of missing ‘interesting content’ the final choice tends to be the one I would choose to date if I was the character. In BG2 this was Viconia, she’s so much more complicated and interesting than the other ‘goody-two-shoes’ available.

    I suppose the main difference between the game and real life is I wouldn’t tolerate dating somebody I didn’t find ‘interesting’ and didn’t ‘like’ just because I was worried about missing some interesting content.

    I wonder if changing the game mechanics so stringing several along was very likely to make you miss interesting content – and this was obvious from the start… Would doing this make people act more decisively?

  7. ME1 has got to be the only game in history that can put a lady on the path to virtual lesbianism without her full knowledge and understanding. If that had happened on the male side of the gaming pool, a game designer might be dead right now. 😉

    I remember being chagrined that Alenko/Williams are only allowed a cameo role in Mass Effect 2. Both characters are very strong in ME1, laying out opposing views of the central dilemmas underneath all the pew pew action. Realistically, I understand why ME2 skirted the whole situation. For one scene, you have to write the scenario for two characters. For each character, the dialogue and plot must make sense whether or not there was an old romantic tie. So it’s a four-in-one deal just to say hello. On a functional level, it would be odd hiring a voice actor for days and days of work that many players would never hear.

    I was so annoyed that I even came up with a hypothetical solution. With some slight of hand, the “dead” player might have been captured by the enemy off camera in ME1 instead of killed. If so, the dead character could return in ME3 as a converted enemy, an NPC in distress, or in the form of a moral dilemma. Under the right circumstances, both Williams and Alenko could be reintegrated into the main story. Theoretically.

    So here’s the flip side. In ME2, if you remain faithful to your romantic interest from ME1, you are unable to claim the ME2 romance achievement. There is no achievement for sticking it out without giving into temptation. And with something like a half dozen character options (for female Shephard) there’s temptation aplenty.

    So which is worse? Feeling guilty over “killing” a strongly written NPC in ME1? Or ending up with no love interest in ME3 because you cheated during ME2? We have only begun to see the evil possible with closed doors in video games. >;-)

  8. Psychological reactance in video games? Sounds like “fear of commitment in real life”. When I was on the dating scene, I too was wary of “losing options” in much the same way. As is often the case, gaming mimics reality.

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