What causes analysis paralysis? What should designers do about it?

Posted on Posted in Philosophy

You’re playing a game of Pandemic with three of your friends. One of your friends is taking forever to make a decision. He opines to the open air: “should I go to Jakarta and handle this three-cube situation before there’s an outbreak or should I set up a research station that we really need in Bogota?” You look over at your friend. She’s on her phone. Your other friend is staring off in the distance. Exasperated, you put your hands over your face, lean back, and say, “just make a decision.”

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Your friend has analysis paralysis.

Next to king-making, analysis paralysis is one of the most annoying board gamer behaviors. It happens whenever a player is so overwhelmed with choices and the urge to optimize that they don’t make a timely decision.

It’s really hard for designers to discourage analysis paralysis. It isn’t just a board game behavior. It afflicts people in business, politics, sports, and – dare I say it – love. That brings us to one big question…

What causes analysis paralysis?

Gamers are analytical by nature. We like thinking through all the possible outcomes of certain behaviors. We like making the optimal choice. We want to win. That’s why it’s so tempting to sit and try to think about all the possible things we could do in a game. Games don’t have any major effect on the world, though. Why measure our moves with such scrutiny when there’s no lasting effects?

I’ve given a lot of thought to this. Games have very powerful effects on our psychology. That’s part of why I have repeatedly said that games are microcosms of life. As gamers, we seek competency, achievement, and problem-solving. We don’t just want to win – a part of us needs to win.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – an old psychological diagram that roughly approximates human desires. Photo from J. Finkelstein, who posted it to Wikipedia under the CC BY SA 3.0 License (Source).

A lot of times, we’ll keep trying to find that perfect answer until we are overcome with decision fatigue and simply choose something a random because our willpower is spent. Obviously, as game devs, we don’t want people saying “screw it” and making haphazard choices as they disengage with the game. Yet when the problem of analysis paralysis is happening in the player’s head, what can we do about it? Quite a bit, actually.

What should designers do about analysis paralysis?

All games are built upon the basis of objectives and constraints. You need to make sure both are very clear. Your player needs to know what objective they’re trying to accomplish and what’s holding them back. I think the biggest cause of analysis paralysis ultimately comes down to failure to prioritize based on what is a successful game strategy.

Pare down on all the decisions that don’t make the game special. Every decision a player makes needs to affect the game somehow, except for maybe the color of their token.

Break complex processes down into simple steps. Break turns into phases. Make sure complex details are easily trackable so less time is spent thinking about it.

Make losing acceptable. Losing should not be cool or desired, but it should not take the fun out of the game. The gameplay itself needs to be rewarding, not just the taste of victory.

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