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Different Games for Different Brains

I’m starting to think that most of the heated debates that happen around game design choices are due to poorly-understood differences in how our brains are actually wired.

Like, I’ve written before about how some people hate punishment in games and others don’t and how this seems to be related to how we process tension, and how it’s easy to think someone else is a wimp or a masochist for the type of gameplay they like when it actually feels different to them than it does to you. But I realized there are other factors here too - punishment is worse for players who have trouble focusing on things that aren’t novel, which, like… that’s straight-up an ADHD symptom, right? I’ve never been diagnosed with ADHD, but I’ve got a couple of symptoms including that one. Allie has more symptoms, and she’s even more bothered by punishment and repetition in games than I am.

I’ve also talked about how I don’t like games that make you work to find the quality content in exchange for a sense of discovery that rings false for me. But when I saw the following mailbag question in a Shamus Young diecast post, I realized there was something else going on:

Dear Diecast.

The modern Persona games are lauded for their fusion of turn-based combat and social sim gameplay, but I’ve always been bothered by the social sim aspect. It’s less about roleplaying and more about puzzling out the spreadsheet nightmare the designers have conceived so you don’t miss out on story content and have to replay it in new game plus to see it. As such, I always play them with my head in a guide to negate the issue so I can instead focus on enjoying the combat and story.

What’s your thoughts on games that are hard to play properly without using a guide and have you ever found them enjoyable in spite of needing to look things up constantly?

-Victor

My immediate thought was that yeah, I feel the same way about Persona and that this kind of design is stupid in general as just another way to make you work to find the quality content - but I made myself take a step back. It’s not very likely that the designers of several incredibly-popular games are all just making the same obvious mistake over and over and the fans somehow don’t understand the resulting flaws. It’s much more likely that this is another case where players have different but legitimate preferences.

Victor’s question has assumptions baked in - that if you “miss out on story content” you then “have to replay it in new game plus to see it” and that seeing all the story content is the only way to “play properly”. I didn’t notice at first that these were assumptions, because I’m a completionist so to me (and I imagine Victor) they just feel true. Like Victor, I find it hard to enjoy a game if I’m constantly worried that I’ll miss content - particularly story content - particularly if it’s a story I’m enjoying. Like Victor, I often deal with this by using a guide and then lament that the game “requires” a guide.

But like… that seems like something in the area of anxiety or OCD, maybe? I’m not sure exactly what the divide is here, but roughly speaking I suspect some people prefer certainty and control (the completionists) and others prefer exploration and surprise. For the latter group of players, the fact that it’s possible to miss some story content based on your choices is a bonus - it means that you can actually be surprised by what you see, even if you return to play the game again. To me, this is a baffling way of looking at things - but some quick internet research shows plenty of evidence that some people like surprises, some people hate them, and many people in each group do not at all understand the people in the other.

A lot of us have trouble explaining what happens in our own heads, and it’s difficult to realize when something you thought was universal is only true for people with brains like yours. And it’s really hard to see where someone else is coming from if your disagreement stems from one of those things. A lot of the time we’re arguing about things like game design decisions, we’re being much more subjective than we realize, and that leads to heated and unproductive discussions that say more about ourselves than the thing we’re trying to talk about.