Path of Least Resistance

Out of the multitudes of derogatory, loaded phrases, “Path of Least Resistance” is perhaps the one I dislike the most (“welfare epics” is another top contender). The phrase, in a bit of cognitive Jujitsu, attempts to style strength as weakness. “Path of Least Resistance.” Is that not… efficiency? Optimization? Are we supposed to be seeking the path of most resistance? How is that different from simply Doing It Wrong?

The phrase and its implied meaning is more than contradictory though, it’s often hypocritical as well. At its base, it means expending the smallest amount of effort for the greatest gain. Ask those players who bemoan their peers taking the Path of Least Resistance how they feel about “Play to Win.” Is it “cheating” or unsportsmanlike to spam an uncounterable move over and over to ensure victory? Playing to Win is (usually) the Path of Least Resistance. Fair fights are more difficult, and thus more risky – something to be avoided if possible to make the wins easier and more assured.

Those using Path of Least Resistance as a negative attempt to levy moral failings upon players not even participating in the same game as them; the only game in which the Path of Least Resistance is a negative is the game inside the accuser’s own head. Efficiency and efficacy are, in fact, virtues. It is fine to critique game design that results in unintended or counter-intuitive behavior, such as RvR merry-go-rounds instead of gritty trench warfare. But the critique must always be of the rules, not the minds or motivations that master them.

Posted on January 4, 2013, in Philosophy and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. “Is that not… efficiency?”

    Depends on context? videogame design debates aren’t exactly the world’s most pressing issue, so I guess you can take a stand against the saying to justify all opinions as equal. most of the time we are really just defending our own preferences and ideas of fun and that’s it.
    for real world matters of gravity, I think the term ‘efficiency’ would be replaced with opportunism. the path of least resistance is very often opportunism. and that can be fairly negative depending on context and social/economic/environmental/etc. consequences.

    (p.s. your wp still hates my comments. there’s probably a second one in your spam)


    • I actually took out a whole paragraph about how curious the sentiment gets even IRL, vis-a-vis how things people typically aspire to (college, etc) typically end up being easier to go along with than a more “character-building” approach. In other words, college being the Path of Least Resistance for many people.

      But, yes, here I am referring to the phrase strictly in the gaming sense. “Path of Least Resistance” is just a fancier, more condescending way of saying “You shouldn’t be able to win like that because I said so.”

      P.S. Sure enough, you had a comment in the Spam Filter. I have no idea why it keeps doing that.


  2. I’ve read Sirlin and other gamer psychology stuff, and I give credit to both points of view, but my heart lies with the ‘cheap win’ sneer.

    Sure, efficiency is a virtue, but a difficult or especially clever performance leading to the same result is more esthetically pleasing. What would you rather watch: a rollicking sword fight between two well-matched opponents, or one of them slitting the other’s throat in the night? A grinding, defensive, material-minded chess match or one full of positional brilliancies on both sides?

    If some of the stigma attached to the ‘path of least resistance’ is due to some innate human sense of fairness, then long may that sense persist. But I think we also simply value tactical acumen higher than a knack for finding the efficient strategy because it is more universal and less dependent on favourable circumstances like flawed game design.


    • Fair points, although I still see a radical disconnect between what we may see as engaging entertainment and what we actually desire/pursue ourselves. Tactical acumen is only valuable when it (ultimately) wins, after all.


  3. I see the issue as arising most often when the intent of the designers and the methods used by the players are in conflict. The easy example would be in an MMO with 6-10 classes, where groups find that it is easier to beat certain dungeons/bosses with only 1-2 of them. The players are taking the path of least resistance, but that was clearly not the design intent of the developer.

    Though, couldn’t “path of least resistance” justify using exploits? If an exploit gets me the most cash, then I was just using the path of least resistance. The player is doing something that might be outside of how things are “supposed” to be done, but it is the easiest way for them to do so. Having recently played 3 different “assassin” games (Hitman: Absolution, Assassins Creed 3, and Dishonored, all in the last 3 weeks) I have been learning all about my own internal “path of least resistance”; in Hitman, the easiest method by FAR is to go through each level shooting every enemy in the head from stealth with a silenced pistol…you could walk through most levels in a few minutes that way….your score would be terrible, but you’d still get the unlocks and level completion…you wouldn’t miss out on anything but score (which I suppose could be considered its own, internal, “honor system” method of self-policing).


  4. It refers to a flawed game design which allows player to “win” without really playing the game as intended. It’s pretty subjective in its application, and if it’s a sleight on anyone it’s on the designer of the game. The players’ goal is to win– the designer’s goal is to make sure the players are having fun.

    The term which rustles my jimmies when MMO bloggers use it is “theme park”. Oh and referring to fighting a raid boss as a “dance”. DO YOU EVEN KNOW WHAT A VIDEO GAME IS?


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