How to Decide Between Anything

3D and UX Design for Games, VR and Animation

How to Decide Between Anything

November 9, 2012 Uncategorized 4


Simple subjective algebra for making a decision between any number of things.

[Edit #2: This function has been simplified and clarified! See the comments for the previous version if you’re curious about how it’s evolved]

[Edit #1: Many thanks to Dan Toose and Linette Voller for helping me refine this!]


What is “subjective algebra”?


A simple function for conscious response to any given conundrum with any number of unknown variables.


What is “making a decision”?


Um…conscious response. To not respond, and just let yourself be buffeted by the environment, is to be unconscious.


Simple Function


Ask yourself:

…what is the most interesting thing I could do next?


Expanded Function:


Ask yourself:

…what will give us a broader range of interesting experiences tomorrow+ ?


Deconstructing Key Variable Elements:


Range of interesting experiences

From what you can physically do to what you’re capable of understanding about how the world works, what you can create, where you can go, etc. Choosing to spend the morning slowly learning one new yoga position increases the range of potential positions I can do easily tomorrow (as well as increasing the range of potential physical activities I can do with a healthier body) – whereas choosing to do the MOST DIFFICULT position in the book may injure me and actually decrease the range of potential experiences to only those that involve limping around, feeling sorry for myself.


Tomorrow and tomorrow’s tomorrow and so on. This is a cumulative projection! You must first project potential experiences into tomorrow before projecting those into the day after and the week after and month after, etc. Example: Choosing to save all your money and only live on minute noodles so you can afford a private space flight to Mars would actually DECREASE your range of potential experiences tomorrow (what you can eat and what you can afford to do) and probably decrease your range of potential lifetime experiences as you start to deteriorate from malnutrition (and if you die before you can ever afford to fly to Mars than this would be qualified as a stupid decision!)


Example Decisions and Range of Choice


Limited Choice: If the total range of potential lifetime experiences decreases, it is a limiting decision (ex: “do nothing” or “experiment”)

  • Do Nothing: Your total range of potential lifetime experiences decreases tomorrow due to constant changes in your environment and your physiology. As you get older your range of potential physical experiences diminishes due to age and a variety of other factors specific to your life experiences, etc. And though you may choose to remain in a fixed state, your environment does not. From paint peeling on walls to Earthquakes, your environment will continue to change and alter or remove potential physical experiences available to you.
  • Experiment: What you learn today can generate new experiments and new learning experiences tomorrow, each learning experience increasing the potential range of lifetime experiences. At the very least you will experience a different experiment tomorrow than you did today, if you learned from the experience.


Neutral Choice: If the total range of potential lifetime experiences generated from one decision or the other is about the same, then it is a neutral decision (ex: water or tea?)

  • Water: proven to be essential to living (repeated experiments show that going without water results in death – either ending, limiting or delaying potential experiences depending on spiritual beliefs at the time)
  • Tea: believed to be beneficial to living (probably because of all the water). Actual long term benefits of variable tea leaves still debated. Going without tea does not lead to death, but it does lead to boredom. Studies suggest that death and boredom are comparable (note: studies rely mostly on college freshman as volunteers, potential cognitive bias there).


Conscious Choice: Total range of potential lifetime experiences increases linearly, day by day (ex: exercise or sleep in?)

  • Exercise: If I get up and work out then I get a bit stronger/healthier tomorrow, daily cumulative effects of this choice is being able to live longer and do more things than I am physically capable of doing today.
  • Sleep in: If I hit the snooze button and stay in bed then I feel good today, but I won’t be any stronger/healthier tomorrow, I’ll just be a bit older than I am today.


Defining Choice: Total range of potential lifetime experiences increases exponentially (ex: live clean vs party hard)

  • Live clean: the range of potential places I can go, things I can do and people I can meet increases the longer I live a healthy life (and people are more likely to want to meet me, because unhealthiness is a serious turn off!)
  • Party hard: I can have more experiences today and tonight than I did yesterday, but my experiences tomorrow DECREASE when I suffer the debilitating ill-effects of partying hard today.


Creative Choice: Total range of potential lifetime experiences increases by orders of magnitude proportional to the number of people reached (ex: design a new gameplay experience vs make an existing gameplay experience)

  • Design a new gameplay experience: designing a new game, something that hasn’t been made before, will create opportunities to solve problems and overcome challenges…learning experiences which increases the range of experience of what I can do/see/learn/etc in the future. Releasing this game to the public increases the range of experiences other people have, from learning something new about how their world works to being inspired to create their own games.
  • Make an existing gameplay experience: making an existing game, something that has already been made, generates opportunities to look up tutorials and how-to guides of other people’s experiences. If it’s a game I’ve already made, then no new experiences are generated by the activity. Releasing a game that’s already been made puts the onus of new experiences for the public on the art and marketing budgets. Range of potential BAD experiences increases however, for both creator and player, in proportion to time and money spent.

4 Responses

  1. Ben S says:

    Interestingly enough, the game Frequency helped me immensely in getting better at making quick decisions (Amplitude too).

    Since you’re bring funneled down a fast-moving note highway, you only have a limited time to pick which instrument to select to next – in which case, indecision literally means game over!

    • Epona says:

      It was duel quad kiting in Everquest for me!

      Quad Kiting: “kiting” four monsters around as a Druid using a target AOE (line them all up on the same spot so they get hit with the same spell – required VERY careful maneuvering of mobs and accurate predictions of AI/Pathing behavior).

      Duel Quad Kiting: “kiting” eight monsters around – just because I wanted to see if I could do it!

      Monster AC/HP was always WAY out of proportion to hero AC/HP, so even one hit from a SINGLE mob could wipe me out. I had to avoid 4 to 8 mobs at a time, keep track of them in XYZ space, even as I was running around like a crazy chook to avoid getting hit.

      Root rotting was another reflexive mental calculation training ground: similar scenerio, 4-5 mobs at a time, all rooted to the spot and slowly “rotting” from DoT spells. Challenge? Higher level you get, the more your root spell will break and the shorter your DoT spells.

      Which meant you had to be CONSTANTLY cycling your roots and dots across each mob.

      And this was Everquest – mana took FOREVER to regen! So choosing spells and the timing of your spells was balanced against mana efficiency to “will I kill them before they break root and kill me?” ratios.

      So what did I do? I decided to do this solo in group dungeons where I all my monsters would be just a few “feet” away from me and wandering mobs could walk through at any time.

      I swear I learned everything I needed to know to survive in the real world from online multiplayer games.

      Heh, funny that.

  2. Ben S says:

    Haaa that is hilarious. Emergent gameplay -> self improvement ftw!

  3. Epona says:

    This post was updated from a previous version!

    If you’re curious about where this moral algebra evolved from, here is the previous version:

    Moral Algebra #1: How to Decide Between Anything

    Ask yourself:
    “Given what I know of today’s environment, what will give us better choices tomorrow?”

    Deconstructing the Variable Elements:

    “…what I know of today’s environment” = variable depending on how up to date your mental model of the world is. VERY dependent on accuracy of information. Easiest way to improve the range of positive outcomes with this variable input is to a) increase what you know of how the world works and b) increase the quality of information you’re taking in both through direct experience and your ability to filter information from others.
    “…us” = variable depending on your automatic definition of “us”. Do you think of “us” as in you and the microbes living inside your body? Do you think of “us” as in you and your family, extended family, culture, all of humanity, all living things, the greater world consciousness…etc. Easiest way to increase the range of positive outcomes with this variable input is to expand your definition of “us”.
    “…tomorrow” = this is an interesting variable. Our ability to project patterns into tomorrow (and select the most plausible simulation to use in our decision making) seems VERY dependent on the individual and how fixed they are in space and time. Some people can only see into the next moment, where others can model fairly good simulations of plausible scenarios a few days ahead…and many people in a range of altered states of consciousness claim to see even further. Yet the accuracy of our predictions seems to deteriorate exponentially much sooner than humans are comfortable to admit. Daniel Kahneman did some REALLY interesting field research over 30 years into exactly this phenomenon, you can read about that in Thinking, Fast and Slow. Easiest way to increase the range of positive outcomes with this variable seems to be ‘elevating’ consciousness beyond the current moment, yet maintaining enough of a connection with the physical that your mind doesn’t go careening off into space.

    Example Conundrums:

    Q: Do I buy lunch here or go home to fix something?
    A: A tasty salad at Tasty Salad Place will be tasty, but I won’t have this money to spend tomorrow in an emergency – and that might impact my ability to help the group. I do have food at home though. Okay, I’ll go home and eat the tastiest of my at-home foods, and I’ll still have this cash to help my group tomorrow.

    Q: Do I go running this morning or sleep in a bit longer?
    A: Sleeping in is so good and this bed is so warm, but if I don’t go running then my body will get slow and weak. And if my body is slow and weak then I can’t jump out of the way of a drunk driver or catch myself from falling down stairs – and I’m absolutely useless to other people if I’m injured or dead! Okay, I’ll go running, at least so I’ll be strong and healthy enough that I have a greater chance of surviving tomorrow and am more able to help my group.

    Q: Do I stay out later or go home for an early night?
    A: Hanging out with friends is so much fun! I could stay out for hours more! But if I don’t get a good night’s sleep tonight then I probably won’t get much done tomorrow morning, and if I don’t get much done tomorrow morning then I may not finish my game, and if I don’t finish my game then no one gets to play it. Okay, I’ll say my goodbyes and head home. I will see my friends on future nights! (In this scenario the “us” group variable is actually the people you’re making a game for – as opposed to the friends who want you to stay out drinking with them).

    Scalable/Positive Variations on Moral Algebra #1:
    “Group” Conscious Response: What will give us more choices tomorrow?
    “Creative” Conscious Response: What will give us BETTER choices tomorrow?

    Fixed/Negative Variations on Moral Algebra #1:
    “Selfish” Conscious Response: What will give ME more/better choices tomorrow?
    “Short-Sighted” Conscious Response: What will give me/us more choices today?

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