I’ve previously quoted Sid Meier who believes one way to think about game design is "a series of interesting decisions". Besides game designers, there are a few other professions that obsess over human behavior with a particular focus on the choices we make; namely, psychologists and economists. They study phenomenon that expose flaws in how we perceive the world which give insight into how our brains function.
For example, everyone has had an experience with an optical illusion. Experts have some theories about why we are so easily deceived. However, the typical audience reaction is similar to seeing a magic trick performed - humor and joy. As Dan Ariely and Dan Gilbert point out, what you should actually feel is abject horror. If a large and highly customized part of our brain can make mistakes this easily, what else is it getting wrong? As they discuss in their lectures, we are incredibly susceptible to errors in probability and estimation as well as easily influenced into irrational decisions.
There is a specific type of estimation that makes feedback critical - overestimating competence. Having an inflated belief in your abilities is also known as illusory superiority and it is believed to be caused by ignorance, not arrogance. While there is a specific "Dunning-Kruger effect" where the most incompetent have the largest gap between their beliefs and their actual ability; our tendency to self-aggrandize has also been found in studies of University of Nebraska professors and Stanford students ranking themselves against their peers.
We all have witnessed (or fallen victim to) believing we did well on a test only to later receive less than satisfactory marks, or have a coworker who believes they are doing fantastic work and are shocked when they receive a disappointing performance review. Even though there has been increased research in recent years this is not a new idea. Sifting through history:
Bertrand Russell: “One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision”
William Shakespeare in As You Like It: “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool”
Charles Darwin: “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge”
Confucius: “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one's ignorance”
The effect has been thoroughly proven, just like with optical illusions we are universally susceptible and have to work backwards to find the cause. One hypothesis in Justin Kruger and David Dunning’s original publication is our tendency to project failure onto external factors, eschewing responsibility. The self-serving bias is well known - the classic example is attributing getting hired as a personal success, yet failing to obtain work is attributed to some external factor like “the economy”. Even team sports and multiplayer games suffer from players with wildly inflated belief in their abilities and blame setbacks on teammates.
More recently, Dunning and other physiologists have shown that this effect increases the more ambiguous a skill or environment. One study purposely gave random feedback to some participants to measure the effect of our self-serving nature on the brain. It is my assertion that ambiguity in complex environments is just another way of saying there is missing or conflicting feedback. In general, people overestimate their abilities in the absence of feedback.
Unfortunately for humanity, most systems are vague, noisy, and complicated. Critical activities like practicing medicine, making legal decisions, predicting the stock market, and even driving a car all suffer from this bias. There is hope though, after being exposed to training, people can re-calibrate and accurately assess their shortcomings - although it does create a self-realization problem where people rarely seek out training when they evaluate themselves as already being skilled. In other words, there are some things we do not get better at with real world experience.
One antidote to inaccurate self-assessment is high-quality feedback, Dunning says. Feedback is where games excel. In particular, educational games have the most impact when they layer feedback on top of these vague and complicated real life systems. Often when designing games based on these real world models there is intense focus on both reducing complexity and the presentation of feedback. This methodology attacks the problem from both ends; eliminating any noisy distractions prevents blaming the system, and connecting clear success / failure to the user’s actions prevents the user from overestimating their skill.
Games need much more than feedback to be successful. There are many elements at work to maintain engagement; however, clear feedback is essential for learning. There are games that have feedback over a random environment in which the player has little control - we call those gambling. To actually foster an environment where learning can occur the user has to be in control and have predictable results on the feedback they receive.
All games strive to have a feeling where the world fades away and your only focus is the game - this is referred to as “flow”. You can experience this feeling of engagement in sports, work, or even reading a book; it might be more commonly referred to as being “in the zone”. The earliest psychologist credited for studying it is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who outlined four rules for flow:
Have concrete goals with manageable rules.
Demand actions to achieve goals that fit within the person's capabilities.
Have clear and timely feedback on performance and goal accomplishment.
Diminish extraneous distraction, thus facilitating concentration.
Games with flow strive to create an environment where illusory superiority cannot fester. After exposing someone’s true ability, how artfully we present feedback determines if the player will accept reality, learn, and improve - or quit the game and retreat back to the illusion.