Convenience Features and Lazy Asceticism

It’s common for people to complain about a game getting convenience/difficulty/accessibility/approachability features they personally won’t use and which thus won’t directly affect their own experience. My mental model has been that this happens for several reasons. In no particular order:

  1. Status quo bias. If you already like something, change is scary.
  2. Status signaling. If more people can do something, that thing is less impressive.
  3. Gatekeeping. The more people enter a given fandom/community, the more the community changes to be like the mainstream, and the more the property will change to target mainstream tastes. (I haven’t written about this subject directly yet, though I’ve brushed up against it. My feelings are complicated and mixed: it frustrates me when something niche that I like reinvents itself to chase mass appeal, but there are also properties that I only fell in love with after they did that. Something to dig into another time.)
  4. Opportunity costs. If a developer spends time on these features, that will consume resources that could have gone elsewhere.
  5. The “intended experience”. I disagree with this one pretty strongly, but my attempt to frame it generously would be something like: Giving the player more ways to tweak the experience makes it more likely they will change it to a version significantly worse than what they could have had. (Sometimes this comes with half-hearted concessions for accessibility.)

For the first four of these, I can at least understand where people are coming from. I generally think they are not sufficient reasons to keep these kinds of features out of games (at least games that aren’t super-small and super-niche) but I can at least see the possible outcomes these people say they want to prevent. There’s something real going on there.

But for that last one, “intended experience,” I’ve always been a bit confused. I’ve usually chalked it up to a lack of empathy, with people not realizing these features are for someone else and just because you wouldn’t use or benefit from them doesn’t mean nobody would. Lately, though, I’ve been thinking - what if the problem is actually that people don’t want these features because they would use them?

Take this write-up about Steam’s then-upcoming (now released) note-taking feature:

[T]here’s one thing I’m quite upset about, and that’s the new Notes app. I love a good notebook game, you know? Fiddling out puzzles in Tunic, remembering patterns in The Witness… Notebook games are great. But I fear this new Notes app will kill that kind of note-taking dead. And that makes me sad. . . .

[A]s much as I like physical notebook games, I know full well that I’ll opt for the easy, in-game version as soon as it’s available. Because ultimately, I’m a lazy creature at heart, and balancing a notebook on my knee while playing games on Steam Deck isn’t nearly as easy as having one open on my desk.

I assume there’s some exaggeration for comedic (and engagement-seeking) effect here, but I feel like I’ve seen this sort of sentiment expressed far too many times for it to not be at least somewhat a Real Thing. I’ve discussed something similar with what I called “checklist features” - things like quest logs and map icons that are very helpful for some players but ruin the feeling of exploration and freedom for others even if they are optional. But this takes things further. It’s less about breaking an illusion and more about people sabotaging their own experiences.

For convenience, and based on the above write-up justifying this view by identifying as “lazy,” I’m going to call this position “lazy asceticism” and the people who hold it “lazy ascetics.” Lazy ascetics seem to honestly claim that they prefer a specific kind of higher-friction experience (taking physical notes, playing on a brutally-hard difficulty, etc.) but also that if a lower-friction experience (taking digital notes, playing on an easier difficulty, etc.) is a feasible option, they will choose that experience instead, even though they know they will enjoy it less.

This… blows my mind a bit? I mean, I understand things like akrasia and procrastination and so on, where (to oversimplify) you do something you’ll enjoy more now even though you know you’ll regret it later. But this doesn’t seem to be like that? This is someone engaged in a recreational activity, the purpose of which is enjoyment, choosing to do something they’ll enjoy less even in the moment because it is, in some sense, easier.

Like, imagine that a game patches in a literal “win button”. Pressing this button unlocks the “beat the game” achievement and rolls credits before depositing you back on the main menu. To me, it’s patently obvious that (novelty value aside) this wouldn’t be any fun. I’d play the game without using it and wouldn’t be haunted by a nagging feeling that I could simply stop and hit the button at any time. I’m here to experience the game in a particular way; why would I be tempted by a way that isn’t appealing?

I suspect that even lazy ascetics would handle this absurdly-exaggerated-extreme the same way. But to me, it sure seems like optional convenience features and easy modes are essentially just more-targeted friction-removers that tap into the same thing. If I know I’d enjoy a game less with all the Assist Mode features turned on, I’m not tempted to use them. I don’t see why lazy ascetics are.

I assume this is another one of those cases where the same stimuli are experienced differently by different people based on subtle and illegible differences in our brains, because this view seems to be pretty common and it makes zero sense to me. And because I don’t understand these people’s internal experiences and am speculating based on plausible-sounding but unflattering possible explanations, all my ideas come out pretty self-serving.

Like, maybe lazy ascetics don’t actually want those higher-friction experiences on their own merits. Maybe they just want to be able to think of and describe themselves as the sort of person who does because they think it’s cool to be someone who writes in physical notebooks or beats games on Extreme difficulty, and they’re lying to themselves. People like me who play on Easy when we want to and Hard when we want to are just more capable of being honest with ourselves about what we actually want, and lazy ascetics will have a better time if they just admit who they really are and do what they truly enjoy.

Or maybe lazy ascetics are just incredibly suggestible to the point where they are incapable of choosing their own experiences based on their own preferences. Maybe they’re the sort of person who needs to uninstall every social media app or they’ll spend all day endlessly scrolling even though they don’t want to just because the option is there. People like me who can be aware of convenience features without using them have better self-determination and are more resistant to manipulation, and lazy ascetics would be well-served by training up their willpower a bit. (I’ve seen people tout the value of playing games on high difficulty to train perseverance and other important skills, and occasionally even done that myself. Maybe lazy ascetics should toughen up by playing games with those features and not using them to train the skill of choosing their own experiences rather than taking whatever path has been greased-up for them, so they can do what they enjoy and what’s good for them and not just what some corporation has made easy because it’s profitable.)

I’m immediately suspicious of these theories, of course. I don’t want to fall into the same trap I did when I first wrote about punishment in games. But I’m still left feeling that I don’t understand what’s actually happening here and would love to hear an explanation from a lazy ascetic (maybe they can give me a better name for them, too).