What We Talk About When We Talk About Agency: Or, Say Yes to Limits – Part One of Question Mark Parts

At the beginning of April, I spoke at the Association of Art Historian’s 2016 conference in Edinburgh (I made a game about it the night before my talk, which is full of typos, but if you’re interested in the mindset of someone presenting at a conference for the first time in their lives and is terrified about it, go give it a play). I was talking about the aesthetics of agency in digital gameplay, and how one could look at similar themes explored in the canon of art history, and how games have since moved away from these themes to come into their own as a medium which can utilize its unique strength to convey meaning through a dialectical and dynamic process. It was pretty rad. 

At the end of my talk, I was approached and asked about my definition of agency – which was, for the record, Janet Murray’s definition from Hamlet on the Holodeck. It’s a classic. “Agency is the satisfying power to take meaningful action, and see the results of our decisions and choices.” Nice one, J.M. 

My argument took this definition and suggested that the creation of emergent narratives is a form of agency, and reading environments to create those emergent narratives an act of creative faculty. 

"That book was written in 1998,” this person said to me. “Murray was writing in a different time – and the agency you talk about – it seems pretty restrictive, don’t you think? And the games you cite are so linear. The agency one has in the gallery space is fundamentally different from the agency in the gamespace. That agency is designed by game designers. What you’re talking about is the illusion of agency. You’re being manipulated by game designers.”

"Ah,” I said.

Look. I get it. This is a can of worms, and I know it. Agency is a huge topic in philosophy and sociology – let alone a buzzword within the climate of contemporary game design. Open-world games love to flaunt the agency they afford their players, and we still get mad at them. (Here’s looking at you, Fallout 4 and also the-ending-of-Mass-Effect-3.) “You can ride a horse in Red Dead Redemption! You can pick flowers in Skyrim! The world in No Man’s Sky is SO BIG EVEN WE DO NOT KNOW HOW FAR IT WILL GO! AGENCY!!!!!” (This is how I imagine all marketing for games to sound in my head.)

I guess what I’m trying to say is that a lot of people have written about agency. If it interests you, I encourage you to go and pick up some Descartes or Bourdieu or Giddens, but I’m gonna talk about the theory and mechanics of agency in contemporary game design, and I do not claim to have any semblance of a mastery over those guys’ opinions on it and I’m gonna do it anyway.*  

So, Janet Murray wrote Hamlet on the Holodeck, and anybody who is anybody in the field of game design has likely read it – it outlines a series of important concepts present in digital storytelling and gaming, including, but not limited to, agency – defined above. Agency, Murray says, is integral to facilitating immersion and achieving a transformative experience through play.

Basically: do something, see something happen, leave the gamespace a changed person. Likely the thing which happens is going to be internally consistent with the laws of action you know about the world – the paltry laws of physics, for example. We exhibit this kind of agency all the time in our day-to-day lives, learning how to make actionable choices, calling on the affordances of objects, contextualising their relationship to interactivity (shoutout to Donald Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things). Murray offers the satisfying power of double-clicking on a desktop icon to open a program or file on the computer. It was the 90s and that shit was powerful, you guys. 

To some, it would seem, this definition of agency feels outdated -- especially given today’s gaming landscape. Choices in Games has been a super-hot-button issue for a while, and people really love to criticise the Illusion of Choices in Games. Consider the dialogue trees in The Walking Dead or Dragon Age and Mass Effect which all just loop you around to everyone getting the same story at the end of the day (occasionally with tricoloured icing to make it feel different). There’s the famous and decidedly not-choice of saving or harvesting Little Sisters in Bioshock, and the devastating fact that I can’t romance Nick Valentine in Fallout 4 because Bethesda has it out for me personally. “I don’t really have the choice!” Gamers everywhere cry out. “I can’t do everything in this so called ‘open world,’ so it SUCKS.” 

And they have a point – to a degree. Yes, it’s ridiculous that in a game where I can shoot a guy’s head clean off his shoulders, I can’t shoot open a locked door. That’s not internally consistent with the laws of action for the world I occupy. But here’s the thing: it is internally consistent with the laws of the gamespace I occupy in play, and I sign a contract to occupy that space when I pick up a game controller. By pressing START I say, “I am relinquishing the laws and constraints of reality and giving myself over to the particular constraints of a game reality.” Sure, that world may walk like a duck and talk like a duck, but here is the thing: it is not a duck and by duck I mean real world. These constraints which frustrate us in games mirror those we encounter in the real world, but because we aren’t socialised from birth to understand the constraints in games the way we are with the constraints of the physical world, we are SO MAD.**

We are always operating within constraints, whether they be social or physical or magical. Yes, I could strip naked at Home Depot and build a throne of 2x4s to sit upon and declare myself Emperor of all Home Depots, but I would likely be arrested for indecent exposure long before my reign could begin.***  Yes, I could try and write a haiku with more than 17 syllables, but I would likely run into linguistic trouble. Yes, I could shirk all formal education and try and get elected for congress, but I think my potential constituents would take issue with my non-normative background.**** Operating outside the laws of society is going to cause you a lot of trouble and frustration in the long-run, and in order to tangibly further our place within a society that rewards certain behaviours and punishes others, we must operate within constraints. This is just how things go. Cultural disruption has its place, and is often needed, but even there we operate within the constraints which contextualises that disruption. You cannot escape constraints. You are literally constrained to constraints. Any agency you feel you have in the real world is illusory. At this super melancholy point I turn to the existentialists, who ask whether the only free choice one has in the universe is the choice to die. Then I’m gonna get real bummed out real hard real quick. 

It is Camus who offers us a solution to this existentialist dread: imagine Sisyphus happy.  

In games, it can often feel like the only real choice we have is whether or not to play, whether or not to push the rock up the mountain – and though not as macabre as the choice offered by suicide, we can still imbue that choice with meaning in non-normative playstyles, like permadeath (though I’ve yet to see this done in ways I would like – this is a whole other blog post in the making). But if we remember that what a game fundamentally is is a set of constraints we choose to operate within, and remember that that is what makes a game fun and challenging, the choices we make within those constraints get a whole lot more meaningful. As players, we get the choice to play how we want to play, and players are constantly surprising even game’s designers with their play-choices, or with their imaginative-but-internally-consistent emergent narratives from even the most linear games (see: any fan theory ever, let alone playstyles).  

So, if the only agency I have within play is the internal meaning I imbue my actions with, are my player-character’s actions merely bumbling, meaningless interactions? I dunno, is the Super-Geniuses-Only game of chess just moving a bunch of funny-looking-blocks around on a funny-looking board? Is Sisyphus just interacting with a boulder? Or is there a relationship between agency and interactivity which, in practice, informs the other? Interactivity may be doing something and seeing something happen because of that action, but agency is having the choice to interact, and then, in turn, to assigning meaning to that interaction. When Sisyphus is interacting with the boulder, he is not a free agent. When Camus’ Sisyphus interacts with his boulder, and makes the choice to roll that rock up the mountain, is he a free agent, or nah? I dunno, you guys! This is where that can of worms becomes a kettle of fish, and where I leave you to ask your own questions which seem to be getting more existential and pretentious by the second. 

I suppose here is the question about agency which really interests me, moving away from whether or not I am being ‘manipulated’ by game designers: In order to perform as a free-agent in a gamespace, does my agency need to be subversive? Must I act outside the set narrative and perform a non-normative playstyle in order to truly explore the limits of my agency within a gamespace? And on TOP of that, is doing something radical purely for its own sake to test the limits of agency and not for any internal meaning more akin to meaningless interactivity we deride than the gloried and storied heights of Agency in Gameplay? Can I not just pick flowers in Skyrim and rise the ranks in the Thieves’ Guild and never touch the main narrative and still have a valid play experience?****** Why would I want to exist in a world where the internally consistent laws of play require that I can’t totally smooch Nick Valentine

These are the questions that keep me up nights, rolling rocks up mountains. 



**Maybe this is why the main Angry Demographic of Games are cis-het white dudes? Who knows!!!!

*** A Conversation With A Strawman

**** This is NOT to say that these things cannot be done – just that it would likely be difficult, and we must weigh the opportunity cost of its achievability. In fact, as I’ll go on to suggest, attempting these to try and push the constraints of our day-to-day lives would likely offer up a superfun challenge.

*****If you care about game design, read this essay. 

******This is what my 80-hour Skyrim campaign looked like, so I’m gonna go ahead and say “Yeah, my dudes.”