You Choose: The Psychology of Player Choice in Games

Video games are about choice. Whether they’re obviously choice-driven RPGs, visual novels, online games, or even more linear titles like classic shooters, players are constantly having to make decisions about how to play. Heck, sometimes the big decision of the day is what to play.

In this article, we want to look at how people make those decisions, and why.

If you’re a game developer figuring out what to work on next, maybe this will help. If you’re wondering what game to buy next, this article might provide you with some insight into that choice as well. But most of all, learning about human nature is fun, and we’re intensely curious.

There’s actually been a fair bit of academic research dedicated to this, and we’ll certainly share some of their findings here – at least the stuff that’s not locked behind paywalls. I’ve been tasked with something a little different today: I’ve been asked to give a more personal take on all of this, with the knowledge and experience gained through a lifetime of playing games.

This is a deeply personal subject to me. It’s been the topic of countless discussions and debates with friends, colleagues, and sometimes perfect strangers. I’ve spent far more time ruminating on the choices I’ve made in games, and on the choices I wish I was able to make, than is actually healthy for a human being.

I fell in love with gaming when I was around six or seven, with Shelley Duvall’s Digby the Dog. As I grew up, I’d spend literal hours waiting for Flash games to load over dial-up. I’ve replayed entire games to get the ending I wanted, and spent way too much money on Warframe. I’ve played nearly 12,000 hours of Steam games in the last 12 years. This puts me somewhere in the top .02% of people in terms of hours spent gaming – and that’s only counting Steam games. 

Truth be told, maybe I want to know why I’m doing all of this too.

Why We Play, and How We Choose What to Play

The short answer? Because it’s fun, and we play whatever we think is fun – but that’s hardly a satisfying answer.

Well, the fine researchers over at Try Evidence and Quantic Foundry have put together some more concrete answers (I added the bit about expressing creativity):

The table in the image above gives you the breakdown of the usual motivations at a somewhat granular level. Games provide us with ways to feel accomplished, satisfy our curiosity, or socialize with people online, and we pick games based on what we think will scratch our particular itch. Want to experience a grand story and live life as someone else for a while? An RPG might well do the trick. Want to hang out with friends and, ideally, crush them in competitions? Party games and online shooters were made for this. (These are preferably played with a VPN for PS5, Xbox, or PC to help you stay safe.)

The topic gets more complicated with the knowledge that we all prioritize different things. Some people can excuse poor storytelling if the gameplay is good, and vice versa. Moreover, an individual’s priorities in gaming will change depending on their mood. If they have energy, they might go for something competitive – at least, that’s how it goes for me. Indeed, it’s not just competitive games that need more energy, but also those with really intense and emotional stories. These are also best enjoyed with as few distractions as possible.

If a player has less energy, they might build a farm in one of those cozy life simulator games. Or they might play an MMO like The Elder Scrolls Online, an MMO-lite like Warframe, a survival-crafting game, or something as esoteric as Shoppe Keep or Power Wash Simulator.

Anyway, these mood-dependent preferences can explain why seemingly good games get some strangely uncomplimentary reviews from players. Sometimes it’s because they expected a game to satisfy their “motivational need” at a given time, and it didn’t quite hit the mark.

There is no universal gameplay experience.

There are also big-picture reasons that people play games. Those aforementioned individual motivations usually add up to a bigger, overarching reason, which will also depend entirely on the individual player. Players can also have more than one of these reasons, too. Boredom is a big one, of course; the desire for entertainment is probably the biggest reason to play video games. Simple escapism is another. For others, gaming is a form of therapy. 

Video games can be an outlet for the frustrations of day-to-day life, offering a space for you to explore your feelings from almost an outside perspective. One example is games that offer deep, compelling stories that can help you “get out of your own head,” so to speak. Another example comes from the world of medicine, where they’ve actually been using virtual reality to treat PTSD and other neurological issues.

In my case, I have severe ADHD and don’t always find it easy to connect with people. I also need pretty much constant mental stimulation to keep my brain happy, and it’s better when it’s an activity that occupies my mind and my hands in equal measure. Heck, I’m considering getting foot pedals so I’ll have extra controls and not need to bounce my legs so much.

Playing games helps with both of those things. I get to socialize with people who share my hobby, and it helps keep my brain from imploding whenever I’m not working or spending time with my wife. Playing solo is something I can do with a TV show on in the background, and that’s how I tackle both my TV and game backlogs at the same time.

Hey, if writers didn’t have issues, you wouldn’t enjoy our work nearly as much.

But, after you’ve gone and figured out what you want to play (and in my case, what’s wrong with you), it’s time to actually play. This is where we end up making even more decisions. 

On Choices in Story-Driven Games

Modern gamers might hear “choice-driven game” and think of something like Mass Effect, Dragon Age, or The Witcher series. They could think of a more classic-style RPG like Undertale, Disco Elysium, Baldur’s Gate 3, or a much, much older title. Still others might think of Life Is Strange, Detroit: Become Human, or one of Telltale Games’s creations.

And they’re all correct. However, it all started with text-based adventure games like Zork. At the beginning, these were games you’d literally play in a command line interface. The game would tell you what was going on, and the entire gameplay loop consisted of typing out your choice.

These choices were usually as simple as “go east” or “pick up sword,” but the games were usually designed to be hard. Even the simplest of actions carried weight and could be the difference between success and a game over screen.

As games advanced, with controls becoming more intuitive and all the action being visual, the nature of choice-based games evolved. That’s when we began to see more stories play out differently based on dialogue, or play out based on who you decided to help or how you completed your objectives. Some games would even give you wildly different campaigns to play based on choices made at the beginning of the game. This when choice based systems began to focus heavily on morality.

A lot of RPGs started including systems that would tally your good and bad deeds, and give you a different ending based on the result. You could choose to be a hero or a villain, then play accordingly.

The funny thing is that for many people, this is almost an illusion of choice, or a fake choice. Why? Because every statistic indicates that the vast majority of people will choose to do good things in the game when it’s an option. Sure, you might spend hours sending people, monsters, and robots to meet their various makers, but making one favored NPC sad can absolutely ruin your day. (Side note: There is a real trend in game development for giving players choices that don’t actually matter at all. This is annoying.)

Even among those who do “villain runs” or “renegade runs” of a game, they usually don’t do it until after a good guy run.

Above, I mentioned that I’ve replayed whole games to get the ending I want. This isn’t as rare as you’d think, and games with a heavy dependence on choices often have their whole community looking for ways to get the “best” ending, and discussing which endings they prefer. I assume this is because most of us really do love a happy ending.

Ultimately, one’s morality or tendencies in a video game (especially the single player kind) will often shift with your state of mind. They often have less to do with how you act in real life, and more to do with how much you’ve connected with the characters and setting.

For example, here are some stats from Bioware on the choices made by players in Mass Effect: Legendary Edition.

Some context on those stats: The top number would have been closer to 90%, except many players chose not to save the Reaper-controlled Rachni Queen known as “the Breeder.”

As for the other thing… the reporter in question is no threat to the protagonist, just kind of obnoxious and wrong about everything she says. Even so, it’s technically wrong to punch her. Thanks to some Renegade prompts that are only available for about a second, you can throw that punch across all three games.

See? Flexible. But morality is only one kind of choice you can make in gaming. 

Choices in Playstyle

How You Build Your Character

Some of my favorite games offer anywhere from two to a dozen different ways to play the game. This is especially true of the better RPGs, which usually offer at least three options: stealth, magic, and melee. Most will have a ranger class with bows somewhere in there as well.

That’s just the fantasy genre. Then there are games like Cyberpunk 2077 which offer the ability to play as a hacker, a heavy gunner, a knife-throwing or katana-wielding ninja, a stealthy pistol-focused operator, and more.

Me? I usually end up trying them all. I’m obsessive like that.

Online MMOs and other class-based games do much the same thing, offering a wide variety of playstyles in hopes of bringing in more players. Mind you, they don’t mind that this system also encourages extended play – some of us will create multiple characters with which to experiment.

Magic or hacker playstyles can make you feel otherworldly and powerful. Fast and loud melee and gunner playstyles offer some of the fastest action and the most spectacle. Stealth playstyles are for gamers who like to take things slow, be sneaky, and plan their attacks carefully.

This choice-based framework for playing your way can, especially with the more complicated games, provide considerable entertainment even when you’re not playing. Ever heard of build crafting, or theory crafting? That’s when you spend time creating a character build in your head and examining its potential even before you test it in game. It’s pretty much the nerdiest thing ever, and I love it.

How Much of the Game You Play

Some people live to get through the main story as fast as they can, and want to move on as quickly as possible. As a lover of side content, I don’t really get it. Some games actually open up new options in the main story if you’ve spent time running the side content. Some people just want to play all the games, I guess.

Personally, I try to be methodical about finishing all side content that actually has a story. If I’m truly enjoying the world I’m playing in, why would I want to leave it so soon?

You then have players who’ll skip as much of the game as possible while speedrunning it. To be fair, that’s plain old world-record-setting competition, so I get it.

… Do You Play?

A fun thing about MMOs: not everyone plays them to run quests and raids with each other. Yeah, most players do, but some MMOs allow for an even wider range of experiences.

Some people have an extra job, in-game. For example, they might specialize in crafting and spend their time online making armor for other people. They might sell it for in-game currency, or for actual currency on online marketplaces. Whether they do it for cash or for fun, entrepreneurial types will often spend their gaming time living out their mogul fantasies.

Speaking of fantasies, other players will spend hours upon hours doing literal role play. Like, they’ll join a server just for that, and spend hours standing around, talking to other players via text or voice, and make up their own stories in that world. They might go questing together, they might not – it’s not necessarily the point of their game.

On Choices in Games with Multiple Characters, or Custom Characters

This gets fascinating. Games allow you to choose from a premade set of characters, or create your own, and this choice provides more insight than you might expect. Now, some of these games have pre-made characters that come with specific gameplay bonuses and drawbacks, which can tie back into your playstyle. 

In games where that doesn’t matter, some people choose or create characters that look much like themselves – this has a fairly obvious explanation. Others prefer to play as anyone or anything that doesn’t look like them. (Oh look, it’s me!) Still others make their choices based on aesthetics alone. It’s what Mike Pondsmith, creator of the Cyberpunk roleplaying system, calls “the rule of cool” – pretty much anything goes in-game as long as the end result is worth it. Subjective? Definitely.

Why would you want a character that doesn’t look like you? Doesn’t everyone want to be The Hero, and for that hero to look exactly like them? Here are some interesting statistics:

Those statistics come from Quantic Foundry, a group of researchers who apparently ask the important questions. 

Questions like: Okay, why are so many dudes playing as women? Why do I almost exclusively play female characters when given the choice? There are actually a lot of potential reasons for this. Ask around on the internet, and these are the most common explanations:

  • If you’re going to be looking at a character model all day, it should match your personal aesthetic preferences.
    • These are not the words typically used to make this point, but we have professional standards to uphold.
    • This is the most common response to this question, and it shouldn’t always be taken at face value.
    • Fun fact: women overwhelmingly prefer to play characters that more closely resemble the way they present themselves in real life. Those who prefer to play men will often cite this exact reason as well.
  • Female avatars and characters often have better choices in terms of skins, outfits, and cosmetic accessories.
    • This reason ties back into the rule of cool, and is often cited by female gamers as well.

In my own case, the two reasons listed above are true enough, but not the whole story. For me, it all comes down to one simple fact: a more empowered version of me doesn’t look like a video game character. If I want to truly disconnect from real life, and really embody another character in another world, they need to not be me. Playing as a woman is the easiest way to do that.

Another interesting reason this happens is that it allows people to experiment with other identities before trying them on in the real world. It’s not uncommon for non-binary people and trans women to report that they only played games as women for a long time, prior to figuring out some rather important things about themselves.

Does that mean everyone playing as a girl wants to be a girl? No. In fact, let’s talk about what the choices you make in games do mean.

What the Choices You Make in Games Say about You – If Anything

As previously mentioned, some gamers’ in-game behavior is just an extension of their real-life behavior. Others use gaming as an opportunity to act in ways they never would in real life.

To complicate things further, in terms of narrative choices, there are any number of reasons that could lead you to making the same decision. Do you save a character because it’s the right thing to do? Or because it will keep another character from getting angry at you? Or do you do it because the quest gives you a better reward for saving that character from certain doom?

Without knowing your motivations and real-life habits, it’s hard to make those calls.

The only reliable indicator of your real-life character, I would say, is the choices you make in online gaming when you’re relatively anonymous. Do you treat others with respect, empathy, and patience? Or do you rage at them for the smallest perceived mistake?

On a personal note, I would say that it’s perfectly fine to rage at your teammates, quietly and off-mic, if none of them will get on the objective. That’s fine and normal. Screaming at them in actual voice chat or typing slurs via text is not a good sign (to put it mildly).

Is There Such Thing as Too Much Choice in a Game?

That depends entirely on who you ask. Cognitive load and choice paralysis are real things, after all. This is a hobby that can already be kind of hard to get into, especially if you haven’t played a ton of games before. And if you’ve spent most of your time playing COD, for example, then the skill tree in Path of Exile might give you pause.

the Path of Exile skill tree
And these are just the “passive” skills. | Image courtesy of

To a new player, that can look overwhelming. Where do you start? Which of those skills are good for your character? Which, if any, should be avoided?

Why do I have to read a wiki to play the game?

Some people will never take to this kind of game. It’s not to say that games like COD can’t be complex in their own right – sure they can. It’s just a very different kind of complexity that has as much to do with mechanical skill as it does with your loadout. Path of Exile’s complexity, on the other hand, involves deep, granular control over every aspect of your character’s build.

This makes some gamers positively giddy with delight, whereas I personally just play other games. For some, the original Super Mario probably has enough choices for them. Go left, go right, jump on a goomba. For others, no game is sufficiently complex – although EVE Online tries very, very hard.

Another time when there can actually be too much choice is when game systems overlap too much, or story choices make little difference. In terms of both narrative and mechanics, the choices offered to the player need to provide meaningful differences. If you’re having to choose between an item that offers .02% more health, or .01% more health and .01% more damage, that’s not a choice, it’s busywork. If a narrative choice leads to maybe an extra two lines of dialogue and no real difference to the story? You should have just made a movie or something.


The reasons we play the way we do vary widely. If anything, the main takeaway from this is that choices in gaming mean very little, unless you also know the person in question, and their real life habits. But that’s the point!

Video games give us ways to be who we want to be, whether that’s a slightly better version of our real-life selves or someone else entirely. Ultimately, the transformation is temporary, and largely not indicative of the way we’ll act in real life. The exception to this, of course, is online gaming. How you treat others online is usually at least somewhat indicative of how you’ll treat them offline.

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