Issue 27 07.15.2011

Issue 27
Agency in Video Games

Video games, when designed in a robust way, create a rich system of interactivity that empowers players. Through exploration and play, they develop a sense of their own agency within that system and, in some cases, a sense of the inner workings of that system: how it functions and their ability to change it. To perceive both the reaches and limits of interactive player power is to recognize the range of agency in video games. For example, a video game that constantly throws mandatory challenges at players can feel hostile and violent, whereas a game that allows players many creative opportunities can feel more open and free.

Photo by Marek Kapolka, courtesy Mojang.

The differences between interactivity and agency aren’t entirely clear, but one way of looking at it is to see an interaction as an atomic element–one action and one reaction–and agency as the sum of an agent’s potential actions.¬†More¬†important, though, is to distinguish the aesthetics of interactivity and agency from the aesthetics of non-interactive elements within a¬†video game. When creating an interactive system, there are necessary¬†non-interactive elements that deliver information about the state of the system to the player. In a game, these might be avatars showing the position of the player characters or health bars displaying their physical state. These non-interactive elements have their own aesthetic and can contribute significantly to the overall feel of a game, but they do not necessarily indicate the level of agency for players.

In digital video games, the distinction between interactive and non-interactive elements is understood, respectively, in terms of “gameplay‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúvisuals,” “graphics,‚ÄĚ ‚Äúsound,‚ÄĚ etc. It is generally accepted, among gamers, that gameplay has a preeminent position among the other facets of a video game. A game that has very airy and lighthearted visuals can still feel claustrophobic if¬†interactive¬†player agency is too limited.¬†The other facets are nice. They are a spectacle and can keep a game intriguing, but they are not a game’s artistic raison d’√™tre. In other words, artists working in different media can express non-interactive ideas better than with video games,¬†whereas¬†artists working in the domain of games¬†have the¬†unique ability to advance ideas about interactive player agency.

Photo by Marek Kapolka, courtesy Nintendo

Most¬†gamers¬†are not self-declared artists, however, and they do not share the same¬†artistic¬†goals. Games qua games exist as a¬†platform¬†on which to learn how to better manipulate and conquer the system of play. They provide an environment with rigidly defined rules, clear winning and losing conditions, and a limited set of potential actions that players can take. The players’ goal is to become better at winning. The design ideal is to constantly present challenging problems that players must surmount, so that as they defeat the challenges they are bathed in¬†exaltations.

To some video game artists, however, this myopic focus on challenge is asphyxiating. Although games are unique in their ability to provide this kind of confrontational, direct challenge, there is another potential paradigm–to explore agency in terms of interactive aesthetics as an end in itself, rather than as a means to challenge players. Simply acting within a video game can provide an immense amount of aesthetic pleasure, even if those actions are not challenged by the hostile requirements of an antagonistic system or directed towards the completion of a mandated task.

The aesthetic potential of undirected interaction has been proven in several existing video games: for instance, jumping around aimlessly in the castle garden of¬†Super Mario 64;¬†carving out mines to build castles in¬†Minecraft; or,¬†driving around in¬†Grand Theft Auto. Each of these undirected interactions, even if taken outside of the larger context of the game, would be interesting and engaging. However, for some reason when artists do venture to make a video game that sets aside the larger narrative and stacked challenges, such as in the case of¬†Noby Noby Boy, critics accuse them of making something pointless, which raises the question: what’s the point of a goal-driven game?

By Marek Kapolka