"Dragon Age: Inquisition", which came out in late 2014, was not a video game I anticipated much. I had played both previous versions and their add-on content but unlike Mass Effect, by the same company, only the first Dragon Age had much re-playability and, unlike Mass Effect, they wanted you to play a new character each time. There wasn't much point in getting attached to a character. But the milieu, swords and sorcery, was intriguing to an old D&D player, and I knew they would have something most games lack - a story where choice matters.

I like a good story, and I like when my actions have choices beyond what dies, and that is an appeal that may go beyond subjective personal preference. A new psychology paper says that video games have a prosocial benefit -  provided they have meaningful choices.

There are dozens of articles on Science 2.0 talking about the psychological impact of video games. On one side are people who contend that young minds have little choice in their behavior, they are too easily shaped - those folks have a multi-billion dollar advertising industry as evidence - while others contend that video games are no different than books: shooting terrorists in a video game does not make someone violent any more than reading Hemingway turns people into alcoholics. It is a prosocial versus antisocial argument.

In a new paper, the psychologists wanted to use video game storytelling to learn about 'theory of mind' -  how players assess the mental states of others. They had college students play two video games: Gone Home, a  mystery about woman's missing family; and Against the Wall, a game designed by a NYU Game Center grad student where you have to make your way up a wall - forever. Like Tetris, with better graphics and you are going up rather than things coming down.

Left: Gone Home. Right: Against The Wall

Players were randomly assigned to each but the difference was in the instructions. In "Gone Home", players got instructions for the game or they were told to memorize and evaluate properties of the game. After playing, the participants assessed pictures of facial expressions.

The ability to determine the emotional states in the pictures ("theory of mind") was compared to survey responses on how immersive the gaming experience was.

The result: Video games with storytelling and meaningful choice made the experience more immersive and that led to more prosocial benefit, in determining the emotional states of others.

How meaningful is that, really? It depends. Theory of mind is what it is, but the interesting part for game development was that just playing the story-driven game is not what made the difference, having meaningful choices that influenced the story did. 

The authors note that this could be valuable for autism research and all that stuff that academic psychologists have to say, but it should really be an indicator that games with real choice are the next big thing.

Citation: Daniel Bormann and Tobias Greitemeyer, 'Immersed in Virtual Worlds and Minds: Effects of In-Game Storytelling on Immersion, Need Satisfaction, and Affective Theory of Mind', 
Social Psychological and Personality Science April 9, 2015 as doi:10.1177/1948550615578177