Subtraction By Addition: Why More Isn’t Always Better

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Vintage RPG

More is better – that’s the conventional wisdom of consumerism. Infomercials boast ‘But wait, there’s more!’, fast food joints cram multiple meals into unholy conglomerations, and open-world video games drown themselves in endless side quests and collectibles. We always want more bang for our buck, and thanks to the power of the internet, we have the leverage to get it.

In truth, though, we’re not always fans of addition. This is especially true when it comes to video games. Just consider the outcry that met the inclusion of same-sex relationships in Mass Effect and Star Wars: The Old Republic. Despite the feature being entirely optional, activists championing family values bombarded publisher EA with angry letters decrying its inclusion.

A similar attitude of entitlement greets anyone who advocates the addition of easy difficulty modes in tough games. When an invincible beginner’s mode was announced for Star Fox Zero, many complained that it went against the whole purpose of playing games – which is, apparently, to bash your head against a wall until you succeed. And then there’s the reaction to Metroid Prime: Federation Force, with fans so convinced the game will ruin their treasured franchise that they petitioned Nintendo to cancel it.

This kind of behaviour can be traced back to a psychological phenomenon known as the less-is-better effect. In 1998, Christopher Hsee coined the term to describe the bias he observed in his research on value assessment. He found that people tend to base their valuations on averages rather than absolutes. For example, when assigning prices to two sets of dinnerware, subjects in the study priced the set with 24 intact pieces and 0 broken pieces higher than the one with 31 intact pieces (including the same 24) plus a few broken ones. The addition of the broken pieces dragged the perceived value of the set down with it.

In effect, this phenomenon is a case of context clouding judgement. Extraneous information, whether it be broken dishes or extra difficulty modes, corrupts our assessment even though it has no impact on the sum quality of the package. For Hsee’s subjects, only by comparing the two sets side-by-side did their valuations line up with rationality.

Once you’re aware of this error, you can take measures to avoid it. If a new movie in a cherished franchise comes out and it sucks, remember that the original movies still exist and can still be enjoyed. If your favourite game introduces an easy option for beginners, remember that it in no way impacts your hardcore run. And if a website you frequent starts posting on topics outside of your interest, remember that you don’t have to read them.

Critique is valuable. If you don’t like something, you can protest it. But just make sure you’re not falling prey to the less-is-better effect first. Remember: additions are not subtractions.