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Does respeccing your character build in Diablo 3 make you less happy?

The Psychology of Games: Jamie Madigan discusses the subjective optimism of character builds

Are you less likely to be happy with a character/class build in a video game if respeccing it is easy? This may make me sound like a cranky old man, but it used to be that you made build choices in a game and the only way you could change your mind was to start a new game. There's a new trend, though, to make such choices much more flexible. One of the more radical design changes in Diablo 3, which has just released on consoles, is letting you change class builds practically on the fly, swapping powers in and out with zero cost. Dragon's Dogma's goes even further: its entire class system is predicated on the assumption that players will flitter back and forth between the game's many occupations, each of which offers unique play styles. And changing skill point allocations in World of Warcraft and many other RPGs is similarly trivial most of the time.

Players like this freedom. But players, some psychological research shows, may be wrong to do so.

"If we're good at looking for silver linings, we're even better at ignoring the clouds altogether"

Decades of research in psychology labs and in the field has shown that humans are super good at seeking out, overvaluing, and remembering information that lets them feel better about their current situation. This has been studied under many names: dissonance reduction, self-deception, ego defense, positive illusion, emotion-based coping, self-affirmation, self serving attribution, and subjective optimization. They all show that if we're good at looking for silver linings, we're even better at ignoring the clouds altogether. And overall, that's useful. It's kind of a psychological immune system to protect us when things turn out to be suboptimal, so we're willing to take chances and make decisions, then live with them. It's an adaptive trait for our species.

But while people are good at this kind of willful happiness, they are largely unaware of it and are terrible at predicting (or admitting) that it will happen when they're making decisions under uncertainty. In fact, people like to keep their options open and hang on to choices as long as they can because they're afraid that they'll want to change their minds later - something called "psychological reactance." So the psychological immune system is there and it's effective, but we largely ignore it and take actions that prevent it from coming into play.

For example, Daniel Gilbert and Jane Ebert did a study where they had students in a photography class process and make prints of their two favorite pictures. The instructors/experimenters then told the students that they had to pick one of the two prints to take home, and one to ship off across the ocean in five days, along with the negative. But some students were told that once they made their choice, it was irrevocable, while others were told they'd have plenty of time and opportunity - five days - to change their mind.

When, nine days later, the researchers asked both sets of students how much they liked the picture they had chosen to walk away with, the ones who were immediately locked in to their choices said they they liked their photos significantly more than those who were given the opportunity to change their minds. They were happier with their photo and enjoyed it more. This is the psychological immune system kicking in: you can't change your choice, so whether you're aware of it or not you change your attitude with what you're stuck with. Still, follow-up studies showed that students greatly preferred being in the groups that allowed them to change their minds, even though they usually ended up less happy.

"Game developers should not feel shackled to convenience as a immutable design principle"

I have to wonder how often this kind of thing happens in video games. Most gamers, if asked, would probably tell you that they would love the flexibility that comes with being able to change their abilities, stats, or even class with little to no cost. Why not? What if specialising in ranged weapons turns out to be no fun? What if that "Whirlwind" or "Fire Resistance" or "Goat Launcher" skill that you picked at level 20 turns out to be lame? A lot of us still regret choosing the Aqualung augmentation in the original Deus Ex, after all.

And yet some others do take the view that you learn to be happy with what you choose and move on with your life - or at least your playthrough. When the super flexible skill system in Diablo 3 was announced, I remember reading reactions from a small but vocal group of Diablo 2 fans who said that committing yourself to a build and sticking it out was integral to the fun. Given what Gilbert and Ebert found about how people prefer options that don't optimise their happiness, were they right?

Or perhaps there's room for some middle ground that will let you both expect happiness and feel it, too. Rogue Legacy, the roguelike platformer, expects players to burn through many characters and gives you choice of traits each time, but you also make important decisions about gear and upgrades that form through lines.

Regardless, the psychological immune system has been serving us well as a species for some time now, whether we expect it to in any given situation or not. Game developers should not feel shackled to convenience as a immutable design principle, and they shouldn't always trust gamers who are not always accurate at predicting how happy they will be with choices. And players? Don't worry. You'll be happy.

Jamie Madigan writes about the overlap between psychology and videogames at Follow him on Twitter: @JamieMadigan.


Gilbert, D. T., & Ebert, J. E. (2002). Decisions And Revisions: The Affective Forecasting Of Changeable Outcomes..Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82(4), 503-514.

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