Thursday, October 1, 2009

Agency - To Be Desired?

It's a legitimate question, and one that seems to be coming up a lot in one of my classes: how much agency do we really want in a media experience? Certainly we want some if we're expecting a game; without any at all, then we might as well just be watching a movie. But is more agency necessarily better? How much is too much? Is there even such a thing?

The games that give us the most agency, games like ''The Sims'', where there are no rules holding us down and we can do anything we want, are often the least "game-like" experiences. This is because games are defined by rules. The confines of the system are what give us a solid structure in which to work, to problem-solve, and to explore. It is the reduction of our agency in certain areas that highlights our agency in others.

Rules allow the game's creator to structure an experience. It allows him to provide atmosphere, to dictate events in such a way that our feelings are manipulated (the final goal of all art forms) in the way the designer desires. Such a guided experience can be very pleasurable. But if a guided experience is what we're looking for, then what separates interactive media from movies? Should we not dispense with the interactivity altogether and simply go back to our static films? This, after all, would allow for maximum structure on the part of the creator.

The fact that we do not must mean that there is something inherently pleasurable about interacting. Under this assumption then, how do we compromise? How do we maintain the pleasure of interactivity, while not losing the pleasure of a structured experience, the way we do in ''The Sims''? Game designers are still struggling with this problem, and will likely continue to do so for some time. Rather than trying to define a single answer, perhaps an impossible task, perhaps we should look at what interactivity gives us that is pleasurable. What is it about interactivity that we WANT to keep?

Perhaps foremost (arguably; I would be more than happy to debate this point with anyone who so chooses), interactivity is a powerful tool for empathy. Compared to a passive movie-going audience, players are incredibly invested in the life and well-being of the main character, because they are directly responsible for it. It is the decisions and skill of the player that determine what happens to the main character and whether that character lives or dies. By the same token, anything that happens to the character reflects back on the player. If the character is injured, it is not just the character: it is YOU who is injured. If the character murders someone close to him, it wasn't just the character's action: it was YOUR action. When a player is in control of a character, he effectively becomes that character. His own fate, his own success or failure, is innately tied to that of the character. The emotional resonance that occurs therein is therefore necessarily stronger than with other forms of art, simply by virtue of the fact that the player is participating in it.

So then, in order to make use of this powerful empathy, a player must feel like he has control over the character. If too much of the character's actions, or the effects on the character, are out of the player's control, then he no longer feels that these actions/effects are his responsibility. The feeling of empathy is broken. This can happen once the player falls below the threshold of "enough" agency, at which point he feels as though he has no control over the character, or his control makes no difference. At this point, the character becomes just as sympathetic as a character in a book or movie; we might feel something for them, but in a detached sort of way that allows us to distance ourselves from them.

So then, let us return to the question of what is "enough" agency. How much is too much? I would argue that a highly-structured media experience is preferable to an unstructured one. After all, if no creative mind is shaping our experience, then what is the point of being an artist of the medium? However, it is vital that these experiences allow enough agency to make the player feel not only that he has a vested interest in the fate of the main character, but that he has a palpable ''effect'' on the fate of the main character. When he feels this, he becomes engaged with the material, and video games (and other interactive experiences) can do some of their most powerful work.