Prof. Ethan Ham, The City College of New York – Games and Entertaining Choices

Nov 27, 2013

In today’s Academic Minute, Professor Ethan Ham of the City College of New York examines what makes an interesting choice and entertaining game.

Ethan Ham is an associate professor of electronic design and multimedia at the City College of New York. He is also a contemporary artist whose artwork often draws upon his background as a game developer. Prior to entering academia, Ethan worked in the computer game industry for eleven years as a game designer, a game programmer, and a game producer.

About Prof. Ham

Prof. Ethan Ham – Games and Entertaining Choices

What makes a good game? Game designer Sid Meier has suggested that a good game must present interesting choices to its players. A choice is not interesting if one of the options is clearly better than the others. If you were offered the choice of being given $5 or $100, is there really a decision to be made? Choices in which the options are equally good are also uninteresting—does the choice of having the hundred paid to you in 10’s or 20’s really make a difference? Lastly, choices are uninteresting when an informed decision cannot be made. Being given the choice of what is hidden behind curtain number one or curtain number two boils down to simply making a random guess—flipping a coin works as well as making the choice yourself.

So interesting choices are not obvious or meaningless or shots in the dark. What are they? Game designer James Portnow says that interesting choices are created by giving a player more than one goal and causing those goals to be in conflict with one another. Goals that do not align cause internal conflict, which in turn makes a decision interesting. If you have ever been at a restaurant and agonized over ordering something healthy versus ordering something decadent, then you have experienced this kind of internal conflict. You want to eat healthy and you want rich, fattening foods, but you can’t have both. You have to prioritize one desire over the other.

Ultimately what makes games and their choices interesting is that the outcome is uncertain. As game designer Greg Costikyan has pointed out, uncertainty is something that is not desirable in everyday life, but games give us a chance to experience it and master it in the same way that horror films and roller coasters allow us to confront fear and overcome it in a safe environment.

Production support for the Academic Minute comes from Newman’s Own, giving all profits to charity and pursuing the common good for over 30 years, and from Mount Holyoke College.