This paper presents a mixed-methods study in two parts, qualitative and quantitative, that investigates ‘meaningful’ choices in narrative-rich games, and asks three questions:
- What specific characteristics do players associate with meaningful choices?
- Will the inclusion of these in a game characteristics lead to higher player appreciation?
- Does the meaningfulness of the choice affect the player’s appreciation?
In this context, appreciation is considered a separate factor to enjoyment and is defined as “a measure of the extent to which a media experience is meaningful in the sense that it is thought-provoking, emotionally moving, and insightful” (following the definition by Bartsch and Oliver). In other words, they are looking for choices that promote reflection, in the hope of creating works that have greater impact, both as entertainment and also as serious games.
The first question was addressed by a qualitative study. They asked 27 participants (with game playing experience) to identify a game in which they made a “meaningful” choice, leaving it up to the participant to decide what “meaningful” meant. Participants were asked to describe the choice and explain why it was meaningful to them in at least 30 words. The answers were coded to uncover common themes. The coding scheme identified three major theme:
- Choices were consequential. Which is to say that, at least from the player’s perspective, the choices had repercussions on the narrative. Consequences could, however, be subjective. For example, assisting your friend to die peacefully in Life is Strange, rather than letting them die slowly in pain, was regarded as a meaningful choice, even though the result in game terms could be considered the same.
- Choices were social. Meaningful choices tended to be judged by how they affected other people (usually NPC characters within the game rather than fellow players).
- Choices were moral. Meaningful choices tended to be dilemmas with two moral options pitted against each other (rather than mere temptations).
Curiously absent from these themes is much consideration of strategy. The authors say there was much less discussion of the strategic value of an option as part of what made it meaningful.
The second and third questions ask whether these themes can be employed as design principles to build meaningful choices. To answer theme, a second quantitative study was performed. A very simple narrative game was constructed, consisting of a fantasy story with a single choice at the end. Two versions of the story were written, one in which the choice was written to be consequential (high-meaningful), social and moral and one in which it was none of these (low-meaningful). Interactive and non-interactive versions of the game were create. In the non-interactive version, the choice at the end was made randomly by the computer instead of the player.
A 2×2 study of 192 participants was conducted to compare the effects of high / low meaningfulness and interactivity / non-interactivity. Player’s appreciation of the game was measured (using an instrument designed by Oliver & Bartsch). The results showed that appreciation was significantly higher in the high-meaningful cases. Interactivity also significantly affected appreciation, but only when the meaningfulness was high. Making choices with low meaningfulness did not increase appreciation.
While this is definitely an unsophisticated game, it is pleasing to see that even a simple example like this can confirm our theoretical expectations that choices with meaningful social and moral consequences can lead to more reflective play. The themes discussed here are similar to those raised by players in our own forthcoming study of The Great Fire. It is good to see this trend towards empirical, design-based research in ethical gameplay, applying the existing theoretical knowledge to making and testing real games.