A Thousand Cuts: Cognitive Fatigue in the Warcraft UI


Kathy Sierra returned to blogging with Your App Makes Me Fat, a thought-provoking post about the effects of decision making and cognitive fatigue on our willpower.

Like all good posts, this one doesn’t have an easy interpretation. It’s a simple fact – mental effort consumes willpower – with complex implications. Kathy looks at the related effects marketing and application UI design have on users; by reflecting upon what brand engagement and gamification mean for the overall quality of customer’s lives. When is your application or service adding real value, and when is it stealing cognitive resources?

I like that there are no easy answers here. It’s not that branding, marketing, or gamification are bad per se, but rather that there are additional consequences when employing them on users. If you drain their willpower to buy your goods, that has an impact on their life. Even seemingly innocuous interactions add up. The cognitive implications of brand engagement are worth further consideration and study.

My best man got one of his undergrad degrees in Cognitive Science, and he frequently joked that “Marketing is the Dark Side of CogSci.” Learning how people think and behave in non-rational ways gives you a toolkit to manipulate them. By itself, the manipulation is amoral – you could uplift as easily as you exploit – what you do with it is what matters. Pushing a public health program, selling a well-made car that provides utility and creates good memories, or creating an app that empowers your users to create new things all need marketing, too. But more often than not marketing is used with less noble goals in mind.

Matt Siber’s The Untitled Project explored urban landscapes with all text removed from signage. The effect is eerie – immediately a normally hectic environment becomes calmer, almost serene. Blocks of colors form patterns but don’t demand attention. Details are easier to spot quickly because there are fewer things competing for your attention. Take a few minutes to look at his work and let it all sink in.

To be honest, the self control studies referenced in Kathy’s post left me thinking much more about World of Warcraft’s user interface and game design than Blizzard’s marketing strategy. My hand injury and related break from WoW has forced me to find diversions with substantially simpler input systems. I’ve started thinking that 17-button mice and game pads are like regular expressions; when you think that the best solution to controlling your character is dedicated input hardware, now you have two problems. You’ve added hardware complexity to UI complexity to solve the problem that it takes 8-12 buttons to attack something in Warcraft.

I think this idea is more subtle than the cognitive limits that the Warlock class explored in Cataclysm, though. This is more about the small inconsistencies in the user interface that require conscious effort to address and the cumulative effect of those choices. Games with simple interfaces can still be extremely complicated and challenging, yet they feel more light and fun than those with more intricate controls.

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At the simplest end of the interface spectrum are one-button side scrollers like Tiny Wings and Badland. Press anywhere on the screen to make yourself move vertically (dive down in Tiny Wings, flap up in Badland.) That’s it, the whole screen is the entire UI. It does one thing. These are challenging, fun games, but the UI doesn’t present any choices or cognitive challenges. Either you press the screen or you don’t.

Slightly more complicated games often still have but a single UI mechanic – Frisbee Forever takes advantage of the phone accelerometer to turn right or left by the user tilting the phone (Tilt steering) but allows the user to tap small buttons on the side of the screen as well (Tap steering). It’s the only preference in the game.

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Dots, which my 3-year old daughter made briefly famous on my Twitter feed, is a masterpiece of minimalist game design. You draw lines between dots of the same color and they disappear. The only cognitive dissonance I have seen is when someone tries to do a diagonal line, which doesn’t work. Players who make that mistake quickly adapt and then the game interface becomes a non issue. Dots is seriously relaxing fun.

Games don’t have to have simple interfaces, but they do need to be tight. Reducing choices and setting limits helps focus users, which is another way of saying it reduces cognitive leaks. Take a complicated iOS game like Infinity Blade. Stunning graphics for a fighting game on a mobile device, innovative use of touch screen swiping, won a bunch of awards for good reason. Press center button to block, side buttons to dodge, swipe to attack, swipe against an attack to parry, draw a glyph to cast a spell. By the time you’re on the 4th opponent you’ve learned all the basic controls. And even though this game has a gear grind that puts WoW’s endgame to shame, I was solidly engaged in many, many, many repetitions of the same storyline, honing my skills and dexterity.

I’d started playing IB before my hand injury, and attempted to continue after it, but eventually it became clear that thumb/index finger activity of any kind introduced small, incremental strain on the ligaments and nerves. Hundreds of swipes and taps add up on already inflamed tendons, much like hundreds of small decisions take a noticeable toll on willpower. I put down IB and IB II about two months ago, and even Dots only gets played left-handed these days.

I suck at playing Dots left-handed.


The idea of cognitive fatigue helped me understand why I liked the original Infinity Blade so much more than its technically better sequel, Infinity Blade II. Infinity Blade II has more stuff than the original – two new styles of combat, hundreds of new items, more options within each mechanic, gems to customize gear – and I frankly don’t like it as much. Instead of “press right or left to dodge,” now you have to consider if you’ve already dodged too much in this fight and have fatigue. Parrying now has three different levels, blocking too, all depending on your timing. Each style of weapons introduces more changes, like 2-handed weapons allowing only parries or blocks, while dual-wielded weapons replace blocking with a duck button. (Duck as in to dodge downward, not turn into a waterfowl. Or quack like one.) And the gems add another layer of irritation, do I have the right gems for this drop, do I save or reforge this one, etc.. This is all before I can comment about the new story and content!

My 8 year old son and I disagree on the relative value of the two Infinity Blade games. He loves the sequel precisely because it has all kinds of neat new stuff. I’m old and crotchety, but my reflexes are good and I enjoy the simplicity of the original design because it’s easier to work within.

Also, the main character of IB II turns out to be a bit of an idiot. But I digress.

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To get a frame of reference, I gave World of Warcraft a try on my iPad. I fired up Splashtop with the Gaming Pad Addon to remotely connect to my computer, designed a left-handed interface, then signed up for a F2P account so I could tinker around with no distractions. This is a bad idea. The Warcraft UI is a product of a full keyboard and mouse design philosophy – and with all those keys available, they get used. Simple, basic tasks like moving around while not losing control of the camera become major challenges. In a way, they are fun challenges, because they require ingenuity to overcome. I had fun trying to balance the needs of my hands and the screwy, lag-filled interface.

But after a while those challenges became irritants. Cognitive leaks. Ugh, moving. Click to move does part of what you want, but then you sometimes spiral around when you reach your destination. Joystick-style controls are too sensitive, so my toons wandered around spinning like drunken children’s toys. Sometimes when you click on the screen you spin your camera wildly and can’t manually readjust it. It’s super frustrating. The actual game content takes a backseat to just making your avatar do what you want it to do.

I’ve talked privately with friends about how the inability to move well is one of the biggest reasons for me canceling my sub and taking a break. In a MMO your hands are both your body and voice, which has been something gamers understand but has required some conversations with medical professionals. Doctors immediately grasp the professional impacts of not using a computer well, but the psychological impact of digital disability sometimes takes a bit longer to explain. Mostly I don’t bother.

But an unexpected benefit of my hand injury and experimentation is that it jolted me out of the context of users who can master a UI as complicated as a fighter jet cockpit. Have you asked a non-gaming friend to watch you play and give honest feedback? It’s like drinking from a pixel firehose. There is an incredible amount of information pouring onto the screen in a MMO. Raiding, PvP, chatting, whispers, AH trading – questing is the simplest activity, and even then there’s the potential for 3-5 tasks going on at once. Pet Battles and Gathering are possibly the calmest activities you can undertake in the game and yet they still require motion and positioning. It is super frustrating to go from playing fluidly to stumbling around a starting area, but it’s humbling, too. You become aware of small issues with the game interface that perhaps you didn’t see before, or which you’d ignored and accepted years ago.

Take targeting. Targeting a mob in Warcraft is a relatively simple matter; click on the mob, hit start attack, or hit tab. A relatively simple matter with three separate, different methods to accomplish it.

Irony runs deep.

Once you’ve got the mob targeted, then you have to consider range – on a Warlock, your ability to target something with tab or /startattack corresponds with the range of Shadow Bolt or Corruption, so if you target them they’re in range. Priests have Smite. Smite has a shorter range than Shadow Bolt. So the exact same function (basic ranged magical attack) now has two checkpoints to use correctly – is the mob targeted and is it in range? If it’s not in range, now you have to reposition yourself to attack. Repositioning takes effort. It doesn’t matter if this makes sense at the endgame, these are little cognitive drips on a baby priest.

Why do some abilities grey out when you change form while others stay available? Why do some stances or shapeshifts change your action bars, while others do not? Why do some abilities light up when they are usable while others don’t? Why do Cats and Bears have different abilities which do the same thing? Why isn’t auto loot on by default? (Seriously. Why is auto-loot not a default?) Why isn’t @mouseover casting an option in the UI?

Drip, drip, drip.


Mastering any computer program requires deep knowledge of its quirks. Those little gotchas in the UI, the little glitches in process, the places where parts don’t fit together seamlessly – experience teaches us how to overcome them, to make the decision the same way every time to modify and adapt. We move into range, we circle around back, we set up our bars, we set alerts for Shadowburn that we don’t need for Execute. Pick a standard and stick with it. Execute abilities (those usable at low target health) currently a) do nothing, b) activate but don’t flash, c) activate and flash the button, or d) throw out an aura. Yes, they’re all different spells – they all do the same thing. Make their UI the same. This is like having Windows and Mac versions of the same program behave differently, or use a different menu structure. Why do you do that to us, Adobe? Why?

But though we master those quirks and overcome those imperfections, the cognitive drain is still there. It’s almost unnoticeable, but it’s there. A thousand little cuts.

This isn’t something unique to World of Warcraft. When Outlook acts up or your calendar suddenly syncs to the wrong time zone, it’s stressful. Navigating transit systems to work and home involves thousands of little decisions. A badly constructed subway map, an unclear traffic sign, a confusing promotion – all these things drain our willpower. We have to take care of ourselves, drink fluids, eat small meals, and keep our energy up through the day. We have to do things which we find fun and productive, satisfy Maslow’s hierarchy. Our goal is to thrive, and that requires activity. There’s a constant cycle of replenishment in our lives.

But we should also slow down and realize that sometimes, there are a lot of little drains on us. Changes to a video games’s UI to make things less confusing are going to have effects beyond just the game. Good effects. Making a game subtly easier to interact with leaves more mental juice for the good stuff.

Not everyone can fly the fighter jets.


Filed under Cynwise's Warcraft Manual

26 responses to “A Thousand Cuts: Cognitive Fatigue in the Warcraft UI

  1. Your post makes me reflect with itnerest on the difference betweem WoW’s UI and that of my current game, Guild Wars 2. In WoW, I had dozens of buttons to arrange. To organize. To categorize. To REMEMBER. In GW2, I have 10 buttons, generally (there may be a couple more options that vary on class, but let’s ignore that for now). 5 weapon skills here, 5 other things I can do over there. Some people complain they get bored, but I find myself refreshed.

    Patches don’t bring me dread because I don’t have 50 addons to update and configure. GW2 says here is your UI, deal with it. I don’t mind, and I think, now, that it has a lot to do with 7 years of WoW just wearing me right out.

    So. Many. Buttons.

    • I’ve heard about the GW2 model, and saw it in D3, and personally I like the idea of limiting what abilities can be used at one time – memorized spells for the day, as it were. I really like the idea.

      Is something up with your wrist too?

    • I’m a fan of the minimalism of the GW2 UI. It’s a relief, really, and forces you to focus on what your target is doing in the game world, rather than staring at numbers all the time. There’s no boss ability timer bars to watch, the lack of numerical displays for many things means it’s somewhat easier to process values, even if it’s less precise, and the almost universally short cast times and DoT lengths (and being able to cast on the move) all make it so you’re free to concentrate more on boss mechanics and positioning. Also, putting the player’s health bar (well, circle) in the middle of the screen at the bottom should be the default in WoW too – especially on a large monitor, having a small bar in the top left renders it almost invisible when things get hectic.

      I think WoW’s default UI was designed for a time when most people has relatively small screens, perhaps in the 14″—17″ range, and doesn’t really work for larger monitors and higher resolutions. And of course it was also designed for a time when boss mechanics were much simpler. As such, it hasn’t really kept up with the demands of the game and the players, despite Blizzard’s polishing efforts.

      My experience with GW2 has prompted me to really re-think my WoW UI, and remove anything possible that isn’t absolutely necessary. For example, hiding action bars, damage numbers, XP/rep bar, that sort of thing.

    • And something I forgot to mention is how I’ve tried really hard to focus my spells (as a disc priest) to only the essentials, but man is it hard when there’s just SO MANY abilities I might potentially need. Looking at a screenshot of my UI, I count at least 17 things to keybind, and perhaps 6 or so others that are used infrequently enough that they can remain as clickables.

      And that’s just disc priest, with relatively few abilities and no DoTs to keep track of!

  2. When I hooked up a PC-compatible Xbox controller to WoW just to see if I could, I had difficulty with controlling the camera with joysticks and simple stuff like opening the minimap. I set my controller up so that tab & pressing action buttons were easy (I was leveling a warlock, after all, and it was in a 5×2 format already), but I had long gotten used to the background controls like using M to open the minimap or B to open bags, which I no longer had available on my controller! I solved it by using a fun combination of the Ion (formerly Macaroon) and OPie addons, but it was enough of a drain to play that toon that I flipped back to the keyboard + mouse play (still 5×2, for science).

    Again, in raiding, I hear about it as I try to post a guide for my guild on how to use BigWigs. For myself, I only really need to know how to configure the addon and I can set it up for myself. For others, though, I’m realizing they don’t have their UIs set up efficiently or they’re not really using their addons as much as they could.

    Not to mention different people respond to different things, so you can’t always set up someone else’s UI for them, even if it’s with one addon. For example, I really respond to types of sounds. I play with game sounds on (other guildmates don’t), but even during raid they’re very low, so I can hear Ventrilo over them. I’ve turned it off sometimes but I’ve found I react slower to certain things. Or even when there’s too much of a sound, like when I was curse-sitting on the bats on heroic Tortos, as affliction I explode a soulburned Seed to get delicious Nightfall procs off all that Corruption. No shit, you get the Nightfall sound constantly in your ears for minutes on end because there’s so much Corruption. I almost didn’t realize that we were nearing the end of the fight, despite being able to hear my guildmates fine enough on Vent, until my Heroism Weak Aura splashed in my face (at 20%).

    On the other hand, I do like how WoW has many solutions to one problem while also having an incredibly moddable interface. When you go on UI addon sites, there are compilations of the same addons — maybe even the same suite of a complete interface — that look totally different from each other. I like seeing all the ways people solve a problem with their UI, and I’ve pulled parts I’ve liked from various UIs over the years to make my UI.

    I know this is a slightly different tangent than what you are posting, Cyn, but I would like to help more people become warlock fighter jet pilots.

    • I think you do an excellent job at teaching folks to fly those fighter jets, Pon.

      The game controller experiment is interesting, it’s even more restrictive than what I have been doing. I think there’s a law of game design in here, somewhere: Game UI complexity will expand to fill the limits of the input hardware. Corollary: switching input hardware can increase or reduce the complexity of a game’s UI.

  3. Dejara Thoris

    At least the WoW UI has a bunch of programmability and configurability built in. Most games don’t. Some game devs even think systems like the Lua-based WoW UI mods are the work of the devil. I’m currently working through a temporary visual handicap, and as a result have become much more aware of the issues. I on’t expect the game devs to come up with the perfect UI for everyone, but at least by having sufficient programmability it should be possible to come up with something that works for a given set of handicaps.

    A friend has it even worse than me and has some youtube videos talking about the issues:

    • I’m sorry about your vision problems, I hope they pass quickly. 😦

      Customizing around UI weakness has been a great part of Warcraft’s longevity and success, I have little doubt. There are a lot of little details that remain but it really does help when you can make broad customizations.

  4. Excellent post Cyn.

    You are so right about the constant drain. There is a LOT happening on screen in an MMO. It requires a tremendous amount of focus to operate at a high level of play.

    I too had a medical problem that sort of arose from playing too much.

    I had PRK vision correction a long time ago, which made me susceptible to dry eyes.

    In Mists, when tanking, I found that there was SO much happening on screen that I’d not blink throughout encounters. And if I looked away for even a second, or closed my eyes for a second, it would be enough to cause problems for me as a tank.

    Active Mitigation requires a VERY high level of concentration if you’re playing a tank and don’t have the encounters on farm yet. More when you pug as fights are a lot less predictable in pugs than in guild groups where you have a certain rhythm and routine to how you do fights.

    Also, maybe its just me but I find it extremely difficult to see the selection marker on a mob I’ve got targeted when there are multiple mobs and melee and crazy levels of spell effects going off. It feels like I’m constantly searching for a needle in a haystack.

    Anyway, not blinking (and I’m not blaming the game, ultimately its on me to be more responsible) for prolonged periods (which I couldn’t while tanking) completely messed up my eyes. What started with dry achy red eyes actually ended up with corneal inflammation where part of my cornea started getting opaque just because my eyes were drying out so darn much from not blinking.

    The cognitive demand for me was so high that I’d forget to blink.

    I’ve quit WoW now. If I want entertainment, I’ll play something less taxing on myself. 🙂

    • There are other drains, too, which I ran out of oomph to go into detail for – having to have a laptop or a desktop rig, with the attendant noise and heat. When you start looking you find them.

      I’m sorry about your eyes, will they get better soon? I know that feeling of intense concentration – one of the things I miss about PvP is that total immersion, but I know I can’t handle it now. No way.

      Rerolling all tanks to flower pickers is my new plan.

      • My eyes are a lot better and should be fine soon. I had to take very strong anti-inflammatory steroids to the point that I was at a risk for glaucoma (which didn’t manifest, fortunately).

        I’m on a lower strength steroid now and things are clearing up (ha!) nicely.

        For me, it wasn’t just the level of concentration. It was a few more things too – having my warrior repeatedly nerfed in PvP drove me to playing it more in PvE, but then warrior tanks being not as much fun to play as Mists progressed drove me back to playing it in PvP as a flag carrier, which then with the whole resil changes and prot-FC nerfs just made that toon “unfun”..

        I enjoyed playing a monk greatly but honestly, I know that one run of bad balancing decisions from Blizzard can turn that around in no time.

        So then I really thought about it and realized I was an ass for outsourcing my quality of entertainment and basing it on factors I couldn’t directly control.

        Now I play Skyrim, Tomb Raider, Mass Effect and I am far happier for it. Being able to pause and take a break at any time is just fantastic!

  5. Good to see you back to writing with a very typically thoughtful Cynwise post.

    How’s the hand doing, anyway? How are you doing?

    • Thanks!

      I’m doing well, the hands are … They’re better than when I quit, but they’re no where near well. Most days I don’t need painkillers but some days I do to make it through the work day. I’m finally seeing the right doctors though, getting anti inflammatory steroids, wearing a brace, trying to avoid surgery if I can. Right hand is still the worst of it but left hand has started to go due to having so much activity shunted over to it.

      I’m doing great, though. Lost 15lbs, blood pressure is down, reading books, taking pictures again, exercising. Taking a break was good for me.

      How about you?

      • I’ve not been so lucky in the lost weight department, but I’ve been walking a lot in the mornings. Admittedly, that’s been after a slate of stressful morning meetings which the kids inform me make absolutely no sense. (The curse of working from home is having them provide running commentary on some of my meetings.)

        I’m still blogging on a weekly basis (on average), and the kids are accelerating the graying of my beard by getting older (and by their misadventures playing LOTRO and SWTOR). The oldest just went through her first band camp for high school, and while she seems ready for it I’m not quite sure I’m ready because that means dating and college are on the horizon.

        Even so, I still can’t compete with The Master at PvP, although every time I see a Lock go by while I’m stealthed in WSG I try to think “What would Cynwise be plotting if he were playing Horde?” 😉

        • It’s been hard leaving behind PvP. I really do enjoy it, but I really can’t do it now or for the foreseeable future. Letting go is … right. Have to move on.

          The weight thing for me was a few too many straws on my back; I’m almost 40, my beard is going grey too, and I’m worried a lot about my health after letting my weight drift upwards for years.

          My wife listens in on my meetings sometimes and pronounces them the most boring things in the world. I have trouble disagreeing with her, but the exciting ones usually involve too much yelling for me to have the kids around for. 🙂

  6. When I was initially taking a break from WoW with GW2, I found it refreshing and then got bored in the mid 50s. I then went back to play WoW and had information overload for the first few dungeons/LFRs until I got use to the information flow again.

    • I can barely keep up with my Twitter feed anymore (not even trying, to be honest.) In many ways, processing lots of information is the appeal of Warcraft.

  7. Sent this to the important game/UI designers I personally know: thank you.

  8. QamarQamar

    Sorry to hear of your hand problems. I am now completely recovered, but formerly had severe hand/nerve problems and was unable to use my hands for some time. I consulted with hand surgeons, but they considered me inoperable, so I tried therapy, did research, and compared notes with musician/artist friends with similar problems. But I made no progress until a therapist happened to suggest I soak my hands/wrists in warm water with epsom salts. As anti-inflammatory drugs were not working, I tried it, and absurd as it sounds, it worked. I play WoW, but I play “lazy” and maybe that’s best for me after all. If you have any questions e-mail me. I wish you the best and a full recovery!

  9. Pingback: The Problem with The Isle of Thunder | Tome of the Ancient

  10. Kevin Murray

    Thanks. I really enjoyed this. I solve this problem by playing only low level characters with moderate twinking, capping XP and pushing them as far as I can. Giving up content is not really a solution but it solved my game enjoyment issue. Back in the 70’s the Avalon Hill Game Co. had a tactical squad level game called (appropriately) Squad Leader that was scenario based. The Guards Counterattack was the first scenario. While my gaming friends moved on this limited unit scenario kept me interested for weeks….for me the pleasure I got from small changes in movement or fields of fire were very rewarding. I grant that good players can assess at a glance what I need repetition to reveal but if we are talking about enjoyment, well, scenario #1 worked for me. As layers of decision making were added to the game I lost interest and moved on. May we all hope for games that provide enjoyable complexity without endless medical bills.

    • I really quite enjoy low level twinking, I just have gotten burned with class changes over the years. (Warrior PvP is even more awful at 19 than it was in Wrath, sadly.) Leveling lowbies has been fun but I think it’s putting too much strain on my hands and I need another break, sadly.

  11. I initially didn’t read this because the title was so smart sounding I didn’t think I would understand it.

    However, it was an immersive read. Impressive for someone with a bung hand Cynwise. However, complex tasks and how we adapt to it is certainly an interesting topic, and my friends have watched me play sometimes and wonder how I can process it all. But i wonder that about people who work in air traffic control or in one of those mega info centres that you see spies working in on the movies with a zillion camera images on the screen trying to find that elusive fugitive. It’s what you’re used to, I guess.