games and agency

Agency and Games (Lecture Notes)

The basic definition of agency is: acting with the intention of a particular result. 

It is a remarkably simple and important idea, especially when we are dealing with any kind of communication and any type of media. It is important because it recognises the active role of the audience and their ability to make choices.

Platforms like [Netflix] are popular because they increase choice, but like social media, they can also influence choice. [Facebook] is particularly good at using the data from previous choices to influence future ones. But that does not detract from the reality that users still have a choice.

Games, whether it is the latest [mobile app], a pen-and-paper role player game, an indie game or the latest FPS – all provide the player with the opportunity to express different degrees of agency. 

A game provides the player with opportunities to act. However, how much and what kinds of acts they enable cover an incredible range and so there are many accounts in the literature of game studies as to what constitutes agency in video games and what that agency means. 

In this video, I’m going to draw on Stephanie Jennings’ meta-analysis of the ways Agency has been accounted for in Game Studies to give you a brief overview of the way agencies operate in digital games. I’m only going to very briefly summarise key points from this excellent resource and certainly not going to do the paper or the field of games studies justice in this brief account – but there are a few key points I want to focus on.

[Jennings Stephanie 2019 ‘A Meta-Synthesis of Agency in Game Studies. Trends, Troubles, Trajectories’, GAME, issue 08, https://www.gamejournal.it/?p=3912.]

The classic starting point for agency in games is [Janet Marrays’ (1997)]description of agency as an aesthetic experience:

She defines agency as: “… the satisfying power to take meaningful action and see the results of our decisions and choices” ( Murray 1997 p.126).]

Murray, Janey 1997 Hamlet on the holodeck: The future of narrative in cyberspace. New York: The Free Press. 

This seems like common sense but it’s often overlooked – particularly because games are enmeshed in woolly thinking about media effects – the idea that violent movies or games will make people more violent.

[Agency implies power and manipulation] but the ability to exert that power, or to seek to influence, lies with the player and it is a measure of good game design, that a game drives the player to explore, it supports and augments the desire to engage with the system of gameplay and to assist the player in becoming [“…active participants in the creation of their experience through interaction with code during gameplay…” ](Calleja 2011 p. 55).

But this opens up questions about agency that Jennings (2009, p.89) frames as the distinction between experience and vs action or the capacity to act:

“Is the “satisfying power” of agency an experience?”

Or 

“Is agency a capacity to create actual, concrete, observable changes, based on specific actions and choices?” 

This is an important distinction to make when talking about agency – is agency in the capacity to give players meaningful choices, or is it the experience that players embody when playing?

This distinction also applies to all types of media: think about [advertising and influencer social marketing]. When someone you follow on Instagram advertises a product you can get a satisfying power from liking the image or even purchasing that product. 

But what about the opposite – think about the experience of satisfying power in writing a negative comment, the choice not to like, not to purchase and to express yourself. 

Compare that to the [design of the platform] that expresses users agency even in limited ways – remember it is the system that allows you to follow/unfollow, to like or ignore. These are the affordances of the platform. So think about how that satisfying power of agency might be diminished if that comment is moderated later or not allowed to be made at all.”

One way to think about agency is the way a game balances the [ludic] (rules, algorithms, mechanics) of play with its [narrative] (character, story, setting). 

Murray uses the idea of ‘dramatic agency’ to describe the way games can offer the players  options to connect with characters, stories, locations and narratives through its design https://futureofstorytelling.org/video/janet-murray-dramatic-agency

Dramatic agency or narrative agency is part of what Jennings calls the representational power of performing as a character within the game as part of its procedures and environments. 

Although this is debated in game scholarship because of ideological resistance to what is described as hegemonic discourse, as Jennings reports:

“Mainstream game design overwhelmingly affirms agency as the exclusive purview of masculinity, whiteness, heterosexuality, and able-bodiedness.” 

Do indie games then represent greater agency for game designers’ own agency as a site available to challenge these historical norms by enabling players to embody alternative characters, settings and experiences?

Brendan Keogh’s work (2018) has explored the cybernetic relationship between a player’s bodily affect and game design as the player becomes entangled between the world of the video game and the world of corporeal existence. 

Keogh, B. (2018). A play of bodies: How we perceive video games. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

The concept of cybernetics, and the machine-human network of actants, complicates the idea of agency as the player’s freedom, control and autonomy because it reveals that players are not free. 

Even when they have choices, the players own mind and the hardware and software limitations of machines and humans including the players own mind put necessary limitations on the experience of choice. Does that mean, however, that the player’s choices are simply well-designed illusions?

Agency is often used synonymously as freedom, choice, control, autonomy and action and one of the most famous game designs which sought to reveal the illusion of player agency is the design of the game Bioshock.

No spoilers if you haven’t played BioShock and you have access to it on console or PC, I highly recommend it and there is a great quote in the Jenning’s analysis from Parker 2015.

[Bioshock is “… designed from the ground up to invite sustained reflection, debate and criticism, as evidenced by the countless forum discussions, blog posts, essays, articles, chapters, theses, and even academic monographs it has produced. This is not just a game with something to say but a game worth saying something about — a game that justifies the whole enterprise of game criticism and scholarship. (Parker 2015 p. 14).]

BioShock is designed to make you question the relationship between the experience of power and the necessary limitations on the ability to enact power in a given system. 

It helps us ask if agency is actually possible, or is the very function of all media to manipulate, constrain and delineate choice in order to convey meaningful experiences. Is the act of experiencing satisfying power a result of systems that are designed to provide that affective sensations while in reality limiting our choices and our freedoms. 

This is perhaps most elegantly summarised in the classic 1980s movie war games, in which an artificial intelligence comes to the realisation that sometimes the only agency actually afforded by any situation which limits choices in order to facilitate an experience is not to play at all. 

I’ve really only touched the tip of the iceberg when it comes to thinking about agency and so I recommend digging into Jenning’s analysis and engaging in the further reading on agency that I will add to the resources on the learning site. 

Thanks for playing.

Last modified: Friday, 1 October 2021, 7:04 PM

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