I've done research over the last year in game design by reading some of the most well-known books in the field. Making interesting decisions is one of the fundamental elements of fun in games. I'm also learning( still a novice ) about cognition through two classes I'm taking the semester, Psychology of HCI and Human Factors Engineering.

It seems that what is said about decision making in cognitive psychology could also apply to the decisions we make in games. There's definitely choice and uncertainty while making these choices in games.

It seems one of the hardest parts of game design is coming up with game mechanics that cause the player to make interesting decisions based on these game mechanics.

Could studying decision making/theory/analysis possibly help with this process of creating good game mechanics where interesting decisions emerge from the player analyzing and making decisions based on these mechanics?

It seems obvious that this would be the case, but here recently I talked to someone in the psychology department who has a lot of experience in the subject of decision making who told me that it's not the same thing. They said decision making in the cognitive psychology realm isn't the same as decision making in games. They said you make weighted choices based on your options while playing games, which seems the same to me. But I'm still a novice in cognitive psychology so I feel I must trust the expert.

This is my attempt to get a second opinion.

  • $\begingroup$ I was just reading a paper on decision making and am wondering if the theory part of decision making is about how we can improve decision making and what I'm wanting to know is how we can offer interesting decisions which does sound like two different things. $\endgroup$
    – Joey Green
    Commented Oct 31, 2012 at 15:14
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    $\begingroup$ What do you mean by the decision making in game? Could you provide an example? But as a general comment, for practical issues in soft sciences most of the time practice beats theory. Maybe the latter can be an inspiration (e.g. I saw a paper on how to design a FPS level to make someone feel overwhelmed, when going back and forth in We don't go through Ravenholm in Half-Life 2; I cannot find it now though). $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 31, 2012 at 16:17
  • $\begingroup$ Take tic-tac-toe for example, if your goal is to win then when you place your x or o you have a decision to make as to where to place it so that you're closer to winning. There's information to weigh such as the board state. $\endgroup$
    – Joey Green
    Commented Oct 31, 2012 at 17:54
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    $\begingroup$ OK, I see. However, it that case there are many other psychological things - including feedback you get. So it's more in psychology of games and of learning, than pure decision-making. However I doubt if, from a general point of view, one can say something more than "it shouldn't be to obvious or too random, and one should learn something by reaction (of the environment or opponent) if the decision was good". $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 31, 2012 at 18:12
  • $\begingroup$ agree with Piotr; in a well-structured game, it is possible to determine optimal or normative play, and perhaps assess how and why people deviate from normative strategies. but this doesn't tell us anything about what decisions are "interesting". overall, im still as bit confused as to whats being asked. $\endgroup$
    – Jeff
    Commented Nov 16, 2012 at 9:06

1 Answer 1


This question seems to arise out of a slight terminological confusion. Empirical studies of human decision-making in particular are not covered by decision theory. Decision theory is the mathematical study of strategies for optimal decision-making between options involving different risks or expectations of gain or loss depending on the outcome. These sometimes overlap, such as in economics, but one need not use decision theory to study decision making.

Decision theory could conceivably have some uses in game design, such as identifying dominant strategies (strategies that are always optimal, regardless of what any other player does), but decision theory takes the game rules as a given. Hence, while it can help formalize the mechanics of a set of rules once they are designed, it doesn't have a way to actually generate rules. Decision theory is not so much helpful in designing game rules as in evaluating them.

You may be interested in what's called mechanism design theory, or reverse game theory. In contrast to decision theory, mechanism design theory is designed to work 'forwards' rather than 'backwards.' Instead of taking the rules of the game (or mechanism) as a given, mechanism design theory takes the goal as a given and finds a suitable mechanism. This seems to more closely fit what the question is looking for.


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