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How choice-based video games help with real-life decision making

In life, we’re all faced with an almost overwhelming amount of choices. As technology — and, with it, game development — has advanced, we’ve been given yet another outlet to exercise our decision-making: choice-based games. With the number of choice-based games increasing in recent years — not to mention the December 2018 release of the interactive Netflix film “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch” — the genre has gained both fans and critics. The benefits of these types of games, however, far outweigh any perceived drawbacks. In a way, choice-based games most closely parallel real life in how the player (or person) is able to navigate their own story. 

Now, one could argue that almost all games are choice-based. The player “chooses” to press a button, or pull a trigger or hit a simulated tennis ball with a tennis racket. They have a goal or objective, and they fulfill it. While these sorts of games can occasionally involve a good deal of strategy, they are based more on instinctual reflex and skill than on any moral decision-making. What’s more, any “choice” the player has is nothing more complex than “choosing” to keep playing the game. So, for the purposes of this argument, let’s define choice-based games as narrative-driven, (the game has plot), morally and/or emotionally engaging to players and having varied outcomes based on what actions players take. 

There are several valuable benefits to choice-based games. First, they give the illusion of working under pressure. Although these stressful situations are fictional, a 2019 study from Cambridge University suggests that playing games provides practice with handling strong emotions like anger or fear. Video games that rely on us performing a certain way to achieve a good outcome teach us to perform well under stress. Despite the lack of any actual danger, the high stakes or emotional intensity can seem quite imminent and real.

Choice-based games also allow us to exercise morality in simulated scenarios. A 2013 study published in Science magazine shows that literary fiction increases empathy and understanding towards other people. Can’t the same be said about narrative gameplay? What’s more, choice-based games like “Life is Strange” or “Detroit: Become Human” can give us practice with morally gray, seemingly impossible choices. Not only that, but 2015 research from the University of London suggests that video games can also improve moral decision-making and question our own biases. It’s likely we’ll never be faced with these exact situations in person, but experiencing them in a game can help us evaluate our ethics before putting them into actual practice.

Finally, choice-based games force us to experience positive and negative consequences for our in-game actions. Sometimes, the outcome of choices can be straightforward; other times, the smallest actions can have far-reaching repercussions. For example, “Until Dawn” — the 2015 PlayStation 4 game, arguably a large step for choice-based gameplay — touts itself for its use of the butterfly effect. Small actions, such as turning left or right down a path can kill or save a character later on. At times, these unintended consequences can be frustrating, not unlike real life. Knowing how to learn from mistakes and how to deal with that frustration is a healthy skill to have outside of games. 

Some critics may argue that there isn’t any real choice in choice-based games. That is, even though players are able to choose their actions, the outcomes (however various) are already predetermined. A similar idea is proposed in “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch:” the viewer’s choices and outcomes are limited, so it’s possible to argue that they aren’t entirely “free” in their decisions. Yet, the same is often true in real life: our options aren’t always unlimited. Besides, no matter how predetermined the outcomes may be, the player still doesn’t know what they are. Hence, just like in real life, the player is essentially blind to their ending right up until they reach it. That’s as authentic as choice can get. 

Every day, we’re all faced with pressure to succeed, difficult decisions and the consequences of those decisions. Unlike video games, real life doesn’t have saves, checkpoints, replays or helpful countdowns to show when you need to make a choice. What playing more choice-based games can help with, however, is accustom us to recognizing and reacting to commonplace and extraordinary choices alike. So, consider picking up a choice-based game this summer; “The Stanley Parable,” the cult-classic “Undertale” or any of the games previously mentioned are good places to start. Choosing to play may just change your life story — a little, or a lot. 

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