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Dragon Age Companions: Social Cognition and Decision Making

by CJ Payne on 01/15/16 01:06:00 pm   Featured Blogs

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The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
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Dragon Age: Origins by BioWare is a game that is full of player-driven choices. What makes these choices interesting is a combination of factors ranging from the unknown outcome of players’ decisions, to the framing of the very decisions themselves. The designers at BioWare have carefully and thoughtfully crafted hundreds of scenarios to make players deeply question the decisions they’re about to make.

Perhaps the most interesting way this decision making comes into play is with companions. Companions are party members with whom the player-character travels, goes into battle with, and, in some cases, can even start a relationship with. The key element through which decision making is made into a task increasing cognitive load is due to these companions. Players often seek the approval of their party members…but why? In terms of gameplay, there is little to be gained from their approval, and if they don’t hate the player they will not leave her party, meaning they will keep fighting at her side. What is the motivation for this?

Literature Review

Some of the reference materials for this topic are Developmental Psychopathology, Theory and Method (2006) by Donald J. Cohen, Decision Making: Factors that Influence Decision Making, Heuristics Used, and Decision Outcomes (2010) by Cindy Dietrich, and The Framing of Decisions and the Psychology of Choice (1981) by Tversky and Kahneman.

Cohen’s work examines social cognition from research with children in particular, specifically the ways that they accept or reject one another, as well as the role of companionship and intimacy at pre-adolescence. His research finds that acceptance and rejection in children is mostly based on behavior. In fact, behavior is such a strong factor in determining acceptance at childhood that, in most cases, it matters more than most stigmas (Cohen, p.466). One common and universal way that rejection appears is as a result of aggression. Interestingly enough, the form of aggression does matter as well: “Ineffectual aggressors prolong and escalate conflicts, exhibit exaggerated displays of negative emotion, and eventually ‘lose’ in conflict situations. These children are at high risk for peer rejection and victimization” (Cohen, p.466). Juxtapose this with effectual aggressors who have a goal and do not hold onto their emotions for prolonged periods; the opposite is true for them.

Another topic discussed in Cohen’s book is companionship and interpersonal relationships. Drawing from Sullivan’s work in The Interpersonal Theory of Psychiatry(Sullivan, 1953), Cohen examines the importance of an intimate relationship. Chumships, as coined by Sullivan, are an essential part of pre-adolescence where we for the first time seek true intimacy instead of group approval. This intimate other, often of the same sex, is a chum. “Chumships revolve around the expression of consensual validation of one another’s viewpoints and self” (Cohen, p.435). The purpose of a chumship is to find some form of comfort, deeper acceptance of one’s self through another, and perhaps acknowledgement of the true self as opposed to actualization of the desired self. A much less noted and all important factor of a chum is the need to stave off loneliness (Cohen, p.436).

From Dietrich, decision making is examined through how decisions are made and why they affect people in the way they do. Even how we choose to make decisions can affect our happiness. Dietrich discusses heuristics and how they affect decision making in numerous ways. Heuristics are general decision making strategies people use that are based on little information, yet are very often correct; heuristics are mental short cuts that reduce the cognitive burden associated with decision making (Dietrich, p.1) The availability heuristic states that as a decision is being made, there is a tendency to parse immediately available information. This in turn skews our ability to make the decision as objectively and therefore accurately as possible.

Lastly, Tversky and Kahneman examine framing of decisions and how that framing affects a person’s choice. Framing states that the way information is presented has an impact on how we make our decisions. In particular, framing shows that choices framing gains predominantly produce risk averse behavior and choices framing loss predominantly produce risk taking behavior (Tversky & Kahneman, p. 453). This shows that there is a great cognitive dissonance between people’s perceived ability to make objective decisions, and the processes by which they arrive at said decisions.

The purpose of this paper is to examine how Dragon Age uses companions to create interesting and meaningful decisions for players, explain how these companions frame decisions, and why we care about the companions at all.


First, Dragon Age: Origins does an impressive job of making use of the availability heuristic. As the companions are almost always with the player, especially when venturing out into the world, they act as the player’s moral compass, her checks and balances in a way. This affects the game in two ways: decisions made while adventuring (both primary story and side-quests), and companion availability. When presented with a problem, such as that at Redcliffe with Arl Eamon’s son, there are critical choices and decisions to be made. In Redcliffe, after making it inside the castle, the player discovers Arl Eamon’s son, Connor, is possessed by a demon. The player can confront the demon (killing Connor in the process), sacrifice his mother, lady Isolde, to enter the fade and rid him of the demon, or after much persistence obtain lyrium to enter the fade and face the demon without casualty. These are not only decisions which define the player-character, but change the way the world around her will function and even treat the party. The matter of companion availability is where the whole picture comes into view. The companions present in the player’s party when these problems are presented change the way players make decisions. Because only three companions can be brought with the player at a time there are three big factors contributing to the availability heuristic. As situations demanding choices from the player present themselves, companions chime in with their own opinions on how to handle the task at hand, often pulling the player in opposing directions. The player must then make a decision for the group. This is the deferment of power from companions to the player. This often leads to the player seeking general agreement from the party and mitigation of the minority objection. This effect is consensus decision-making. However, consensus decision-making is made into a challenge as companions do not often fully agree with one another.

Consider for a moment taking Shale, who is indifferent to mages, Morrigan, an outlaw mage, and Alistair, a mostly-fledged Templar and opposed to blood mages. Present this group with a blood mage on the run who has been wrongly accused of a crime against the Circle of Magi and Templar and divergent opinions will fly. While Shale will care little of what choice the player makes, Morrigan would want the player to let the blood mage live, while Alistair would most certainly want him punished if not killed. Situations like this one force the player to choose an opinion and in doing so, a side. What makes this particularly powerful, in regards to the availability heuristic, is both the idea that who the player has chosen to take into battle affects her ability to search for relevant information, and that the companions brought sway the player, even further affecting decision making. Likewise, a player is unlikely to consider the opinion of a party member who isn’t present for consensus. Without the companions, most decision making is interesting but far less challenging. However, when an implied consensus model is broken due to asymmetrical beliefs of those in the party, companions discuss their opinions among themselves and come to a conclusion, almost like voting in a group decision before acquiescing the power to the player. This might happen if the party had an opportunity to help the Circle of Magi with Wynn, Alistair, and Morrigan in the party. As Morrigan is the only companion against the Circle of Magi she may yield her dissention after opinions are presented, and as a group they would relay a message of support overall for the Circle of Magi. In this light, the companions feel far more human because they present themselves as strongly opinionated and make an attempt to be reasoned with by “hearing” the opposed party member out. The companions defer power to the player as a neutral but authoritative power. This doesn’t feel as odd as it sounds on paper, as companions know they disagree and find the player more indifferent than themselves. This again makes sense as the player, a silent protagonist, is entering a world the companions live in. Lastly, though the companions have decided to defer to authority, the player herself is actually satisficing. This is because of the original problem presented by the asymmetrical consensus model. In this way, decisions are made purposefully intense and cause a great cognitive load on the player as a result of the availability heuristic.

When considering the scenario at Redcliffe with Arl Eamon’s son being possessed, it has a great deal of framing in it as well. The options presented are tilted in the favor of loss aversion. This becomes apparent for a number of reasons. First, the obvious decision of saving the Arl’s son is denied twice, but the option is still given, and to less resistance each time. Eventually, if the time has been taken to acquire the appropriate materials, a ritual may be performed in order to save the boy. This is a very powerful use of framing. Not only were the potential decisions weighted in such a way that the player would want to avoid losing the boy, but the subsequent work done in order to save him makes the decision far more rewarding than if there was immediacy to him being saved. This alone would have been a good use of framing but BioWare went one important step further. The player is told that Arl Eamon, and therefore Redcliffe, is important to Alistair. The likelihood of bringing Alistair is thoughtfully increased for not only the purpose of making a more interesting character, but also for making this decision framed in multiple layers. Explicitly, the framing is risk nothing, gain nothing, or risk little, save a “lost” life. However, by having Alistair present in the party the decision is framed as: risk Alistair’s friendship (which is easily built by this time) by killing the boy, or strengthen the friendship with Alistair by helping his uncle, not risking much at all. By scripting scenarios where companions implicitly increase the weight of framing, Dragon Age is able to meaningfully push the player towards rewarding decision making by both appealing to companions and challenging simple decision result immediacy.

Naturally, the player may have an inclination to become close to one or more of the companions in the party. This can be done while adventuring and while at camp. What’s interesting about companions is how well they are treated as equals and do not subjugate themselves to abuse. For all companions, acts of aggression or blatant rudeness are taken negatively. They do not appreciate disrespect, and upon receiving aggressive or inconsiderate remarks disapprove of the player character. This is a powerful mechanism as it mimics social cognition behaviors. By having an approval meter, players will subconsciously work towards approval and avoid disapproval whenever possible. This is true to the point that framing, previously discussed, will even apply to one-on-one conversations in private with heuristics being used to identify what a companion would most agree with in terms of choices presented to the player. This is a powerful form of social cognition in terms of getting players to care about companions and how they are treated; all this without even mentioning gameplay consequences for companions, such as leaving the party for low approval or combat benefits for high approval. Where social cognition takes a most interesting turn in Dragon Age is in regards to companionship.

As the player can gain the trust and respect of all companions there is a worthwhile comparison with pre-adolescence chumship to be examined (Cohen, 436). The companions in Dragon Age seek not just intimacy, but the expression of consensual validation of their viewpoints (Cohen, 435). In order for the player to get to an intimate level with a companion, she must have listened to the companion, said agreeable things, and most importantly accepted the companion for who they are. Social cognition of this level is rarely seen in video games. Dragon Age is not only providing a meaningful character for the player to interact with, but a means by which to gain empathy, curve depression, and gain higher level social-perceptive skills. Interactivity such as this could well be used to promote pro-social orientations, self-esteem, and competence with peers (Cohen, 436). Furthermore, thanks to Bioware’s multidimensional characters, companions help provide players with more complex and realistic mental models for how other people view and interact with the world. Players cannot be complacent and accept their assumed model of who the companions are but constantly be reminded of who each companion actually is through their actions, cultural upbringings, and stories of the past.


Social cognition can be seen in the companions of Dragon Age: Origins through means of heuristics, framing, and chumships. Availability heuristics give companions a sense of life as they guide player morals and defer to player authority, making the player feel respected. Companions implicitly frame decision making as stances on issues and even direct relevance gives cause for loss avoidance of their approval. Companion intimacy leads to a healthier player through empathy, validation, and increasingly complex mental models for who each companion truly is.


Cicchetti, D., & Cohen, D. (2006). Developmental psychopathology, theory and method (2.nd ed., Vol. 1, pp. 435-466). Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.

Dietrich, C. (2010). “Decision Making: Factors that Influence Decision Making, Heuristics Used, and Decision Outcomes.” Student Pulse2(02). Retrieved from

Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1981). The Framing Of Decisions And The Psychology Of Choice. Science, 453-458.


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