55: Choice Paralysis


Immortality, absolute freedom, huge vistas of space and time, and no rules whatsoever; in theory, New Eden should result in overwhelming delight for those who play in this Icelandic sandbox. One of the core dogmas of modern industrialized society is that freedom is always good, and the more choices one has, the more freedom and happiness will result. Yet in practice, the sandbox of EVE is a trap, the freedoms daunting and the choices bewildering. Rather than make us happy, the very lack of limits in gameplay means that the playerbase is regularly confronted with choice paralysis – a phenomenon in gaming circles almost exclusive to EVE.

While rare in gaming, choice paralysis is a problem endemic to modern life in industrialized societies. We have too many options to choose from, and the opportunity costs of making a decision often ruin the benefit of the decision itself. As variety and complexity increases, it becomes nearly impossible to choose ‘correctly’. How about choosing the right college, the right mate, the right time to have a child, the right brand of car at the right price, the right career? What’s worse is that the process of choosing and selecting makes us unhappy with what we have selected, even if we made the ‘right’ choice, because each choice blocks off the options not chosen. Essentially, the spectres of choices not made forever shadow the choices we did make, filling us with doubt and dissatisfaction with what we have.

A common scenario of the veteran EVE player: confronted with between three and eight characters to play, he can do almost literally anything upon logging into the game. Each of his characters can fly any number of ships, and could be multiboxed in an increasingly myriad setup of hulls. He could mine! He could fiddle with PI! He could suicide gank in Empire, flip cans, hunt in lowsec, go ratting, chase down a plex, dive into a wormhole, join a fleet in nullsec, run a black ops team, set up an invention chain, meddle in politics, log on a spy alt! He could do any of these things in any type of ship! And those ships can all be fit in different ways, some bad, some good! Rather than being energized by the bewildering array of options, many veteran players like this simply give up and go play another game; the amount of effort of figuring out what to do becomes more bothersome than actually doing something.

A few weeks ago, I announced a new fleet doctrine for Goonswarm. While my alliance had been using the ubiquitous Drake/Scimitar blob (along with 90% of nullsec) of late, for most of our history we have been trying to get our pilots into T2-gunned sniping battleships. Yet despite years of trying, goons simply would not get in battleships in any great numbers. We had a T2 sniping fit for almost every battleship, yet we would be lucky if 30% of any given fleet was a battleship hull. With the removal of learning skills and the skillpoint refund from the Dec. 14th patch, we had a unique opportunity to try to forge a ‘tight’ doctrine.

The traditional method of alliances in planning fleets is to provide options and choices. Each race is represented; if a doctrine can’t accommodate Amarr hulls of any kind, for example, it is usually ditched. Meanwhile, we told our thousands of members to train for one battleship, of one race, with one fit – and two support ships. Goonswarm would use Maelstroms and Scimitars with Scorpions in support, and that’s it. In a game with a fetish for freedom of choice, the reaction was a shock: our pilots, a notoriously fractious lot, leapt on the direction we provided with gusto. Where in the past we could only get a smattering of battleships in our sniping fleets, our battleship percentage was now significantly higher, despite offering two hulls instead of twelve.

Another example of this came from an effort at reforming our Teamspeak setup. It’s unquestionably better for an alliance to have its pilots hang out on comms (be they Mumble, Ventrilo or TS) when playing EVE, even outside of fleets; this makes defense and reaction much faster, and it builds community and ties within the alliance itself. Yet when not on ops, barely ten people would be on Goonswarm comms, and merely encouraging people to hang out accomplished nothing. What ended up solving the problem was a purge. When logging into our TS, our members were confronted with more than forty possible channels to join, most of which were empty; rather than trying to find a place to hang out, they would simply log off and do something else. After cutting the channels down to ten (eight of which are op channels), the number of people hanging out on TS quadrupled overnight – despite loud complaints about the removal of options.

Choice paralysis has a broad impact on EVE. The newbie turnover in EVE is notorious; players join the game, find no real direction, and either end up mining for a while and quitting because that is what they see everyone else doing, or quit outright. At least part of the reason why people enjoy being a part of a corporation or alliance in EVE isn’t just the community and socialization it provides, but the direction; in a way, the function of these groups is to solve the choice problem for their members, to give them a more limited and manageable set of options to choose from when logging in.

Alliances often face stagnation and decline during periods of peace. This has often been simplistically explained that ‘peace sucks’, but one can always find combat in EVE with only a modicum of effort. I’ve increasingly come to believe that the enemy of alliances isn’t peace, but choice. Outside of the context of a war forcing a group of players to work together and behave in certain ways, ‘what do I do today in EVE’ often devolves into ‘play some other game’. Similarly, alliances and corps which keep their players busy tend to be much more popular and active than those with a hands-off, lassies-faire attitude towards the game.

In EVE as in modern society as a whole, what we think we want is often not what we actually desire. We think we want choice and freedom and the ability to do anything at any time, yet in practice people want to be given some kind of purpose and a direction. That doesn’t mean that people want to sign on to an authoritarian organization which micromanages and abuses them (see OWN Alliance) but that we should be mindful of the anxiety and effort pointless decisionmaking causes – and the strategic risk which stems from this, with members quitting or not logging in because of it.


Choice architecture is very important, it turns out; it gives a concrete advantage when you pit a bloc that only has three or four fleet doctrines against a bloc that has 7 or more. Real-world militaries don’t allow sweeping options to their soldiers, and perhaps unsurprisingly internet spaceship militaries work better that way, too.

This article originally appeared on TheMittani.com, written by The Mittani.

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