Cole Gleason bio photo

Cole Gleason

Ph.D. candidate at the Human-Computer Interaction Institue at CMU. I work on accesibility technology for people with vision impairments.

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Being the end of January, tax season is here, and I have always enjoyed doing my taxes. I find it’s like a game to get the highest score (return). Several of my friends think I’m nuts, but I often find spreadsheets and statistics engaging, rather than a boring task. This has popped up several times in the games I have played throughout the years. Let me give you some examples.


My favorite board game growing up was Monopoly. I played it often enough that my family now refuses to play a game when I go home for winter break. Now I’m going to let you in on a game secret.

monopoly Bankrupting my family on a cold night in 2012.

At one point in my early teens I thought: “Hm, some properties are relatively cheap, but maybe not in the best location. What I really need to know when playing is what their value is.” Luckily, someone else on the internet had created a table that compared the cost of the property with the likelihood of a player landing on it. Aha! You can compute the expected value of owning a property! (This seems obvious to me now, but I hadn’t studied probability yet). Knowing that the orange properties would be my best buy, every game I tried to trade for those. A spreadsheet had given me the edge.

World of Warcraft

I played World of Warcraft for the first three years of high school. Specifically, I was addicted to the game. My friends all played it, I spent non-playing hours thinking about it, and some nights even had its UI overlay in my dreams. And what was crazy about the game was that some of the hours where I wasn’t playing it was when it most engaged me.

My cousin, a few friends, and I had started a guild (in-game organization). We weren’t professionals or anything, but we met regularly to take down bosses together. It seemed very important at the time, probably because it was the first time in a video game where I felt some actual responsibility for other people. But here is where spreadsheets come in:

As an officer of the guild (I’m not sure I had a different title), my job was to help organize the raid schedule and divvy up loot. I wanted an exquisitely fair system, so over Thanksgiving break one year I spent days poring over a spreadsheet, not in game. I assigned a point value to every piece of loot. I drafted a system for how people earned points to buy the loot, the penalties for not showing up, and the bonuses for showing up more often. It was a lot of effort, but when implemented it felt very rewarding to see an organization with a few hundred people using my work.

Today I realize something else about that spreadsheet: it was its own minigame! I had designed the rules, rewards, and consequences to incentivize people to play together.

Stardew Valley

I started playing Stardew Valley last year, which is a fun game where you run a farm. You raise different crops to sell for money to buy more crops, etc. Crops have different growing times though, and some produce fruit multiple times. How can anyone play this game without a spreadsheet? I opened one up and tried to figure out the best cash crop. Finally, I just searched the Internet and found that someone had already computed that. Cheating? Maybe.

What is interesting to me is this urge I feel to always make the right decision in games like this. I don’t feel the urge to conserve ammo in a FPS to minimize wasted bullets, but I have to make sure I have the optimal lemonade recipe in Lemonade Stand. Something about the design of these game triggers a reflex in me to optimize.

I’m a Maximizer

In a cognitive science class, we discussed the difference between a maximizer and a satisficer, and it was obvious which one I was. I open a spreadsheet for most large purchases. Hell, I still haven’t bought a pair of gloves for this winter because I can’t pick the best ones. Game designs where enough statistics are available for me to maximize make my mind start to race. If I like the game enough, I’ll likely open a spreadsheet and get to work.

Is that something a game designer should tap into? It’s a fine line. On the one hand, I’ve enjoyed my out-of-game experiences tinkering with the game mechanics exposed to me. However, they are isolating, not social experiences. Additionally, it can go too far, especially for games with collection mechanics. Give me 20 things to collect, fine. If you give me 2000, one of two things will happen: as a maximizer, I will collect all of the items, but the experience may not be as fun as the rest of gameplay. Alternatively, I will get frustrated and give up.

Game designers should engage people with a maximizer mentality on game mechanics that enhance player skills. Combat systems, like World of Warcraft spell rotations, are a good example. Learn an optimal spell rotation, and it could give you an edge. Game economies, like the World of Warcraft auction house or Stardew’s cash crops are also good places for maximizers to hang out. None of these examples exclude satisficers, either. They might not know the optimal armor set, but perhaps they are good enough with the weapon they have.

My rule of thumb as a game designer will be this: 90% of the game skill should be easy to pick up without understanding game mechanics at a low-level. This allows all players to pick up the game and play with each other, without needing to invest hundreds of hours to be on the same playing field. The maximizers who want to chat with each other about how the game works and understand it at a deeper level can gain that extra 10% of skill. They get an edge, albeit not a very large one. Both as a designer, and a player, this seems like a decent compromise.

In complex games, maximizers with a spreadsheet can lay the mechanics of your game bare for all players to pick through. Don’t try to obfuscate that with inane uses of randomness. Make sure what they find is beautiful and as engaging for them to play with as it was for you to build.