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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Can We Measure the Degree of Agency in a Video Game?

Friday, July 18, 2014

In her book Hamlet on the Holodeck, Janet Murray speculates about the importance of agency in digital games. It is agency, the participation of the player in the shaping of the narrative, that differentiates video games from literary texts. Agency, she writes, "is the satisfying power to take meaningful action and see the results of our decisions and choices." The key term in this definition is "meaningful." Action alone is not agency. As Murray points out, in a game of chance, for example, a player may perform lots of actions: rolling dice, moving pieces, spinning tops. However, a player has no agency since these actions are not meaningful in the sense of shaping the course of events, which are instead determined by luck. In a game of chess, a player may make fewer actions, but each action is more meaningful since it alone, and not luck, potentially affects the outcome of the game. In a game like poker, there is a degree of chance, but a skillful player has high agency because by strategising effectively he or she can mitigate the influence of the precise cards they are drawn.

Determining the degree of agency in these examples is pretty straightforward, and ought in principle to be quantifiable. However, to what extent can we quantify the degree of agency a player has in different video games?

In some, such as Candy Crush, one can envisage the degree of agency being quite low. Whilst there is some degree of strategy, the game is weighted most by luck - which is why it can be so infuriating to play, and so entices players to purchase bonuses which will increase their chances, such as by adding more moves. The emphasis is on repetitive action, that is eventually rewarded.

In a game like Skyrim, on the other hand, the potential for agency seems enormous. In a massive environment, we seem to have complete freedom of movement and choice. As Murray suggests, "The desire for agency in digital environments makes us impatient when our options are...limited. We want an open road with wide latitude to explore and more than one way to get somewhere." Exploration is the name of this particular game.

Somewhere between these poles might be on rails shooters or platformers. We have some degree of freedom, but are largely driven down prescribed paths. The trick of game design is all about giving us the illusion of choice.

Yet this is where agency becomes a highly problematic means of measuring the openness either of a game world or of a game's narrative. Take something like the recent Tomb Raider. This is a very cleverly designed game world, presenting itself as a vast explorable island, when in fact the player is funneled down particular pathways. Compared to Skyrim, our agency would seem to be limited - though still of course very substantial, far more so than a game like Candy Crush. However, at times the game interactions narrow to a binary state with set-piece interactions - for example, a wolf attacks us at a scripted position in the game world, and we must follow the on screen prompts to press the appropriate two or three keys. The outcome is binary, either we live or die. What, then, is the degree of agency here? On Murray's measure of agency as "the satisfying power to take meaningful action and see the results of our decisions and choices," this would seem to be a moment of high agency - perhaps even higher than the explorable game world despite being less open. These actions are intensely meaningful: they determine whether we will live or die, unlike our normal actions which allow us a degree of failure (lost health) before dying. This is why they come across as intensely satisfying, dramatic experiences in which we seem genuinely to have protected a fragile heroine. In the more open exploration, by contrast, Lara seems to be able to take an unrealistic amount of damage and in some ways is less in need of our protection.

Whilst the narrative of Tomb Raider perhaps channels the highest degree of agency through the narrowest of funnels, in Skyrim whilst we may well take pleasure from the freedom of exploration, the degree to which our explorations serve to affect the course of the narrative in any meaningful way is questionable. A game that seems to be of high agency may not actually be so. Certainly, the more we explore the game world the more likely we are to enhance the skills and equipment needed to advance the quest more easily. However, except in very limited ways (such as the civil war questline) our choices do not affect the ultimate narrative that we pursue.

What these problems suggest, I think, is that agency as it pertains to traditional games is a very different measure to agency in video games. The difference is that in the former, the degree of agency is dependent upon the amount of chance inbuilt into the game system. In a game that depends entirely on chance, such as the role of the dice, there will be no agency. By contrast, no video game that I can think of depends wholly on chance. As such, agency itself is immeasurable. Neither does agency correspond to the open-worldness of a game. Tomb Raider may have moments of higher agency when the world is actually more closed down, whilst Skyrim may seem a high agency world when in fact our actions are not necessarily meaningful in relation to the narrative. In a way, because the world is so open it gives us the chance to pursue actions that are meaningless, at least from the perspective of the game itself (from the point of view of the player, of course, even non-narrative advancing actions like crafting or taking a wander through the woods can still be meaningful, enjoyable experiences).

Agency, then, seems to offer a very limited means of measuring video game construction. Certainly, the reason we take pleasure in video games is that we perceive ourselves to be shaping the narrative and affecting the outcome of as-yet undetermined events - in this sense it is unlike the process of reading a novel. However, the extent of this shaping is always limited, not as in traditional games, by chance, but rather by the designed nature of the game world.

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Posted by Alistair at 4:55 pm

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