Agency is the player’s sensation that they participate meaningfully in the game.
Of the three concepts in the AVA paradigm (analogy and variety are the other two), agency is the most psychologically complex and slippery. Agency in games is an extension and subset of agency in real life. Let’s start there. /
From World to Game World
We believe, by default, that we have agency in our own lives. We inherently possess a feeling that we have power over our own bodies and minds in the real world and that the world will respond when we kick or hit or spit or talk. At the very least we’ll feel our own body doing those things–we hope to see others react in some way, and to change what’s going on around us with our actions in perceptible ways.
This immediate sense of agency leads us to believe that we have agency in broader events, as well. Superstitions around luck or divine favor are a part of all cultures. People who hold these beliefs are believing they have agency over distant events which have no causal connection to their action except perhaps in a minor detail. The human mind seems to seek and assumes agency wherever it can.
In video and board game design, the game designer defines a world in which the players participate. Part of this definition includes places and times where players can intervene. Players have agency when they can use their will to make perceptible progress towards their goal. This is the simplest way of conceiving of agency.
A Simple Model
From this we can derive a simple measure of agency: What’s the difference in goal achievement rate between a competent human player (or merely someone who knows the rules and can play in a goal-directed fashion) and some stand-in automated player who always chooses his actions at random? A stand-in definitively exhibits no will whatsoever, thus is cannot possibly have agency. So if we compare the result of random play with the result of goal-directed play, we should see the goal-directed play win signfiicantly more often if the player has agency in the game.
In a game where the player doesn’t have many actions to choose from at a time, this model for agency may have some use. Checkers, for instance, allows so few possible moves in most board configurations that the stand-in could at least play a portion of the game in a way that could be mistaken for sensible. Later in the game, when there are more choices to be made, the stand-in will most definitely be dominated by a goal-directed player, though. Unsurprisingly, you do have some agency when you play checkers.
But think, instead, about this kind of analysis applied to XCOM 2. There are so many possible actions the stand-in could take on any given turn, and so many of them don’t make noticeable progress towards the mission’s goal, that the chance of the stand-in succeeding at a mission is nearly 0%. Merely being cognizant of the goal of the game is enough to make your actions significantly better than chance at moving you towards a positive result.
What does this actually tell us? Not much, I think. Players express some non-negligible absolute quantity of agency merely by being conscious of the rules of the game and the game’s goal when they play. The player in XCOM 2 is having a real impact on the result of a mission–even if they’re playing erratically and naively they have a significantly better chance than if the system were played randomly.
But we don’t think, when playing a game, of the absolute amount of agency we have. We may make a hundred small decisions over the course of an XCOM 2 mission, but we don’t comment on the fact that we had a lot of agency in the 90 move actions we made–we comment on the 3 75% shots that our characters missed.
Players don’t assess their agency continuously over the course of the game, taking into account all of their actions. they pick out salient points where their agency was denied or subverted. Agency, in the player’s mind, is indellibly tested not in the accumulation of willful action, but in the important moments where the difference between success and failure wasn’t a missed insight, but instead was a missed dice roll. The more clear and direct this dice roll’s influence appears, the more it drains agency.
It’s not just important that the player can do things related to the goal, they have to feel like their actions have a direct relationship with achieving the goal. Players feel agency when they identify causal chains in gameplay that go through them; sequences of events where the player can see clearly that their actions have direct effects that relate to the game’s goal. There are many kinds of game rules and combinations of game rules that can get in the way of these causal chains, most often by obscuring them with many additional important links between player action and results.
Games where the player feels a strong sense of agency eschew salient random events. Designers must be very careful of where they put randomness in a game, because it is, in effect, another actor in the game world that pulls on the causal chains the players cling to, sometimes ripping the chains out of the players’ hands. To minimize the pull, randomness needs to have effects that the player can see coming and react to. When the player can react to randomness, randomness can act to give gameplay some variety without pulling much on the causal chains the player traces their agency through. Miss chances and randomized damage on attacks are, thus, dangerous modes of introducing variety because of how they can damage agency.
In other words, the player feels they have agency when they have the ability to react. Throwing uncertainty at the player before they can react is directly denying their agency by failing to allow the player to interpose his will between important events.
The Uncertainty Paradox
Players can also feel their agency is constrained by games where long run prediction is possible. Players don’t want the game’s result to feel pre-determined, even if it really was only determined by their actions. When the player feels like the game’s set up against him and the pieces are just mechanistically moving him towards a specific conclusion, agency dissolves. It doesn’t matter that the player had many choices with clear outcomes along the way. A great game keeps the player feeling like they have agency in the outcome for as long as possible, which means not only does the game system need to resist solution, it needs to signal clearly to the player that it is not solved and there’s room for maneuver and eventual success.
Often designers use randomness to give the player the impression that the game is far from mechanistic and that fortunes can change–but in order to have the most positive impact, the player needs to be able to react to the product of randomness before it directly impacts their chance of achieving their goal. Miss chances and swingy damage rolls can add some interest to a game by maintaining a feeling of unsolvedness to what would otherwise be boring lame-duck situations, but this benefit necessarily comes at a steep agency cost.
Too Much Action
I have primarily been talking about single-player games so far in this article, but multiplayer games have a unique potentially agency-damaging feature: other players. The designer has to keep in mind that the agency of all players is important in a game–agency for all can be hard to maintain when players can set one another back by various means of attack, thus taking a player out of contention for victory early. A complex game with high-contrast, impactful actions for all players to use seems great, but the result of these impactful actions must not change the face of the game too radically, or by the time a player’s next turn comes around they may be looking at a world that bears no resemblance to the one they made decisions about last turn. Though a player’s actions can get lost in the complexity of a single-player game just as well as a multiplayer game, when you’re trying to design an exciting game for multiple players you face a unique challenge in keeping each player’s activity impactful while not, through cumulative actions of all other players, leaving one player’s actions totally buried.
And the Kitchen Sink
Agency is such a complex topic that even just this brief overview of important concerns feels woefully incomplete. I will come back to agency in numerous future posts to fill in the gaps left here and elaborate on many of the concepts I’ve presented so far.
I’ll leave you with a few more quick points to consider:
- Enacting the rules in a board game makes people feel like they have more agency in the result than they actually have, because they physically move pieces around a board which makes an impact in a way that stands in for abstractly making an impact through goal-directed action.
- A good interface that feels satisfying to use, similar to enacting rules when playing a board game, gives the player a feeling that their actions are having meaty effects, even if the game rules don’t pull through well. Contrast XCOM with and without animations that play when a shot misses.
- When you’re low on knowledge about how a game works, your sense of agency is diminished. The player keeps playing because of the promise the game’s analogy shows, or the player is intrigued by what they’ve already learned of the rules–or perhaps it’s just a matter of hype from other players.
- If a game is too difficult, players will give up and claim they never had a chance. A frustrated player can easily spiral downward into a feeling of powerlessness, as if they had no agency in what was happening and the game was just taking advantage of them. Usually this leads to tossing aside the game, regardless of how much absolute agency you can show by comparing the player’s actions to those taken at random.