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Agency Reconsidered

Steven Dow, Michael Mateas, Serdar Sali, and I have an abstracted accepted for DiGRA titled “Agency Reconsidered.” We’re working on the full paper this month, and will certainly share it when available, but one of the things I value about blogs is that they provide a place to do academic work in public. So I’m posting the abstract here, along with some thoughts on where we’re going for the final paper, and I’d appreciate any ideas/pointers that people have. Suggestions and criticisms that arrive now (rather than after it’s completed) are much more likely to shape the final paper.

Agency is a fundamental concept for understanding computer games, and digital media generally. However, as with many important concepts, its initial formulations were not entirely fleshed out. Subsequent work has developed the concept further, through humanistic, design-oriented, and empirical means. This paper provides a synthesis of some of the most important work on agency over the last decade and describes how a more mature formulation can serve as a basis for future research.

The fields of game scholarship and game design have two different starting points for discussions of agency. In scholarly circles the concept is generally attributed to Janet Murray. In Hamlet on the Holodeck (1997) she writes: “Agency is the satisfying power to take meaningful action and see the results of our decisions and choices” (126). In the field of game design the idea is often associated with Doug Church, who uses the term “intention” for the concept. He writes of “allowing and encouraging players to do things intentionally” (1999) — understanding the game world well enough to make and execute a plan of action, then seeing a clear reaction from the game world. Both Murray and Church lean heavily on examples of in-game navigation, with Murray focused on Zork and Church on Super Mario 64.

A focus on navigation, however, leaves aside a fundamental issue: the motivation of players to move, or plan to move, to particular places. What creates the desire that agency satisfies? The first part of an answer is the fundamental contribution of Michael Mateas’s formulation of agency, integrated with Brenda Laurel’s theory of neo-Aristotelian drama, as a balance between material and formal constraints (2001). This moves agency from an amorphous ability to plan and carry out actions to a phenomenon in which the actions motivated by a game are matched with those it enables. In other words: Agency requires evoking the desires a work satisfies. This became an important design guideline for Mateas and Andrew Stern’s Façade project (2005).

Further work has investigated how works evoke audience desires and attempt to satisfy them. Noah Wardrip-Fruin (forthcoming) stresses the importance of audience expectation of the fictional situation, the resulting patterns of play, and the relationship to underlying computational systems. For example, Joseph Weizenbaum’s (1966) Eliza/Doctor system successfully evokes expectations of a therapeutic situation, and both accepts and responds to audience statements, yet the play patterns that emerge do not produce agency, but breakdown. On the other hand, Will Wright’s SimCity (1989) actually responds to the play patterns evoked by audience expectations of city planning. Through play, the system transitions the audience from initial expectation to an understanding of the possible audience actions and system responses. The lesson: agency requires transitioning audiences from initial expectation to an understanding of a computational system, something that can be obscured by focusing on trivial examples such as spatial navigation.

Expectation is also central to Steven Dow’s (2008) study of players in two versions of Mateas and Stern’s Façade system. One group played the original desktop version of the game, while another played a fully-realized augmented reality (AR) version (with a physically constructed set, including furniture and props, onto which the Façade characters were projected via a head-mounted display, and with support for both spoken and bodily interaction). The AR version succeeded in increasing the audience’s feeling of presence. However, perhaps counterintuitively, the audience’s experience of agency decreased. Greater presence simultaneously increased audience expectations of the resulting experience, making the distance between everyday conversational interaction and the actions supported by the Façade system a larger gulf to cross. In short, presenting an approximation of reality (given we lack the necessary elements for a true “holodeck”) can actually decrease, rather than increase, the audience’s experience of agency.

The resulting conception of agency is still one in which the audience feels a satisfying power to take actions intentionally, based on their understanding of the game world, and see results. But it now considers the source of the audience desire to take actions in a well-designed experience, the importance of building an understanding of how actions and outcomes map onto an underlying system, and the centrality of audience expectations as set both by fictional situation and interface specifics. The paper authors are now using this as the basis for an empirical study of dialogue interface designs.

While our reviews for the abstract were generally positive, one thing I’ve learned recently is that it’s always a mistake to mention empirical studies unless that’s the main thing you want people to comment on. So, while we are doing some user/player studies, probably no mention of this will make its way into the final paper.

Another thing that the final paper will need is a deeper review of the literature. While there was only space, in the abstract, to outline the main work on agency that informs the paper, there has been quite a bit of publishing on the topic. Serdar and I have been thinking about which to address, and here are some possibilities we’ve collected:

D. Fox Harrell and Jichen Zhu, “Agency Play: Dimensions of Agency for Interactive Narrative Design” (link)

Paul Cheng, “Waiting for Something to Happen: Narratives, Interactivity and Agency and the Video Game Cut-scene” (link)

Esther MacCallum-Stewart and Justin Parsler, “Illusory Agency in Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines” (link)

Ulrike Spierling, “Interactive Digital Storytelling: Towards a Hybrid Conceptual Approach” (link)

Rune Klevjer, “Computer Game Aesthetics and Media Studies” (link)

I’m also likely to include some of the thoughts on the everyday world (and references to Paul Dourish’s work) found in my Ars Electronica talk from last year (streaming version). Any thoughts on other things we might include, or any responses to the overall paper concept?

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