Optimization kills fun

November 1, 2021

A little while ago, I wrote a post discussing a problem with my favorite social deduction game, Avalon. Basically, as players get better, they begin to realize that the optimal strategy is to continually repeat an action that ensures the game never progresses (at least, in theory).

I think the overarching point that can be extrapolated here is that optimization can systematically kill fun.

This phenomenon is especially prevalent in video games. I firmly believe that video games are most fun when you’re comfortable with the fundamentals but not good enough to understand or incorporate advanced techniques. But, as Soren Johnson, game designer of Civilization IV, points out:

“Given the opportunity, players will optimize the fun out of a game…the greatest danger is that once a player discovers [an abusable exploit], she will never be able to play the game again without using it – the knowledge cannot be ignored or forgotten, even if the player wishes otherwise.”

It doesn’t even have to be an exploit. When you start optimizing a game, period, the game can lose its initial charm.

For example:

  • You can look up the optimal strategies for specific maps and game modes in Bloons Tower Defense and consistently win. But from personal experience, it gets pretty boring after a while. Plus, it’s much more fun discovering these strategies on your own.
  • Fortnite was at its peak when no one took advantage of the building mechanic. Now, competent building is an expectation, not an exception. Compare the complexity of building in this fight (4:53 – 5:08) to this fight (6:42 – 7:24). And that was a random YouTuber I found. Here’s a taste of what professional Fortnite players are doing.
  • I think chess is super fun for beginner to intermediate players. But the better you get, the more the game devolves into memorizing opening lines to gain a slight advantage over your opponent. Even Bobby Fischer hated it.
  • Chopsticks is a solved game.
  • The optimal way to play competitive (5CP) Team Fortress 2 is to stalemate the game and repeatedly sacrifice one player to try and kill the opposing team’s medic. (Players respawn, so this is extremely low risk). This video discusses the problem in depth.
  • There is only one viable late-game build in Nuclear Throne. And it looks like this.
  • There have been deck archetypes in Hearthstone that were stupidly oppressive or broken in their time.
  • Brawl Meta Knight

In all these examples, there are established optimal strategies, so using any other strategy puts you at an inherent disadvantage.

And yet, people still do. Why? Because it’s fun.

That’s why you see people style on their opponents in fighting games, use fun and gimmicky strategies, or try to cross people up in basketball, even if the objectively correct play is to kill them quickly, use a higher win rate deck, or just score the basket efficiently.

(A caveat: some people find winning or constant improvement to be extremely fun, so optimizing their play is simply a means to that end. However, I think most casual players eventually hit a level of negative returns where putting in the effort to improve to the next level actively feels draining and monotonous. Also — especially when it comes to video games — people may realize that they’d rather do something more productive with their time.)

I think this phenomenon is interesting enough on its own when it comes to thinking about games and game design. But I’m curious about it’s generalizable applications.

Unlike video games, there are very few constants in life (besides the basic laws of the universe), and no pre-established universal end goal.

We’ve collectively brainstormed some possible goals (be happy, make lots of money) and corresponding strategies (do things you enjoy and find meaningful, work smart and hard), but no one can say “this is objectively the best thing you should do in life” because we all have different goals, values, and backgrounds.

And this inherent uncertainty is scary. We might think we want one thing, only to later realize that we actually didn’t. Or that we didn’t really understand what we were chasing after in the first place. Or that the goal was overrated.

Most of all, though, is that even with some goal in mind, we can never fully optimize towards it. We can make an educated guess about how to get there, and we can try to walk down the path of others, but we can’t look forward in time and calculate exactly how something is going to happen, like how we can in chess or Bloons Tower Defense.

And though that might be scary, I think this uncertainty yields a hidden benefit: it grants us the slack to do things suboptimally and not have it guaranteed to be objectively worse. It also gives us more freedom to have some fun.

If life were a game, and if we knew that sleeping at a reasonable hour was always objectively better than, say, hanging out with friends, or making more headway into engaging work, or aimlessly watching YouTube videos too late into the night, then we would never pick any of the latter options.

But life isn’t a game. Maybe staying up and watching a movie with friends helps establish more personal connections with them, which improves our overall lifestyle and happiness. Maybe going an hour or two over your usual bedtime to make more progress on homework or a side project increases your interest in that subject and boosts your morale. Maybe this late night degenerate YouTube session is the one that motivates you to get your shit together and make a change for the better.

Many of our seemingly suboptimal actions may end up helping us in the long run in unforeseeable ways. Many of them won’t. In the end, we’ll never know. But at least it’s not predetermined.

I won’t argue that people can’t enjoy, have fun, or feel fulfilled optimizing aspects of their life. But, as the infinite wisdom on Twitter says: “You can’t optimize your way toward feeling alive. Efficiency is a tool to enable life; it is not a life.”

I think it’s important to consider that maybe the struggle towards optimization is more rewarding and fulfilling than actually being at that point. And also, to remember that you are allowed to have fun and do things suboptimally.

That’s one of the great things about being human. Whereas computers are optimized to emotionlessly execute a given task as efficiently as possible, we can laugh at our mistakes, relish in our minor successes, constantly get sidetracked by friends and shenanigans, and feel perfectly okay about it all. I’m biased, but one of those situations sounds better than the other.