Sponsored By

Temptation and Consequence: Dilemmas in Videogames

The method of resolving a dilemma requires the player to combine their gameplay expectations, ethical tendencies, and metaphysical aspiration to deliver a tailored response. But the role of temptation and decision-making in videogame design isn't always presented as blatantly as it is in a game like Black & White -- nor should it be since, as with any design technique, it can be overdone.

Steve Bocska, Blogger

November 16, 2001

23 Min Read

In Lionhead's Black & White, every player must at some point make a crucial decision: to approach the game in the role of benevolent deity, casting good and order over the land, or to upset the lives of the villagers and wreak havoc as a vengeful god. The method of resolving the dilemma requires the player to combine their gameplay expectations, ethical tendencies, and metaphysical aspiration to deliver a tailored response. But the role of temptation and decision-making in videogame design isn't always presented as blatantly as it is in Black & White -- nor should it be since, as with any design technique, it can be overdone. However, when treated with tact and a delicate touch, the interactive medium of videogames allows the "dilemma" to become a potentially powerful instrument capable of greatly enriching the gameplay experience and engaging the player in a meaningful way.

Even the earliest videogame designers understood the role temptation played in enhancing the gameplay experience. In Space Invaders, for example, the primary goal was to remain alive for as long as possible (the assumption will be made here that the gameplay itself is the reward for playing, as very few players are likely to feel much lasting satisfaction if, by some design, they were able to obtain the high score within only a few seconds of actual gameplay). By and large, this simple goal coupled with the minimal mechanics of gameplay allows us to predict the player's strategy with some certainty-they will spend most of their efforts dodging the bombs of the descending aliens while returning fire to reduce the threat.

However a secondary goal also exists in Space Invaders, that being to gain enough points to earn a bonus ship in order to prolong the gameplay experience. While firing incessantly at the rows of marching aliens is one way to achieve this, the game introduces an element of temptation in the UFO ships that occasionally dart across the top of the playing area. Despite providing no inherent threat, the arrival of the UFO nonetheless becomes a compelling target by promising the player a mystery point bonus, and thus, a possible shortcut toward their secondary goal. Should the player ignore the temptation and continue with their defensive tactics? Or should they allow a momentary distraction in the hopes of blasting the UFO and gaining some extra points towards a bonus ship? At this point, the player's response becomes a decision about their priorities and the risk they attribute to each of their options. Every moment during a game like Space Invaders requires the player to continuously evaluate, analyze, and react to the temptations and dilemmas unfolding in the game. It is no coincidence that many of the earlier videogames featured these obvious "point bonus" temptations. Pac Man had fruit, Dig Dug had vegetables, Centipede had spiders, and Frogger had flies. All these games shared the same secondary goal of obtaining a higher score, making the point bonus incentive an attractive temptation.

All videogames include some element of ongoing decision-making and response, making the dilemma a crucial weapon in the game designer's arsenal. The difficulty, however, lies in crafting the dilemma in a non-trivial way that will cause the player to feel as though their actions will significantly determine or affect their experience later in the game. The greater this sense, the more immersive the experience will become. Deterministic games that take place "on rails" with a linear, repeatable sequence of pre-defined events triggered by the player's arrival do little to instill a sense of genuine involvement. Such titles, which include many platform and first person shooters, still remain entertaining and popular with consumers. However, the reality remains that they present little more to the player than a skill-based puzzle, with the interactivity limited to decisions made about the control of the onscreen character. Without introducing legitimate decision-making of some notable, lasting consequence to the player, interactive entertainment cannot reach its full potential.

Monty Hall And The Three Doors

An interesting perspective on the mechanics of decision-making can be gained by studying the classic Monty Hall puzzle. The hypothetical scenario involves the famous gameshow host who presents the contestant with three identical doors. Behind one of these doors is the grand prize, while the other two hide worthless gag prizes. With no hint of which door hides which prize, the contestant is asked to select one, which they do with some hesitation . Before the selected door is opened, however, Monty Hall opens one of the unselected doors to reveal that it contains one of the gag prizes. With a sadistic grin, he offers the contestant the choice of either keeping their original door, or switching from their selected door to the unselected unopened door remaining. The puzzle thus poses the question: should the contestant keep the original door they had picked, or should they now switch to the one Monty did not open?

Our first reaction may be that both remaining doors carry the same probability of success. After all, with just two unopened doors the odds must be 50/50 that the contestant will win the grand prize. This intuition, however, is incorrect. By opening one of the unselected doors and revealing the undesirable prize, Monty has unwittingly added potentially valuable information to the original scenario and given the contestant a definite advantage-if they recognize his blunder.

The original probability distribution must be held constant, so the door the contestant first selected will always have a 1/3 probability of concealing the grand prize. The other two doors also each have a 1/3 probability, giving them both a combined total probability of 2/3 (1/3 + 1/3) (see Figure 2.). The important thing to realize is that this distribution of probabilities does not change, no matter what new information is supplied, since the contest always began with three doors hiding one grand prize and the prize itself has not moved. Thus, the two unselected doors will always jointly carry the 2/3 probability of concealing the grand prize. By opening one of these doors and revealing it to hide the gag prize, Monty Hall has allowed the 2/3 probability of success to be 'stacked' (1/3 + 1/3) onto the one unselected door remaining. Thus, the original door selected by the contestant carries only a 1/3 probability of hiding the grand prize, while the one remaining unopened door carries the entire 2/3 probability of the unselected doors. The best strategy for the contestant, therefore, is to switch to the unselected door remaining. A mathematical proof for this involves applying Bayes' Theorem (see Appendix 1).

So, what useful principles or techniques can be borrowed from the Monty Hall puzzle in the design of videogames? Let us examine the transformation that takes place in the staging of the puzzle as it unfolds. The contestant's initial selection of a door involves a completely blind choice-that is, they have little more to rely upon for their decision than a "gut feeling," dramatically diminishing any sense of a consequential outcome. These types of dilemmas should be generally avoided in games, as they are largely automatic and provide no meaningful interactivity or sense of controlled fate, degrading the puzzle into little more than a glorified coin toss. However, the layered presentation of additional information makes the dilemma much more interesting. By exposing one of the unselected doors as a loser, Monty has created a situation where the contestant is forced into reevaluation of the available information, and possibly, a reconsideration of their initial selection. At this point, the player's response to the puzzle transforms from one of pure guesswork into one of true cognition, assessment, evaluation, and reasoning.

One of the oldest and best definitions of a "game" as it relates to interactive entertainment defines it as a "…closed formal system that subjectively represents a subset of reality" (Crawford, 1982). When facing an in-game dilemma, continuous feedback to the player's response in the form of additional information heightens the experience and creates a very convincing simulation of reality. In our daily lives, we often face situations that require interactivity and an ongoing response, such as the conveying of bad news to a friend. In such a situation, we frequently gauge the verbal and non-verbal responses of our acquaintance and modify our tone, posture, and delivery of the news. Similarly, videogames should endeavor to provide similar ongoing feedback, information, and behavior modification opportunities to the player.

Some games do this already, offering information and dilemma possibilities in creative ways. Most role-playing games, such as Baulder's Gate and Ultima Online for the PC, include some element of player customization, which in itself entails a form of dilemma. Does the player upgrade their skills by focusing on their strength attributes? Or do they opt instead to boost their stamina and intelligence scores? One way to enhance this dilemma is to hint at what challenge the player is destined to face in the upcoming level. For example, at the moment before the player's skill upgrade decision, the arrival of a crazed hermit who foretells of a magical beast in the player's future can generate dilemma-based tension. The timing of the introduction of this added information is important, since bringing the hermit to the scene after the player has already made their decision would make it a rather meaningless event.

The additional information provided by the hermit's forecast could influence the player to reconsider their current tactics in many ways. Is the hermit telling the truth? If so, should they continue their current proven strategy of boosting their strength and agility scores? Or should they now switch to a wisdom and intelligence focus? Or do they simply dismiss the information as frivolous, a sort of interactive red herring? Either way, the player is likely to reflect upon the situation later in the game and attribute some of their success or failure to their decision.

The presentation of interaction-provoking information during gameplay can also be laid out in a less conspicuous manner. In Rayman Advance for the Gameboy Advance, the landscape of the 2D side-scrolling platformer is dotted with several subtle, glowing 'trigger points.' As the player soon realizes, directing Rayman over these tiny points causes certain pre-defined events to be activated, including the release of additional foes and the materialization of hidden bonus items. While the game itself remains linear in its presentation, this simple feature gives players the option of avoiding a particular route and the triggering of a particular event (such as the unleashing of a particularly difficult enemy). The feeling of being "on rails" is thus reduced, providing a greater sense of control and involvement over the events that unfold.

Another clever twist on decision-making can be found in The New Tetris for the Nintendo 64 system --a remake of the classic puzzle game. While the original gameplay and falling four-piece block premise remain the same, the designers have included an added feature that allows players to remove the active puzzle piece before it drops into place and put it in storage. This piece remains held in an onscreen frame indefinitely until they player wishes to reintroduce it, at which point it is swapped with the current active piece. The strategic element introduced by this feature is clever and engaging. Players longing to execute a 4-line clear will want to put an "I" shaped piece into storage and return it into play when a suitable path is created for it. Those with a more defensive strategy will rely on the swapping technique to remove undesirable pieces and hopefully get them out of a "jam." In both cases, players are forced into an elevated state of constant evaluation and reevaluation, adding an increased level of depth to the game and encouraging players to abandon the automatic pseudo-hypnotic responses to block patterns they may have developed while playing the original version of the game.

The Prisoner's Dilemma And Cooperation

Another useful model for examining the mechanisms behind temptation and dilemmas can be found in the Prisoner's Dilemma. The situation involves two prisoners being held for trial. For the purpose of this example, we shall call them Bowser and Zelda.

Bowser and Zelda are both being held in separate cells with no means of communicating with each other. The warden of the prison offers them each the opportunity to confess their involvement in the alleged crime, with the following conditions:

  • If one prisoner confesses their involvement the crime while the other prisoner denies it, the confessing prisoner will be allowed to go free, while the silent prisoner will be imprisoned for five years.

  • If both prisoners confess to having committed the crime, then they will both get four-year sentences.

If both prisoners deny any involvement in the crime, the lack of evidence will only allow the warden to imprison both suspects for two years.

Let us examine the thoughts of the suspects as they agonize over this dilemma:

Bowser is not exactly sure how Zelda is going to respond to the offer. If Zelda stays silent, and Bowser confesses, Bowser will be allowed to go free-an appealing proposition, for sure. On the other hand, if Bowser joins Zelda in silence, they will both get two years. Between these two options, Bowser is obviously leaning towards confession to minimize his jail stay.
But we have only considered a silent reaction for Zelda. What if Zelda instead chooses to confess? Bowser again has two possible choices. If Bowser also confesses, they will both get four years. But if Bowser stays silent, he will get five years! Again, Bowser is leaning towards confession.

Herein lies the dilemma. Both Bowser and Zelda, being rational beings, are going to reach the same conclusion: confession is the best strategy, regardless of what their partner-in-crime decides to do. This is known as a dominant strategy. However, they have been betrayed by their intuition. If they both end up following their dominant strategies and confessing, they will both end up with four-year prison sentences. This is a considerably worse result than if they had both chosen to ignore the logic of the dominant strategies and remain silent, which would have resulted in each only receiving a two-year sentence. The resulting consequence by following the dominant strategy is known as a Nash equilibrium.

The following "payoff matrix" summarizes the cooperation (silence) and defection (confession) consequences of this dilemma, color coded by character:







-2 (Reward)

-2 (Reward)

-5 (Sucker)

0 (Tempt)


0 (Tempt)

-5 (Sucker)

-4 (Punish)

-4 (Punish)

There are several payoff consequences for the decisions made in each scenario. These are:

  • Reward for mutual cooperation (Reward)

  • Sucker's payoff for unreciprocated cooperation (Sucker)

  • Following temptation with unreciprocated defection (Tempt)

  • Punishment for mutual defection (Punish)

In order for a true Prisoner's Dilemma to exist, these payoff values must abide by the following relationship:

T > R > P > S

Under this condition, the dominant strategy of each prisoner will lead them to a situation where their rewards will be less than if they had both acted irrationally and cooperated.

In Disney Interactive's Zoog Genius, a particularly interesting gameplay mechanism arose from the concept of the Prisoner's Dilemma and the potential role cooperation and defection could play in a two-player contest. The title is essentially a videogame presentation of a television gameshow-featuring curriculum-based questions and hosted by the Zoog character set-that can be played by either one- or two-players. As a Disney title, particular care needed to be taken to ensure that the two-player mode presented some cooperative element to provide some offset to the inherently combative nature of a competitive head-to-head contest. Still, since this was still being positioned as a learning title, it remained important to not alter the basic quizshow elements that encouraged individual excellence.

The game itself presents a fairly straightforward gameplay mechanic: category selection, question presentation, answer choices, and answer selection. In approaching any tried-and-tested gameplay model, the challenge becomes one of introducing enough unique elements to make the game stand out from other similar titles, while keeping the delivery familiar enough that all players can quickly understand the rules. The decision was made to create a cooperative bonus possibility in the two-player mode during selection of the category for the upcoming question.

During normal gameplay, the active player uses the "1" through "3" keys to select a category from three presented onscreen. The corresponding question is presented along with the four possible answers, and the player is given a fixed amount of time to respond. A correct answer adds points to their game total, while an incorrect answer will deduct points. At the end of the game, the player's game point total is added to a cumulative running "ZQ Total," which is used to unlock bonus questions sets in the game at predefined point thresholds.

The special two-player cooperative bonus mechanism introduces a unique element-joint category selection. The three possible questions categories are presented as usual, but now both players are expected to select (Player 2 uses the "J," "K," and "L" keys). If the two players disagree on the category, the game will randomly select from the two categories chosen, and the game proceeds as usual. But if the two players happen to cooperate and select the same category, a point bonus is awarded to the player that successfully answers the following question.

Note that the cooperative bonus mechanism in Zoog Genius cannot be considered a true Prisoner's Dilemma since the players are sitting side-by-side and thus are capable of communicating their intent to one another. Also, in the original dilemma, the prisoners had no way of knowing what the other had chosen until it was too late, while in Zoog Genius, one player can wait for the other to select their category before making their decision.

Furthermore, there is no way to determine the dominant strategy, as the "cooperate" and "defect" payoff values cannot be precisely calculated or measured. However, the strategic element introduced by the pseudo-dilemma scenario of the cooperative bonus mechanism is nonetheless heightened over the traditional category selection system.

For example, if the goal of both players is to unlock more bonus questions in the game, they will want to increase the game's running "ZQ Total." The result is likely to be increased cooperation-that is, agreement in category selection-in order to maximize the point value of each question (and then hope that whichever player responds actually gets the answer correct).

On the other hand, players playing competitively may demonstrate different cooperative tendencies depending on their scores and how deep there are into the game round. Early on, both players are likely to be more interested in selecting a category that favors their strengths in a particular subject area, so they may increase their likelihood of answering the question correctly and gaining a lead over their opponent. However, later on in the game the tendency to cooperate may change depending on the balance of the scores. A player who has fallen behind may be more willing to cooperate in order to have a chance at a question with a higher point value, while the player in the lead may want to ensure that the point values of the questions do not allow the trailing player an opportunity to gain ground.

Even a more direct application of the Prisoner's Dilemma can allow the videogame designer to inject compelling elements into videogames. Imagine an online real-time combat strategy where two non-aligned players are building and customizing their spacecrafts and given a budget of $10,000. The game requires bartering and trading between players to acquire the raw materials necessary for ship building, but at a high transaction cost ($8,000 of total "shipping and handling" in a typical game round).

A technology becomes available that allows goods and merchandise to be "transported" between players instantly and with no transaction cost. In order for it to work, the technology requires that two people possess these machines, which carry a fairly high price tag of $5,000 each.

Let us review these assumptions:

  • Total budget of each player: $10,000

  • Typical trading transaction costs (through one game): $8,000

  • Cost of transporter: $5,000

  • Typical transaction costs with transporter (through one game): $0

Under these conditions, what is a player likely to do? If both players purchase the transporter equipment, they will reduce their transaction costs for the game from the usual $8,000 to a one-time cost of $5,000 for the transporter-a savings of $3,000. Everybody is happy. If, on the other hand, neither player purchases a transporter, the transaction costs throughout the game for each player will amount to the usual $8,000. The two players are not particularly happy, but at least neither is bankrupt.

What if only one player purchases the machine? With nobody else to connect the transporter to, their machine becomes effectively useless, resulting in them receiving the "sucker's payoff"-the cost of the equipment plus the added cost of continuing to barter using the traditional costly method ($5,000 + $8,000 = $13,000). This will render them bankrupt within a few rounds, allowing the remaining player to overtake their inventory for free once they have left the game.

The following payoff matrix is produced:

Player One



Status Quo

Player Two




$13,000 (Bankrupt)


Status Quo


$13,000 (Bankrupt



In applying the logic of the earlier Bowser and Zelda example, the dominant strategy for both players will lead to a Nash equilibrium of remaining in the "Status Quo" situation of not adopting the new cost-saving technology. This will result in both players being considerably worse off than if they had both ignored their intuition and each purchased the transporters.
What makes this scenario a particularly compelling example of an in-game dilemma is the manner in which it can be overcome. While Bowser and Zelda were being held in different prison cells, the players in an online combat strategy game would be capable of "chatting" with one another. The gameplay device for the players now becomes one of rational consideration and logical decision-making coupled with the profoundly complex and wonderfully unpredictable mechanism of human communication and trust-a gameplay element that any developer should welcome into their game design.


Most writers of literature today typically do not rely on deus ex machina ("God from the machine") to falsely wrap up complicated plot threads, recognizing that many modern audiences are offended by such contrived means of rescuing the hero or advancing the storyline. Likewise, videogames should be designed to avoid having players make random selections and forced decisions to advance the gameplay in artificial ways. Dilemmas, temptation, and consequence thus become crucial items in the game designer's toolbox. The Monty Hall puzzle has shown that by devious staggering of information the player can be engaged in a more realistic way, heightening the immersion and sense of realism. The Prisoner's Dilemma, on the other hand, revealed an insidious mechanism for encouraging players to pursue cooperative communication and trust-based solutions to further their own personal interests. Both of these techniques require the player to analyze and evaluate multiple options and demonstrate non-trivial analytic and decision-making skills, resulting in a richer, more rewarding gameplay experience


Axelrod, Robert, The Evolution of Cooperation, Basic Books, 1984.
Crawford, Chris, The Art of Computer Game Design, electronic version, University of Washington, 1997,.
Mero, Lazlo, Moral Calculations : Game Theory, Logic and Human Frailty, Copernicus Books, 1998.
Poundstone, William, Prisoner's Dilemma: John Von Neumann, Game Theory and the Puzzle of the Bomb, Anchor, 1993.




Read more about:


About the Author(s)

Steve Bocska


Steve Bocska is an independant producer, designer, and writer currently living in the Vancouver area. He recently finished an assignment with Disney Interactive, where he worked on Zoog Genius I & II and several other titles. If you have any comments or questions about his article, feel free to e-mail him at [email protected].

Daily news, dev blogs, and stories from Game Developer straight to your inbox

You May Also Like