Giving Users Choice

Among video game designers and developers, “choice” is a consummate word. Most game developers herald choice. It is “the thing” that differentiates a good game from an uninteresting one. Sid Meier, best known for the Civilization series of games, is almost as well known for saying: “a [good] game is a series of interesting choices” (Game Architecture and Design, Rollings & Morris, eds., 2000).

And generally speaking, developers seem to agree that the more open the game environment—that is, the more “choice” the player has—the closer the game gets to realizing the ultimate vision of what an interactive world can be. This is especially true of virtual worlds and other “immersive” games.

But there is more than one kind of “choice,” and I wonder how developers of all kinds of software (not just games) should think about what the user can choose to do at any particular moment.
A New York Times article about the 2010 Tokyo Game Show got me thinking about this, especially because only a few days earlier I had listened to Sheena Iyengar’s TED talk on the art of choosing.

The Times article reflects about Japan’s place in the world of video game development, and to an extend consumption. Jake Kazdal, a game developer with a history at both Sega and Electronic Arts, was interviewed for the article:

“Part of Japan’s problem, Mr. Kazdal said, is a growing gap in tastes between players there and overseas. The most popular games in Japan are linear, with little leeway for players to wander off a defined path. In the United States, he said, video games have become more open, virtual experiences.”

In light of Iyengar’s talk, and other ruminations about choice and false choice (including Malcolm Gladwell’s “spaghetti sauce” TED talk), Kazdal’s point makes a lot of sense. But I don’t think it’s a matter of “taste” so much as culture. The Japanese are not “lagging behind,” as Keiji Inafune of Capcom tells the Times reporter. It’s that their whole ideology doesn’t embrace “choice” the same way that Western cultures do, but they’re being asked to both produce and consume games in a global marketplace.

How do other software makers address this? Is “choice” as synonymous with “user freedom” in other areas of software development as it is in games? Are there other, better words than “choice” that help software developers and other computing professionals discuss and answer the question, “What can the user do?”

Comments are welcomed!