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TED Talks: Dan Gilbert – Why are we happy?

February 4, 2008

The good news about being a game designer? Everything you read or hear will come in handy at some point in a game. So, it’s all work related. With that in mind, here’s a TED talk that some colleagues recommended a while ago. I finally had time to watch it this morning over coffee.

Dan Gilbert – Why are we happy?

Go watch it. It’s just 20 minutes, and a perfect way to have your morning coffee. It’s just the Giants and the Pats on the news anyway.

What I find particularly amazing is that the freedom to choose actually produces less happiness than being constrained. There are a couple interesting implications in this – first off, the less we constrain our players, the less happy they are likely to be. Any working game designer knows that the fewer constraints he or she has, the more challenging that task will be. Give us some constraints – some means to bound our creativity – and the project will go easier than it otherwise would have. I regularly give my students ridiculous game design challenges to prove to them that you can make a game about anything, and good, compelling games, too. The freedom to choose ultimately make people less happy than they otherwise would be.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Douglas permalink
    February 4, 2008 2:39 pm

    Dan Gilbert, he’s the guy who wrote Stumbling on Happiness? I have yet to read the book, but I did read the Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz. Schwartz came to the same conclusions that more choices make us unhappy. He talks about how even the decision to decide how to spend our free time has too many choices and is now a difficult question to answer.

    Schwartz concluded that a few choices are needed so that you are not constrained, but too many choices and you are overwhelmed by the decision.

    Are there particular games you are referring to that offer too much choice?

  2. Patrick permalink
    February 4, 2008 3:19 pm

    Yeah, but don’t you think people should aspire to be able to handle less constraints while maintaining happiness? Sure, the majority will want linearity, but so it goes.

  3. February 4, 2008 3:29 pm

    I think the message that one could take from it is this – as “synthesizers of happiness”, designers need to find the means to give players a choice which permanently alters the game state in a unique way (irreversible). If people have too much to choose from, they end up largely confused and uncertain about any particular choice they may make.

  4. February 4, 2008 5:25 pm

    I think this can be related to Raph Koster’s, “Theory of Fun”. It is the nature of the human brain to put things in patterns. We put our life in patterns so we have order instead of chaos. And I mean quite literally order, as in numbers. Order of importance, relevance, desire, etc.

    When you relate this to synthetic happiness and why it is possible to make yourself happy in any given life situation, it all comes down to how you view that order.

    Imagine this order as an endless list of goals that a human being might have, with meager(yet sometimes relevant) goals at the beginning, like getting food or shelter, and more grandiose goals further up the list, like become famous or extremely wealthy. Wherever we fall on this list, if we zoom in so that our goals become realistic and attainable, our achievements become more rewarding and we become more appreciated of what we have and what we have accomplished….This is happiness.

    After all, doesn’t the most compelling reason to play a game come from the constant flow of accomplishment from grokking(patternizing) a game and feeling as though the challenges and goals are tough, but realistic and feasible?

  5. February 6, 2008 4:42 pm

    Can’t this be related to Super Mario series?

    Super Mario Bros. was extremely linear, and absolutely non-reversible. You couldn’t even scroll the screen left. Everything that goes off the screen to left is a past. By constraining players so they must proceed forward (although this might have been more technical constraint than by design) players could focus on each moment, and more time was spent enjoying than thinking about missed opportunities.

    Fast forward to SNES’s Super Mario World, and suddenly you not only have vast world to go back and forth, you could also scroll left, going all the way back to the beginning of each stage. I think this freedom has weakened player’s focus and wasn’t loved as much as the first (This is purely my guess).

    From playing Final Fantasy XII, I must say I have been very unhappy with this whole “too much freedom” aspect of the game. Because of all those side quests, ultimate weapons, marks, and extra events that are completely unrelated to core plot, I had to force myself to focus on main plot to finish the game without wasting too much time (which I already did). If it was of smaller scope, focused purely on game’s main story, I would have been happier by more than ten fold, albeit terrible plot.

    I’ve been thinking from a gamer’s point of view (as it is what I am, hopefully yet), but I can see how it may affect developers as you said. Freedom of design choices will always leave room for regret.

  6. February 7, 2008 11:42 am

    @Peter: The problem with linear games these days is that there are new kinds of gamers (four, according to the Bartle Test) and thus some games try to reach as much gamers as they can.

    So, in FF there area side quests for the explorers, ultimate weapons for the achievers, etc. If you don’t like any of those, you might still stick to the main plot and still have your fun. Actually, if you don’t care about side quests and extra stuff, you probably won’t even think about the other choices you had. 🙂

  7. March 9, 2008 7:20 am

    I found that video to be very interesting. Particularly that choice makes us unhappy. The two games that send the biggest tingle down my spine when I think of them (Oblivion and Civ 4) send said tingle because of the freedom. However, when I thought about it, I also like it when a game forces you to make an irreversible decisions.

  8. March 10, 2008 5:30 pm

    This talk comes to me as having ability to reverse already made choices drives us to be unhappy, not necessarily having more choice causes us to be less happier. (I mean, I like the fact that there are hundreds of game titles for PS2… unlike on some other platforms.)

    Thing about Oblivion is that you can be everything, which takes realism away, and also keeps myself asking “should I drop what I am doing and do something else?” while playing. To me at least, that game would’ve been much better game if one choice closed another, making each choices permanent.


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