The year was 1909 and, responding to demands from his salesforce for increased model variety, Henry Ford announced, “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.” Yet despite the massive success of the black Model T, by the end of its lifetime, 18 years later, at least 6 body colors were available. In 2018, a car buyer in the US needs to first select a model from among 350+ options1, before even thinking about colors.
This explosion of consumer choice has occurred among much cheaper products as well. The first tube of Crest toothpaste arrived in stores in 1954. Today, consumers can select from 60 different types of Crest toothpaste2, assuming they can fight past the aisles full of Colgate, Aquafresh, Sensodyne and a myriad other brands.
Between 1975 and 2016, the number of items carried by an average supermarket increased from 8,948 to 38,9003, a trend mirrored just about everywhere else we can spend our money, including games.
More choice means better choices…doesn’t it?
Surely, this is a good thing. Choice is a fundamental building block of a capitalist economy, so increasing it seems both natural and beneficial.
For starters, choice engenders competition, giving us better products. Who could deny that the vast increase in new indie game companies in the last decade has led to an increase in the number of great titles they release?
And in economics, rational choice theory says that more options to choose from means that there is a higher likelihood that you, an individual with unique preferences, will be able to find the “perfect” product for you.
When more can actually be worse
But is all this choice worth it if I need to spend 30 minutes in a Target aisle reading toothpaste labels? Is it worth it if I put off starting a new game because I don’t have the energy to peruse my extensive backlog at the end of the day, and decide to spend that time replaying my favorite MMO instead? Why is my game backlog a pile of shame, instead of, say, a stack of pride or a mount of glory?
Rational choice theory conveniently assumes that people are totally rational, like a swarm of mini computers that can consider all information and make the perfect decision, every time. Turns out, that’s not quite true (at least not yet – I’m still waiting on that brain-computer interface so I can merge my mind with IBM’s Watson). Humans are subject to several cognitive “bugs” that affect our decision-making, some of which get worse as the number of choices grows.
In The Paradox of Choice4, psychologist Barry Schwartz identifies the main mental culprits that make decision-making so hard. Let’s review them:
Our time and money are limited. We know that choosing one game means that there will be others that we’ll never get to play. And the more games we choose from, the more it feels like we’re missing.
The sadder sibling of opportunity cost, regret is the sense that we should’ve picked something else, and the more choices are available, the easier it is to feel that we left something better on the table. An even nastier version of this is anticipated regret, the belief that we will probably come to regret our decision and feeling bad about that, just in case.
Because we’ve come to expect that an increase of choice means an increase in quality, we know we’d better see some of that reflected in the games we play. The game that would’ve made us happy back in 2005 would never cut it in 2018.
Finally, we’ve had a chance to try out our choices, and came away less than happy. Back in the day, when we were choosing from just a handful of games, we could say ‘Well, there’s just nothing good out there.’ Today, our only option is to admit that we failed to find something good. We have no one but ourselves to blame for not having a good time.
But surely, I can’t be proposing that we go back to the dark ages of less choice, of having just one toothpaste to go with our one RPG? No, but perhaps we can strike a balance.
The golden middle of choice
In a series of studies, psychologists Iyengar & Lepper found that limiting choice increased satisfaction. Consumers seeing a selection of 24 jams were less likely to make a purchase than ones who saw only six, and students given a small set of topics to choose from wrote higher-quality essays5.
It turns out that the relationship between choice and happiness looks like an upside-down U: too few choices mean that we can’t find what we want; too many, and now it’s difficult to decide – both make us unhappy. In the middle, though, is the Goldilocks spot for choice – an optimal number of options that’s just good enough to find something that suits us, and not too great to overwhelm. What is this number? No one has done a rigorous study like this for game backlogs, and I suspect it varies from person to person, but based on studies conducted in the retail and restaurant space, somewhere in the 5-18 range seems like a reasonable number6.
But the difficulty of deciding isn’t just about the number of options. It also depends on your personality.
Economic studies into decision-making have proposed a distinction between two types of people – maximizers, and satisficers. Satisficers, first described by Nobel Prize-winning economist Herbert A. Simon7, are folks who come up with some criteria, and then look at options until they find one that checks all the boxes – the first acceptable choice. Maximizers, on the other hand, feel like they must always find the best among all the possible options; for them, good enough is not good enough.
It is likely that you already know which group you tend to identify with. Personally, I have only to remember the full year that I spent in search of a computer keyboard, reading reviews and testing the frontrunners, to know that I’m squarely in the maximizer camp (it all ended with me receiving a keyboard as a holiday gift from a friend concerned with my sanity; I have been happily using that one for years).
While it seems that the maximizers’ strategy should lead to better choices, it turns out that they feel the cognitive “bugs” of decision-making more acutely, meaning that they are even more likely to think about what they are missing out on, regret their decisions, have unreasonably high expectations, and blame themselves for not being happy with their choice than satisficers.
Can we do anything about this?
While we can’t change our personalities or go back to a time when we had fewer games to choose from, there are some strategies that both maximizers and satisficers can employ to make decisions easier and more fulfilling.
- For starters, get organized. It seems that decision making becomes easier if our options are organized in a way that’s consistent with our mental models8. This could be organizing games by genre, length, platform, or all the above; whatever it is for you, organize your collection once instead of doing it in your head every time you are trying to choose your next game.
- As you are organizing your collection, you can do yourself another favor by pruning out substandard options. Have some games in your backlog that you got in a free bundle years ago, that you’re pretty sure aren’t that good? Or perhaps that super hard platformer you started and weren’t really enjoying? Just hide them from your collection so they don’t occupy any of your mental cycles next time you are looking for something to play.
- Finally, always keep a short list of games that you really want to play; figure out the Goldilocks number for yourself, and don’t let the list shrink or grow too much.
Most importantly, remembering our cognitive “bugs” and how we can sabotage our own satisfaction can help us fight the effects of too much choice. And in time, perhaps, we can all reach the top of the upside-down U of satisfaction and turn our piles of shame into something to be proud of.
 Morales, A., Kahn, B. E., McAlister, L., Broniarczyk, S.M., 2005, “Perceptions of assortment variety: the effects of congruency between consumers’ internal and retailers’ external organization”, Journal of Retailing