Dissonance, the unpleasant motivational state that arises when one’s behaviors and cognitions are inconsistent with one another, is reduced by shifting attitudes and beliefs to eliminate the inconsistency (Festinger, 1957, 1964). Thus, if an individual has a choice between two ice cream flavors, art prints, or appliances, the act of choosing one flavor, print, or appliance over another is believed to produce dissonance because any negative thought about the chosen alternative or positive thought about the rejected alternative will be inconsistent with the decision (Brehm, 1956; Festinger, 1957, 1964).
One of the beauties of video games is the opportunity to “let go” and immerse yourself in an out-of-body experience to recreate fantasies and experiences that may not be affordable within human limits. Whether for better or worse, gamers are offered the opportunity to explore what they wish within these confines. At what point then, did video games decide to limit the limitless? At what point did video games focus so much attention on replicating realism and limiting players to the confines of real life human interactions.
Certain video games offer the opportunity to make decisions, or choices. Morality tends to be at the forefront of the decision:choice making paradigm, and Laura Parker covered that topic well in 2009 over at GameSpot. When I refer to choices I am looking at the developmental and social approach, rather than the moral decisions which became so popularized with games like Dragon Age, Mass Effect, or BioShock.
Leon Festinger’s cognitive dissonance identifies some of the challenges many gamers encounter when they fire up games for the first time. Cognitive dissonance, being the inconsistency of thoughts and decisions, such as wanting to lose weight and then eating a cheeseburger become the very first struggle in any game where the first step is to create a permanent embodiment of a virtual world. For example, many RPG’s and online games (MMO’s) will have an individual choose a character race and class combination to stick with throughout the entire game. This is inherently the first step in generating elevated anxiety for someone that wants to embody multiple roles depending on their mood.
Day 1 of playing a game, such as Guild Wars 2 for example, might be filled with excitement at the start of a tall Norn ranger. Who doesn’t love a viking that throws axes and has companions follow them around while you explore a vast universe? The downside is that games like this will last an exuberant amount of time. Gamers might invest hundreds of hours across weeks, months, or years into a game like this. If a month down the line this same player that wanted to live in the world as a Norn ranger decides that he or she would prefer to be a sylvan elementalist … then what is really stopping them from making the change? Under most games inner-restrictions, these individuals would have to roll an entirely new character and start over. Hundreds of hours invested, again, repeating many of the same tasks just because the “mood” changes?
It is a parallel of the occupational and academic world in real life. Someone who spends 10 years invested in business and finance that suddenly has a change of heart and pursues a career change will invest years into academics to pursue a new degree and “start” the process over. Career changes are, in essence, the equivalent of re-rolling an alt (alternate character) in a video game.
So if video games are an opportunity to escape from these constraints of real life limitation, why do game developers, and game design center around this rather strict limitation? There appears to be certain games that fall outside of this norm which generally have limited investment in character development. For example, ever since customization became an option in Call of Duty, or games like Sunset Overdrive and Saints Row, the opportunity to jump into a virtual shop and change all aspects of your appearances from ethnicity to body type, clothing style to hair, has become a vivid, rapid and immediate gratification of exploring new virtual representations of ourselves.
Yet the online gaming environments which foster virtual communities trap gamers in the real-life equivalency of what you start with, you keep forever, unless you start over. Then again, in real life there is no start over is there? It begs the question of which decision, is a good decision?
My two cents though? Customization and choice is everything. ArcheAge excels at the class system in that you can customize three classes and change them on the fly if you find that half way through playing the game you don’t enjoy your play style. Sunset Overdrive and Saints Row let you change almost every aspect of your physical appearance on a whim. Although this mechanic is not possible across all types of games due to story limitations, such as Dragon Age with race-specific stories, it still leaves the inevitable question standing: Will MMO’s shift into an opportunity for increased customization on the fly? Does it truly harm the gameplay in any way if I change the race, appearance, or class of my character after investing 50 hours into the game?
Who knows. But I’m curious to know how many characters are never played again because the interest is lost in their style or appearance.
Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Festinger, L. (1964). Conflict, decision, and dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press
Brehm, J. W. (1956). Post-decision changes in desirability of alternatives. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 52, 384–389.
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